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Berkeley

What Will Happen?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

I’m going to my first-ever religious Jewish service tomorrow morning — at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where I’ve performed and improvised a few times.  I called my friend Menachem Creditor, the temple’s rabbi, to ask — among other things — what one wears at a Jewish service.  (Thanks to my late father’s love of church ceremonies and my six years at an Episcopalian choir school, many Christian services are more than familiar to me.)  Our connection wasn’t great — he was about to pick up his daughter from her school bus and I was about to pick up my son from school — but he told me that, if I wasn’t wearing a yarmulke and … something else I couldn’t hear … someone would hand them to me.  He said the service starts at 8 a.m., but usually only “visitors” come then, and that I should plan to arrive at about 10 or 10:15.

Recently I have been struggling with learning about my Jewish heritage, as I prepare for the next stage of development of my show Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews (opening at Theater J in Washington D.C. in March and at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco in April).  Just finished reading David Mamet’s The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, a book of essays about how assimilated Jewish “apostates” such as myself are engaged in treason against our own race.  Now reading some more of Wallace Shawn’s book of essays (titled, simply, Essays), in which he seems to ally himself with all people, regardless of tribe or nationality — a stance I have long felt myself to hold.  But, spurred by this project and by Mamet’s pugnacious arguments, I am excited to at least think of myself as a member of this ancient tribe.  (And yet, I have to say, whenever Mamet talks about how great and wise the Jewish writings and traditions are, I reflexively think, “But isn’t every major religion and culture — that is to say, every one of long-standing — equally wise and great, albeit perhaps coming at things from different angles?”)

And then there’s the God thing.  I’ve had no experience of God — which, the more I read and listen to theologians, may actually put me in their camp.  People, including Rabbi Creditor (and my atheist father), have described God as something like the full potential of the human imagination.  Even there, I think (perhaps frivolously?), “What about the imagination of animals and plants, and of the vast universe?”  And then I stop myself and think, “Well, that would pretty much be God, wouldn’t it?” (if the universe had an imagination).  And I am reminded (and it makes me smile sometimes) how shallow my thinking is.

And yet I keep wanting at least to move forward.

May I confess that turning 50 has not been as uneventful, emotionally, as I had anticipated?  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that my father had a stroke at 55 and died at 59.  But I think it has more to do with my ambivalence regarding how relatively important or unimportant it is that I am alive.  Is it possible to kind of separate out these two feelings: (1) that I am not particularly important in even the medium-sized scheme of things and (2) that the fact that I am alive — that I have been so unimaginably fortunate as to have a chance to be alive one time — is enormously meaningful?

My stepfather, Frank, a mensch, who has made my mother’s life so wonderful (and the rest of the family’s as well), has been ailing.  He and my mom are both in their 80s (though she’s several years his junior), and so when there are ailments they tend to raise a larger question: Is this part of a serious decline?  My mom is, as she is typically in these situations, remarkably clear-minded about what’s going on; in addition, among Frank’s amazing children is one — Rachel — whose husband, Peter, is either a geriatrician or a gerontologist, depending on what the dictionary would tell me if I were to look it up.  (He’s a doctor who works with old people.)  Rachel and Peter arranged for Mom and Frank to go from Chicago (where they live in a beautiful high-rise on the South Side) to visit with them in Cleveland.  As of Mom’s last email, Frank has been improving greatly; I cannot begin to tell you how hopeful this makes me.

I’m trying to work with time — to accept it, not let it be the enemy, let it just be.  I have a tendency to resort to kind of a willful narcolepsy in response to things that challenge me.  Maybe I’m somewhat depressed most all the time.  The things that make me happy: I’m wildly in love with my family, just really blissed out when I’m with them.  I have friends whom I love.  I love living in Berkeley.  I am a proud American.  I am a proud un-American.  I am proud to be a Jew, and totally confused about what that means.  (I imagine that I would be equally proud to be whatever else I happened to be born as.)  I love listening to music, and reading.

The work I do — making stories on stage and on film — is, in part, the craft of working with time.  Its masters teach me — or try — how to make of my limitations (or, perhaps, the ordered confessions of those limitations) a sort of strength, or at least a living.  For thousands of years Jews have commented in the margins of history, creating pressurized, often indecipherable (at least to many) counter-narratives to the prevailing ones.  At 50, facing the task of fitting my infinitesimal story into the vast tapestry I sense is there, I guess I want to say to myself (and to you) that I will try, very hard, as hard as I can, to be open to any possibilities that present themselves.

And why is it that the prospect of going to temple for the first time arouses these chaotic thoughts in this atheistic, apostate Jew?  I’d give you my usual superficial answer, but I want to try something different this time: I want to have the experience, rather than imagine my way through or around it.  I am, as the great Suzanne Vega song puts it, tired of sleeping.

Malie Kai Chocolate Bars — Yum!!

Malie Kai ChocolatesA few years ago, my sweet brother-in-law Nathan Sato and his lovely wife, Miki Azuchi, ran off to Hawaii and launched a brave and improbable new career making delicious local chocolates.  Due to the intense yumminess of their products, their company, Malie Kai, has been branching out — just now reaching the Bay Area, where both outlets of the Berkeley Bowl now carry their stuff.

These chocolate bars (which come in several varieties — including with crunchy “nibs,” my favorite) make excellent stocking-stuffers — though our own most recent samples mysteriously “disappeared” before they could make it into any stockings.

Highly recommended!!

Monday’s Robert Reich Interview Is “Sold Out” …

… assuming, that is, that a free-admission event can be described as sold out.  I mean that all the seats have been accounted for.  Though if you want to take a chance, you can show up at the Ashby Stage on Monday evening: we’re going to release all the seats that haven’t been claimed at 7:15.  (The event starts at 7:30.)  If you’d like to be added to the waiting list (you’d still have to show up), just drop me an email.  Also, if you have a burning question you’d like to suggest for me to ask, you can put it in the “comments” section for this blog item.

One question you might have is, “What event are you talking about, anyhow?”  Well, it’s the first in a planned series of free get-togethers to celebrate the continuing progress of Love & Taxes, the new feature film I’m making with my brother Jake.  On Monday morning and afternoon, we’ll be filming a scene with Robert B. Reich in which he plays former I.R.S. Commissioner Sheldon S. Cohen.  (Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, these two wonderful men are well-acquainted with each other in real life.)  Then, in the evening, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, after Jake and I introduce a clip from our previous Love & Taxes shoot, I’ll interview Prof. Reich about pressing issues of our day — as well as love and taxes.

Jake has enlisted a terrific crew to videotape the show, and we’ll be posting that video on my website — and perhaps elsewhere as well.  Keep watching this space for more details.  (And by the way, mad props to our great friends at Shotgun Players, for making the Ashby Stage available and helping us out in their typically generous fashion!)

Busting a CAP?

280px-instrumental_temperature_recordTonight I’ll be attending a meeting of the Berkeley City Council, which is scheduled to discuss the latest revision of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan (CAP).  Apparently there will be a lot of opposition voiced against the plan, as it will require Berkeley homeowners to bring their houses into conformity with rules designed to maximize heat efficiency (and thus minimize carbon emissions).  Also, some folks opposed the somewhat greater level of “density” proposed by the plan.  (The argument for greater density — besides that the word “density” reminds many of us of that great line in Back to the Future when Crispin Glover’s character tremulously says to his future wife, “I am your density!” (rather than “destiny,” as he was supposed to say) — is that you need a decent number of people to live around one particular area, or “corridor,” for public transportation to be most useful.)

My own opinion is that we need to change our habits big-time to save our planet, and that the CAP is a thoughtful and brave response to that challenge.  As a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission, I’ve seen how passionate the city staff has been about seeking (and incorporating) citizens’ input.  And after all, the citizens have tacitly demanded such action to be taken, by voting overwhelmingly (81 percent — a higher number even than Bush’s peak disapproval numbers) in support of 2006’s Measure G, which called for the city to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.  As I have learned, that goal will be very, very difficult to meet — and yet, we must get there, because we must do everything we can to reverse global warming.

You could argue that it doesn’t really matter what one granola-munching, sandal-wearing community does — that the whole thing is merely a symbolic exercise.  In fact, you could argue that tonight at the Berkeley City Council meeting, at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way — probably no earlier than 8:30, as there are other topics likely to take up the Council’s attention till then.  Or could you say that you support this Climate Action Plan, and dearly wish it to be implemented — which, as you know, happens to be my position.  But isn’t it great that we get to participate in the fight to save our planet, rather than just make snide jokes about politicians and hot air and carbon emissions?