The World According to Me

The World According to Me is a play on one of my favorite novels, "The World According to Garp," by one of my favorite authors, John Irving. While I am not nearly the writer Irving is, I hope that my musings will offer a unique perspective on life. If nothing else, I have something to look back on when dementia kicks in.

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Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, February 27, 2006

Today's Recipe: one part book, one part memories.

Part I

I just finished reading Philip Roth's frightening novel, "The Plot Against America." I enjoyed (I'm not sure that's the right word) the book thoroughly, although the ending seemed too easy. Roth went to such lengths to make the book interesting with different twists and turns that I think he could've done the same with the conclusion. What makes this historical fiction so alarming is how plausible the storyline is. Because we returned from Israel just last night, my senses are heightened when it comes to being a Jew in the modern world.

I never fully understood how tragic our entire history has been until this trip. You're familiar with the joke about Jewish holidays. That is, every celebration boils down to this: somebody tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat. It's funny and it's true. But it's also very sad. Because the Jewish calendar touches on the major points of our history -- fleeing Egypt, destruction of the temple, Holocaust -- we forget the years that connect those dots. I've got news people: they weren't all that much better to us.

Which brings me to the book. In a very weird way, there is something to be said about living in a ghetto. At least you know where you stand with people. There is no doubting whether or not somebody hates you -- they do! De facto anti-Semitism might be more dangerous because the coming of the next Holocaust might not be so obvious. Is it imminent or even impending? Maybe not. But I am increasingly aware that there are people in this world who dislike me simply because of who I am. I grew up thinking that "those" people no longer existed or if they did, were in some far off place. I no longer carry that optimistic (or naive, perhaps) view.

On a positive note, however, the book shed light on one figure from American history who had Jewish blood in him and was a friend of the Jews, countering the argument that man on the bus was making (from a previous post). That figure was none other than Fiorello La Guardia.

Part II

Mike Smith just left to head back to Seattle. He was in town this weekend visiting a friend from Germany so he stayed at our apartment while we were gone. He extended his trip by one day so that we could hang out. It turns out that he caught a cold while he was here and it's literally freezing in New York so we stayed in, ordered Chinese food and watched a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Mike and I have this ability to have a great time together even if we're sitting and doing nothing. We catch up on old times, talk about sports, books, friends, etc. We lived together during our senior year of college and then during the two years I was in grad school. Because I'm in more contact with him than my other college roommates I tend to focus on that last year of college and neglect the first three.

However, recently I was in Florida for work and had a chance to hang out with Marc Shuster, whom I lived with officially for years two and three in college, but for all intents and purposes lived with for the first three years. It was really great to reminisce about things I hadn't thought of for, quite literally, years. Marc and Lillian (his wife who also went to college with us) have a daughter, Rita, who is absolutely adorable. They asked me to sing for her because they pretty much were groupies during my Troubadour days. After I sang they commented how I'm better than half the contestants on American Idol. It's not actually true (I'm not just being modest here for the record), but it was nice to hear and also nice to recall some great college memories.

I've always been terrible at taking pictures and my memory isn't what it once was either (my brain only has so much room) so I need other people to remind me somtimes. Luckily, moving forward, I should have an abundance of pictures to look back upon one day because Mrs. E is just the opposite of me. She documents everything -- a scrapbooker extraordinaire.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The House of Einstein

The sun has gone away and taken Shabbat with it. In Israel there is a palpable difference between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Aside from all of the shops being closed, there is a serenity that creeps its way into the day of rest. It's a mystical feeling unlike any other.

We had a chance to spend Shabbat in Tel Aviv with our friend Rachel who made aliayah last June. (I thought she lived in Jerusalem so unfortanetely we were in Israel for over a week without making it to the holy city. However, since El Al bumped us to a later flight on our trek out here, we will return within the year and most certainly hit the city which serves as a beacon of hope to billions of people across the globe.) Anyway, we spent the last few hours leading up to Shabbat on the streets of Tel Aviv, gathering food for our Sabbath feast and kibbutzing. And on into Shabbat we learned of Rachel's personal journey to this land -- how she always felt an emptiness in her life until her arrival here. It's amazing to talk to someone who is so at peace with herself. It makes you stop to think how many people lead unfulfilling lives.

Rachel informed Diana how she and I first met. And until hearing her tell the story I didn't realize the impact that our chance encounter had on her. Rachel used to be an admissions officer at, among other places, the University of Pennsylvania. She and I (though we didn't know one another) worked the same recruiting circuit and were in Southern California for a conference about two and a half years ago. Barbara Schultz, the college advisor at Tarbut V'Torah, a community day school in Orange County, approached me with a shyish (I say shyish, although in truth Rachel is incredibly outgoing -- a perfect fit in Israeli socity) looking young woman who needed a place to attend Yom Kippur services. As she tells the story I didn't ask her if she would like to attend services at B'nai Tzedek -- I informed her that she would be attending services and furthermore, she was coming over to our house for dinner prior to Kol Nidre. Rachel thanked me and told me that she wouldn't be much fun to be around because she had just broken up with her besheret. I insisted and the rest is history.

It's only in conversations with Rachel since that time did I come to realize how much of an emotional wreck she was and how much my gesture meant to her. To me, offering your home to someone who is without one for the holidays is second nature. To Rachel, that's Judaism. And I agree.

As she was telling Diana this story and we spoke of how this represents everything that is beautiful in our religion, I couldn't help but think how this fits into the famous story of the person who approached both Shammai and Hillel and wanted to learn the Torah while standing on one foot. I truly believe that small acts can make the largest impact on others' lives.

We are leaving Israel in a few short hours. This land was built on a series of small acts by a few individuals. What a magical place!


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Next Update

Here is another reprint for my loyal readers--

Dear Schechter Community:

It is nearly 11:00 PM in Israel and we just returned from the longest single-day tiyul of the entire program. The kids are sufficiently tired, but the day was quite successful. Before I fill you in on the day's activities, however, I'd like to revisit the previous two days since I last wrote.

Monday was a fascinating journey through time as the kids spent the morning in Bet She'arim. We learned about Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and toured the burial caves where he and many of his contemporaries were laid to rest. We were able to discern which coffins were used for Jews and which were used by non-Jews. After a packed lunch we headed off to Tziporri, in the northern Galilee. We learned more about the relationship between the Romans and the Jews, which had warmed somewhat by the time Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi moved from Bet She'arim to Tziporri. It was during this critical time of his life that the Mishnah redacted. Tziporri (so named because it's perched on the mountain like a bird -- tzipor) was critical to Jewish life during the third century C.E. We toured the remains of the town, including the Roman theatre -- where the kids put on a short improv show -- and the synagogue, where we davened Mincha. We returned to campus for dinner in town.

Yesterday morning was spent on campus, first davening Shacharit and then in class. Aubrey and Tuvia gave a terrific lecture on the New Testament, how Christianity was spawned, and on early relations between Christians and Jews. They made sure to cover the topic with tremendous respect for our neighbors' religion, but armed the students with plenty of knowledge so that the kids are able to discredit those who claim the Jews killed Jesus, a popularly held view they are likely to encounter at some point in their lives. Both Aubrey and Tuvia commented to me how eager our kids are to learn. In the afternoon the kids were able to choose between two community service options -- working at a therapeutic riding stable or picking radishes from the field. Both were highly successful and fun! The evening was again spent in town and then unwinding in the dorm.

Today was an early morning as we had a great deal to accomplish. We started out in Kochav Hayarden where we toured Belvoir, a castle constructed by the Christian Crusaders during the middle ages. The students learned how the Crusades started and why they ultimately failed, though they caused massive destruction. This led directly into an intense discussion of what is worth fighting for and if Israel was under attack, how would we as American Jews respond? The kids really stepped up to the plate with their honesty, thoughtfulness, and maturity. Our early afternoon was spent just outside Tiberias at Blue Beach, where everyone had an opportunity to take a dip in the Kinneret. Then it was off to the mystical town of Tzfat. We jumped ahead many hundreds of years and learned about the important post-expulsion Jewish thinkers. After singing l'cha dodi overlooking a gorgeous green valley at sunset in the very town it was created, the kids had a bit of free time to explore the narrow roads and enter the shops where some of the most beautiful Judaica is produced -- including Tzfat candles. We had dinner in Afula and returned a short time ago.

The kids are really looking forward to tomorrow as we head into Jerusalem for the day and then end the night with a concert. They're going to see Hadag Nachash -- a popular Israeli hip-hop artist -- whose tunes many of your kids already play on their IPods every day.

I continue to marvel at the incredible energy your kids have. Diana and I are exhausted (in a wonderful way) at the end of each day, but the students never complain. They really have been perfect ambassadors for Schechter.

Until next time--



Monday, February 20, 2006

The Jewish Vote

Since when have the Jews voted Republican in such strong numbers? When I was a kid, I knew only one Jewish Republican -- my Uncle Ralph. And even he ended up voting for Bill Clinton. Perhaps it's because I work at a school with lots of Israelis (who tend to vote strictly according to a candidate's stance on Israel), but I think it's deeper than that. Democrats have been portrayed as weak on foreign policy since Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage fiasco.

On the bus today on our way from Hod HaSharon to Tzipori, I overheard a conversation between one of the madrichim and a couple of the students. The madrich made a cynical comment about the U.S. going into yet another country, attempting to flex her muscles. One of the students immediately became defensive because in his view, America is Israel's only friend and the fact that we invaded Iraq was admirable. Independent, intelligent people can certainly disagree on this point and I chose to listen to both sides (as I am wont to do) rather than interject my opinion right off the bat. Our armed guard then jumped in and added that it's a good thing America elected George Bush because John Kerry was pro-Arab. At that point I felt it was necessary to at least set the record straight, if not offer my views on our president. I could tell this guy I was talking to was a tough nut because when I informed him that Kerry has Jewish blood in him, he retorted that no national leader in the history of mankind who had Jewish blood, but was not himself Jewish was ever a friend to the Jews. When I challenged the statement (because it seemed hyperbolic) he mentioned Casper Weinberger. Okay, so he named one. Big deal. That hardly constitutes a pattern.

It got me thinking, though. Are the Republicans that much stronger when it comes to Israel? Bill Clinton was a great friend of the Jews and of the Middle East peace process. Was he an anomaly? I didn't think so. But in the absence of a position, an opposting political party can paint the other as anything it wants -- sheepish, soft, wishy-washy, etc.

George Bush didn't beat Al Gore in 2000. Al Gore lost the election with a poor vision and worse handling. The Democratic party needs to redraw the political lines, underscoring its fundamental views in order to bring back a base that has long been forgotten. Included in that group is the Jewish vote. After all it was the Jews, led by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights struggle of the 1960's. That is not the same struggle the Palestinians face and the Democrats shouldn't be painted in that corner. Democrats can no longer take the Jewish vote for granted or they will continue to face an uphill battle.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Update from Israel

This is the email I sent out to the parents of our 12th grade students. Rather than recreating the message I thought I'd just copy it.

Dear Schechter Community:

Shavua tov from Hod HaSharon! It is a pleasure greeting you from Israel after another wonderful weekend. The energy of the students is incredible. After hearing the wonderfully positive reports from Dr. Spiegel, Rabbi Pell, and Mr. Medwed, I must admit that I was excited to join the group this week -- they haven't disappointed!

Diana and I joined the kids just prior to Shabbat in Ein Gedi. The mood was upbeat as we welcomed the Sabbath Queen. Kabbalat Shabbat, full of spirit and dancing, was spent outside overlooking the Dead Sea. Shmuel Bowman, our scholar-in-residence, spoke of the Chassidic tradition that Shabbat carries its own colors and encouraged us to locate the special hues among the various streams of pink and purple in the sky as the sun descended. After Ma'ariv and dinner, we reconvened to discuss the beautiful diversity in our heritage.

Yesterday morning we davened Shacharit, had a wonderful lunch, and then the kids were given the option to go on a nature hike through the mountains and waterfalls nearby or to relax. About a quarter of the group chose the first option and bathed a little in the sun while enjoying the fresh water streams found in the hills. In the late afternoon, many of the students joined Shmuel for a fascinating discussion on the hidden meanings behind a favorite children's book -- The Giving Tree. We discussed the difference between taking and receiving and analyzed the book from a Jewish perspective.

After dinner and havdallah we boarded the bus and made our way back to Hod HaSharon, by way of Jerusalem to pick up the kids who had joined the Bi-Cultural contingent for Shabbat.

Today was an early rise as we got ourselves dirty reliving the Bar Kochba Rebellion, the darkest time in our history next to the Shoah. Tuvia and Aubrey led the group on a magical expedition through the very caves our forefathers used to fight the Roman Empire nearly 1900 years ago. After crawling on our hands and knees through some very tight spots, we came upon a large enough space for all of us to sit together. We chanted niggunim, marveling in the acoustic brilliance of the caves. Aubrey's group got particularly muddy, as you'll see from the pictures!

We stopped at a local mart for a hearty lunch of cold cuts and headed straight for the amphitheatre where many of our ancestors met their ultimate demise. The kids were incredibly engaged as we discussed the heroism of leaders like Rabbi Akiva and they spoke about the things in their lives worth fighting for. After davening Mincha we got back on the bus and came home to Hod HaSharon. The bus was nearly silent as most of the group caught up on some sleep.

Diana and I just got back from town and as I write these words, most of the group is out enjoying falafel, shwarma, or another local treat. We saw a few kids buy some bins and other organizing tools for their dorm rooms as they're starting to really get settled in here, their home for the next month and a half. In just a couple of days I have witnessed such beauty in our children. The way they commit themselves to the group and to this land is uplifting. I am able to see students who have known each other for years kindle new friendships -- you should be very proud.

I am excited for the upcoming week and will keep you posted on the events here from Eretz Yisrael!




Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Homecoming of Sorts

Mrs. E and I leave for Israel tonight. I am ecstatic beyond words. In fact, besides my wedding I can't remember anticipating an event this much for quite some time. I haven't been to eretz Yisrael since 1993. Needless to say, a lot has happened since then.

We are going to Israel for ten days as representatives from my school. The 12th grade class is studying through the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program and the school rotates various faculty and staff members through to keep an eye on the students. So on one level I am simply excited to see the kids. On another level, though -- a more spiritual level -- I am looking forward to reconnecting with a land from which I have been apart for too long.

My older sisters both studied in Israel during high school. I was too involved in everything to even consider such a bold step. But I also lacked a desire to go to Israel on that type of program. So I went for a month between my junior and senior years of high school. And even then, I wasn't all that jazzed. I mean, I thought it would be fun and I was excited about meeting new kids, but the allure of my Jewish homeland hadn't yet kicked in. But I fell in love for the first time in my life. I fell for a place, a people, a home.

So it's different this time around. I don't know why it has taken nearly thirteen years to return to this magical land. My life has taken a thousand twists and turns in the interim. But I know when I arrive in less than twenty-four hours, I will again feel the comfort of home.