Saturday, January 3, 2015

Life And How to Live It

Yesterday in my hometown there are people gathering to say good-bye to a man who has passed away way too soon.  A woman who graduated high school with me lost her husband at an early age. Her close friends come together to help comfort her as her life changes so drastically.  This tragic death pushed me further to think about the role of death in our lives. I became acquainted with death as a teen when my dad died. When Linda died my entire life was thrown into complete turmoil.   Later I had colleagues and friends pass away and more recently it seems I have entered an age where all of us who grew up together are facing the death of our parents.  While we know death is always there, it shocking.  Death travels with us our entire life, like a an old dog you take with you on a road trip.  Most of the journey it sleeps in the back, we forget it is there until it barks.  Sometimes even causes us to change the direction we are headed.  Death will always interrupt our lives.  How we react to this is the trick.     

As someone who works in a religious setting I get asked on occasion what I and/or Judaism thinks about death and afterlife.  In fact Noah asked me today if I would rather have an eternal but boring afterlife or no afterlife at all.  I didn't respond well because most of the time I answer those questions from the position of an educator. In this case I told him I had been thinking about it a lot lately and I don't have an answer but I am not certain I would want a boring eternity.  

In my work it is easy for me to skirt the bigger philosophical questions about the afterlife by saying that Judaism doesn't speak much about if. Much of Judaism focuses on the now not the next life.   However there is a lot of interesting views of an afterlife in Judaism.  When I talk about them I am teaching, or explaining what tradition teaches, often I repeat the caveat that it is not what I believe, but what our tradition teaches.  You see I don't believe in the afterlife image so common in our western civilization thought.  I can't imagine a heaven and hell that is populated by people for an eternity that is like a glorified and carefree version of life today or constant torment.  There is no way that I am comfortable with a God that would create that situation.  It makes no sense to me and seems to have grown out of a composite of various attempts to understand the meaning of life that often ended so abruptly and arbitrarily.  However there is comfort in knowing or believing that those we love continue on after they no longer walk the earth.  This too I find troubling but there are ways of knowing that what was important about the person does live on.  Those we loved live on in our memory and the stories we tell give them a sense of continued life.  All they taught us and gave us when alive is still there and is manifest when we use their knowledge and wisdom in our own lives. Just the other day I made my mother's Red Cabbage dish and for me I felt her presence in the meal.   That, of course, is what is important.  How those who are gone do continue to live with us, in the actions we take they have influenced, through the lessons they taught us that we pass on and by the vision they had for the world that we continue to help make happen.  

Ultimately we will all grieve in our own way and we will all deal with loss in our own time.  But while we may struggle with the what if of the world beyond there is one thing I know for sure.  Everyone who touched me in life who have left this world continues to live on in memory and how they have influenced my life choices.  They live on in me.  I also believe  the greatest tribute we can give those who have gone is to live life fully and carry their memory and essence with us.  I am sure I will continue to struggle with these tough questions.  I am not sure if I ever will come to grips with it.  

To those reading this in mourning, may you be fully comforted and I hope one day these words will have meaning for you.    

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 2014

So tonight we say good-bye to 2014 and as we look back while the details are different the landscape is the same as usual.  There were some big highs and several lows.  Personally I clicked off a few more of my bucket list items.  Dianne and I found ways to find ways to create new experiences together as a couple.  I saw both coasts this year and spent time with old friends I don't see often enough.

This year saw some great moments.  Not a few friends were able to legally marry, a right that was blocked by law for them until this year.  I saw the world come together to turn a stupid challenge into a windfall for those combating the horrible syndrome of ALS.  Despite the horrible catalyst of a brutal video of an NFL player punching his fiance out the country is having a serious conversation about domestic violence.  Oh and the NFL moved into new territory by drafting an openly gay player.

We also saw low points.  The rise of ISIS, a terrible summer for Israel kicked off by the murder of a three teen-agers, riots in towns after the death of young black men at the hands of police and of course both the tragedy of Ebola and the irrational fear around it.

As all years we had a little of everything. What is important is that we try to make the next better by fixing what we can, moving on from what we can't, and acknowledging what we have.  As we say good-bye I will take note of the fact that I have a wonderful family, a smart and growing young man for a son and wonderful wife who not only loves me but gets me.  I have friends who span the globe both in location and ideology.  I have a great job, wonderful if changing colleagues, and a stronger support of fellow educators than ever before.  In the new year I turn 50 as does Dianne and Noah heads off to  college.  It will be a year of transitions.  So raising a glass to 2015.  May it bring all the joys you want and none of the travails you don't need.  May you go from strength to strength.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays

So I have Christmas off and even though I don't celebrate it I enjoy the way the world slows down.  So I spent a lot of time today doing little and thinking a lot about the holiday season. This can be a frustrating time of year.  It is not the overwhelming tinsel bombing of the country, but that is a symptom of the situation I struggle with in this context.    You see most of my Christian friends are honoring and respectful of people who don't celebrate Christmas and are knowledgeable or inquisitive about that and other Jewish holidays.  So when I see something like this I shake my head and wonder:

Bud Williams, a city councilor in Springfield, Massachusetts, attended a menorah lighting ceremony with prominent Jewish community leaders. When it was his turn to speak, he lectured the group about how important Jesus was to the holiday season. According to Williams’ shaky logic, Jesus is the reason for the season – even the Hanukkah season.

Seriously, WTF?  Why would anyone say this?  Hanukkah has nothing to do with Jesus and in fact the story of Hanukkah takes place almost 200 years before Jesus is born.  Now I know that for some it is hard to understand a holiday that last year started on Thanksgiving eve and this year ended on Christmas eve.  But this is just nonsense.  Why are there some people who feel the need to impose their own religious ideology on everyone.  

Each year Fox News brings up the War on Christmas.  One of the main themes of this is that some stores do not say "Merry Christmas" but do in fact say "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holiday" are somehow destroying the holiday.  What is actually happening and what Mr. Williams didn't understand is that our culture is changing.  More and more people who were invisible by design are getting a chance to be noticed.  This seems to disturb so many and I think that part is that they feel their superior position is slipping.  When others are get a place at the table, those who have been there forever can't spread out as much.  That is not a bad thing.  But people do feel hurt.  What I wonder about is how weak their faith in their faith, themselves and their tradition must be to not allow others to express themselves in public.  Especially when we think of a holiday like Hanukkah, a holiday that some see as a holiday about religious freedom. 

I have friends from many different faith traditions and they hold their faith deeply.  I can't imagine any of them denying someone an expression of their faith or trying to step on it with a trite cliche as this guy did.  

So as Christmas day winds down and the season will soon be in the rearview mirror I hope everyone continues to grow in their faith and in that growth find room to allow others to do the same in the New Year.  I hope that people will embrace the growing expressions of the diversity that has always been part of our country and not feel threatened by it.  I hope that when next year at this time when someone says "Season's Greetings" it doesn't become an opportunity for a boycott but the kind thought that it is.  Oh and I also hope that when we all share who we really are with others we can get the best out of us all.  

Happy holidays to all now and throughout the year.  Whatever holiday feeds your soul. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It May Be an Old Song, But a New Tune

I know you have heard it before.  Last summer I went on a diet, a meal plan.  I lost some weight, I patted myself on the back and I moved on to gain more and more.  It was never anything of a problem I told myself.  I mean I needed new pants and the comfort-fit waste band was a cool invention.  I really didn't think much about my growing stomach until a child ask me if I was going to have a baby.  Even when James Gandolfini died a day before my 48th birthday I knew I had to get my weight under control but that soon faded.  I remember from June to July of last year I went from 224 pounds to 218 and had a party.  By the end of August I was again at 223 and by December I was stable at 227.  That was what I was, stomach, comfort-fit and that cringe when I saw a picture of me from the side.

In July I registered at 231 and my blood work was a mess.  My doctor was not happy, and frankly neither was Dianne and Noah was all over me.  So I downloaded a simple ap called My Fitness Pal at my Doctor's suggestion and started monitoring my intact of calories, sugar, fat etc. and keeping track of exercise or the lack there of.  It was immediately educational.  I plugged in some numbers and it gave me an allowance of calories etc. to follow.  A huge database of food allows me to know precisely what I am taking in and I did the one thing I never did before.  I bought a kitchen scale to see exactly how much of stuff I was eating.  It is remarkable.  When I went back and looked how much I was eating I was well over 2500 calories a day.  Now I am between 1600-1800.  I don't skimp on what I eat, as anyone who reads my other blog knows and I just eat less and I am not hungry.  It is quite revealing.  I think sometimes I just ate for the joy of eating.  But now I eat a limited amount at each meal and I am still happy.  I don't feel like I suffer.

Oh and I have started losing weight.  From 231 in July I have now found myself at 210 and still losing. People have started to notice and say something and and old friend recently said I am looking like my old self.  I feel better, have more energy and move around better.  What is remarkable is that for years I have resisted the simple act of watching what I eat.  When I was a kid I could eat anything at anytime and was always skinny.  I am glad that I am taking this route and glad that I can make it work for me through technology.  I am grateful for the opportunity and the challenge of making food that fills me up and tastes good that doesn't make me compromise.

Oh and just so you know I am not a zealot, I still have days I eat 15 chicken wings and a mess of potatoes.  I still love Dianne's fried chicken, and Noah's recent birthday we all had a great cake with butter cream frosting.  But I know that eating is a life time venture and like keeping kosher it is about awareness and choices.  I plan to continue.  I plan to continue to lose and I plan to be with us for a long time as Noah asked me to the other day.  I hope this is the last time I write this.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Week in Review

I wanted to write about this week since it had a very busy news cycle of stories that interested me.  I was hoping to comment on many of them.

The Stealing of Nude Photos of Famous Women:  So someone hacked into the cloud storage of many people stealing and posting famous women's personal photographs in various states of undress and in some cases sexually explicit.  This was a theft and an invasion of privacy.  The fact that they were stored in electronic form in a protected fashion made it analogous to storing printed photos in a safe deposit box at the bank.  There was an agreement of privacy from the cloud server company.  But it took less than a day for people to attack the women for owning the photographs or for putting them in what thought was a safe place.  So let's think about this.
1.  Should people take pictures of themselves in the nude?  Well that ship sailed when the first photographs were invented.  In the 1800s people taking nude pictures and even creating pornographic images.  I remember an amazing exhibit at a museum in New York of personal movies and photos from when my grandmother was in her 20s.  So to be clear, this was made by my grandmother's generation.  The Polaroid made it even more common, and digital photography made it ubiquitous.  And yet these women are attacked publicly for having these available in their private archive.  Should celebrities be held to a higher standard?  Especially attractive, celebrity women?  It seems like the idea here was that they should know people want to see their intimate pictures and so not have them.  I wonder how many of those commentators would give me access to their passwords for their archives.  Bottom line is we are sexual beings, technology allows us to explore that with imagery, bodies are not dirty unless we make them such, and frankly the hacker who stole them is a lowlife.  That should be the story.  Not questioning whether the women should have these photos.

Bob McDonnell:  So Governor Ultrasound was convicted for the brides he took as Virginia Governor.  This was not an issue that was a surprise.  What is a surprise that some people thought this was a political attack and others suggested that it was a prosecution that was not necessary.  Think about this. A governor, one that ran on family values, was taking bribes to act on behalf of a wealthy friend, in a state with lax ethics standards.  The federal government had a strong case.  The defense was to throw his wife under the bus.  Seriously, how could anyone defend this guy.  It is amazing.  We are so politicized that a straight up liar who sold access to his office is considered a victim for being prosecuted.

Joan Rivers:  Joan Rivers died this week.  She was a pioneer and someone who kicked down the door to allow so many women to walk through.  Rivers created a new way to be a woman in a man's world of entertainment. She embraced the gay community from which she built tons of fans and stood with them to fight discrimination.   I miss that Joan Rivers but I have for a long time.  In her later years she created a persona that was built on attacking people.  While I understand in a lot of ways it was a character it also could at times get caustic.  We do wish her family comfort during this time and her legion of fans who will certainly feel her loss.

Michael Sam:  The first openly gay man drafted by the NFL was cut by the team that drafted him.  In part because he didn't fit in their scheme.  There is some indication that his sexuality may have played a role but that is not clear.  He was put on waivers and was picked up by Dallas for their practice squad.  Almost instantly people assumed it was social engineering.  Sam is a good player and was a great college player.  He is not built for the NFL in skill and flexibility at his position.  But he showed he can play at least at a level that can help a team so Dallas is not losing anything to have him on the practice squad and his ceiling is pretty high.  What is remarkable is that we know about his sexuality because someone was going to out him before the NFL draft.  He took control of it and said he wasn't going to hide who he was.  That was brave.  It clearly didn't help his prospects (most defensive players of the year in the toughest conference in college football get looked at in the draft).  But we know there have been many gay NFL players.  In fact in the 70s Vince Lombardi stood up for them.  The guy who the Superbowl trophy is named after.  The difference is that Sam has opened the door for those NFL players who don't want to hide who they are to live their real lives.  Sam may never take a snap in a regular season NFL game.  But he will change the culture of the NFL a culture that has asked gay players to hide themselves may now allow them to be open.  That is a good thing.

It was quite a week and this is just a small sampling of the stories we encountered.  I wonder what will happen next.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living On But Always Remembering

Today is a day of remembering the past but continuing to look into the future.  It was today in 1987 that Linda was murdered.  Taken from me and the world and thus changing drastically the trajectory of my life.  For many years I would think each year about what my life could have been if she had lived and mourned the lost of my possible life.  But last night I went out to spend some time by myself only to discover all that I have in life.  A great son who is now an adult, a wife who cares for me and is amazing in many ways, a life full of friends who stand with me in good times and bad, and even an ex who's dedication to our son has helped him grow into the man that he is becoming.

I was thinking how a few years ago I was thinking about Shoah (Holocaust) education and wanted to remember the words of a survivor who I spoke with when she said the greatest way to get back at the Nazis was to live a fully life.  Remember, don't let it happen again, but live beyond the tragedy of the Shoah.  I realized that was good advice for me.  For my life.  I will not forget the life that was ended and what it could have been but I will continue to live my life fully and enjoy all the moments not in the pit of despair but in the light of joy that we can enjoy in the world.

I raise a glass to the memory of Linda Akers, she is still missed.  But I also lift my glass to all those who help to make the life I developed since Linda's death.  We need the memory but we need to continue to build memories.  Thank you all, as I look back, there are so many great moments and the expectation of so many more.


Friday, August 1, 2014

They Pull Me Back In......

I have purposely avoided writing much about the current situation in Gaza.  I am not sure if it is fear of not being heard well or if it is just I don't know what exactly to think.  I do pray that the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar can one day find a way to share the land and share a future of mutual respect and dignity. But I am asked every day my thoughts and I share them.  I am troubled, frightened and yet I still remain hopeful.  I know it is hard to have hope, but I do, I do because  I have personally seen it in the eyes of both young Palestinians and Israelis.  I have heard it from the lips of old grizzled Jews and Arabs. One day there will be peace.  It will not be easy but, I have hope. Many more people wish for peace than we know about as the stories in the news focus on the shiny objects of the radicals that call for violence or twist the situation to their own narrative.  We can find a way to bring peace to Israel and there are people ready to lead the way.  A real peace, with a secure Israel and fear of terror at a minimum and a free and Palestinian people.  I know it is possible and sometimes I think I will live to see it.

But there are those who don't share my view and too many of them have either power of office or low voices. There is right and wrong that is easily seen.  Hamas calls for the death of all Jews.  It is difficult to negotiate with a people who just want you to die.  What do you offer?  To die slower?  But Hamas is not the Palestinians and there is hope for a future where they no longer hold the sway they do today.  But there are reasons that many still cling to their violent ideology.  We have seen a bit of that today.  A  blogpost in The Times of Israel with the uncomfortable title of When Genocide is Permissible was published and quickly removed from their website. The author, Yochanan Gordon, is an American Rabbi and writer dropped this literary bomb and a world already becoming more angry at Israel for the rising death toll in Gaza of civilians. In it the argument is clear, Hamas is bent on the destruction of Israel so anything Israel does to end Hamas' ability to do so is justified.  An argument I could follow in many ways.  Someone coming to kill you does not necessary retain the right to have you not fight back in a dirty manner.  But the problem is that if you do there are people who do not want you dead who could get hurt.  It will never be okay to blow up a plane full of people to kill the one person bent on evil. Though there are arguments to suggest that while not okay it may still be necessary.     But Gordon's argument goes further than that.  He doesn't want to blow up the plane, he wants to blow up the airport, the travel agent and perhaps even the taxi driver who took the man to meet his flight.  He is arguing  that civilians under the oppression of their leaders seem to allow for terrorist tunnels and rocket launchers to be placed in their neighborhoods, homes, mosques and even hospitals.  To Gordon these people are no longer innocent civilians but terrorists as well,  he concludes this piece with this paragraph:

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable
quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every
government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts
determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then
permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

How do we get here?  How does a rational mind find this to be the answer.  Genocide should be an anathema to any Jew.  Our history is riddled with the attempts by others to kill us all.  Even our Biblical tradition can be seen to include the likes of Amelek and Haman, and through it all our tradition continued to preach forth a message of humanity and dignity for all people.  We are all the children of Adam and Eve, we are all created b'tzelem Elohim.  It does not mean you stand by and let someone kill you, but is also means that it is not our place to decide an entire community should be eliminated. Judaism is not a religion of death and destruction but of life and humanity.  My Muslim friends would share the same value.  Islam and Judaism teach that all life is sacred.  But so many leaders who are driving this have forgotten that is true.

I can't get a scene from Shakespeare's Henry V out of my head.  Henry, the king in disguise is walking among his men on the night before a great battle.   Still unknown to his men he approaches a group and when seen as friend this dialogue takes place.  The battle that dawn will bring does not seem likely as a victory for the English.  A hopeless battle but one that will be met.


So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master's command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant's
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.

When I think of this and the current situation in Israel I have no doubt that the IDF is fighting for a just cause.  While the tragedy of the numbers of civilian deaths in Gaza eat at my heart, I have no doubt that if Israel wasn't as careful with their actions as they are there would be many many more.  Listening to those who choose to fight for Israel they have no doubt that what they are doing is righteous even if the outcome sometimes is horrific.  But in Israel and and world wide Jewry we see Jews mourning that loss of life.  How different would it be if the leaders of Israel took Gordon's advice and instead of fighting for security were hell bent on the destruction of the Palestinian people?  Would the cause be just?  Would the men's action truly be wiped of the crime for following their leaders?  I don't know.  What I do know is that as Hamas has called for genocide their actions do not meet the simple standard laid out by Henry here as he attempts a seemingly unwinnable battle. The cause of Hamas is not a free Palestinian people, it appears it is death to Israel.  That is where I can comfortably stand with Israel now and not fear that I am in the wrong.  As long as Israel continues to see this and act as this is a battle for security I am standing with them and yes while I do that I can also mourn the dead in Gaza, and seek a way to make life there more bearable.  That is not to say that Israel is never wrong.  But that is for a different post.  

Today we saw naked ugliness from a person who seems to have forgotten his teachings as a Rabbi and as a Jew and as a human being.  No one should call for genocide and send young men and women into battle for its sake.  Thankfully it was someone sitting in the comfort of the insular community in suburban New York and not an Israeli cabinet minister.  But we should remember that if you think that Yochannan Gordon was repugnant, he speaking almost in the form of a question.  Rhetorical as it may sound.  For Hamas there is no question.  There is only one answer, death to Israel.  Sadly they have the power the arms and the backing of a rich Arab state to try to make it happen.  They must fail not only for the sake of the Jewish people but for the soul of the Palestinians who would not win behind a just cause.  Everyone involved in this is human, and with all calls for genocide, that humanity is diminished if that becomes your cause.  

Pray for the Peace of Israel this Shabbat and pray for the dead of Gaza, many are innocent caught in the on-going hate and anger.  Pray for a world community that doesn't want an answer but seems to want emotion.  Pray that one day we will all find a way to live in peace and we can all share in the glorious feeling of community.