Author Archives: Bill Rudolph

About Bill Rudolph

Bill Rudolph is the Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda Maryland, and Chief rabbi of Warrenton Virginia. His blog, It's Wednesday, had hundreds of followers back in the day. He is back to blogging now.

Blitzed

A steady dose of Trump is exhausting, and I commiserate with the writer who said “I am giving up Trump for Lent.” Trump has surely empowered the press, at least what I read, with the Times calling him a liar in a big font, and one commentator describing him as “volatile, irrational and vindictive.” These are unprecedented times. Let me do my Passover version of Lent and choose a different topic – a new book about Hitler and the Nazis that is getting a lot of press and that really captured my attention. Some see scary parallels between the Nazi era and what we have in America today, but I think and hope there is no real comparison.

The book, “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany,” by Norman Ohler, a Berlin novelist doing his first non fiction, gives shocking new focus to the extent that the Third Reich was fueled by drugs – all sorts of drugs, and in stupefying quantities. Millions of doses of what we call crystal meth, packaged as pills, were gobbled up in battles throughout the war, part of an officially sanctioned factory-to-front campaign against fatigue. Hopped-up soldiers would sprint tirelessly through the Ardennes at the onset of war, an adrenalized performance that left Winston Churchill “dumbfounded,” as he wrote in his memoirs. A German general would later gloat that his men had stayed awake for 17 straight days. Maybe an exaggeration, but surely the early phases of the war saw turbocharged campaigns in much of Europe.

The most vivid portrait of abuse and withdrawal in “Blitzed” is actually that of Hitler, who for years was regularly injected by his personal physician with powerful opiates, like Eukodal, a brand of oxycodone once praised by William S. Burroughs as “truly awful.” For a few undoubtedly euphoric months, Hitler was also getting swabs of high-grade cocaine, in a sedation and stimulation combo that Mr. Ohler likens to a “classic speedball.” Added to this was his ongoing regimen of injected vitamins, hormones and steroids, which included extracts from the hearts and livers of animals; starting in the summer of 1943 came the opiates. “There are all these stories of party leaders coming to complain about their bombed-out cities,” Mr. Ohler said, “and Hitler just says: ‘We’re going to win. These losses make us stronger.’ And the leaders would say: ‘He knows something we don’t know. He probably has a miracle weapon.’ He didn’t have a miracle weapon. He had a miracle drug, to make everyone think he had a miracle weapon.” Mr. Ohler believes that Hitler’s drug consumption prolonged the war, by enabling his delusions.

I was struck by how sad and scary this story is, a whole army and its leader on a steady diet of heavy drugs that overrode normal functioning. What caught my attention and has more general relevance was what I found or didn’t find in the reviews of the Ohler book. It seems that the Nazis were not the only ones whose armies were under the influence. The Post says that methamphetamines were used by various armies during World War II as stimulants to aid fatigued soldiers. In 2014, the outnumbered and outgunned forces of the Islamic State staged their own blitzkrieg attack across Syria and Iraq, with professional armies melting away before them in retreat. It was later discovered that many fighters had been taking a methamphetamine called Captagon. Other reviewers don’t talk at all about this more widespread reality. I suppose it doesn’t fit their narrative.

In the case of the Nazis, I don’t mind a narrative that makes their evil seem unique, because I believe it was. In other cases, and we see it all around us today, narratives are pretty rigid and there is little openness to alternative possibilities. “Alternative truths” we decry, for sure, but not much place is given to real alternative viewpoints or narratives. We read or watch the news outlets that agree with our viewpoint, and they don’t try very hard to be balanced. This polarized reality has many victims, which is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, ponder all this at a time where calling out injustice and keeping an open mind are just a few of the challenges that face good citizens. Best, Bill Rudolph

Anti-Humanism

Purim, now in the rear view mirror, is a fun holiday but “lurking” behind it is the confrontation with anti-Semitism that never seems to end. Lately, here in America, we have seen it revive with the spate of bomb threats at JCC’s and the defacing of Jewish cemeteries. I don’t usually talk about this subject but it’s time to do so, sharing two colleague’s perspectives on this issue, one 40 years old and one written last week. This will be longer than my usual blogpost but it’s important and can’t be stated briefly.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech was an Orthodox shul rabbi in Oceanside and also wrote the famous The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism. 40 years ago the Jews of Oceanside woke up on Yom Kippur to find vandalization and curses painted at the entrance of all the local synagogues. He wrote at the time that when he heard the news reports saying that “a rash of anti-Semitic incidents struck Oceanside yesterday,” he thought, “wait a moment.” Were Semites the victims of prejudice or was it every member of society who values democratic ideals and the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Wasn’t the collective fabric of a free and ethical society torn by these actions, not just one group? And he said it would have been better stated that “a rash of anti-human incidents struck Oceanside yesterday.”

Fast forward to today in America. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, up the road in Baltimore, wrote last week that he didn’t understand what Rabbi Blech was teaching then – why universalize the issue? curse words weren’t written on churches – but does now. We Jews are not in danger in America. It’s America that is in danger. Those who are making the bomb threats and defacing the cemeteries likely didn’t recently become anti-Semites and don’t just hate Jews. They have probably been filled with hate most of their lives, but (and here is where it gets serious) they didn’t think they could express it. Only when they heard America talking about things in public that they had only talked about in private: bad hombres and rapists coming in from Mexico … spies coming in amongst Syrian refugees … blacks and carnage … terrorism being perpetrated by illegal immigrants … Muslims imposing Sharia law … the LGBTQ community taking over our bathrooms – when this kind of talk becomes public discourse then “the rats feel comfortable coming out of the sewers.”

It’s not surprising that in this climate Jews would not be left out of the discussion. Do you really think the killer of a man from India in Kansas wouldn’t have been just as content killing a Jew?  Jews are the eternal “other.”  It was Haman who gave the Jews that title when he advocated our annihilation to the king by saying: “There is one people scattered amongst the people in all the provinces of your realm, v’datayhem shonot – and their laws are different.”  And who wants to be around people who are different? Rabbi Blech was right!  What we are experiencing is not anti-Semitic incidents but anti-human incidents.  Hatred of a Jew is irrational.  And hating a person because of the color of his skin is rational?  Or because of the country from which she comes?  Or because of the religion he practices?  Hating someone because he or she is different, is an “other” … does that make any sense?  And what about the Biblical verse: “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us? “

I think we are all in this together.  If it seems that here in America it is we Jews who are most under attack right now, probably because we are the most visible amongst the “others.”  And we are not just visible, we are powerful!  We are all over the newspapers and television and Hollywood.  The other “others” are usually the less educated, the less affluent.  We are the more educated, the more affluent.  And that makes them hate us even more!  But, don’t kid yourselves: They hate us all!

We would do well to remember the immortal words spoken by the great Protestant minister, Martin Niemoller, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.  You all know the words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yes, all us “others” are in this together.  None of us, as humans, are safe.  This means that in the years ahead we Jews are going to have to work with the other “others” – blacks, gays, refugees and yes, Muslims.  I didn’t always see that so clearly. Now I do. Hopefully you do too.                                                         Best, Bill Rudolph

Flip Flopping

Shalom: Having trouble with my blog mechanics, hope you can read this.

With so much focus on the news from and about this new administration, let me share my relevant dilemma. For the last many years, it has been a constant challenge for me to determine which newspaper, the Post or the Times, gets me more upset. Not so much in general, though their perspective is pretty consistently “left” – as is mine on most issues – so that apart from an occasional op ed to try to show balance, I don’t think we are getting “the news.” Rather my angst, discussed over the years in It’s Wednesday, is specific to their coverage of Israel and related issues. I read the Times online, and receive the Post in home delivery. I can’t really cancel the former, but there have been dozens of times that the Post drove me to exasperation and immediate cancellation plans (which were overridden by my wife.) Both papers are in IMHO so biased in their coverage of Israel, in what they cover and don’t cover and how often they think Israel is wrong no matter what it does or doesn’t do. If I had a dart board, photos of William Booth or Roger Cohen or Tom Friedman would be obliterated by now. I think the lessening of support for Israel that we are seeing, certainly on the left, can be placed much more squarely at the feet of media like these than policies of Israel’s government. That upsets me.
Funny thing, though, lately I have been loving the Times and the Post. That, of course, is because they have taken on our new President in frontal ways that make me want to cheer. Now, all the sudden, I love their perspective which I think is so correct and so needed in the face of (not so much Trump’s conservative approach but) his intolerance and constant lying and narcissism and character assassination and you name it. Without the press, the occasional demonstration or rally notwithstanding, there wouldn’t be much of a voice in opposition to the transformation in the character and core values of this nation that Trump is commanding, purposefully or not, and in the vulgar way he is attempting it.
But I don’t feel good about loving those papers now either. I look in the mirror and I see a flip flopper. What does the flip flop say about me? A fair weather fan of the media and who knows what else? That I like what the media says as long as it agrees with my views, and no further, and that I can turn against or towards it in the bat of an eye? Something about this makes me uncomfortable. Maybe consistency is no longer a possible way to live our lives in this difficult time, but it doesn’t feel at all right.
Help me figure this out if you can. Best regards. Bill Rudolph


Disrupter in Chief

This for me is a stretch of the semi-retirement benefit called getting out of town to warmer places. The blog has been irregular as a result, for which I ask your forgiveness.
Our Middle School President, as I am want to call him because his functioning is about on that level, is also called The Disrupter in Chief. He is causing lots of sleep problems for most people I know. I don’t need to ask which actions have caused each of us the most consternation and/or pain, the list is so long. From his Cabinet appointees, many of whom oppose the mission of their department, to the immigration orders, to his attacks on the judiciary or the CIA or Nordstrom or you name it.

I have one piece of analysis and one recommendation. The analysis is that part of what is going on is too much change. Change comes slowly to us. When we just try another melody for the Adon Olam, don’t think it goes by unnoticed, and the stakes there are not so high. Trump is producing lots of change, some of which we might even appreciate (eg. a reset in the U.S. relationship with Israel) if it wasn’t coming at us at such a rapid fire rate. It is disquieting to say the least. My doctor shared with me the theory that it is a carefully designed plan to bombard us with so much change that we tune it out and it can go forward unnoticed. I am not sure it’s that Machiavellian – I don’t give the WH leadership that much credit – but a slower pace would be a wise idea (in case anybody is listening.) There is no time to process this way, and negative responses are almost guaranteed especially given the content of most of the changes.

My recommendation is about how to make it through these difficult days. It is a three part strategy:

1. We develop an “expect the worst” attitude towards each day. That we assume upsetting announcements will be forthcoming from the WH and not be shocked by them. It’s not a mindset that we have been practicing before, but it seems needed now.

2. With this new mindset we are not, as it might appear, allowed to ignore the news or be inured to injustice, far from it. Activism may be more necessary than in any recent time. The people need to speak. Activism can be attached to a major cause, like the immigration ban or whatever reincarnation follows, through public demonstrations or by personal outreach to Muslims and immigrants that we know. Or it can be as simple an act as going out of our way to shop at Nordstrom and letting the salespeople know why. Doing something, not just agonizing, is good therapy and more.

3. We not watch/read the news after about 9PM, chances of a good night’s sleep will increase.

Share with me your strategies. Best regards and prayers for our country. Bill Rudolph

Are We Smarter?

Last time I wrote about Warren Harding and fears of a repeat of the intolerance of that time. The fears may be justified. Besides that, I cannot keep up with the whirl of events that is our new President’s first days in office, nor do I want to spend every waking hour stressing about it, which is easy to do. I will please or disappoint you by changing the subject, trying to maintain some sense that the usual questions are still of interest.

My question this week is whether we Jews are smarter than other people. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t provable. I am not sure what all the Nobel Prizes prove. What is provable is how much we value education. Maybe you saw the December release of the Pew Research Center’s latest study, one of educational attainment among people of different religions across the globe. We Jews are the world’s most educated religious group, shout the headlines (at least in the Jewish press.) We have an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling. The global average is 7.7 years. Christians average 9.3 years of schooling, while the “unaffiliated” ( they don’t identify as religious) come in at 8.8. Hindus and Muslims 5.6. Buddhists 7.9.

What does it all mean? Part is just geography: most Jews live in the U.S. or Israel where there is a high level of education overall. 98% of Hindus on the other hand live in developing countries. But it’s not just geography: Jews in Brazil average 12.5 years of schooling, nearly twice that of non Jewish Brazilians.

There are many little subplots here: one is the Muslims in Israel whose younger generations have added four years of education to the older generation’s average, or we see the opposite among Jewish men in the U.S. as so many of the Orthodox go to yeshiva year after year and only 37% have formal higher education (vs. 77% for the older Orthodox men.) The full study can be seen at pewforum.org.

What, again, does it all mean? We (still) take education seriously. At least those who identify with the Jewish religion, though I suspect that the numbers for Jews who consider themselves Jewish but not by religion are not so different. I think this is something to be proud of. But not too proud, because – you guessed it- when it comes time for learning about the religious tradition that seems to make us want to learn, we are not doing so well. We are looking at maybe 7.0 years of formal education on the average, and that only for a few hours/week. We pay a price for that. Jews who are highly educated but have a 13 year old’s knowledge of Judaism will almost certainly feel ignorant or uncomfortable in many Jewish settings and try to avoid them. Regardless, it can’t be that our religion encourages us to take education seriously when we have so little contact with it. I am left with no answer to my question. Maybe you can help me.

Next time, barring the unforeseen, we do more demography. I hope you can wait. Best regards.        Bill Rudolph

On the Eve of the Inauguration

With the inauguration just hours away, and many of us on edge about what lies ahead, we might want to look back to another inauguration, that of Warren G. Harding, in early 1921. Jonathan Sarna, not long ago a Beth El Scholar in Residence and arguably the dean of historians of the American Jewish experience, reminds us of the hatred that accompanied and followed Harding’s election, with an eerily familiar ring.

“America First.” “Return to Normalcy.” These were some of the slogans in Harding’s campaign. He represented a sharp break from the previous administration, the liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His election was soon followed by the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, limiting the total number of immigrants for the first time in U.S. history and placing quotas from countries like Poland and Russia where Jews were hoping to escape the reality that followed the Russian Revolution. At the same time, more immigrants than ever were deported for politic views. Rings any bells? “The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession,” complained Louis Marshall, the unofficial leader of American Jewry at the time.

Hatred was not confined to foreigners. Domestically, antipathy towards blacks, Catholics, Jews and others surged. The KKK flourished, with a membership of close to 5 million white males in a total U.S. population of only about 106 million. Catholic parochial schools were banned in many cities and in the whole state of Oregon. Discrimination in university admissions hit Jews especially, and clubs and hotels and resorts shut out Jews completely. And Henry Ford, one of the great anti-semites in all of U.S. history and one of Harding’s premier supporters, spewed his hatred of Jews and the “international Jewish conspiracy.” It was not Nazi Germany, for sure, and we don’t expect Trump’s election to lead to anything like that either. Nonetheless, we are chilled when bomb threats are called into dozens of JCC’s, Nazi graffiti appears on walls of schools and public buildings and Jewish homes, and a climate of intolerance for most if not all minorities seems to be gaining ground.

Three strategies were utilized back in the Harding period. One, Jews assisted and supported one another. Two, Jews fought back, with PR campaigns and books and articles exposing and rebutting anti-semitic charges – even causing Henry Ford to issue an apology in 1927 for “resurrecting exploded fictions.” And, third, Jews joined up with other groups like the NAACP and Catholic school officials in legal battles of all kinds, allies working together.

Prof. Sarna says that the most remarkable thing is that, despite all the negativity of this period, Jews managed to thrive in many ways. Economically, they took advantage of a rising stock market and built opulent synagogues and institutions like Yeshiva University. Deborah Dash Moore argues that during the 1920s Jews actually “became at home in America.” The hatred unleashed following Harding’s election worked in the end to make the American Jewish community stronger. One wonders what lies ahead for us, and other minorities, and our country as a whole.

Ponder this and hope, as I do, for silver linings in a pretty cloudy four year forecast. Bill Rudolph

Melting Pot or Orchestra?

Recently a colleague’s daughter suggested that he reconsider the distinctive blessings that he (and many of us) gives to boys and girls at Friday night services or dinners, since there are those whose genders are still emerging or don’t fall neatly into biblical categories and shouldn’t they receive God’s blessings as well? The colleague, Elliot Cosgrove, writing in the Jerusalem Post months ago, was struck by this question, and mused about it in ways I have been contemplating as discussions of issues like gender and intermarriage happen for me at least almost daily. In real ways, the two are not different issues.

Issues like gender and intermarriage are just a piece of larger discussions on boundaries and inclusion and how we navigate between the two. On the one hand, “identity politics” have become more and more charged, as every subgroup stands vigilant against any “micro-aggression” that somehow offends its distinct stature and sensibility. In our time, everyone must be validated in their identities whatever they may be. Spend a few moments on college campuses and you will see this. At the same time, we are living in a post-gendered, post-ethnic, post-everything world; young people look askance at assigned or inherited social identities and the notion of erecting boundaries of any sort is totally displeasing. The intermarriage discussion fits well here – why can’t we marry anyone we want to, our kids ask, whatever their ethnicity, religion, gender? Didn’t you teach us to treat everyone the same?

What does all this mean for the Jewish community in America? Trouble, or a challenge, depending on our mood. There are two historical answers: Israel Zangwill (100+ years ago) in his play The Melting Pot had a grand vision of America as God’s crucible, where the diversity of its immigrants would melt away into one common identity. Not everyone liked that vision, Rabbi Judah Magnes among them; he saw it as suicide for the Jewish community. The counter narrative comes from the likes of Horace Kallen (in my lifetime) – America is like an orchestral symphony in which “every instrument has its specific timbre and tonality.” We must embrace the other all the while retaining our own particularity.

Our time, you have probably figured out, is not the time of the melting pot or the orchestra. It’s a new era, and we are still figuring it out. But we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines while the discussion rages. In our post-everything world of unending validation, we have to retain/retrieve the language of difference. Jews must opt for particularism over universalism, collectivism over individualism. That may sound “old school.” Inclusiveness is nice, but we are in the business of building Jewish identities, Jewish homes and Jewish families. In that business, not every choice is equally OK. We need to find a new language both affirming our liberalism and maintaining that not all life-style choices are equal. As Cosgrove puts it, we need to find “a language of tribalism without triumphalism, affiliation without parochialism, peoplehood without ethnocentrism.” It’s not easy, to be sure. It’s a narrow path to walk. But do we have a choice?

Let me know your thoughts. Best, Bill Rudolph