Thursday, September 27, 2018

Next Commentator

Image result for weekly torah portionSimchat Torah marks at traditional branch point for me.  For many years I have studied the weekly Torah portion, usually on Thursday nights.  I pick a single weekly sage starting with Bereshit and continue with that person's comments each week through Haazinu, and when available v'Zot HaBracha.  I started with books, which allowed me to follow sages of the olden days, though while each Sedra had its insights, they were not necessarily all from the same year.  With the widely available electronic formats I elected my annual Rabbi, yes, always a Rabbi with full recognition that my wife's Torah Portion Humor has a significant following, from several sources, most typically the Orthodox Union's roster.  Until last year, I never repeated one, but I could not improve on Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Ohr Torah Stone, adding the known Rabbinical historian Berel Wein this year along with Rabbi Riskin.  What I wanted to do last year was engage a Conservative commentator.  There are some, though they are harder to access and virtually all their programs seem to have a tag team approach with different members of the small group rotating portions.  I really want to follow one individual, not willing to compromise on that.

Bereshit renews our annual cycle shortly.  I plan to continue Ohr Torah Stone and may expand it to Rabbi Riskin's partner, though I should try to identify either a Conservative option or a much younger Orthodox Rabbi than the generally senior scholars I have followed.  Or maybe a woman.  Will look around a bit more.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Image result for entropy
This year marks the Chai anniversary of a seminal, oft cited sociological treatise, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.  I've never read it but plan to when I complete the novel that I had earmarked for the second half of 2018.  Basically, he traces the decline of participation in organized social activities over about a generation prior to its publication.  As I retire, I find myself removed from my last pageant, the daily professional adventures of endocrinology.  I pay dues to a few things, the national and Philadelphia Endocrine Societies, Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth synagogue and its men's club.  I no longer pay dues to the American College of Physicians, the Medical Society of Delaware, the American Medical Association, nor have I been a financial participant with the Jewish Federation of Delaware for over 20 years.  I register Democrat, vote Democrat more often than not, but have never been a more than a nominal donor.  I am a proud alumnus of two fine universities.  Any donation to the larger one would not move their fortunes at all and would not be sufficient in amount to get my name engraved on a flush handle anywhere on campus.  My fondness for my medical school knows no bounds and they do get some money with no hesitation, but I do not really belong to any of its organizations.

Since Woody Allen accurately recognized that 80% of life is showing up, I do not show up all that much.  There is the annual Endocrine Society Meeting, too expensive now without the hospital subsidy.  The local Endocrine Society Meeting which occurs monthly will continue, though I have not really made a lot of new friends there.  I go to shul on shabbos but I never get the sense that my intellect and energy have much value to the leadership so activities of years past have atrophied.  As soon as I retired, I volunteered for a Democratic campaign.  One candidate took interest but not much became of it.  I signed up on their web site as a willing participant but I think their executive director would prefer Beautiful People with money or yes men who will not have the candor to tell them when they might be undermining their own potential electoral support.  In summary, I look like a prototypical Bowling Alone  individual model.

Despite not having been a meaningful Federation donor since 1994, though supportive of some of their constituent agencies generous with funding of Jewish projects elsewhere that would likely have gone to them were the experience better, for some reason I found myself back on the mailing list of Federation's monthly, used to be biweekly, publication.  It is kept on a display rack at shul, where I have browsed titles, clenching my teeth perhaps when I come across something that praises one of my travails of decades past, but never read any of the articles.  I recognize some authors, sometimes written by people of laudable presence, sometimes by people I found venal, but mostly not known to me, with expected turnover of participants expected over my twenty odd years of avoidance or maybe more active shunning, while I become a part of a larger trend of Jewish participatory entropy.

Two articles appeared in print recently, one from a globally distributed publication The Forward and the other a locally distributed Jewish Voice, the periodical of the Jewish Federation near my home.  They look at the Holy Days and at Judaism's trends in America very differently.   "So Called Jews of No Religion are the Impetus for a Jewish Revolution"

Has the significance of the High Holy Days changed for you across the years?{%22issue_id%22:521893,%22page%22:36}

Has the significance of the Holy Days changed?  For the Rabbis responding to the question in The Jewish Voice, they are the anchors of tradition, at least in their homes, where families gather.  It's a form of keva, familiar people not seen in a while, familiar recipes on the table, familiar tunes that get brought out once yearly.  There are some elements of that for me, though very different from what it once was.  My attachment to the Yomim Noraim probably ended in college.  In high school teens were isolated by my synagogue to sit for a reduced fee in the mezzanine of a local movie theater that was rented for the occasion.  The people with me I knew from school, yet for those days we were separate from school.  While afforded unimportant status, we had the best seats and always air conditioned.  In college, the Holy Days were always a mixture of new people, the freshmen, and old friends not seen since the year before. There was community, even if limited to showing up there while the rest of the students threw frisbees in the quad.  We wore ties, something that would not happen again for a lot of us until next Rosh Hashana.  There were no longer familiar foods,  We separated from our families to be with other students.  I could sit anywhere in the auditorium I wanted, or at least on my side of the mechitza.  We had students conduct the service.  It was ours.  Graduations came and that was all gone, never to be recaptured.  Returning to a suburban synagogue, something just shy of a cathedral, with lots of people there who would never be seen again, not at work, in class, or in synagogue until next year prodded my cynical yetzer, neither tov nor ra but probably accurate.  I stopped focusing on the Holy Days as central, looked at those services as maybe a civilization reversal from the core of Judaism which is how you live on all the other days.  The respect for institution took a hit and it never recovered.

From the perspective of the Forward, in the article written by their editor in chief, I may have been a generation ahead of my time.  Attachment to the institutions and even to the practices did not sustain itself.  We can argue whether I helped bring it down as part of my generation or simply watched others do the things that made participation in the institutions unattractive, but there really are Jews, very valuable ones, who have departed not only the institutions but the beliefs that those institutions were designed to promote.  They have no compelling reason to recapture the recipes their grandparents made or to fly back to their hometowns, something their great-grandparents could not have done even if they wanted to.  While assembly of family for the Holy Days re-establishes this as sacred time for some, in the greater reality of Jewish history and American Jewish history in particular, there is a bit of myth to this.  People changed towns frequently, which is why the various desciples of the Ba-al Shem Tov are all known by their name and by the place they established their community.  In America, the reassembling of families only goes back about three generations though may be a central attribute for that middle generation, which is mine.

Rather, Bowling Alone, the hesitance to affiliate, affects Judaism as much as it affects political participation, attendance at PTA meetings, or enrollment in bowling leagues.  While the Holy Days offer a focus, a set time or keva to declare Jewishness if only for a few days, they do not really reverse what seem to be mega-trends, and alas, probably for cause.