Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Fifth Way

Purim is/was officially Thursday, and for those who live in a walled city (NIH doesn’t qualify but Jerusalem does) also on Friday. I saw a commentary on a rather unique Purim observance that got me agitated but also helped generate a little perspective on violence such as we saw this week in Belgium.

Most of us know that Purim is the story of the evil Haman who, dissed by the Jewish courtier Mordechai, bribed King Ahashverosh to kill all the Jews in his kingdom. Thanks to Queen Esther, the Jews managed to depose Haman and the King let them fight back and slaughter those who would have attacked them.

There are four ways to observe the Purim holiday that are listed in the Book of Esther itself – reading the story, exchanging gifts, giving charity, and having a late day feast. In the fourth century the sage Rava added a fifth – “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Haman.’” What is that all about? It can’t just be about partying can it?

The commentary that agitated me says that it reveals the “dark heart of Rava’s understanding of Purim.” To quote, “The fact that the Jews fought back and slaughtered the Persians was not a ‘happy ever after’ ending to the story. It was but a pause in the cycle of violence that was enabled by the continuing reign of King Ahashverosh who gave power to the faction with the greatest sway and the most money. Under Ahashverosh’s reign (which is our unredeemed world) there is no final act of violence which brings peace.” So, I think the commentary – as flimsy as is its basis – is saying that we get drunk because there is no way out of violence and why bother to be sober.

This commentary, from a rabbinic school professor writing for Peace Now, then launches into a discussion of violence in Israel, mostly that perpetrated by Israelis, and the ongoing abuses of the West Bank “occupation.” “Sadly,” the professor goes on, “the necessary defensive violence of the Six Day War has turned into the violence of oppression, and occupation.” Violence leads to violence, and the “only way out is to stop supporting the occupation.” This midrash makes my blood boil. The “occupation” is the result of the war to destroy Israel, nobody likes it, but absent a partner for peace, and not wanting another Gaza (which would be twenty times worse than Gaza has been since Israel unoccupied it), Israel has little choice but to retain the status quo.

Peace Now hasn’t retained my services, and won’t, but I see the injunction to get at least a little drunk on Purim in a very different way. It’s not a political statement but a reality statement. The news of the world is often going to be unsettling. We ourselves usually can’t fix it. The Belgians certainly can’t, at least by themselves. And things seem to be trending in bad directions. I feel a sense of fear and societal instability beyond what I have seen in the past, and I don’t see it getting much better anytime soon. So, we need to steel ourselves for what will transpire, not be naive about the dangers but not be paralyzed by them, and occasionally have some fun. That is what Purim holds out for us, always has, and it’s why I think Rava said we should take a little break from sobriety and responsibility. We need it and we deserve it.

Wishing you a good Shabbat and nice spring weekend.      Bill Rudolph


March Madness

Shalom. It is hard not to focus on the news of the day rather than the esoteric things that people like me dabble with, and I have been putting those aside forever it seems while these very “interesting” times continue. At least there is no problem making Shabbat dinner conversation. Here are a few thoughts for the moment:

1. Donald Trump. He certainly sucks up a lot of air time. Of late, the distraction he represented has gotten both more serious and more worrisome. Much has been written about why people are attracted to him – the economy and disappointment with traditional politics seem most cogent, and lately I think there is an element of rebellion against political correctness. Some people are tired of having to watch what they say about immigrants or Muslims or anyone who disagrees with them, and Trump represents a release from their “bondage.”

Survivors and students of the Holocaust see some scary parallels with his rhetoric and those times. Maybe I am being naive, but I resonated with what Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, wrote this week: “Intellectually, I can dismiss their concerns that Trump is a Hitler style fascist. My innate skepticism and, frankly, my respect for American culture and history, make me want to reject the simplistic analogies of Trump to, say, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was motivated by a clear, if twisted, ideology; Trump’s ‘policies’ are often just spontaneous pronouncements, without any coherence other than to demonize the other and make himself the answer to all that needs fixing in America today. Hitler exploited a nation brought to its knees by a crippling world war and a severe depression; America was brought back from economic ruin by the very president Trump seeks to succeed in office, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, this country still has the world’s most powerful economy and military.”

Still, there is cause for concern. I see that some rabbis are organizing a boycott of his upcoming talk at AIPAC because of his hateful rhetoric and the violence it generates, and I support that move.

2. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. He is Jewish, name notwithstanding, is involved with his Temple here in D.C. and happy to talk about the effects of his Jewish upbringing even in his very first speech upon being nominated.

“My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here. My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America,” he said, choking up Wednesday morning in the White House Rose Garden as he accepted President Barack Obama’s nomination. Garland said his father, who ran an advertising business from the basement of his family home, impressed upon him the “importance of hard work and fair dealing.” He said his mother’s volunteer work (she was director of volunteers services at the Council for Jewish Elderly in Chicago) taught him the value of community service. Not a Bernie Sanders that is for sure.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. A lot has already been written indicating that Republicans might be best off approving his nomination because he is not only talented but more centrist in his views than whoever may come if Clinton wins out. I do hope Garland is not a sacrificial lamb to the politics of the moment.

3. The harsh rhetoric of the campaign, and the talk shows, is permeating our society. Just this week I saw that a Boston-area Catholic school banned its students from attending a state semifinal basketball game in the wake of anti-Semitic chants made at a game against a predominantly Jewish public school. On Friday night, Catholic Memorial students shouted “You killed Jesus” during the division championship game against Newton North High School. The chants reportedly were in response to those about Catholic Memorial being an all-boys school, including “Where are your girls?” and “sausage-fest,” which conjured images of male anatomy. The president of Catholic Memorial and the superintendent of Newton schools both apologized for the behavior of the students, but why were they/we surprised by it?

There is a lot to ponder and worry about. Thank God that Purim is on its way to remind us that when things seem most bleak a few people (like Esther and Mordecai) can show enough courage to change things. Will that kind of person step up now?

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

Some Things Don’t Change

A few blogs ago I promised to say something about sexism. The election primaries are the catalyst for my concerns though they extend beyond that. I think Hillary Clinton would make a good President, probably better than what we have had lately. But why is she struggling so in the primaries? Much has been written about that and there are multiple theories. I want to focus on one possible explanation and share some of what I have read about it.
In one of the early post debate analyses, legendary journalist Bob Woodward opined that that “a lot of it, with Hillary Clinton, has to do with style and delivery, oddly enough.” Then he explained, “She shouts. There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating and I think it just jumps.” The political savants around the table lined up behind the argument, because that is what people do. Host Joe Scarborough interjected, “Has nobody told her that the microphone works?” And, despite valiant efforts by Cokie Roberts to note that people raise their voices in political rallies, Woodward persisted. “I’m sorry to dwell on the tone issue,” he said thoughtfully, “but there is something here where Hillary Clinton suggests that she’s almost not comfortable with herself.”
I personally confess to having trouble listening to her on the stump, Is it just the voice, or is it complicated by elements of sexism that maybe we all carry with us to a degree? That there is sexism in politics, in business, in the world, is hard to dispute. But in this particular case there is an overarching risk, a cautionary message for voters. Sure, sexist attitudes are a problem for women. But here they are a problem for all Americans deciding who should become president. Instead of discussing what truly matters, the experts (and regular people) are often talking about Clinton’s tone of voice. And the criticism of Clinton doesn’t just come from men. A female writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer finds that her voice lacks “elegance and grace,” and Peggy Noonan says she “reminds me of the landlady yelling.”
This segues into the charge faced by professional women of all kinds that they are too aggressive and ambitious. After one debate, the Post’s Chris Cillizza called Clinton “hyper aggressive.” Another debate review, in The New York Times, contrasted her and her opponent, saying Bernie Sanders “kept his cool in the debate,” while Clinton appeared “tense and even angry at times.” The truth is they were both heated and intense, which was fitting.
Men may not recognize the problem. Women surely do. A survey of women professionals in the San Francisco area found 84% had been told they were too aggressive, and – look at this! – 53% had been told they were “too quiet.” Many women then had been accused of both. When Sanders shouts, it is because he is angry at the injustice in America, because he cares so much. In her case, it is a character flaw. When Sanders appears somewhat disheveled, his hair flying out of place, it is a sign of his authenticity. If a woman looked less than perfectly groomed, she would be laughed off the campaign trail.
Women face competing expectations that men do not. They must be empathetic, nurturing, “likable.” But if they are, they risk being accused of lacking leadership qualities and strength. If they’re strong, they are accused of being cold and calculating. Imagine under these circumstances a woman trying to become president without calculating.                                       Women running for office, and in business, face the daunting challenge of being strong without losing their ability to be liked. Somehow, lack of “likability” is a deal-breaker for women.      Just imagine a woman leaving a trail of burned bridges, like Ted Cruz. In his case, it’s a sign of his commitment to principles. A woman could never get away with that. Or imagine her insulting her way through a presidential campaign, a la Trump. But a woman can’t quite tell it like it is, because then she is too harsh. This is a challenge for Clinton. While she is not a natural campaigner, she is saddled with trying to pull off the impossible juggling act of reconciling the conflicting demands that women face.
The job of voters is to look beyond gender and tone of voice to the policy ideas, to the temperament, to the intelligence, to the qualifications. I don’t agree with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who declared at one Clinton campaign rally that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Women, in fact, should be free to choose among the candidates. But like all voters, they should ensure that sexism does not waft in to cloud their judgment. The same warning applies to the workplace and especially to men.      Think about it, write back if you wish. Best, Bill Rudolph

The Formative Years

Shalom.   I went to Jewish summer camps from age 8 through my college years. “Jewish” usually meant that all the kids were Jewish, there was no pork and there were Shabbat services. At the camp in Peekskill NY that I attended the longest, they distributed candy bars after the Adon Olam on Shabbat morning. I still salivate when we get to that closing hymn. Later on I worked on the waterfront and led services myself at several camps. Ask me sometime about lighting Shabbat candles on an open field.
Why am I talking about camp now and not the primaries? I think we need a break from the latter, too depressing. Let’s think summer instead. It’s the time of year when non Type A families are drilling down on their summer plans, and I hope camp is in the mix. There are great day camps and overnight camps in the area and I am happy to talk with anyone interested. If your kids go, they might grow up to be good Jews, and they might be famous. How so?
I share a piece from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It starts by observing that overnight Jewish camp has been credited with doing a lot of good — from fostering Jewish identity to teaching young Jews how to dominate Color War. But is it a proving ground for future stardom? Perhaps, says the JTA. They offer up eight famous Jews, cultivated from a long list, who spent their childhood summers at a Jewish camp.
Neil Diamond. Jewish camp was a formative experience for the legendary songwriter, who attended Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, New York. “I fell in love with folk music at Surprise Lake Camp. It was the songs of Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. I learned them by taking guitar lessons at 15. I started taking piano at 16,” he told The Wall Street Journal last year. Other famous Jewish alumni of the same camp include Eddie Cantor, Larry King, Gene Simmons, Jerry Stiller, Joseph Heller, Neil Simon and Walter Matthau.
Sheryl Sandberg. The Facebook COO and influential “Lean In” author spent summers at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia. She had a blast there, she said in a video last year. “Camp was really important for me in understanding what it meant to be Jewish, what Jewish values were, why it mattered to have a Jewish identity,” Sandberg said.
Ralph Lauren. Before he became a billionaire fashion designer, Ralph Lauren (nee Lifshitz) spent time at Camp Massad in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. His fellow Camp Massad alumni include Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and political activist Noam Chomsky; I might add that on most matters there couldn’t be two more diametrically opposed Jews than those two.
Seth Rogen. The comedic, whose parents met on a kibbutz, enjoyed his time at the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement’s Camp Miriam in Vancouver so much that he appeared in a promotional video for the Canadian camp in 2009. “Shalom. Go to Machane [Hebrew for ‘camp’] Miriam because I did,” Rogen said. “And for many other reasons.”
Matisyahu, The formerly Hasidic reggae rapper went to Kutsher’s Camp Anawana in Monticello, New York, before it closed in the early 1990s. Since then, he has performed at multiple Jewish camps. “Jewish camp is a comfortable and accepting place for all children to explore their Jewish identity,” he said in 2012.
The Coen Brothers. They often produce movies too dark for my tastes, but the acclaimed film directors did go to Herzl Camp in northwestern Wisconsin. In 2014, NPR’s Terry Gross asked the Coens about their camp experience and got a candid response. “Is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?” Gross asked. “No,” replied one of the Coens. “It was a Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.”
Natalie Portman. The Israeli-born Academy Award-winning actress once attended the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts, which was formed by and now partially funded by UJA-Federation of New York.
Ben Bernanke. The former Federal Reserve chairman has said his summer at Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York — which relocated over time and evolved into today’s Camp Ramah in New England to which we in Bethesda are tied — gave him a chance to practice his Hebrew. “It was a good experience for me, as there were relatively few Jewish young people in the town (Dillon, South Carolina) where I grew up, and the summer gave me a chance to be immersed in a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking environment (although my modern Hebrew wasn’t that good — I had learned biblical Hebrew from my grandfather.)”
Fun to hear this, better if you take it seriously for your kids or grandkids. Do write back with your greatest camp memories, or to ask for recommendations. Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Joke submitted by a reader following recent column, actually an old Gary Larson cartoon: Three goldfish in a bowl, with Mamma Goldfish looking in on two children goldfish in their beds. One of the kids cries out, “Mom, “Theron’s dried his bed again.”