Category Archives: books

Summer Reading 2019

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – With the recent popularity of meditation and yoga as spiritual pursuits, Pollan explores an alternate, once frowned upon method of opening the mind, staying present, and finding meaning – hallucinogenics.  A blend of travelogue, scientific research, medical history, and memoir, the author ponders one of the oldest and most significant human questions:  how can we find meaning in our lives? (460 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth (Life After Warming) by David Wallace-Wells – Concern about the devastating effects of climate change has grown exponentially in recent years.  Relying on the most recent scientific evidence, David Wallace-Wells imagines what challenges will confront humanity if climate change continues unchecked.  He also offers hope that time is still left to make changes in our behavior and environmental policies before it is too late.  (300 pages)

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton – In the information overload age there is precious little time to ponder, reflect, and just think.  Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, argues in this slim volume that moments of quiet reflection are necessary for personal health and growth, and also for the cultivation of a society of tolerance and respect for all.  (130 pages)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – In a vividly imagined Africa filled with superhuman creatures and supernatural forces the Jamaican write Marlon James uses the mystery of a missing boy to weave layered stories of survival and quest.  Filled with references to popular culture, the book draws on the hero myth structure identified by Joseph Campbell to propel its protagonist, Tracker, through a violent, dangerous, and mysterious world.  (please note!  the book contains multiple violent passages – rating PG 15!)  (420 pages)

These Truths by Jill Lepore – The Harvard historian has written a brilliant one volume history of the United States.  As is so often the case, the more we know about the past the better we understand the present.  Beautifully written, Lepore shines a light on some of our greatest people and most important moments, but also reminds us of how often we fall short of the ideals that define our nation.  Every American should read this book. (800 pages)

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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In Defense of Clutter

There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days.  Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives.  Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to  personal transformation.  The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.

One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not.  That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale.  Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away.  This idea seems to me flawed at best.  Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection.  I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there.  Life is not always about joy.  Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.

The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered.  Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!).  Divorce happens.  Responsibility encroaches.  Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect.  Illness confronts us.  Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.

Besides, clutter adds texture.  Clutter is interesting.  All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf.  That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real.  What would we be without our clutter?  Calmer?  Perhaps a bit.  But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves.  Isn’t that weird?  Impersonal?  A bit robotic, even?

The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’  The famous riposte to that phrase still stands:  ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’

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Winter Reading

As the nights get longer and the days colder one might be tempted to spend time on the couch or in a favorite chair, sipping tea (or perhaps brandy, or whisky!*), and reading.  Here are a few suggestions for winter reading as we usher out 2018 and welcome in a new year:

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – This short novel (294 pages) describes in colorful detail life in the medieval village of Oakham during four days in February of 1491.  The village priest, John Reve, is the story’s main protagonist.  Part theologian, part pastor, part Sherlock Holmes, he struggles to understand how the body of a villager ended up in the river, drowned.  Fate or misfortune?  A Divine Decree fulfilled or a human plot gone awry?  The author’s beautiful prose will lead you backwards in time towards the answer to this delightful mystery.

These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore – Critics have called this one volume (932 pages) history of the United States a ‘masterpiece.’  Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard, analyzes key moments in the history of our nation, and ultimately creates a lens we can use to contextualize our current troubled and divisive times.    George Harrison, in his song Any Road (paraphrasing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) includes the lyric ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’  Lepore’s point is exactly the opposite – it is by knowing where we’ve come from that we understand where we are, and gain insight into where we should be going.

And last, but buy no means least:

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – This series of short essays explores the way truth has historically been both understood and manipulated.  Read together, the chapters provide a devastating critique of the Trump administration’s attempt to reshape   how Americans understand what is real and what is not, and where actual truth resides.

*May I suggest a dram of Lagavulin 16 as the perfect match for a cold night, a warm blanket, and a good book.

And enjoy the reading!!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, books, civil rights, history, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Summer Reading List 2018*

Each year around Memorial Day I publish a summer reading list, letting the congregation know what books I expect to be delving into during the summer months.  Happy reading!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – A post apocalyptic tale of a traveling Shakespeare troupe, this novel explores memory, friendship, family, and asks the ultimate question:  what is it that truly makes us human? (378 pages)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe – Published in 1968, this book (non-fiction) chronicles the early hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the escapades of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters.  In a time when psychedelics are making a bit of a comeback this is worth a re-read, just after the author’s death at the age of 88.

The Story of the Jews:  Belonging, 1492-1900 – the long fight to survive, by Simon Schama – The British historian has just published part 2 of his history of the Jewish people.  The second installment covers a 500 year span as the Jewish community struggled with what it meant to live in the Diaspora.  Will the Jews be accepted or rejected?  Questions of antisemitism, assimilation, and Jewish identity come to life in Schama’s lively prose, and reading his book reminds us those questions are just as relevant today as they have ever been. (some 600 plus pages!)

The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical Times, by James Kugel – One of the best modern Bible commentators, Kugel explores the shifting sense of God that is conveyed by the Hebrew Bible.  Why is God present and active when the Bible begins, but remote and invisible when it ends?  This book is Kugel’s answer to that question.

On Middle Ground, a History of the Jews in Baltimore, by Eric Goldstein and Deborah Weiner – As advertised, a comprehensive history of Baltimore’s Jewish community, from its very first Jews to Pikesville.  Close readers will find that Rabbi Mark Loeb z’l does get a mention! (about 400 pages)

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi – One of Israel’s most thoughtful writers, Halevi explores with frank honesty his sadness at the Palestinian situation, his longing for reconciliation, and his fierce belief in Israel, its mission, and its right to exist.  In a world where we are all too often driven to extreme views, Halevi’s nuanced exploration of the ‘matzvah’ is poignant and necessary.

* As always, a caveat emptor – I may not read all of these books this summer, and I probably will read one or two books not on the list!  Enjoy the reading!!

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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Days of Future Past

Preposterous.  A second Civil War, once again between the North and the South.  Rebel forces and suicide bombers (all American).  A shadowy faintly Islamic caliphate that is manipulating events on American shores.  Biological weapons of mass destruction.  Political assassinations.  This is the dystopian near future that Omar El Akkad describes in his debut novel American War.

Akkad’s United States is a shattered and humbled country.  North and South have split over a fundamental disagreement about the use of fossil fuels, with the South refusing to accept the North’s ban on gasoline and oil.  As is often the case with arguments, there are deeper issues at work, and old grievances and unhealed wounds festering.  The North wins the war, and a reconciliation process is put into place.  But there are those in the South who will never surrender, and rebel groups and individual terrorists continue the fight.  Refugee camps are set up, civil rights taken away in the name of safety, human dignity stripped, individuals tortured, and in the process, the moral compass of an entire nation swings out of balance.

It does indeed sound preposterous, at least on the surface.  As bad as things might be at any given moment, there is no way we can get from here to there, from where we are now to the tragedy and terror that the book paints, from the United States to a divided North and South.  Is there?

But think for a moment.  How far is it really from here to there?  All of the elements that Akkad draws on to create his compelling narrative are already in place today.  We live in a country with deep, angry divisions between Red and Blue states, that only seem to be getting deeper and angrier.  The government is dysfunctional, unable to pass legislation to address today’s pressing needs.  Our leadership is polarizing.  Terrorist networks are operating all over the globe, many of them with the express intent of destroying the American way of life.  Weapons of mass destruction exist, whether biological or nuclear, and we have for years worried about what would happen if those weapons were to fall into the wrong hands.

The truth is Akkad doesn’t make anything up from whole cloth for his story.  It is all out there right now, today.  All the author does is put the elements into one pot at the same time, heat them up a bit, stir them in exactly the right way, and follow the explosion to its terrifying, and also logical, conclusion.  He is not really writing about some far distant time and place.  He is writing about the here and now.  His work is not so much an act of imagination as it is an act of re-organization.   It is not a picture of the future.  Instead, it is a warning about the present.

Will we figure out a way to heed that warning?   That is, at the end of the day, the question Akkad sets in front of us.  And we are the only ones who can provide an answer.  American War is a novel about the future that could not be more contemporary.  It is a sharp critique of today’s cultural, societal, and political trends.  It is a mirror in which our images look back at us with uncomfortable and uncompromising honesty.  And it just so happens to be a heck of a read.

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