November 19, 2018

Dust off your summer reading glasses

Politics is dominating not only headlines, but bookstores, as well, and some of the most intriguing author events in early summer will provide yet more opportunity to agonize over Trump, Sanders and Clinton. Even Sebastian Junger’s new book about why tribalism can be a good thing, and the latest novel from Brad Meltzer, a master of the political thriller, have something to say about how power is wielded in America nowadays. On a different note, thankfully, a bit of escapism can still be found in a charming memoir about the iconic Moulin Rouge in Paris by one of its starring dancers. But best of all, you can meet all of the authors in person at Southern California venues in the days and weeks ahead.

Amid the rancor of American politics, Ronald Reagan looms large for his optimism, kindness and sheer likeability. After all, he created the “commandment” that Donald Trump is determined to break at every opportunity: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” No one is better equipped to tell us about the real Ronald Reagan than his son Michael Reagan, whose latest book about his father (co-written with Jim Denney) is “Lessons My Father Taught Me: The Strength, Integrity, and Faith of Ronald Reagan” (Humanix Books). Reagan tells us he visits his father’s grave on the anniversary of his death and reads the inscription on the headstone: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” He uses his book “to show you how my father’s values and wisdom impacted my life — and changed the world.” I hope someone sends a copy to The Donald.

Reagan will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. June 4 at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmer’s Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. 

An unforgettable book that introduced a new phrase into the American lexicon  — “The Perfect Storm” — marked Sebastian Junger’s debut as a best-selling author. Since then, he has written about such elemental topics as “War” and “Fire,” and has distinguished himself as a documentary filmmaker, too, with “Restrepo” and “Korengal.” Now he captures yet another aspect of the zeitgeist with “Tribes: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Twelve).  An Amazon best-seller before it was even published, the book is an impressive enterprise that draws on anthropology, psychology and sociology, as well as the author’s considerable adventures, and seeks to find out what binds together the members of a tribe. Nowadays, “tribalism” is used mostly as a term of disparagement, but Junger argues that tribal connections can be found not only in what we call primitive societies, but in every human community. What’s more, he insists that tribal bonds, like the ones that develop in combat units, are the strongest of all human connections. For Junger, tribalism can be a corrective to the loneliness and lack of meaning in modern American life.

Junger will present and sign copies of his provocative new book at 11 a.m. June 5 at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.


19 Years Ago: Ask Yourself God’s Questions

When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?

This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?

God asks four questions:

Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?

Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.

In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?

Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?

God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?

God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?

In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?

Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?

This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?

Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?

Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”

Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?

Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.