Category Archives: books

Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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Filed under books, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, summer reading, Uncategorized

Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.

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Ice Cream & Football

Yom Kippur 5777

At this time of year, with the changing of seasons and the arrival of our holidays, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage of time.  Hard as it is for me to believe, this is the 19th occasion we’ve celebrated the High Holy Days together here at Beth El, and for our Cantor, it’s his 20th year with you!  I’ve had the distinct pleasure over the last year to officiate at a number of weddings for young people whose b’nai mitzvah I participated in when they were 13, right here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary.  Needless to say, my wife Becky is ageless. But our children, Talia, Josh, and Merav, are now 22, 20, and 17.  And next week we will mark Rabbi Mark Loeb’s 7th yahrzeit. I realized just the other day, that at 52 I am now older than Rabbi Loeb was, when I came here to serve as his assistant.

 

And I would guess it is at least in part because of the nostalgic mood of the holidays that on Rosh Hashanah we look back to the very first Jews and read the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  But we also read about them on RH because with their family struggles, their flaws and foibles, they are the perfect models for us in terms of understanding our own lives, our own needs and hopes and dreams – very much what the High Holy Days are about.  So it is always a bit challenging – at least for me – to turn from the richness of those stories and characters to the dry 16th chapter of Leviticus that we read on Yom Kippur, with its rote description of the ancient sacrifices.  But the truth is YK also has a biblical hero, just a little bit less obvious.  Anyone want to take a guess as to who it is?   To give you a hint, we’ve been reading the most intimate part of his story every Shabbat, during these last weeks of our liturgical year. Yes! Moses.

In the rabbinic mind, Moses and YK were synonymous.  The Talmud teaches that it was on YK day that Moses convinced God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, and God granted the second set of tablets.  If there is a refrain in the liturgy of YK, it is the 13 attributes, the Adonai, Adonai,  El rachum v’chanun phrase from the Torah that we chant again and again, and that is God’s response in Exodus 34 when Moses asks for forgiveness.  Tradition understands that phrase as a promise, still in effect today, that God will deal with us mercifully – with ‘rachmanis!’  -on Yom Kippur.  And that promise is extracted from God by Moses.  Moses and YK go together like gefilte fish and horse radish, if you’ll excuse the reference on a fast day!

But I’ve always suspected there is another reason why Moses is the central figure of Yom Kippur.  Do a bit of math with me – if it is YK today, when is Simhat Torah?  In two weeks.  And that means in our weekly Torah cycle we are reading the very last chapters of Deuteronomy.  Those chapters are all about Moses summing up the meaning of his life and what he hoped for in the future. They are a record of Moses’ last days, of the thoughts that he has as he looks back on his years.  He remembers successes and failures, he realizes that some of his goals will remain unfulfilled, he revisits regrets, and ultimately he emerges from the process with head held high, with his dignity and moral strength intact.

Now in any book, the last chapters can be the most important.  They make sense of the narrative’s previous events, they tie up the loose ends, solve the mysteries;  sometimes they come to terms with the simple fact that not everything in life is resolved to our satisfaction.  But when they are well done, when the writing is fluid and the language clear, the last chapters create a sense of wholeness and completion.  You know that feeling when you’ve reached the end of a great book.  Your eyes linger on the page, you read the last words reluctantly, you close the cover slowly and carefully, you feel sad, but you also feel whole.  And so it is, as we read these last pages of Moses’ five books.

But what about our own last chapters?  What about the last chapters of those we love?  Are we prepared to write them, or help write them, the way we would want to?  We often talk about being the authors of our own stories – it is a common metaphor today – and in the prime of life we may know exactly what it is we want and need.  We set goals and pursue them, focusing on careers, supporting families and maintaining a quality of living.  But when we arrive at old age, when we are challenged by illness or the passing of the years, it is more difficult to put pen to paper.  What are our goals?  What should our priorities be?  If time is limited, what do we want to focus on?  When we need clarity, where can we find it?  Those last chapters are difficult ones to write, but they are perhaps the most important in our entire story.

I had the opportunity over the summer to read a beautiful and poignant book entitled Being Mortal, written by the physician and author Atul Gawande.  Part memoir, part sociological survey, part exploration of medical ethics, the book traces Gawande’s struggle with the following dilemma – in a world where medical technology can often extend life, but in doing so may actually diminish its quality – how do we make wise and sound decisions about health care as we age?  How do we face the frailties and fears that will inevitably arise in our lives?  How do we help our parents and grandparents as they transition to supported living, or struggle with losing their independence?  What does dignity mean, and who defines that?  When choices need to be made, choices about health care or supported living, about terminal illness, who should make those choices, and how should they be made?

The book is beautifully written, and it is powerful.  If you or someone you love is facing a significant health challenge, if you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, if you are growing older – and we all are – you should read this book.  It does not necessarily give answers, because these questions don’t have right or wrong answers.  But with depth and feeling it will help you wrestle with whatever challenge you may be facing.  And we will all – every single one of us in this room – face these challenges in the course of our lives.

At its core, Gewande’s book is about one fundamental question:  what makes a good life?  When push comes to shove, when you realize time is limited, when you have to choose two or three things that are absolutely most important, that define your being, what are they?  And his thesis is if you can figure out how to ask that question, of yourself, if you can have that conversation with someone you love, then you will be able to write the last chapters, or to help someone else write them, with some sense of control, and even more importantly, with dignity and with humanity.

The book is filled with anecdotes from Gewande’s work as a surgeon and physician, and there is just one I would like to share with you this morning, and I hope you’ll again excuse me because it does reference food.  This is the story of a professor of psychology, in his mid-seventies, who discovers that he has a mass growing in the spinal chord region in his neck.  His prognosis is grim, but there is a surgical procedure that may help him extend his life with quality.  But it is a risky procedure, coming with a %20 chance of his becoming paraplegic.

While trying to decide what to do, the professor’s daughter asks him two questions:  “What are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?”  And in responding, he surprised his daughter, and perhaps even himself:  “If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football, I want to give it a shot.”

Now I suppose if we asked everyone in this room the questions the man’s daughter asked him, we would get a different answer from each person.  For some the answer might be time with family and friends.  Others may say they want to visit a special place one last time, or finish a project they’ve spent years working on, or repair a relationship they’ve regretted for many years.  The point is this –   everyone has their ice cream and football.  And the High Holy Days are supposed to help us remember what those things are in our own lives.

These sacred days and the words of our Mahzor come to remind all of us, no matter how old we are, of the passage of time, of our fragility and mortality, and of our significance and worth in God’s sight at every age of life. They remind us of the value of each day of our lives, young or old, each day to be treasured and purpose oriented, and so should be the arc of our years. As we age our priorities may slowly shift, as we begin to sense our time is limited, as we begin to think about mortality, our focus on family, on friends, on the things we love the most, on discovering the meaning of what has been – those things become more and more important to us. And this, our YK fast day, and the prayers and reflections with which we spend the day, are intended to focus our minds on those very same aspects of our experience.

In the last verses of Scripture we are told that at the end of Moses’ life, after 120 years of struggle with God and with his people, לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחו, “his vision was undimmed, his vigor unabated.”  Isn’t that what every one of us wishes for, every single day of our lives? We want our work to be meaningful, to engage our minds and our hearts. We want our loves to be true, enduring, and mutual. We want to be respected and loved even when we are imperfect and incomplete – even when we are infirm or grow old.  Like Moses, we may never enter a promised land where all of our dreams are fulfilled, but we hope that we are able to see it from a distance, to have that perspective on our lives. So that when we each reach a certain age, we can look to the generations after ourselves, knowing that they live by values we cherish, continuing our ancient path in new ways and in new times. That we and they together may find comfort, hope, promise and peace in God’s sheltering embrace in all the new years yet to come.

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