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Rabbi Menachem Creditor

“I Was There”

Our second class — in the series of four that I am sharing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor, titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds” — focused on several myths that the Jewish spiritual tradition has inserted into gaps in the Torah’s account of the Sea of Reeds story.  These were from a remarkable book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, edited by Howard Schwartz, that I keep always nearby, a seemingly inexhaustible source of wonder.  I’m not sure whether these tales fall into the category of midrash — filling in the gaps left by the official accounts — but since I’m sitting here all alone in my office writing this (as far as I can tell!), I’m going to say that they do.

A couple of them imagined a further life for the relatively minor Biblical character Serah bat Asher, who — in one account we read — appears a thousand years after the parting of the Red Sea (as it is called in Tree of Souls, rather than the Sea of Reeds) and informs a rabbi and his students what really happened that day.  And they have to believe her because she was there — she was a witness.  This story put me immediately in mind of the Holocaust survivors I used to meet as a child in New York.  My mother or father — whichever parent had custody of me that day — would make a point of introducing me.  And as I shook the hand of the older man, or woman, my mom or dad would quietly point to the numbers tattooed on the forearm.  These numbers were the proof, if one was needed: proof that these human beings had once been accorded the status of things.  To look into the eyes of these survivors was, to me, to peer into infinity: to try to apprehend a suffering that I could not imagine, which, miraculously, had not succeeded in robbing them of their humanity.  And yet — and this was part of the miracle — they were “only” people, not supernatural spirits or gods.

For those of us blessed with lives of relative comfort, there is, I think, a temptation to ascribe magical qualities to those who experience enormous and prolonged suffering and degradation — which, in turn, can allow us the further comfort of separating ourselves from their plight.  It’s as if these distant sufferers become bit players in what we experience as the epic dramas of our own lives — adding color, and a sense of depth.  How much more difficult it is — how horrifying — to confront the idea, the reality, that these terrible things have happened — happen — to real people.  Then it could be me, or you — or, God forbid, our children.

It is, perhaps, paradoxical that a fanciful story about an imaginary woman — who, impossibly, lived for at least a thousand years — may help me to connect with real people in the real world in which I live, instead of cowering (as I spend so much of my time doing) in a personal fantasy that shields me from some pain, but also from action, from life, and from love.  Paradoxical, but (I think) palpably true.

 

Swimming with Shtarkers

Rabbi Creditor hands out the class reader.

So how tough were the Israelites, really?  This question — like a stand of reeds — lay just beneath the surface of our many discussions in the first installment of the four-session class that I’m doing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.  Titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds,” this short but intense course is an attempt to investigate what happened at that crucial moment in the Book of Exodus when the fleeing Israelites, seemingly about to be slaughtered by the Egyptians, experienced a saving miracle: the sea in front of them parted, they went through to the other side, and then the sea closed over their pursuers, killing them instead.

That sea, which I remember being referred to as the Red Sea (a pleasing name in my Communist childhood), is called, in the great modern translation by Robert Alter, the Sea of Reeds.  Which, as I have recently taken up the double-reeded oboe again — after a break of many decades — I find even more gratifying.  In fact, I was so taken by the term Sea of Reeds that I decided to make it the title of my next theater piece.  And that, in turn, strongly suggested that the piece live at the intersection of two kinds of practice: Jewish and musical.  (Yes, I typically retrofit my shows to titles that I love.  So for example, when — in researching a medical condition called Sjögren’s syndrome — I once happened upon a newsletter called “The Moisture Seekers,” it was practically inevitable that I’d develop a show about sex just to go with that title.)

The reading for this session was Chapter 14 of Exodus, in which the sea-splitting happens.  Like all the other chapters, it’s filled with language and imagery that I find endlessly evocative, confusing, and elliptical.  Alter’s notes do a great deal to elucidate the text — or at least to clarify what the confusion is about — but that still (fortunately) leaves much to ponder.  And as I mentioned earlier, in class one big, recurrent issue for us was the question of how much, exactly, did Moses and the Israelites do.  Because the narrative makes it quite clear that God was acting, in essence, as the grand puppeteer — hardening Pharaoh’s heart when the Egyptian king was about to give up the chase, directing Moses’ actions so that this (very) human being (and not God) would appear to be causing the miracles, and generally moving all the characters along in such a way that the Israelites would ultimately triumph.

So were the Israelites heroes, in the sense that we usually think of the word?  If I had any knowledge at all about ancient Greek drama, I would insert an impressive passage here about Oedipus and Fate — but I don’t, so I can’t.  And yet there seems to be a similar vibe here — perhaps an ancient vibe — that has to do with the Gods (or, in this case, the one God) having already written the stories that we humans, in our self-centered way, register as our own experiences.  So ironically, in the Exodus story — which is seemingly about the transformation of a slave population into a culture with agency — the protagonists themselves are quite passive.  Actually, worse than passive — they also do a lot of kvetching!  Often they sound like elderly passengers on a cruise ship that’s turned out to be much less luxurious than in the brochure.

But there’s something else, too — a deeper thing — that I felt from that chapter, and that I think others in the class felt as well: As much as we (or, at least, I) may, well, kvetch about it, the language also transmits an enormous amount of power.  There is, in this story — in the way this story is told — a profound empathy with those who suffer terribly, who lack agency.  And there are so many people who suffer in this way, day after day — for whom the miraculous gift of a life is something more like a curse.  What draws me to Judaism — and to other forms of theology as well (and, for that matter, to democracy) — is the idea that our purpose, in our own lives, is to try to improve the lives of others; and the belief (hope?) that a community of like-minded people can work at this together.  In what I see as a violent and quite random universe, it is incredibly strange that we might choose to spend our brief time of consciousness (or, at least, much of it) in such ethical pursuits; and so it is perhaps only fitting that it would take incredibly strange language to describe that journey — and, more important, to inspire similar journeys.

And if we’re really going to go there, together, through the Sea of Reeds — intellectually, spiritually, and physically — I think we’re going to have to be quite tough indeed.

 

Next Month in Jerusalem

Next month I become a man, at least symbolically, when I will have my bar mitzvah in Israel, with my wife and son and a lovely group of fellow travelers.  My dear friend the Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, who is leading the trip (and bringing his own beautiful family) has explained to me that when I turned 13 (39 years ago last month) I technically became a bar mitzvah: that is, no ceremony is required by Jewish law or tradition for the transition to adulthood to take place.  You just … become a grownup overnight.

And yet there is, for me, a deep emotional resonance in contemplating this occasion, however gratuitous it might seem.  Why I feel this way is still not totally clear to me.  Nor do I want it to be, yet.  How can I feel those feelings before I am in the actual time and place?  But at the core is an awareness that the real, actual me will be taking this journey — not a reflection, or a character, or a type.  The book of my life has not yet been published, and my capacities have not yet been fully measured.  And I sense that I wouldn’t have any way of knowing — or feeling — these things if I were traveling alone.

I can be myself when I am with others with whom I share a deep bond.  If I have learned anything in my 52 years of boyhood, it is that.

My Big Fat Jewish Learning

One of the fabulous books we'll be reading.

One of the fabulous books we'll be reading.

I’m really excited about this: Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley will be teaching me about Jewish stuff, in preparation for my planned bar mitzvah in Israel next year — and I invite you to join us in “My Big Fat Jewish Learning”!  Rabbi Creditor has planned a short, yet wide-ranging course that will explore many meaty topics (which, of course, will not be mixed with milky topics).  We’ll read cool books, hear some things from the rabbi, then have discussions about what we’ve read.

The first meeting will be a public event at Afikomen Judaica bookstore in Berkeley (which has kindly offered a discount on all the books in our syllabus), followed by six sessions at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Each class will be 90 minutes long.  The fee for the entire course is $50-$75 on a sliding scale, with no one turned away for lack of funds.  Given the complexities of jibing Rabbi Creditor’s schedule with mine, the course schedule is a bit irregular — so please note that the classes happen on different days of the week. Here’s that schedule, along with the (still-in-progress) syllabus:

Class #1: Sunday, Jan. 16, 11 a.m.: public event at Afikomen Judaica bookstore.  Biblical Prophets, The Prophet’s Wife by Milton Steinberg, text from the book of Hosea.

Class #2: Monday, Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Mishnah, As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic text tbd.  (Please note: neither the rabbi nor I have received any kickback money from Milton Steinberg.)

Class #3: Monday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Aggadah, Tree of Souls by Howard Schwartz, a midrash/legend tbd.

Class #4: Monday, Feb. 14, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Halachah, For the Love of God and People by Elliot Dorff, the development of the verses in Lev. dealing with homosexuality.

Class #5: Monday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Modern Streams of Judaism, A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community by Jeffrey Gurock and Jacob Schacter, a Mordecai Kaplan quote in The Condition of Jewish Belief.

Class #6: Monday, March 21, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Mysticism, Afterlife, The World to Come by Dara Horn, text tbd.

Class #7: Wednesday, April 13, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Israeli Poetry/Theology, Creator, Are You Listening?: Israeli Poets on God and Prayer by David C. Jacobson; text: a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

For more info on this course, please email Rachel at office@netivotshalom.org.

** Update on March 8, 2011: You can now hear audio from our previous sessions — and read Rabbi Creditor’s beautiful handouts — here.

Come with me to Israel!

250px-locationisraelsvgFrom July 13-24, 2011, I’ll be joining my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor (of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley) on a trip to Israel — my first ever (and his umpteenth)!  And we’d love you to join us!  Our goal will be to have authentic encounters (the activity prescribed by the late “I-Thou” philosopher Martin Buber) with a wide range of Israelis, and I fully expect minds to be blown.  (Is that why they make yarmulkes?)

Below is a (provisional) itinerary, to give you a sense of the trip’s scope.  For more info, please email Vicki at vicki@israeltour.com.

Wednesday, 13 July – Israel Bound!

  • Depart on overnight flight to Israel

Thursday, 14 July – When You Come Into the Land (Deut. 26:1)

  • Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport (today’s program depends on arrival time)
  • Ascent to Jerusalem
  • Gaze upon the Old City of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade, standing where Abraham stood at the dawn of Jewish history; take in the breathtaking view
  • Hotel check-in and welcome dinner
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Friday, 15 July – Jerusalem of Old

  • In the Kotel Tunnels, walk alongside the Western Wall’s massive foundation stones
  • Tour the Southern Wall Excavations and learn about the ancient Temple at the Davidson Center
  • Travel through many centuries as you tour the Jewish Quarter
  • Return to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at a scenic overlook or a choice of local synagogues
  • Shabbat dinner at the hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 16 July – Shabbat in Jerusalem
Parashat Pinhas

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Free evening in Jerusalem
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Sunday, 17 July – Those Who Made a Difference

  • Visit the Memorial Museum, the Children’s Memorial, and the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem
  • Take a sobering walk through the history of the Jewish State at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery
  • Stumble across many authentic archeological finds in a hands-on dig through archeological matter from under the Temple Mount
  • Free evening in Jerusalem OR Evening program with a Jerusalem Masorti congregation
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Monday, 18 July – Into the Desert

  • Visit the fascinating Jo Alon Center for Bedouin Culture near Lahav for an in-depth introduction to this desert culture and some Bedouin hospitality
  • Visit Ben Gurion’s Hut in Sde Boker for personal insight into the life of this outstanding Zionist leader and Israel’s first prime minister
  • Walk through the beautiful nature reserve at the Ein Avdat Oasis
  • Dinner at the field school
  • Overnight: Sde Boker Field School

Tuesday, 19 July – Freedom Fighters or Fanatics?
17 Tammuz

  • Early departure for the Dead Sea Region
  • Ascend by cable car to Masada. Tour this impressive excavation and discuss the terrible dilemma faced by its Jewish population during Roman times
  • Enjoy a walk through the beautiful Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to the waterfall and review the biblical story of kings David and Saul “on site”
  • Stop for a dip and mud baths at Mineral Beach on the amazing Dead Sea
  • Travel north through the Jordan River Valley to the Galilee
  • Hotel check-in and dinner
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Wednesday, 20 July – The Golan Heights

  • Travel through the Golan Heights by jeep (Shvilim), off the beaten path, and gaze down over the Galilee as the Syrians once did
  • See how robots are used to milk cows at Kibbutz Avnei Eitan
  • Return to the hotel to enjoy a Lake Kinneret swim
  • Free evening on the Tiberias promenade
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Thursday, 21 July – The Northern Mediterranean Coast

  • At Agam Hahula (Hula Lake) ride family golf carts around the lake and learn about the many species of birds that migrate through Israel each year
  • Glide down the Jordan River in a kayak
  • Tour the synagogues, courtyards, and shops of the mystical city of Tzefat
  • Meet with a Tzefat kabbalistic artist in his gallery to explore Jewish mysticism through the prism of his creations
  • Hotel check-in
  • Dinner in the kibbutz dining room
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Hanaton

Friday, 22 July – In the Footsteps of Sages

  • Take a tour of Kibbutz Hanaton
  • Explore the magnificently excavated ancient city of Tzippori, home to Rabbi Judah the Prince; discover ancient beauty and evidence of a community in which Jews and Romans coexisted peacefully
  • Travel south for the ascent to Jerusalem
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at Robinson’s Arch
  • Shabbat dinner at hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 23 July – A Heavenly Shabbat
Parashat Mattot

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Summary session and farewell dinner at the hotel
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Depart for the airport

Sunday, 24 July – A Temporary Departure

  • Arrive in USA
  • Begin planning your next Israel trip with Rabbi Creditor!

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.