Picasso and Cezanne

Having just joined our Empty Nesters group for the Theater J play “Everything is Illuminated,” based on the 2002 bestseller of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece called “Late Bloomers.” I love and quote Gladwell almost as much as Rabbi Harold Kushner. Here is what he wrote in 2008 on this topic, very condensed.

We equate genius with precocity. “Doing something creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” Examples: Orson Wells wrote and produced “Citizen Kane” at age 25, Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick” at 32; Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major at 21; T.S. Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at 23. But wait.

An economist at the U of Chicago, David Galenson, decided to see if there is any truth to this equation. Looking on the literary side, at the most frequently mentioned poems in anthologies published over a few decades, the top eleven were composed at the ages of 23, 41, 48, 40, 29, 30, 30, 28, 38, 42, and 59. The same spread was true of film – think Orson Welles peaking at 25 and Alfred Hitchcock producing “Dial M for Murder” and 6 other greats (including “Psycho”) between his 54th and 61st birthdays. The two examples that Galenson couldn’t get out of his mind were Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso painted many of the greatest works of his career between 20 and 26. Cezanne’s masterpieces, though he started painting almost as early as Picasso, were mostly done in his mid sixties. He was a “late bloomer.”

Gladwell sees prodigies as “conceptual,” starting with a clear idea of where they want to go and then executing it. Late bloomers tend to work the other way around – their approach is “experimental.” Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental; it takes them a long time to produce well, and rarely do they feel they have succeeded. Lots of trial and error. So, Cezanne made his art dealer sit for a portrait for 3 1/2 hours without a break on 150 occasions and then abandoned the portrait. Mark Twain was the same way, trial and error – “Huckleberry Finn” took nearly a decade to complete. This kind of creativity takes a long time to come to fruition.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the prodigy. A local boy who came by writing accidentally. Lots of energy – Gladwell says when talking with him you feel that “if you touched him while in full conversational flight you would get an electric shock.” “Illuminated” is the story that came out of his journey to find his roots in a small town in the Ukraine called Trachimbrod. He had no idea that the journey would be a springboard for a novel or that it would start him on the road to being one of the distinctive literary voices of our generation. It just happened. Total time spent getting inspiration for his book: 3 days. Writing: 300 pages in 10 weeks. No trials or experiments. He was 19 years old.

I, your faithful servant, am not creative in anywhere near the ways that the quoted literary and artistic greats were/are. Nowhere near. But if there was a track to what I achieved, it was as a late bloomer, learning in tentative and incremental ways how to do things so that later in life I actually accomplished much more than earlier, and I seem not to be done. What about you?

Good food for thought. Read Gladwell (or Foer) for more. Best, Bill Rudolph


Be Proud

This blog moves, as it follows my reading list, from American sports fans to the high stakes “battle” between science and religion. 96% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. That pride doesn’t always translate into action, like living a Jewish life, but I want to reinforce it nonetheless.

Dan Brown’s latest historical fiction (think The Da Vinci Code) is a best seller called Origin. Its protagonist is a billionaire computer scientist, futurist and inventor named Edmond Kirsch who thinks he has found the answer to the two big questions at the heart of human experience: where did it all begin? where are we going? His answers will fulfill his life goal, which is “to employ the truth of science to eradicate the myth of religion.” The event at which he reveals his very controversial findings, and the days immediately before and after it, are at the heart of the action. I don’t want to give too much away in this very engaging read.

What struck me was how Kirsch portrays the struggle of learning and science to establish themselves in the face of push back from the major religions. Thus. while the Muslim world was the world’s greatest center of learning for many centuries, with great intellectual exploration and discovery taking place in and around places like Baghdad for centuries, the 11th century scholar Hamid al Ghazali declared mathematics to be the “philosophy of the devil” and within a very short time the entire Islamic scientific movement collapsed. (You could say it is still collapsed – note in our time how few Nobel Prizes have gone to scholars from the Muslim world.)

The Christian scientific world met the same resistance. Kirsch points to the Church’s systematic murder, imprisonment and denunciation of some of history’s most brilliant scientific minds (think Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno) that delayed human scientific progress by centuries.

What is interesting to me is that Judaism isn’t targeted by Kirsch (or Brown) in this narrative. That is because Jewish tradition saw science and Judaism as manifestations of the same divine truth. The rabbis of the Talmud even used science in legal decision making– using astronomical calculations to create the Jewish calendar–and referenced many of the scientific theories of their time.  And we think of Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker ever and a physician by day, who strove to integrate Judaism and science, going so far as to assert that if the eternity of the universe was proven though science he would reinterpret the biblical passages figuratively to bring them in line with scientific truth. Some famous quotes from the Ramban: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’ and you will progress.” Or, “you must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”

Look at our list of Nobel Prize winners some time, and be proud that we are a people and faith that isn’t afraid of truth. Best to you and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph


Sports and Religion

Lately I have been trying the “block out the WH news” method called “reading books.” I reported on Isaacson’s study of Leonardo Da Vinci last time, before that I read Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, just finished Dan Brown’s Origin about which I will write soon and Sid Groeneman’s America’s Sports Fans and Their Teams: Who Roots for Whom and Why about which I write right now.

The sports fan book is written by one of my favorite congregants, even if our theology and politics don’t always align. When a congregant writes a book, I should read it, especially if it about a subject of personal interest. I am a good sports fan, have been that even when the distraction it provides was not as necessary. Sid is a survey specialist by trade, and the book reflects that and answers many of the questions that sports fans often ask themselves – who roots for which teams and why, which sports draw the most fan interest, do demographics of age or birthplace feature prominently in sport or team favorites, etc.

What interested me most, no surprise, was Sid’s comparisons of sports with religion. Chip Scarinzi, in a book on fandom, says that “sports and religion both serve to bring like-minded people together in celebration of oneness and community.” Michael Novak contends that “sports owe more to the ritual of grammar of religion than to the laws and forms of entertainment.” Michael Mandelbaum observes how both sports and religion “address the needs of the spirit and the psyche rather than those of the flesh… and both stand outside the working world.” He comments how watching team sports provides three things that before the modern age only religion offered: “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.” With church attendance diminishing in most places while sports fandom (real and fantasy) has been expanding, maybe there is a substitution taking place? Sid is not so sure, I hope he is right. In any case, my fervor for religion and for sports may make sense.

Allegiances to sports teams can be as strong as adherence to one’s faith. Groeneman quotes one Red Sox fan, a Catholic, who was asked if she could ever imagine herself rooting for a different team. “It’s kind of like the Catholic Church for me. I’m not entirely happy with the church right now, just as I’m occasionally angry at the team’s owners. But I could never leave.”

Allegiances do change though, with teams even with sports. Baseball is now far from the “national pastime,” football is that for sure, and right now a few more people follow tennis than golf, and more blacks watch tennis than whites.

I am just scratching the surface here. If these questions interest you too, do check out the book. And may your religion and your sports both give you pleasure and community and inspiration in the new year. Shabbat Shalom and best regards.     Bill Rudolph


Happy 2018. Last time (it was 2017) we talked about the worrisome trends in American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. I traced the growing alienation back to Menachem Begin but there is plenty of stuff that has happened since. You wrote back with some great and deep comments. I see there is a lot to this topic, and so I have signed on to teach a whole Scolnic Institute course this spring on the very subject of Israel – American Jewry relations. Sorry that you will have to wait and sign up to get more background and learn why I think the alienation matters and how it can be remedied.

Over winter break, spent shivering here and in NYC, I read Walter Isaacson’s best seller on Leonardo da Vinci. You may remember that Isaacson’s study of Albert Einstein was the subject of a whole series of It’s Wednesdays back in the day, so I obviously resonate with his biographies.

Da Vinci, which isn’t really a name, was a true Renaissance Man, maybe he defined that term. Besides painting – think The Last Supper and Mona Lisa which really impress with Isaacson’s insights – his intricate work on human anatomy was centuries ahead of its time, and he delved in the most creative ways into diverse matters such as astrology and architecture and military equipment and royal pageantry and you name it. He was a true genius. As Schopenhauer put it, “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” He had his quirks too, don’t we all?

I think it worthwhile to share what Isaacson thinks we can learn from Leonardo, which might help guide us as we chart our course for the new secular year. Here are just a few of the lessons:
Be curious
Seek knowledge for its own sake
Retain a childlike sense of wonder
Observe carefully
Get distracted
Procrastinate ( creativity requires time)
Let the perfect be the enemy of the good (he carried around his greatest paintings for years so they could be touched up and be great not just good)
Avoid silos (eg. he saw no distinction between art and science)
Collaborate (his work was done in the company of artists and thinkers)
Make lists (a la Jefferson, another of the rabbi’s heroes)

Much food for thought. Let’s aim to embrace at least a few of these lessons as we start 2018, hoping for better domestic and world news in the new calendar year. Bill Rudolph

Menachem Begin

Let’s talk more about Israel. Last week it was the Embassy move, which thankfully didn’t bring about WWIII. Was it part of some master plan? It will be a long time before an Embassy building appears in Jerusalem, so maybe we can worry about other things, specifically the growing and troubling alienation of American Jewry from Israel. Is it just about Netanyahu and the Kotel, or is it more, and is it reversible, and does it matter?

Pew reported on this in its famous 2013 portrait of American Jewry. While overall feelings of attachment to Israel haven’t changed much in the first decade and a half of this century (there isn’t much data before that), the trends are worrisome: Jews by religion care much more about Israel than secular Jews but the latter represent a bigger and bigger percentage of American Jewry, and older Jews are more likely than younger Jews to see caring about Israel as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, and the older are not going to be around or influential that long.

My thesis is that American Jews’ souring on Israel goes back much further. McGill Prof. Gil Troy wrote back in May with his view that the alienation began almost forty years ago with the election of Menachem Begin, the first non Labor PM ever. The Six Day War ten years earlier had transformed Israel into American Jewry’s fantasy land – the land of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan-like sabra soldiers and (at the same time) good values and wistful songs of peace. It was close to an American-Jewish liberal fantasy. Many of us remember those days. The rightward shift a decade later made Israel seem strange again, even vaguely embarrassing. Begin was courtly and eloquent but he had an Old Testament kind of fury. He was an Old Jew not a New Jew, the kind who won arguments not wars. His Israel was one of settlements not kibbutzim, of Sephardim not Ashkenazim, of right not left. Even his making peace with Anwar Sadat didn’t change the sense that American Jews, especially liberal ones, had lost their storybook, summer camp Israel.

There was also, regrettably, another tension, close to prejudice. Mostly white and Ashkenazi and upper middle class, American Jews couldn’t quite love Begin’s rougher, gruffer, poorer and darker Israel. Were those people our kind of people? Many of us yearned for “our grandfather’s Israel” not this one.

A lot has happened since – scuffles with American Presidents, the Goldstone Report, “Who is a Jew” controversies, Post and Times coverage in which Israel is almost always wrong. The finding that overall American Jewish support for Israel (see Pew) hovers around 70% is amazing. But the trends are worrisome. Next time I will try to show why the alienation matters, and – since Israel probably isn’t going to be our fantasy-land ever again – is the alienation fixable.

In the meantime, happy last day of Chanukah. I hope it was a good holiday for you and that you have good plans for winter break. Best, Bill Rudolph

Does It Make Any Sense?

Al Franken, one of the main subjects of my previous blogpost, is gone. Was the rule of three the deciding blow? Probably not. I will write about this again soon, kind of waiting to see what happens in Alabama. Right now the big news on our radar has been the Embassy move to Jerusalem. So, for my attempt at understanding all that you and I have read about it in a concise way, here are two possibilities:

Possibility one: Trump hasn’t really weighed the need for the move, or its predictable violent consequences, or considered whether the Israelis really think it’s important and want to pay the price of terror that will result, or whether the quiet diplomacy among Arab leaders that seems so promising might be derailed if the move causes them domestic problems. He wanted to pay off Sheldon Adelson and the evangelicals, and he wanted to show he is no Obama, and who really knows what he was thinking? Trump being Trump.

Possibility two: Trump listened to his advisors, especially the two trying to negotiate a deal between Israel and the Palestinians who are coming up empty handed, and made the move to show the Palestinians that they can’t keep doing nothing in the peace process and expect Israel to make all the concessions, and that the threat of violence won’t anymore stop us from doing things such as an Embassy move that was legislated more than twenty years ago. Maybe this tough love will produce a more willing partner for peace.

Most world leaders, and much of the media, think the first possibility is operative and have slammed the move, saying in often very strong language that it’s dangerous and will interfere with the peace process. There are a few exceptions, especially in parts of the Jewish community that we might call more conservative. For me, I WOULD LIKE TO THINK that this is a rather clever move to break the stalemate in the peace process, which in all honesty does not exist anyway. Abbas sat in the same room with Netanyahu all of four hours during the Obama eight years. The move would send a message to the Palestinians that the long painful era of America acting as their “impartial” intermediary with Israel is over. And it would send a further message, that the fear of violence will not be a reason to keep the status quo, since Israel’s very existence is enough provocation for violence. But I am a realist too, with a very low regard for Trump in general and specifically his ability (or interest) in thinking things through, so it’s more likely that we are operating with possibility one. That is scary, and I hope I am wrong.

Let me know what you think, and if there is a third possibility. And let’s hope the violent reactions continue to be moderate – maybe the Arab street is more worried about Iran? – and that the Embassy move doesn’t become the negative game changer that some predict.  And, in the meantime, let us all have a happy Chanukah.   Best, Bill Rudolph

Sexual Harassment, What Else?

I resonated to a Times column by Michelle Goldberg, 11/20, when Al Franken was that week’s top newsmaker in the never-ending and sad sex harassment story. I quote: “It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal. Learning about all the seemingly good guys who do shameful things is what makes this moment, with its frenzied pace of revelations, so painful and confounding. Personally [Goldberg continues], I’m torn by competing impulses. I want to see sexual harassment finally taken seriously but fear participating in a sex panic. My instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker.”

And later in her piece, “Adding to the confusion is the way so many different behaviors are being lumped together. Weinstein’s sadistic serial predation isn’t comparable to Louis C.K.’s exhibitionism. The groping Franken has been accused of isn’t in the same moral universe as Moore’s alleged sexual abuse of minors. It seems perverse that Franken could be on his way out of the Senate while Moore might be on his way in.”

I think we all find this issue a painful and confounding one. Do I have anything new to say about it? Maybe about how we judge these matters, for which there are two rules that I would apply. First is the rule of three, taught to me by Congregant C, a very fine professional management coach. If you hear the same feedback from three different people, whether it’s positive or negative, you have to take it seriously. So, with Harvey Weinstein, for example, or Bill Cosby, an earlier example, there is more than ample reason to take the accusations seriously. But what about Al Franken, (just) two accusations last time I checked? Do we speak of the three of them in the same breath?

The other rule is the rule of one, taught to me by the Torah. Moses led the Jewish people, an obstinate stubborn complaining lot of ex-slaves, for forty years in the Wilderness. He responded to their many issues, he argued with God Who several times had had enough of their murmuring and wanted to start anew, and he made it all work under the most difficult conditions. But, in one brief moment, Moses lost his patience and struck a rock (to get water for his people) instead of speaking to it as commanded.. The result: no Promised Land for Moses. One single slip up in forty years! From this I learned that people in high places, as great or as important as they may be, don’t have any margin of error. Such is the price, says the Torah, for whatever glory or riches come with that high place. Not that Moses even had glory or riches.

Which rule do you like – the rule of three or the rule of one? Or maybe together they are the real rule? Something to ponder at this very perplexing time.         Best, Bill Rudolph