Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Change of Pace


I think a break from the all the issues of the world that disturb and/or challenge us is in order. Why not a little humor for a change? A few weeks ago New York Magazine had a big spread on the 100 greatest jokes in American history. It is interesting that 50% were (according to a JTA count) by or about Jews, who constitute 2% of the population on a good day. What makes us so clever? And it’s not a passing thing. It was noted that we Jews have remained a consistent comedic force, showing up in every decade: Vaudeville in the teens and 20s, the Marx Brothers in the 30s, the Borscht Belt in the 40s and so on — all the way up to Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer.

Of course you want to hear some of my favorite jokes, so let me share a few on my most current list. Not all Jewish. Not too tired. Partly a window in to my odd sense of humor. You can write back with your favorite if you wish, I might publish the best of them. Just please make them short.

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.” A voice from the back of the room said, “Yeah, right.”

A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’

Two campers are walking through the woods when a huge brown bear suddenly appears in the clearing about 50 feet in front of them. The bear sees the campers and begins to head toward them. The first guy drops his backpack, digs out a pair of sneakers, and frantically begins to put them on. The second guy says, “What are you doing? Sneakers won’t help you outrun that bear.” “I don’t need to outrun the bear,” the first guy says. “I just need to outrun you.”

A young child is sitting on a bench in a park eating a huge bag of candy. An old man walks up to him and says “You shouldn’t eat so much candy, it’s bad for your health!” The kid replies, “Well, my grandpa lived to be 106 years old!” The old man is shocked. “What was his secret? Did he eat a lot of candy?” ”No,” the kid replies. “He minded his own business!”

A Jewish man took his Passover lunch to eat outside in the park. He sat down on a bench and began eating. A little while later a blind man came by and sat down next to him. Feeling neighborly, the Jewish man passed a sheet of matzo to the blind man. The blind man ran his fingers over the matzo for a few minutes, looked puzzled, and finally exclaimed, “Who wrote this crap?”

When Izydor Epstein from Poland applied for an American driver’s license he was asked to read the eye chart. The clerk pointed to the first line with the letters “P O W Z Y N S K E Y.” “Now sir,” said the clerk. “Can you read this?” “Read it?” replied Izydor, “the man used to be my next-door neighbor!”

The main course at the big civic dinner was baked ham with glazed sweet potatoes. Rabbi Cohen regretfully shook his head when the platter was passed to him. “When,” scolded Father Kelly playfully, “are you going to forget that silly rule of yours and eat ham like the rest of us?” Without skipping a beat, Rabbi Cohen replied “At your wedding reception, Father Kelly.”

Enough for now. There is a lesson or value attached to almost every joke. See what you can figure out. And have a good day, a good Shabbat, and a nice weekend. Best, Bill Rudolph


One More Opinion

Shalom. I spend a lot of energy trying to not be predictable, but it’s hard not to talk about Antonin Scalia following his untimely death. While it is true that just about everything there is to say about him has been said, I hope to add something slightly original.

Scalia was one of the most conservative justices, but among the contenders for that title his style uniquely got people riled up. Apart from style, was he in fact upholding the Constitution or trashing it? I will let legal minds dicker on that. What I want to talk about are two things: 1) was he good for the Jews? and 2) what about Justice Scalia provides a great lesson for our very divisive time? It is actually ends up being two questions with one answer. I will be brief, despite the thousands of words staring at me from my many sources.

Good for the Jews? Mixed bag here, which will lead eventually to point 2). Before his Court days, he didn’t see complying with the Arab boycott of Israel as illegal. But as a federal appeals judge, he upheld an activist lawsuit (brought by eight individuals including rabbis) against the FBI for violating their right to assemble. Yet he dissented in favor of the the Satmer Rebbe’s separate school district in Kiryat Joel. But he went against “wall to wall” Jewish organizational consensus on a church state issue re Native American church peyote use. He didn’t agree that Sabbath observant businesses were entitled to remain open on Sundays in violation of Blue Laws even if that put them at a disadvantage. He voted in favor of military wearing yarmulkes. And so forth, a mixed bag, hard to know what to think, which will soon be my point.

What about off the bench? Here the results are almost totally positive. We all have heard by now that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (very liberal) called him her “best buddy.” “‘We are different, we are one,’”she wrote; [we are] “different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve.” Scalia and Elena Kagan didn’t do opera but hunted game (!) He was happy to speak at all kinds of Jewish forums, only once losing his temper (before the National Council of Jewish Women) when he walked out after a question whether the Court’s staff was sufficiently diverse. He referenced the Talmud and other sources, hired many Orthodox law clerks, and (in the 7 years when there was no Jew on the Court and he was) taught the justices how to pronounce “yeshivah” and how to use the word “chuptzpah” and felt that he was the Court’s guardian of the Jewish heritage.

So what do we learn from the life of Antonin Scalia? Point 2. He wasn’t always our hero nor always our enemy. More the former than the latter, but not consistently so. On a personal level, far closer to us than we would have guessed. We should learn from him that life, and people, are not all black or white. It’s too easy, and usually wrong, to make judgements about people without knowing their whole story. We slot people in – conservative/ liberal/ friend of the Jews/ not friend of the Jews – and once they are slotted they are stuck there. We forget that it is almost always more complicated. One of my favorite expressions is this, “ if you think you know what someone is thinking, you are always going to be wrong.” Remember that.

People are complex. They see things differently than we might not because they are bad/dumb but because there are different ways to see the same thing. We should learn to to go easy in our judging, give people a break, not put people or ideas in little boxes. And learn from Scalia that we can also get along with those who see the world differently: the current animus that characterizes relationships among public officials doesn’t have to be. Antonin Scalia, maybe in life but surely in death (because we know more about him now) surely teaches us these lessons. Very timely lessons I might add, for a world where people of the same political party cannot even get along, where so many are sure they are right and that others are wrong, sure that truth is absolutely and totally clear. It’s almost never that.

Ponder this, write back if you wish, and have a good day. Best, Bill Rudolph

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Show Me A Good Loser

Life is full of wins and losses, and not just on the ball field. At work – not getting the promotion. At love – the girl of your dreams runs off with the weirdo with the ponytail. Learning that we don’t always win and learning how to accept defeats graciously are generally considered keys to maturity.

But along comes Super Bowl 50 quarterback and league MVP, Cam Newton. Defending himself for not being in the mood to be interviewed right after the loss, which I can understand, he later explained that he hates losing and people should understand that. And then he said the line that has busied some people since, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

The immediate response, at least from white people, was critical, as it has been about his demeanor overall. [Some other time I will write about racism and sexism never letting go.] From Mike and Mike (sports talk radio) – Mike Golic: “Nobody likes losing but you have to handle it like a professional.” Mike Greenberg: “[what he said was] an insult to anybody who has accepted a loss with dignity.” For now, I agree with them. But it’s interesting to look into Jewish tradition, which isn’t full of sports (though Joseph did serve in Pharaoh’s court) but is full of losses and big disappointments.

We think of Esau, who gave up his birthright to his twin brother Jacob for a hot lunch, but who was actually cheated out of his father’s blessing. His reaction? “I’m going to kill Jacob my brother.” And there was Moses, who showed a lack of faith for three seconds (striking the rock for water not talking to it) in the 40 years of brilliantly leading his complaining murmuring people in the Wilderness and was doomed to never enter the Promised Land. Did he take this defeat well? The Torah doesn’t say, but the rabbis of Talmudic times were sure he never let go of his disappointment and argued incessantly with God about the justice of the decree until it was too late.

So how are we supposed to lose? Esau and Moses didn’t do so well. The candidates for President, almost all of whom lose each primary or caucus (there can be only one winner) have responded in different ways, sometimes with grace and sometimes blaming somebody or something for their loss. Mario Rubio suffered a real defeat in NH this week. Here was his response to his followers: “Our disappointment is not on you, it’s on me. I didn’t do well Saturday night [the debate] and that will never happen again.” This is not an endorsement, but the comment resonated.

It resonated because of a little story from the earliest days in my rabbinate which mirrors this response to defeat. Before many of you were born, I had just begun my first real job, as Hillel Rabbi at Michigan State University, when the Yom Kippur War broke out (fall of 1973.) It was a scary time, as Israel seemed very much in danger and I was new on the job and had little idea what to do first. A flurry of pro and anti Israel activity followed on the campus. It was exhausting and difficult, and I sometimes think I have not caught my breath since nor gotten over seeing that the Arab professors (the intelligentsia) hated Israel as much as anyone I have met in succeeding years. The wrinkle that made things especially difficult was that nearby Detroit was at that time the home to more Middle Eastern Arabs than any city in the world. Their spokespeople were on campus a lot. A campus ministry group scheduled a debate on the war, and I got volunteered to represent “our side.” It didn’t go well. I wasn’t prepared for what came my way and, though not humiliated, I felt that I had let my people down, and told them so. And I vowed to never let that happen again. I took on a self study of the Middle East Conflict, an early version of the myths and facts documents that now abound. I was ready the next time, and since, and I am still studying. That is one way we might best deal with losing – “man up” is the current expression, and then figure out how not to let that happen again if it’s in our power to do so. That to me is being a good loser not a loser.

Next time he loses, let’s see how Cam Newton does. In the meantime, here’s to big and small victories, and occasional defeats that we accept with grace and (where possible) determination. Best, Bill Rudolph

My Endorsement?

It’s hard not to have politics on the mind. This presidential campaign is a media bonanza that is unavoidable and we are not even in Iowa or NH. Before I was Emeritus, I couldn’t come close to endorsing a candidate or Beth El might lose its 501(c)(3) status, but this is an independent blog and I can say almost anything. But I am not about to endorse anyone, not to worry.
What I am ready to talk about are a few things:
1. There is but one candidate who gets my juices flowing at all. That would be Bernie Sanders, about whom more will be said in a moment. The others? It’s not just their ideas or personality or campaigning style. Well, maybe it is that. But it’s also that the media, which needs to fill a lot of hours of air time, sooner or later reduces anyone running for office to a mere mortal, or worse. No wonder good people don’t want to run for office. I can’t solve that problem right now.
2. Bernie Sanders part one. I love many of his ideas and his passion and can see why he has appeal especially for young people who see the problems and the serious inequities in our society and don’t see why we can’t do better. They don’t see the other candidates changing much of that, nor do I. That being said, it will take a revolution in Congress (on both sides of the aisle) and beyond for things like single payer health care or free college tuition to ever happen. I see Bernie, to use Biblical analogies, as more a prophet than a king, and this election is not about prophecy. See the Post’s several recent editorials or that of Ruth Marcus for more carefully reasoned arguments to the same effect.
3. Bernie Sanders part two. Sanders is one of only a few presidential candidates of any party ever to present him/herself as not religious. “I am not involved with organized religion,” he said in a recent interview which is part of a 1/28 Post front page story called “On faith, Sanders breaks the mold.” Voters have come to expect candidates to hold traditional views about God and to speak about their faith journeys, and they almost all do/have done that. Not Bernie. Do I have a problem with that? Actually not. Surprise!. I have always felt that religion is a private matter, nobody’s business. I have often sensed that presidents/ presidential candidates go to church because they think that is expected of them. And then they do bad things in office just to prove my point. So, that piece of the Bernie Sanders picture actually doesn’t bother me.
4. Bernie Sanders part three is related and does bother me. I believe he is but the second Jew to run for high office, after Joe Lieberman. What bothers me is that he is so much a Jew and yet he seems to hope that nobody will notice. You knew I would get to this. His family story, his time on kibbutz, his values, even his manner – all are so obviously Jewish. His moral code? His friend/ former chief of staff says it’s based on core religious tenets. His brother calls their Jewish education “unsophisticated,” but it was grounded in a simple moral code of right and wrong. Sanders must know that his Jewishness very much makes him who he is. [Note: he opened up a little about this at last night’s CNN Town Hall, knowing I would write about it, but the word Jewish didn’t show up.] Is the reticence to talk about it because he thinks his Jewishness might lose votes, as if people don’t know? Is he embarrassed by his background? Pew said 96% of American Jews, no matter how involved they are (or not) with the Jewish community, are proud to be Jewish. Why does the one running for President have to be in the 4%? Maimonides defined a “golden age” in Jewish history as a time when Jews achieve high office and learn Bible and Talmud every spare moment. We are far from that, and by now I think it’s nobody’s fault but our own.
I am sure there will be more on this as the campaign grinds along. Between politics and religion, there is nothing more impossible to agree on, but we can’t just talk sports or dinosaurs on the Ark. Write back if you wish, and have a good rest of the week. Bill Rudolph
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