This short essay is the first of two on the same subject, and easily the more positive.
If you haven’t watched “Joe’s Violin,” take a short break from whatever you are doing and watch it now. You can find it on its website. Have a hankie or a box of tissues at hand. If you don’t watch it before you read this, then be prepared for lots of spoilers.
This short film was nominated for an Academy Award (I think I have to put this little ® about here) but it did not win the Oscar (add another ®). The director, Kahane Cooperman, was robbed. After a very long run producing the “Daily Show” in the Jon Stewart years and during a longer run as my cousin Jacki’s buddy, she told a simply gorgeous story about an old man, a young girl and a violin.
The story can be briefly told – and this is your last warning – but not without its essential elements. A drive to collect used but currently unused musical instruments to provide to students in New York City schools prompts an old man, Joe, who is a Holocaust survivor, to donate the instrument he bought in a DP camp after he was liberated. He played it for much of his adult life. It winds up in the hands of a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx. That is the whole story, but does no justice to the telling.
We learn a little bit about Joe – he learned to play as a boy; his life and music were interrupted by the Nazis; he spent his entire cigarette ration to buy the instrument because he loved to play; he got old and, at 91, he had to be particularly attentive to his disabled wife. The violin was gathering dust. So he donated it.
We learn a little bit about Brianna – she is a student at Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls; she is the daughter of immigrants; she is chosen from among all of the students to be the custodian of this particular violin (every girl in the school learns to play the violin).
They meet. And it turns out that Brianna has learned the melody Joe used to play for his mother, who was among the murdered. But, as you know if you watched the movie, everyone is crying before you find it out.
The story, as I said, is simply gorgeous. But it is also a metaphor that has helped me come to terms with a surprising turn in my own spiritual life. The music of traditional Jewish practice (literal and metaphoric) has sustained me all of my adult life. But since I left the pulpit, much of the music is gone. I have my theories about why that is. Some of it, I am certain, is that only my own expectations impel me to observe, and my energy has waned. Some of it is the dissipation of community that once sustained me as I tried to sustain it. And some of it is being tired, my spiritual energy being siphoned in other directions.
In fact, where I used to be an active and even boisterous participant in Jewish observance, I am now quiet, even silent. Especially in synagogue, which I attend on Shabbat out of a sense of doing the right thing rather than nurturing my soul, it is the prayers of others that carry my spiritual aspirations heavenward. I listen much more than I speak or sing.
I won’t appropriate anything about Joe other than our common humanity. His story includes life experience I am sorry he had and I hope no one else will ever know. But that violin that he played, practicing over and again the melody that connected him to his youth and optimism, is the metaphor for the cherished memories we all try to incorporate and preserve as we get farther and farther away from the source. We deepen their meaning and enrich their expression, leaving our own imprint on them. We put them out into the world for others to share, but they always mean something unique to us.
One of my memories that was deepened and enriched was Jewish observance. My imprint was on my practice. But, like Joe’s violin, what it represented has become more than it currently is. The fading clarity of those memories is not enough to sustain them.
Fortunately, the world is filled with Briannas, hoping for the chance to pick up the violin and bring the music to life again. I can tell you that her musicianship at 12 years old is certainly not what Joe’s must have been in his prime. But the promise she shows, and the promises she makes, have a profound effect on Joe. She doesn’t play the way he played, but listening to her embrace the music and caress the violin makes it clear that what brought him meaning in the world has been passed along to someone who will cherish it, deepen its meaning and put her own imprint on it.
Mostly, that is how I feel in the presence of people who embrace and caress Jewish observance. They don’t do it the way I did – the only correct way, of course – but they cherish it, deepen its meaning and put their own imprint on it.
Joe’s violin is no longer in Joe’s hands. But someone very different from him will make it sing.
This gorgeous story is so much more than a survivor’s redemption or a pre-teen’s opportunity. It is a gift to the old and the young and a reassurance to them both. And to me.
CIt is August 16, 2017 and I am on a river ship sailing along the Danube River from Budapest to Vienna and onward to Nuremberg, eventually to conclude this journey in Prague. I arrived in Central Europe the same way my father did almost 75 years ago -- on a plane. Only he jumped out before landing.
I have watched the unfolding of the most horrendous weekend of a horrendous year from afar. In my professional life with a non-profit, I have had much to say with the help of my team. I do not need to comment on the dangerous man in the White House in this column; just about everything I might say has been published already. But I do want to speak to rabbis and the people who pay their salaries.
I am reading anguished messages from colleagues on Facebook and in blogs, many of them beginning with the disclaimer that they assiduously avoid politics in their rabbinic capacities. They continue to proclaim that the Battle of Charlottesville has alarmed them to the point that they can no longer be restrained. And they conclude with words reminding us of the truly frightening conduct of everyone from a reckless bigot with a car to the President of the United States.
Those are the rabbis I address. They are the ones who have held their tongues out of some combination of humility and self-preservation. Synagogues are filled these days with unpredictable Jews; not just their convictions on public policy are unpredictable, but the bad behavior they will exhibit if they hear something about the world around us of which they do not approve. "I'll have you fired!" has become more than an empty threat from bombastic blowhards. It has become the sacred mission of tiny minds, right and left alike, who take the word "sanctuary" far too literally and want the rabbi locked up in it. Rabbi and congregant alike have come to the conclusion that the tradition is only about matters of theoretical ethics and internal yearnings. Any intrusion of the world with which we interact -- the body politic --by the rabbi is considered a betrayal worthy of dismissal and an actionable offense.
All of you, take a look around you. Do you believe that Nazis with torches materialized since January 21? Do you think that the path to the White House chosen by its current occupant was simply a fluke? Are you so naive as to consider yourself blameless for the frightening world that must now be explained to our children and grandchildren?
Shame on you. This is our fault, the fault of everyone who was sanguine about society and polite about politics. "Let me not offend, lest people turn from synagogue, from Judaism, from God!" Every pulpit should resound with the defense of innocent citizens, including the children of African Americans or any other race, the faithful of Muslims, the people who eschew a Western faith or any faith at all, and, yes, the Jews. No one should walk out of a kiddush or oneg shabbat without having been reminded of their responsibility to seek justice, to love mercy, to raise up the fallen and to deny a foothold to bigotry and oppression.
And if people disagree, insist that they make their case in terms of this tradition we seek to preserve. None of this, "I come to synagogue to get away from this stuff" or "who are you to tell me what to think." Laziness -- physicial, spiritual or intellectual -- is a betrayal of the Jewish call to activism. What is a mitzvah if not a commandment to act in a particular way when the inclination is to abstain?
I know that there are synagogues in which prayers and homilies could be transplants from any time in history. Believe in God, trust in God, pray to God. Focus on the words of prayer, on the words of the Torah reading, on the hafatrah, where timeless thoughts reside outside the turmoil of the world beyond these walls.
The rabbi unwilling to speak to the challenges of the day is no rabbi. The congregant unwilling to engage the mandates of the tradition is a heretic. And both are cowards.
It is not too late to reclaim the promise of this country nor to gift America with the better angels of our tradition. The Nazis and nationalists and narcissists who are distracting us from the real work of preserving this world in all its diversity take another step forward every time a rabbi, teacher and preacher in Israel steps out of the way. The chasm between neighbors widens every time the sermon topic looks only backward, only inward, never forward, never outward. The worth of our ancient and modern wisdom is devalued when the rabbi is shackled to his desk, warned by bullies on the right or the left not to go into the streets. That's how we got here.
Yes, it is my opinion. It is how I have tried to live my adult life since this title was attached to my name. I never had the courage that my father showed when he parachuted into Europe to fight the good fight. I tried to find it in my own way. Rabbinic collegues, fellow Jews, open your mouths and step up.
The only excuse left is cowardice.
I have not observed Tisha B’Av in twenty years or more. I object to it. And I am going public.
I know how much effort has gone into preserving this commemoration. It is the only Jewish observance other than Shabbat that occurs during Jewish summer camp, which, ironically, is a tragedy. It has become a catch-basin for every catastrophe in Jewish life – we have a list the length of my arm of the disasters that occurred on this day throughout the centuries. (I suspect a similar list could be made about the 12th of Cheshvan or the 3rd of Sivan.) It is the only liturgical use for the Book of Lamentations.
But the real reason for Tisha B’Av is to mourn the destruction of the Temples, first and second, which occurred on this day almost 2000 and 2600 years ago. We mourn them because we want them back. And I don’t want the Temple back. Ever.
If you think the political and verbal battles over who gets to pray where at the Western Wall are extreme and fractious, imagine the return of a hereditary priesthood, animal sacrifice and mandatory tithes and taxes. A restored Temple would not be subject to the evolutionary practices of Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Judaism. Synagogues, unlikely to disappear, would no longer substitute for the atonement rituals of Yom Kippur or, for that matter, of everyday sins. The rich heritage of Jewish liturgical music would disappear there to be replaced by a chorus of male Levites chanting the Psalms.
The first stone of the Third Temple would be the first shot of the Third World War. The mosques and shrines that sit atop the Temple Mount would need to be razed to rebuild the Temple. A billion Muslims would be outraged – rightly or wrongly – and some percentage of them (let’s say one percent, or ten million) would want to do something about it. Blood would flow, and not from unblemished heifers.
Why would I wish for that? Why would I pray for that?
It was the destruction of the Second Temple that liberated us from debates over whether Judaism moved into the expanding horizons of the expanding world or remained bound to the bickering over whether the Bible was to be followed literally or interpretively. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made the individual responsible to preserve Jewish life wherever she or he lived. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made it necessary for us to rely on ourselves and not only God to determine Jewish destiny. Those are good things, in my opinion.
And even if they are not good things in your opinion, they are, as they say in that part of the world, facts on the ground. There is no turning back the clock, however golden the good old days may have been.
It is about now that someone will make a comparison to remembering the Holocaust and ask me if I think there will come a time we should stop commemorating that destruction. It is an apt question, and I have an unpopular answer. If the purpose of remembering death and destruction is, perversely, to keep the death and destruction alive, then the time for that remembering will pass. The vitality of our lost millions is what we should seek to preserve and renew. We remember death and destruction to prevent its recurrence, not to lift it up above the victims.
The same is true of the Temple. The pageantry of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur keeps alive the glory of those days past. We remember what once was and can never be again. We promise to renew it in our own way in our own day. Seeing in the demise of the Temple a cautionary tale about climate change or pollution or bigotry or political extremism is a desecration of its holiness and an admission that its destruction is of greater importance than its function.
Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic. The people who insist that there is a value in preserving this observance and its traditions make compelling cases that are based on a predisposition to find modern justification for ancient rituals. And I am under no illusion that my contrarian position, even if widely accepted by people who mostly don’t observe Tisha B’Av to begin with, will persuade others who fast, grieve and lament.
But I myself am willing to let this one go. Like the water-drawing ritual and the dance of the unmarried women, it should be remembered, not observed. Like the Tu B’Shvat seder and Kabbalat Shabbat, new rituals should emerge if there are spiritual values to renew. But Tisha B’Av as it remains observed today strikes me as false and futile, and its use to remind ourselves that we are an “ever-dying people” stands against the evidence that 2000 years later, here we are.
There has been another op-ed published about how expensive it is to be a Jew in America. I agree with the general assessment, but the circumstances that provoked the author’s complaint – finding a bar mitzvah tutor and feeling the sticker shock – require a little closer look.
We have a tendency to think of synagogue membership as a right rather than a choice, even though we treat it as a choice rather than an obligation. We also have a notion that, unlike college tuition, milk, gasoline, denim jeans and a cup of coffee, synagogue membership should cost closer to what it did in 1975. (In 1975, people complained that it was too expensive, by the way.)
But blaming the perceptions of the consumer does not help us with the situation. Neither, by the way, does pointing out that the synagogue has floated downstream in American Jewish priorities, including for the author. At the end of the column comes the admission that baseball and sleep-away camp have spoken for discretionary funds that might have been put toward a more comprehensive Jewish involvement.
Synagogues are the victims of Jewish success in America. As we have climbed from immigrant status to middle class to closer to the one-percent, the institutions of our lives have kept pace. It is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, proposed three generations ago that the synagogue needed to expand its role from house of prayer and study to cultural and activity center. The modern exodus from compact urban neighborhoods to more expansive areas of the cities and then the suburbs brought with it a need for a building that reflected the community. And the staff of the congregation – especially rabbis, cantors and educators whose educational accomplishments and professional status matched the upwardly mobile members of the congregations – needed to earn what was necessary to maintain a comparable lifestyle with easy access to their pulpits and classrooms.
In the neighborhood where I live outside of Washington, DC, it is impossible to buy a home for less than $650,000. More likely, a comfortable home for a family of four will approach a million dollars. That’s more than twice the average home price in the same neighborhood when we moved in thirty years ago (and began living in the parsonage because we could not afford a home). The synagogue facility expanded during my tenure to accommodate the increased membership and bursting classrooms. More than twenty years later, it still carries a mortgage even as membership and revenue has declined.
The synagogue has been priced out of the housing market for young families looking for a long-time home. A tight-knit local community like the one that built on our current site in the 1950s eventually dispersed to larger homes farther away. The families that took their place, some of whom I helped to recruit during my tenure, have (like me) aged out of large homes and moved to smaller quarters, often in distant cities. Like the author of the op-ed, it is hard live where you want to pray…and that’s before the cost of maintaining an institution nestled among million-dollar homes.
I applaud the innovators who are looking for a way to make comprehensive Jewish life more affordable. The answer partly rests with relying on the commitments of Jews to maintain communities and their functions. And it is here that I wish to defend prioritizing synagogue involvement over discretionary spending of money and time.
It costs a lot to belong to the synagogue where I used to be the rabbi. Like the op-ed columnist’s former congregation, there are dues and tuition to pay, fundraisers to support and contributions to make if you want a soft seat near the front on the High Holy Days. And there is a bar/bat mitzvah fee. At the moment it is about $700.
The disgruntled parent balked at tutoring fees of up to $175 an hour to train her son to recite a few incomprehensible words in Hebrew. Once again, I agree. That’s a lot of money to pay each week for an event that will last for 26 hours, from L’kha Dodi to “That’s What Friends are For.”
But one of the reasons our synagogue has maintained itself (and charges only (!) $700) is that the comprehensive and long-term commitments that members develop as part of an intentional community. The students who study for bar and bat mitzvah, one event on a continuum that can begin in preschool and include regular instruction, youth groups, participation in age-appropriate worship and spiritual development, service projects, high school-level instruction and classroom aide opportunities, get the benefit of three months of tutoring from adult members who themselves developed a skill set (not just a performance proficiency) and three more months of attention from the cantor, who is salaried and not paid a la carte. (By the way, our tutors are paid a small honorarium for their time.)
In the process, those students, and the families that choose to involve themselves as full participants, come away with the proverbial roots and branches – a planting of perennials, if you will, rather than a spectacular but short-lived annual. Like music lessons, gymnastics, robotics clubs, soccer and other activities that nurture the incremental achievement of long-term goals, preparation for bar or bat mitzvah ought to be the reason for larger life lessons. Like algebra, chemistry, grammar and social studies, the value is not in a single test or a grade, but in the development of a comprehensive knowledge of the world that may never draw on a particular equation or Fiji custom, but better prepares a student to live up to the best that he or she can be. For a Jewish kid, that especially means being a knowledgeable Jew.
My small heresy here is that one need not participate in a ceremony at age 13 to be a competent Jew, and lots of people who do not or did not belong to a synagogue of any kind are nonetheless perfectly capable Jews. But if the ceremony and the synagogue are what you want for your kid, then it makes sense to prioritize the depth of the experience over its affordability.
I plead guilty to spending 35 years persuading people to spend more than they think they can afford on synagogue, summer camp, day school, kosher food, homes near the shul and, on top of all that, the charitable obligations of tzedakah (and not just for Jewish causes). It has cost people vacations, newer cars, larger homes, dining experiences and an active life on buy-me-dot-com. That is my personal experience, too, not just reportage.
It is too expensive to be an active Jew in a Jewish community that has schlepped its activities and institutions into the more expensive strata of society. We are not going back to being poorer, and we should not turn to minimalist experiences in the hopes of reducing the overall costs. Rather, taking a comprehensive look at the values we want to inculcate in our kids and then living them will make our approach to this dilemma more necessary, more creative and more fruitful.