The Pre Passover Inbox ca. 2018

Passover is here. It is my second most favorite holiday after Sukkot. On the simplest level, building a sukkah and shaking a lulav is much easier than cleaning the cupboards to the last crumb and then going many days without some of my favorite foods (eg. bread without which a meal doesn’t seem like a meal.)

This year I have noticed what I think is a side effect of all the turmoil around the WH and domestic politics in general. In the past, before Pesach my Inbox always filled with Passover humor and music and stories and recipes, besides all the fundraising appeals that Jewish organizations generate around every excuse for an appeal. This year very little Pesach “enrichment” showed up. (Not to worry, the appeals were at their usual strength.) Why the change?

I don’t think Pesach is any less important. I think instead our energy is so focused on the drama that surrounds this WH, or in the resistance to the values this WH projects around issues like gun control and immigration, that we have little or no creative bandwidth left. If I am right, it’s then one more side effect of the angst that rules our land.

Interestingly, I have noticed that Passover enrichment that comes from our brothers and sisters in Israel has not diminished in quantity or quality. Israelis have their own angst, their own leadership turmoil, and security issues that we could not imagine tolerating, and yet they refuse to let all that serious static rule their lives.

What to do? Make Passover a time to park the angst and enjoy family and the blessings we all have. Think about when you had to ask the Four Questions. Share good memories of those who used to be at the table. Appreciate the amazing freedom we ex-slaves, we recent immigrants, enjoy here. We betray the memory of our ancestors, whether they were wandering through the Egyptian desert millennia ago, or making the trip from Europe to America on steamships only a century ago, if we forget where we too came from, and it wasn’t the Mayflower. Lastly, understand that there is a time and place for everything, that whatever resistance or campaigning or demonstrating or just plain bemoaning the current situation pulls on us all the time can be set aside for a few days to connect with our roots and our people, and then taken up again with renewed strength.

Best wishes for a chag Pesach sameach. Bill Rudolph

 

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Mortality

Last time I wrote about tempting fate. Nobody disagreed – maybe you were afraid to tempt fate by denying it?

I find myself reading obits a lot these days, not so much those in the Post but those in the local newspaper in Warrenton. Each obit is a few hundred words and each makes me a little sad even though I have yet to know one person noted. The data point that interests me the most, when I think about it, is how old they were, meaning what are my odds. Maybe it’s a phase, but the news this week won’t change that.

About 18 months ago I wrote about my brother’s sudden death and that the first cousins I grew up with (in a six block radius in West Philly) were down from 7 to 3, all but one my junior. On Monday, it went to 2. My cousin Rabbi Ozer Glickman died suddenly on the way home from his office at Yeshiva University. He had heart issues years back, but nothing would have hinted at this. He was 67, married with six children and the first of what will surely be many grandchildren tu tu tu.

Ozer, born Anthony Scott Glickman, was “Tony” growing up, but I guess that didn’t seem like a proper name for a Rosh Yeshiva. Tony was arguably the smartest of the seven of us. He graduated from Columbia and was ordained as a conservative rabbi, but then got more frum and ended in the Orthodox world, getting private semichah from leading rabbinic figures in Israel and the States and teaching at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) where he was a rosh yeshivah. He also had an MBA and was a wiz at business, so he taught at the Sy Syms School of Business and along the way was senior vice president of strategic risk management and global head of corporate treasury for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He was also adjunct at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. I told you he was no slouch, even if he was my little cousin.

Here is what the President of YU, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, wrote about my cousin: “Rabbi Ozer Glickman z”l was an intellectual giant who was steeped in Torah knowledge and well versed in multiple disciplines. He excelled at bringing Jewish values to bear on the challenges and opportunities of Jewish living in contemporary society. He was wholly devoted to the religious and personal well-being of his students. His loss is a tragedy for his family, Yeshiva University, and the entire Jewish people.”

I am proud to be Ozer’s cousin, he definitely raised our level. From all reports, he admired me more than I deserved, maybe because I was better at sports than he was 60 years ago, or maybe because he appreciated that I was the mature cousin who walked him and his sister to school. We had little contact for many years but more of late. Time with him was a trip. And now he is gone.

What does it all mean? I am a rabbi, I am supposed to know the answer to that question. I have lots of answers, but ultimately it’s hard to come to peace with mortality. I know, make every day count. I try to. Be grateful for what you have. I am. And it will be spring one day (I know it was yesterday) and I look forward to that, and to good memories of family now gone.        Best, Bill Rudolph

Tempting Fate?

I am not unaware of what is going on in the world, WH and beyond, but I think we owe it to ourselves to not only talk about that.

This will be one of my stranger posts. It starts from the toes on my right foot. I have a condition of some kind – sort of in the Raynaud’s category – which manifests itself mostly in winter though lately it’s more than that. It is mostly just irritation – I have to choose my shoes and socks and even flip-flops carefully or I have problems. It began ten years back, after my Inca Trail hike where those toes met up with the front of my shoe on the thousands of steps that characterize the Trail. I have been to many doctors – family practitioner, internist, pulmonologist, podiatrist, dermatologist, without a real solution. There weren’t many “ist’s” left but I did go to a rheumatologist in the fall and the second drug she prescribed really seemed to be the answer, even in winter. So about three weeks ago I wrote the doc a nice long note about my progress, with appreciation that she finally seems to have found the answer. Before that note even made it to her mailbox, I had a relapse, not quite back to zero but close. Why am I thinking if I had not written, the toes would have stayed good?

Here’s why. I have never forgotten the congregant who developed a serious cancer, with a bad prognosis. She endured major treatments and a long recovery but seemed to have beaten the disease. She rented a restaurant for a big dinner to thank all the people who supported her and her family over the many months. And, wouldn’t you know it, within a few weeks the cancer returned and she never recovered.

Not to compare the two cases, but I struggle to figure what it all means. Should we never dare to celebrate a recovery from illness? Is it dangerous to publicly (even in a note) express gratitude for having found a cure for an illness? It doesn’t feel right but why tempt fate? Or is it all coincidence?

Jewish tradition seems to be of two minds on this: it does include birkat hagomel, a public prayer of thanks recited during the Torah service for one who recovers from a serious illness or survives a near disaster. On the other hand, we have the semi official recitation of those endearing little phrases such as kinehura or tu tu tu. Those are all about avoiding the evil eye by prefacing statements of gratitude for health (or grandchildren) with a disclaimer, basically saying we are grateful but afraid to be too grateful because then Satan might notice and give us reason to regret being grateful.

All this feels so odd, especially for someone like me who believes strongly in approaching life with an attitude of gratitude. I don’t honestly know what to do. Am I the only one who has had such experiences? Any advice on this dilemma? Do write back and have a good day. Best, Bill Rudolph

Angst

Ron Chernow’s book about General/President Ulysses S. Grant is deservedly a best seller, lengthy but fascinating. I am learning all that I forgot or never learned about the periods before during and after the Civil War. Lincoln – maybe the greatest President. Grant – arguably the greatest General, and not as bad a President as most think, not beloved by the Jews re: General Order No.11 (probably an aberration) but a great champion of freedom and equality for African Americans. Andrew Johnson in between Lincoln and Grant – makes Jimmy Carter look good.

Anyway, the hint of joviality is only on the surface for me. The divisiveness represented by the War Between The States took a long time to be resolved, in ways it still lingers in the racism that never goes away. Removing statues or changing most of the street names in towns all over the south isn’t going to change the equation much, nor did a black President, and certainly Obama’s racist successor will keep fanning the flames.

Let me share my angst, fueled by the daily tweets from the WH and events like the school shooting in Florida. What I see now is actually a different civil war. On the one side reside racism, assault rifles for everyone, immigrant paranoia, support for this President. On the other side are people like most of the folk you and I know, who look for what people have in common and can’t understand why guns are so uncontrollable and think returning Dreamers to their countries of origin is cruel and foolish and can’t believe this poor excuse for a human being is our president. It seems that most Americans even agree with us on most of these issues and viewpoints, but the way things are the majority doesn’t seem to have a voice. And if Clinton had won, do you think those folk in the first column and this Congress would have given her/us a moment of peace?

It’s not north/ south this time, it’s not even just the coasts and everywhere else. The polarization seems everywhere and continuing to grow. It’s tempting to demonize those who we think don’t “get” it. That isn’t nice. Maybe we should just go our separate ways, allow a peaceful civil war and give up trying to understand (tolerate?) each other. I never thought I would think that, and I know it’s impractical/ impossible, but it helps explain why sleeping isn’t so easy these days. Remember, I am sharing my angst, which I imagine is not unique to me.

We need an injection of reason and tolerance. Where might it come from? Who can bring us together? Now we know why people pray so hard for the Messiah – if it’s up to us, a good outcome feels more and more unlikely. As we await him/her, we have to work to make the midterm elections successful. And we need to be nice to one another, and find common ground wherever a sliver of it may exist.

Your thoughts?  Purim is next week, hopefully a fun interlude and the start of better news.      Best, Bill Rudolph

Parades and Propaganda

Last time I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell and geniuses and late bloomers, trying valiantly to avoid the constantly depressing news from Pennsylvania Avenue. My reading binge continues, including long things (Grant by Chernow which has taken me half a week of steady reading to get to 24%) and short things (catching up on the Post Outlook section which each week offers up a lot of good important reading ) and the latter draws me back to the WH. Maybe the parade clinched it.

Lots of people who study the Holocaust or are survivors saw in Trump and some of his followers a chilling reminder of those horrible days. Were they just paranoid? In October, the Five Myths page of the Outlook section dealt with the Nazis. Who bankrolled Hitler – grass roots contributions until in power. Did Jesse Owens’s Olympic wins embarrass Hitler – no. Was racist ideology key to Hitler’s rise – see below. Was Hitler a forceful, decisive leader – no. Was the Third Reich well organized – see below. Such is the analysis (reduced by me to sound bites) of Thomas Childers, a history prof at Penn who wrote “The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.”

Was racist ideology key to Hitler’s rise? While that ideology had appeal early on, the appeal was never that widespread, his party’s share of the electorate never reached 10% through the twenties. Then came the Great Depression, and his skill as a political strategist more than anything else brought him to power. His propagandists became masters of negative campaigning, as Childers puts it, “launching vicious assaults on the establishment parties and the ‘system’ they supported. They were convinced that details didn’t matter; indeed, Nazi claims were often outright lies. The Nazis also promised everything to everybody, pledging higher sale prices for farmers and lower food prices for workers the cities. The contradictions abounded, and the opposing parties never tired of pointing them out. Such criticism didn’t faze the Nazis in the least. They either ignored it or railed that this sort of whining was what was wrong with German politics. Hitler understood that there are times when desperate angry people want two and two to be five, and he swore that the Nazis would make it so.” The strategy worked, the party got 38% of the vote in 1932, and the rest is history.

How pertinent is this information to what is transpiring in the Trump era? Hopefully the parallels are not so perfect and the end result nothing like what we saw in WWII. But things like the parade request make me unsure.

The Third Reich, which we think ran like a well oiled machine, was in fact more like organized chaos. Agencies overlapped – five different ones to lead the war economy for example. Hitler created ad hoc bodies to operate alongside (and often in conflict with) established agencies. His general approach to governing? “The strongest gets the job done.” Ultimately, I still believe, right makes might and not the reverse. We the 70% who don’t approve of what Trump is doing need to do whatever we can to help it along, because it’s a serious uphill battle at this time.

I have confidence in the ultimate righting of our ship of state. I let that confidence govern my Shabbat observance. After that, there is work to do. Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

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