Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Problem of PS 22

Parshat Masei
25 Tammuz, 5771
July 27th, 2011

     PS 22 of Staten Island is the world’s newest celebrity chorus. Now a de rigueur stop for any musician on an album tour, P. S. 22 has performed at the Grammys, is an Internet sensation, and has achieved stardom’s holy grail: being on Oprah. But the members of the PS 22 chorus are not what you might expect: they are 10 and 11 years old.
     These kids are good. They sing multi-part harmony with no apparent effort. Unlike most of the kid-centered performances we attend, listening to them is more than just cute. Their talent is awe-inspiring.
     Now, it isn’t like prodigious feats in childhood are foreign to us. However, our stories about childhood stardom involve scenes of unrelenting, Soviet-esque training, megalomaniacal parents, and intense break–point pressure. What astonishes every celebrity and journalist (writing in The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, etc.) is how much fun these particular kids have when they sing. They are so relaxed, so into their groove that I find myself envious of the good time they’re having.
     Here is the problem of PS 22: their existence proves that extraordinary things are possible. Yes, children can create beauty while increasing their self-worth. Yes, to be both excellent and carefree is achievable. And when a group of underprivileged grade-schoolers breaks the boundaries of the possible while giggling, how can we deny that such things are in our grasp as well?
     “HaYipale meHaShem davar?” God says to Sara, “Is there anything too wondrous for God to do?” Would that we saw ourselves as a little more divine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Judaism vs. the Jews

18 Tammuz, 5771
July 20th, 2011

           Rabbi Max Arzt was one of the most successful and influential pulpit rabbis of the 20th century. Widely respected, Rabbi Arzt was once asked by a group of recent seminary graduates about the secret to a successful career in the pulpit. “Ahavas yisroel” (love for Jews), he responded. When the young rabbis started laughing, he looked at them and said, “What? You think it’s easy?”
            I have to admit to mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, I am convinced of Rabbi Arzt’s wisdom. All my best moments are inevitably tied to accepting those I serve for who they are and letting love grow. My failures spring from the opposite mentality.
            However, for people of my generation there is a dark side to what Jewish pundits proclaim as, “peoplehood,” which is this: it is characteristic of American Jewish synagogues to love Jews, but not Judaism.
            Many people tell me that the purpose of synagogue is the connection of Jews with other Jews preferably (but not necessarily) with the celebration of Jewish culture. Many will openly state that they find the Judaic function of a synagogue secondary, tertiary, or irrelevant.
            There are a number of problems here. First, people like me who fell in love with Judaism have no home. Being a rather assertive (or obnoxious, as some people call us) group, we choose to defect, form our own groups, and leave extant communities behind.
            Second, I have reluctantly been convinced that the rest of humanity does not have to agree with me. People have the right not to like religion. But using davenning to create peoplehood is like using a turkey baster to fix a computer: even if you can get the job done, the tool has lost its purpose.
            There is much to say on this topic, and I welcome your thoughts. But please, friends - ahavat torah (love of Torah), ahavat HaShem (love of God) created ahavat yisrael. The child is bereft without its parents.


Parshat Pinchas
11 Tammuz 5771,
July 13, 2011

“When the historian tries to depict the spirit of bygone times, it is usually his own spirit that makes itself heard.” - Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History

     I was once in a lecture by Doreen Seidler-Feller, a psychologist and expert on sex therapy, about marriage and relationships among contemporary Jews. In the middle of her talk, a participant made suggestion that raised my eyebrows: “we should go back to the way of the shtetl,” she said, “You know, arranged marriage - things were simpler then.”
    Now, it wasn’t the suggestion of arranged marriage that shocked me -- I’ve heard that one before - but rather the idea that things were easier back in shtetl days.
    I’ve encountered many Jews who invoke the “Fiddler on the Roof” effect. It seems that dancing milkmen and seamstresses are waiting in the alleyways of our minds, just waiting to burst to into song.
    The truth of shtetl life, despite its beautiful glow, was much harsher and immobile than our cultural memory tells us. What this women was remembering, as so many of us do, was not true history.
    I believe Hegel is right: what we see in the past is most often the reflection of our present longing. The answers to our problems are not to be found in a longing for past times which per force distorts what truly happened, but in the invigoration of our present.
Prisca iuvent alios: ego me nunc denique natum gratulor.
Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.
-Ovid, Ars Amatoria III  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Time to Volunteer

Parshat Balak
4 Tammuz, 5771
July 6th, 2011

What confuses people is that tzedakah is not voluntary. Unlike the English “charity,” from the Latin caritas, implying voluntary affection or love, tzedakah is from the word tzedek – (obligatory) justice.
 For our ancestors, tzedakah meant a communal obligation from which they were not free to desist. Often the village court determined what it thought each person was able to give, and then sent gabaim to collect. (Tur Yoreh Deah 348) Rabbi Eli Schochet tells the story that his grandfather, a community rabbi in Lithuania, would stop at each house in the village for the purposes of tzedakah: either you gave or you took; those were the only two options.
The money from the tzedakah collection was used to provide soup kitchens and food for poor families, trousseaus for orphan brides, and clothing collections. It made sure that people had the basics. And it was not a choice.
Which is why I am devastated by the new state budget, driven by our financial reality, which cut somewhere between $7 and $15 billion to social services to the needy, elderly, and disabled, public education, and national parks (in Jewish communities, taxes were levied for education and civil defense/maintenance). I understand these cuts to violate foundational communal mitzvot of the Torah, which teach that it is our first responsibility to protect the weak, “lest there be a nasty thing in your heart…and your eye is evil upon your needy brother and you do not give to him…and you bear sin because of [how you treated] him” (Deuteronomy 15:9)
Since the deed is done, I believe it upon us to compensate for these changes in another way.
It’s time for us to start volunteering.
We need to fill the money gap with our volunteer hours. We need to help them with that for which they are unable to pay. We all need to become volunteers, and in the areas that need it most: the needy, the elderly, the disabled, or education.
We American Jews possess unrivaled professional talents, and by giving of them we can make a difference. It’s time to change. I am personally committing to volunteering at least twice a month to serve. I invite you to join me on the way.

Great Los Angeles Volunteering Opportunities:
Jewish Family Services –
The Midnight
Volunteer Los Angeles (a great website with multiple volunteering options) –
Meals on Wheels –