Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Anyone who has been following the cultural news this past week, and who wanted to take a break from the media’s Anthony Weiner-thon, knows that Stones’ lead singer, Mick Jagger, just celebrated his seventieth birthday.
It calls to mind Eleazar ben Azariah’s quip in the Talmud which makes an appearance in the Pesach Haggadah: “Behold, I am like a man of seventy years old, and I have never been worthy to find a reason why the Exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at nighttime until Ben Zoma expounded it.”
Eleazar, here’s the good news: While seventy years old was beyond ancient in your day, by today’s standards you will have plenty of time to figure out why the Exodus should be mentioned at nighttime. Seventy, my dear Eleazar, is still young.
Here’s the AARP (Association of Aging Rock Performers) list:
Sting – 62. Bruce Springsteen – 64. Bonnie Raitt – 64. James Taylor – 65. Eric Clapton – 68. Joni Mitchell – 70. Paul McCartney – 71. Paul Simon – 72. Bob Dylan – 72. And, let the record note, Leonard Cohen – 79 – the wise alte zeyde of rock music.
As Neil Young, 67, sang: “Rock and roll will never die.” And as the Stones themselves sang, these aging rockers will “not fade away.” After all, why should they? Their fans are living longer and retiring later as well.
So now comes the disconnect.
I ran into a colleague of mine – an experienced, joyful, fun, witty, creative, tech-savvy Jewish educator, beloved by colleagues, parents and children alike.
The synagogue where he was working has had to cut back on staff. But, at 59, he cannot find a new position as a Jewish educator.
This is what he is hearing: “We want an educator who will be with us for twenty years.” That would put him at 79, and he realizes that this is not going to happen. Because “an educator who will be with us for twenty years” is code for “we want someone who is not much older than 45.”
“I don’t get it,” he said to me. “I’m very good at what I do. Anyone can tell you that. But also, all these years, I have been going to synagogue and hearing about how we are supposed to ‘rise up before the aged.’ Isn’t that a major Jewish value? And I’m not exactly aged, either.”
This would be the right time to talk about beards. Jewish tradition mandated beards for men. In The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, Leon Kass teaches that the ancient Egyptians were clean-shaven – to emphasize youth. The Jewish insistence on beards for men was, therefore a counter-cultural statement. We have no cult of eternal youth.
Rock music is a physically demanding profession. The touring. The late nights. The sheer physical output at a concert. If you’re a lead guitarist, wouldn’t you be worrying about whether your fingers could pull off that solo? If you’re Mick Jagger, what about those classic moves all over the stage? And the longer you’re in the business, the more songs you write, the more lyrics and guitar chords to remember (yes, there are teleprompters, but still…)
Compare this, please, to the physical demands on the typical Jewish educator -- or any Jewish professional, for that matter.
You get the picture.
Despite the obvious illegality of age discrimination, as well as discrimination based on gender, sexuality, marital status, etc., the organized Jewish community has not yet had the necessary conversation about this issue. It’s not only illegal, as difficult as it might be to prove. It is unethical. It is wasteful of good minds, great skills, and time-tested wisdom.
And it is un-Jewish.
I am thinking about one of my rabbinic heroes, Rabbi Herman Schaalman of Chicago. Rabbi Schaalman is the last surviving rabbi to have been rescued by the Reform movement from the liberal seminary in Berlin (included in that group was the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles). He was one of the founders of the Reform movement’s flagship summer camp, Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
For many years, Rabbi Schaalman has been spending parts of his summers at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. He teaches, tells stories, and charms staff and kids alike.
Rabbi Schaalman was born in 1916. 97 years old.
We live in a time of rapid obsolescence – or, worse, imagined obsolescence, in which having a year-old IPad is the digital equivalent of the quaintness of a Model T. We imagine that young people can only relate to professionals who are the ages of slightly-older cousins. It turns out that our kids are much smarter than that. They recognize and love wisdom, even if it comes from someone who is avuncular.
But Judaism is supposed to be counter-cultural. Isn’t it?
Besides, who would you rather hang out with? Leonard Cohen or Justin Bieber?
I rest my case.
12.17.13 at 5:32 am | Hillel is right. Its doors should not be open to. . .
12.10.13 at 11:45 am | Bibi should have gone to Mandela's memorial --. . .
12.4.13 at 7:10 am | Accepting non-Jewish students might just save. . .
11.26.13 at 5:54 pm | If you're burnt out on Thanksgivukkah, there's. . .
11.19.13 at 7:33 am | Did Lincoln use the words of a rabbi for the. . .
11.12.13 at 3:43 pm | Bush pleads: "Let the Jews stay Jewish!" A. . .
12.10.13 at 11:45 am | Bibi should have gone to Mandela's memorial --. . . (1138)
12.17.13 at 5:32 am | Hillel is right. Its doors should not be open to. . . (257)
8.14.13 at 6:29 am | A Jew and a Sikh form a deep friendship -- and. . . (50)
July 23, 2013 | 9:44 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Time to cue the band. Let’s see now: “Hava Nagilah?” “The Hokey Pokey?”
Um, can you do the hora to “Material Girl?”
Those were the questions on everyone’s lips this past week as the gossip pages roared the news that Rocco, son of the pop sensation Madonna and her ex-husband Guy Richie, was going to celebrate becoming bar mitzvah.
To coin a phrase: “How was this bar mitzvah different from every other bar mitzvah?”
For one thing, the ceremony entailed the completion of the writing of a Torah scroll. Madonna wrote: “We finish the last letter of the Torah for Rocco’s Bar Mitzva! [sic] Lucky 13! Happy Birthday Potential……….responsibility!!!!” This was certainly unlike any other thirteen year old’s rite of passage, at least in my professional memory. Learning a Torah portion? Chanting haftarah? Giving a devar Torah? Nope. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing a Torah scroll (it is, in fact, the 613th mitzvah in the Torah), but bar or bat mitzvah, it ain’t.
Oh, there was one other thing about the uniqueness of this bar mitzvah. Call me a stickler, if you want, but this might be the first bar or bat mitzvah in history in which none of the cast of characters is Jewish. Madonna isn’t. Guy Richie isn’t. Rocco surely isn’t.
I’m not going to take anything away from Madonna. As gentile pop stars go, she is definitely on our side.
Madonna is studying kabbalah. She gave herself a Hebrew name – Esther. She has played numerous concerts in Israel. She has visited Israel more times than the overwhelming majority of American Jews. She has gone to Israel for Rosh Ha Shanah. She has met with Israel’s President, Shimon Peres. She is reportedly interested in buying an apartment in Tel Aviv, which is sort of like South Beach.
We do not take this for granted.
However: what does Rocco’s “bar mitzvah” say about bar/bat mitzvah and about Judaism?
Ever since I wrote Putting God On The Guest List: How To Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-260-9, I have marveled over the fact that two phenomena seem to walk hand in hand.
On the one hand: among the non-Orthodox, the vast Jewish majority of traditional Jewish observances seem to have shrunken. It seems that the substance of Passover seders has shrunken. I sense that fewer people observe yahrzeit than ever before. Yom Kippur fasts are shorter.
And yet, even as other observances shrank, bar and bat mitzvah grew – explosively. What was once a semi-colon in the paragraph of Jewish life has become, sadly, a period. Bar/bat mitzvah eligibility is still the major impetus for synagogue membership. It is a multi-million dollar business. In my own non-scientific study of popular culture, I have figured out that bar and bat mitzvah is probably the most-portrayed religious ceremony, both on the small screen and the large screen.
Is it any wonder, then, that the popularity of bar/bat mitzvah has spread to other ethnic and religious groups? Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal featured a front page article about Protestant kids wanting bar/bat mitzvah: “You Don't Have to Be Jewish To Want a Bar Mitzvah Party. More Kids on Cusp of 13 Get Faux Post-Rite Parties; Picking Hawaiian Theme.” http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB107404276295131300,00.html
But it’s not just the party. It’s also the passage. In the African-American community, some thirteen year-old boys publicly give a small speech, and explicitly pledge not to do drugs, be involved with crime, and abuse women. A few years ago, I attended an Episcopalian “Rite Thirteen,” a church pageant in which a group of thirteen year-old kids declared their faith. Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. A few years ago, a Protestant colleague of mine said to me: "Do you have any idea what a great thing you have in bar and bat mitzvah?"
Bottom line: if bar/bat mitzvah did not exist, it would have to be invented, because people really want rites of passage for their children.
Still, even though I can hear Madonna singing in my ear – “Papa don't preach,” I have grave misgivings about the de-Judaization of bar and bat mitzvah. I have to wonder aloud: is it really good for the Jews or for Judaism that a primal Jewish ceremony is ripped out of its traditional Jewish context and becomes available to anyone?
In the theological category of “if it quacks like a duck…” this is what I would want to say to Madonna. Madge: you are studying a kind of Judaism. You have given yourself a Hebrew name. You have proven yourself to be a friend of the Jewish people, Jewish teachings, and the Jewish state. Go the full Marilyn (Monroe, that is)! We would love to welcome you and Rocco into the Jewish people.
Is that "like a prayer?" Perhaps so, but it is a prayer worth uttering.
July 16, 2013 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, Brooklyn was the punch line of an old, tired joke. It was the embarrassing great-uncle of New York boroughs, the place where people came from, an irritating accent.
No longer. It hasn’t been that way in decades.
I once defined gentrification as the fourth generation moving back to the place from which the second generation fled. Or, in the case of lower Manhattan, there are people living in lofts that had once been the factories that employed their great-grandparents. Like the ancient cities of Canaan that fell, one by one, before the conquering onslaught of Joshua, each neighborhood in Brooklyn has fallen to armies of hipsters.
Among the European elite, the very word “Brooklyn” has a magical power. And in one of the great ironic reversals of Jewish history, the Israeli singer Ehud Banai sings a song called “Broklyn” (sic), a love song to the borough that, for him, mixes kodesh v’chol (sacred and profane). On the way to Brooklyn, the songwriter wonders if he will find what libi m’vakesh, what his heart is seeking. For most of Jewish history, the lev of the Jew longed for Zion, not for galut. Recall that in Spielberg’s “Munich,” the team leader, Avner (played by Eric Bana) ultimately finds refuge from Israel – in Brooklyn. “If I forget thee, O Prospect Park, let me tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth…..”
Except Brooklyn is not galut.
Here’s what I experienced on erev Shavuot. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman, rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn and the first woman to be president of the New York Board of Rabbis, invited me to teach at a tikkun leil Shavuot, an all night study session in honor of Shavuot, which, let the record note, was first invented hundreds of years ago by overly caffeinated Jews who had only recently encountered coffee for the first time.
This tikkun leil Shavuot was being held at Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and it included all synagogues and Jewish institutions in “Brownstone Brooklyn.” I was teaching material from my book The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (JPS), as well as from Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, published by Jewish Lights.
And what I encountered there is still with me, months later. Hundreds of Jews, of all ideological flavors, so many that there was barely room to move. They were there to study together, pray together, sing together, and consume prodigious quantities of cheesecake together (dairy being the traditional Shavuot cuisine).
By the way, did I mention the average age?
About thirty. Maybe lower. A huge number of young Jews, all of whom seem to have significant lives, interests, passions – and who could have easily been anywhere else that evening.
But they weren’t. They were in a synagogue in Brooklyn.
And why should we care about this in Los Angeles -- or anywhere beyond the East River?
First, demographics. Or, in traditional real estate speak – “location, location, location.” Not every Jewish community in the United States is going to be able to come up with such a critical mass of younger people. But there are such communities with such demographics, even on a much smaller scale. The bodies, as it turns out, are there – or at least in some versions of “there.”
Second, spirituality. The Brooklyn experience required no gimmicks. No glitzy advertising. Nothing unbelievably, earth-shatteringly creative or cutting edge or out of the box.
It turns out that in the box is the new out of the box. The box is Torah and Jewish texts and wisdom. Sure, it has to be taught well, and with passion, and with conviction, and with authenticity. But it does not have to be watered down. In fact, it had better not be watered down – because this generation will not buy it. They know when they are being pandered to, and when they are being patronized, and when the merchandize is being cheapened on their (supposed) behalf – and it will not fly. They want the real thing.
I write this on Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, as well as other catastrophes in Jewish history.
There are Tisha b’Av Jews – Jews who focus most of their psychic and spiritual energies on the horrors that have befallen our people. For them, the Temple is always about to be, or has been, destroyed. They might even perversely enjoy their paranoia.
And then, there are the Shavuot Jews. Shavuot Jews relish the memory, and the active re-living, of the moment of Sinai. They are ready to find deep meaning in the texts, and they celebrate those meanings, and they love doing so in the midst of community.
On erev Shavuot in Brooklyn, I witnessed the phenomenon of Shavuot Jews.
That’s the good news. The better news: they are young and ready to be engaged. They already are engaged. And with time, they will create the Jewish future.
I cannot say that Brooklyn is the Third Temple, but for one night, it came pretty close.
July 10, 2013 | 9:26 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
A number of years ago, I attended a rather large gathering of Jews. On Shabbat, I found myself sitting at a table with a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including some rabbis, who hailed from Brooklyn.
Right after motzi, some of them started talking about what we would now call the “hood.” They were complaining about their neighbors. And suddenly, one of them used a word that I had not heard in a very long time: “the shvartzers.”
Whoa, I said to myself. This was unlike any version of Orthodoxy that I had ever encountered before. It was not the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, nor of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, nor of the late, lamented Rabbi David Hartman, nor of Adin Steinsaltz, nor of former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I had heard the term “Torah true Judaism” that many ultra-Orthodox use to describe their practice. Was this Torah-true Judaism? Then what about Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code, which included “love your neighbor as yourself?" What about the thirty-six times that the Torah tells us to take care of the stranger? Isn't that also, or even chiefly, Torah?
I was brasher then than I am now, and so I turned to one of my offending neighbors at the table and I asked him, point-blank: “Do you davven with that mouth?” I could not conceive of a mouth that uttered the Sh’ma, or chanted Psalms, or sang Adon Olam, also using racial slurs.
They looked at me like I was crazy. Let’s just say that birchat ha-mazon (the blessing after the meal) could not have come any faster.
Fast forward to what happened earlier this week on Rosh Chodesh Av at the Western Wall – Women of the Wall, and numerous friends and supporters and fellow pray-ers, went to davven at the wall. Except they were met by busloads of ultra-Orthodox girls, who blocked their access to the Wall. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews who were there greeted them with Nazi salutes and “Heil Hitler!” Follow this link to the video created by my colleague, Rabbi Ned Soltz.
Ask yourself: Who are the more authentic representatives of “Torah-true Judaism” – the screaming hordes or the praying women?
And once again, I want to say: Do you davven with that mouth? Do you wrap tefillin on the arm that you raised in a Hitler salute?
How about the way that many of the ultra-Orthodox refer to their brethren who choose to serve in the Israel Defense Forces? They ostracize them, they ridicule them, they will even seek to make these citizen soldiers unmarriageable within the frum community. Some ultra-Orthodox residents of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem actually physically attacked an ultra-Orthodox soldier who was visiting his family.
Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have coined a new term that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, would never have imagined. Hardakim -- a combination of the term hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and the Hebrew words for insects (charakim) and germs (chaidakim). And then there are the comic-like caricatures of these soldiers, which portray them as fat, bearded monstrous kidnappers of children.
Imagining Jews as insects. Imagining Jews as germs. Caricatures of fat, bearded, evil Jews. Right out of Der Sturmer’s play book.
Tisha B’Av is coming. The ninth day of the month of Av is the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem, along with a few other historical tragedies that just happened to be lumped into that date. We can thank Jewish summer camps for rescuing the observance of Tisha B’Av.
But it might be that Tisha B’Av is no longer about mourning a devastated city. Perhaps now, Tisha b’Av is about mourning our devastated values.
Jerusalem was destroyed, the sages said, because: Because its people profaned Shabbat. Because they neglected saying the Sh’ma mornings and evenings. Because they stopped bringing their children to study with the sages. Because they lost their sense of shame. Because they did not admonish each other. Because people failed to settle disputes by compromise. Because of baseless hatred (sinat hinam).
Seven sins. How about synagogues instituting a seven year cycle of reflection – one year for each sin? We already have Yom Kippur, you are saying. But that’s for personal sin. Tisha B’Av should be about communal and national sins.
Every mitzvah that we do contributes to the re-building of the Temple, said the Hasidic teacher, Reb Naftali of Ropshitz.
It's time for us to start.
July 1, 2013 | 2:53 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
The first wail of mourning that I ever heard in my life was at my great-aunt Trudy’s funeral.
For forty-five years, Aunt Trudy had been my great-aunt Charlotte’s – what’s the word here? “Room mate?” “Apartment mate?” That’s what they were, technically – sharing a small, plainly furnished apartment on the Grand Concourse of the Bronx, long after the neighborhood had changed from the being the Jewish Champs D’Elysee to something much different.
It didn’t much matter. We often went out there for Sunday dinner, braving the interminable traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Charlotte was my mother’s aunt, the younger sister of my grandmother. And Trudy was her – well, actually no one ever labeled her, or their relationship. They were always simply the tantes. I remember asking, as a small child, why they had never gotten married. I meant, of course, to men – which is precisely how they each responded: “No man ever wanted to marry us.” And that was it. What was the term back then? “Spinster?” “Old maid?”
And then, one day Aunt Trudy became sick with cancer. And as she declined, Charlotte cared for her, full time, until she died. And when the day of her funeral came, I heard the wail of grief which, to this day, pierces my bones, because even though I have been a rabbi for several decades I have never, ever, heard a scream like the one that emerged from the lips of dear Aunt Charlotte. As the funeral began, the funeral director escorted Charlotte out to the chapel – as, in the decades hence, I have seen funeral directors escort grieving spouses out, over and over again.
Yes, grieving spouses. Let’s just hold onto that one for a few moments.
As the pall bearers were carrying Trudy’s coffin out into the hearse, my mother wondered aloud, somewhat off-handedly: “I wonder if Trudy’s family will be here.” To which I replied: “I thought that we were Aunt Trudy’s family.”
Fast forward twenty years. I was already a rabbi. When I visited Aunt Charlotte in the nursing home, I noticed that her siddur was in tatters. I offered to replace it for her. She demurred, saying, “Thanks, Jeff, but this one has Trudy in it.” It had been Trudy’s, and Charlotte could not bear to part with it.
Fast forward fifteen years after that. The waves of social change that were already sweeping across America got me thinking. Were Charlotte and Trudy more than simply “roommates?” By then, there was almost no one left to ask. My mother had died, as had Charlotte, and when I thought to subtly broach the subject to the remaining distant relatives, they shrugged their shoulders. One recalled that there were twin beds in their bedroom. Sure, but Ozzie and Harriet had twin beds as well. It didn’t prove or disprove anything.
And so it was that I constructed a story for myself. To this day, I cannot know if it is true or a myth that I have created. I came to imagine the context of my mother’s stray query: “I wonder if Trudy’s family will be here.” I came to imagine that yes, they had been lovers and partners, k’ilu (as if) they had been married. I came to imagine that back in the 1920s, Trudy’s family could not handle that truth and that they had disowned her or had emotionally abandoned her. (It would not have been the first, nor certainly not the last time). I came to realize that my maternal grandparents had unequivocally opened their home and their hearts to this (k’ilu married) couple, and had made no separation between themselves and Charlotte and Trudy. And neither had anyone else in the family. It wasn’t only a familial version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was also a familial version of “don’t ask, don’t tell, doesn’t matter.”
I tell this story for all the obvious reasons. As both DOMA and Proposition Eight wind up on the well-deserved kaddish list, I am thinking of all the couples, all the spiritual descendants of Charlotte and Trudy, who are now free to legally bind their lives together. I think of Edith Windsor and the late Thea Spyer, who were together for forty two years until Thea’s death, in whose name the Supreme Court acted last week – Edith Windsor, who can now claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. I looked at Edith Windsor, and I saw the faces of Charlotte and Trudy.
All I know is this. The love and devotion that Charlotte and Trudy showed to each other was a living, breathing part of my childhood. It not only did me no harm. It did me great good.
And all I know is this, as well. I have been thinking about DOMA, and thinking about a Hebrew pun that should be married to it as well. DOMA sounds like duma, the Hebrew word for silence.
So now the multitude of silences can end.
And I would like to believe that Charlotte and Trudy are in the World to Come, applauding the death of Proposition 8 and DOMA.