Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teaching baseball to Ethiopian immigrants

This morning we woke up to more extreme heat. I imagined myself playing in the Cubs game in San Juan, Puerto Rico a few years ago. My kids and I taught a group of 6 Ethiopian immigrants to play ball, but we didn't have enough mitts to go around. My in-laws live in a relatively poor part of Beit Shemesh and the neighborhood is filled with Ethiopians.
My brother in law, Shaul and his fiance (my kids helped pick out the ring last week) were at lunch as were my other brother in law, Lior, and his kids. Lior is doing some ground breaking work with gray water which I will report about as I learn more. Yochi, my sister in law, the acupuncturist, was also present. She is wonderful, and I'm glad to be close to her.
After lunch, I passed out. It was a combination of jet lag and forgetting to take my synthroid. Later we returned to Tel-Aviv, even hotter than Beit Shemesh, and signed a lease for our new apartment. We now live at Abba Kovner 13, have two parking spaces, a storage closet, a view of the sea and no money to speak of. Everything here is so expensive and we are house poor without owning a house. I will have to explore doing some adjunct teaching in addition to my studies.
Now it is 1:30 AM and I am taking advantage of the MLB TV I subscribed to before I left. The Cubs had a 3 PM game, which allows me to listen live and I'm loving it. The benefits of jet lag.
Go Cubs Go & Pleasant dreams.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Lufthansa, Pope Benedict and my arrival in the Holy Land

Thursday, August 27th, 5 PM CST.
The soundtrack in my mind this morning has been the song, Far from the home I love, from Fiddler on the Roof. That’s not to say, as the lyrics suggest, that my family doesn’t understand “why I do, what I do.” But I am full of sadness to leave my beloved city, my friends, parents, family, Cubs…
I started the day at my shul, Beth Hillel. Rabbi Kensky gave me the Levy aliyah to the Torah and then said a meesheberach prayer for me. This was a very touching way to say farewell to my congregation and well worth waking up at 6 AM after a night at Wrigley Field with my dad.
Breakfast at Jack’s in Skokie was also a treat. Some of my closest friends came to bid me adieu at my favorite breakfast restaurant. I often imagined myself sitting in Jack’s with my grandchildren and these same friends sharing stories of our past. I hope this is part of what the future holds for me.
As has been the case for the last week, I left Jack’s with my yellow “to do” list and made my way to the bank, Staples and a few other stops before a final packing of the suitcases. My last chore, to send out the prospectus for the book I have made out of my doctoral dissertation. The field of presses that publish peace education books is not very wide, but I sent four copies out and I hope I do better than the team average of my Cubbies. It only takes one publisher, and I hope it is among those I mailed my prospectus to.
On the way to the airport, my dad’s wife pointed out the irony of moving to Israel on a German airline. I thought that my last summer’s adventure in Munich had changed my perspective on this issue, but when they billed me an extra $150 for my overweight baggage, I temporarily reverted to my old stereotypes and cursed the anti-Semites. I know this has little basis in reality, but $150 could buy me a lot of baseball tickets and I’m angry.
Now I’m on the plane, which is packed. My friend Bennett mastered the art of sending someone off by sneaking a box of my favorite chocolates in with the baseball mitt he returned to me from our venture up to Milwaukee to see a Brewers game. In my last week in America, I managed to see the White Sox, Brewers and Cubs. Fortunately for me, my deal with God precludes a Cubs World Series victory before I return from Israel in 4 years.
I have to make a choice now between Chicken Teriyaki or Asian vegetarian. My travel agent forgot to order me a Kosher meal, so I guess I’ll go with the Asian vegetarian, not that I am strict about these things, but I am on my way to becoming a rabbi.
Well, I guess this is all for now. I promise to be more interesting as time goes on. It’s hard to reflect on your big life decisions when you’re in the midst of swimming in the deep water. Ciao for now.

Saturday, August 28th, 3 AM, Israel

It’s Shabbat and I’m writing on my computer. Really, I am not so bothered by this. I don’t think this violates the restfulness of my Shabbat. In fact, it is nothing compared to the unrestfulness of my jet-lag. The only other question is what behavior do I want to model? As I study to be a rabbi, this will become more of an issue. For the time being, I have ruled out “growing a black hat and buying a beard.” A favorite line from a secular Israeli lyricist, I think Yonatan Gefen, making fun of the orthodox here.
My flight to Frankfort was improved by the company I kept. In the seat next to me was a Polish divinity doctoral student. At first I was agitated by his arm creeping over the armrest that separated us, but eventually I was won over by his stories of work in Chicago on Polish-Jewish reconciliation. What most fascinated me was his comparisons of Pope John Paul and Benedict. Bill Ayers refers to Pope Benedict as Benny the Rat, and I coupled that with the little I hear about him in the news to form a negative impression. After speaking with Michael, my opinion has changed.
Yes, his changes to the Catholic liturgy regarding Jews is not something I feel good about, not his comments about Islam, but I was won over by two little understood facts. First of all, relative to John Paul, Benny is a much bigger supporter of Vatican Two, which was a major step in the right direction for the church, and second, Pope Benedict invited Jurgen Habermas to sit at his table and discuss the idea of discourse ethics. The school where I will study to be a rabbi, the Hartman Institute, has one guiding principle, every is welcome at our table that is willing to sit at our table with everyone there. For me, this is a great foundation piece for productive pluralism, and I see Pope Benedict’s action as very much in line with Hartman’s.
This said, I am very pleased to have witnessed Congressman Barney Frank put up a wall and say to an absurd (insane?) constituent who waved a picture of President Obama as Hitler and compared his health care plans to Nazism that “talking to [her] would be like talking to a dining room table.” Some people don’t earn their seat at the table, others earn my respect by making the table inviting, even for their philosophical enemies. Kudos to Pope Benedict.

From Frankfort to Tel-Aviv I sat with a fundamentalist 20 year old woman who was on her way to study Bible in a Christian university in Jerusalem near the Jaffa Gate. While she was a very nice girl, (I say girl without intention of patronizing) she was very innocent and I couldn’t help but feel as if she were filling voids in her life with Evangelical mumble jumble. She told me that she was coming to study Bible because she loved it, but when I tried to understand what that meant, she didn’t have much to say. She was loaded with platitudes about the role of women in the family, but didn’t understand that that was interpretation, not scripture (Even if Menachem Elon, the great Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Talmud scholar and candidate for the Israeli presidency claims that there is no difference between scripture and interpretation.) In essence, I saw this girl as a great example of that thin line between education and indoctrination. Lots of ideas and concepts were deposited in her with the hope that they will nurture her (indoctrinate) into a fine Christian woman, but she wasn’t educated to think for herself or understand why she holds the beliefs she does.
Regardless of the theoretical world surrounding her journey, she was very scared and excited and alone, and I felt great compassion for her. We got our baggage together and walked through customs together before I was greeted by Maya, Itamar, Irit and my two brother’s in law in Israel (the third lives in Vegas).

Arriving in Beit Shemesh, it started to hit me that this is my new world; Shabbat with the in-laws, extreme heat all summer, no baseball and a great distance from the home I love. Fortunately, the ten years that I lived here, over two 5 year stints, were quite joyful and I am full of hope that these next four years will be as rich and exciting as my past experience here has been.

Now I will disconnect the computer, walk over to the corner of my in-laws yard where I can piggy-back (can you say piggy-back in a Jewish country without sounding antagonistic?) on the neighbors wireless connection and upload this rant. Please share The Radish ( with your friends and send feedback.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jubilee, Hank Williams & other pangs of pleasure in this rabbinic pursuit

It’s 5 AM, Sunday morning and I can’t sleep. I’m wondering how this Jewish kid from Chicago who used to wake up early on Sundays, to watch Jubilee, the gospel music program, is now moving to Israel to become a rabbi. What’s even crazier is the destination. I have lived in Israel for ten years of my life, and in my Israeli identity, I have never inclined toward Judaism as a religion. In fact, I was among the numerous secular Tel-Avivis who stood in line at the video store the day before Yom Kippur to get my movies before going to the market to stock up the refrigerator. One year, to honor the distinctiveness of the holiday, I even rented Terminator: Judgment Day as a cynical twist on the intention of this day of fasting and repentance.

To be quite frank, the same irreverent kid still lives inside this aging body. I am not going to Israel to become a rabbi because I regret the behavior of my youth or because I have seen some light. I still get goose bumps when I hear the Staple Singers or Hank Williams singing I like the Christian life. The only difference now, I think, is the reverence I have for the rabbis who saved Judaism, and my awe and respect for the system they created which made a discursively ethical people out of our nation.

I am not going to become a rabbi because I believe in God’s revelation to my people and want to ensure that we follow Her ways.

I am not going to become a rabbi because of a newfound reverence for God. I do not know how I could ever be certain of Her existence. I’m not even sure it is relevant to me.

I am going to become a rabbi because I have discovered for myself that I was born into a radical tradition of progressive thinking intellectuals who initiated a self-correcting system that could uphold and sustain human dignity. And I want to promote that system among my people and as a light onto the nations.

As I understand it, the Talmud teaches us that the title “Rav,” rabbi, was established to indemnify teachers of this radical tradition, so they could share this progressive philosophy with their people free from the encumbrances that would limit their reach and depth of penetration in society. Talk about freedom of speech, my people created the freedom to teach, and they did it with style. Discourse was encouraged, disagreement welcome, and anyone was welcome to the table that would sit with everyone at the table. How cool is that?

The rabbis of the Talmud were victorious over challenges from their fundamentalist brothers. They faced their Roman oppressors as peacemakers, for the most part, in a style Gandhi would have respected, and they left us a tradition that we can be proud of and need to study and share. This is why I want to join this tradition and become a rabbi, and this is why I am willing to travel far from the home I love, the professional sports I crave, the culture I grew up in and the friends and family I love so much.

This is why the Jubilee watching kid and the middle aged body that houses him are moving to Israel. I just hope I do a good job learning my new trade and I hope I can manage without my Cubs and Bears and other human distractions that make being an American so lively.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I won't be needing Langston Hughes's phone number

I am not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I wrote this short poem to capsulize my family's experience over the last 7 months. I hope reads well.

i won't be needing Langston Hughes's phone number
or an email address to find out
What happens to a dream deferred
Mine is not drying up like a raisin in the sun
Nor is is festering like a sore
Although i hope it plays out to be like a syrupy sweet,
one that won't give me cavities
or add to my weight

My dream is not deferred
it just took nearly 7 months, the last 40 days without a job
but we kept our eye on the prize
and now we are off to the promised land
full of cliches,
and dreams of peace and learning and family
and appreciation for the strength and support
that got us here.