Category Archives: neighborhoods

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Spring

Often in those first few heady days of growing warmth there was still snow and ice along the sidewalks and streets, left over from the long and cold winter.  As it finally melted away it glistened in the sunshine as its dripping rivulets became tiny streams that ran along the curbs, formed puddles and eddies, searching, searching for the river down below.  Sometimes the current was strong enough to float twigs or old leaves in the water, like little boats on their way to some destination unknown.  We stomped on the thin ice layers that formed above the running water and they broke away, shattering with a satisfying crunchy sound.  Meanwhile, above our heads, the first buds were cautiously appearing on the old oaks and maples.  But we were mostly concerned with what was down below.

Despite the lingering cold we shed our jackets, left them lying on the muddy grass or hanging from an old fence post.  Isn’t it an odd thing that 48 degrees in spring feels warm, while the same temperature in late November brings on a chill?  We explored all of the hidden paths we used to navigate from yard to yard and block to block.  We knew them all, could find them in the dark, low fences that divided backyards, worn paths through fields, where certain gates were, what was the best way to scoot along someone’s home so you wouldn’t be seen.  It was a kind of sacred and arcane knowledge that gave us access to a mysterious and secret world where only we could dwell.  Our galoshes were caked with mud as we tramped along, often holding sticks we had acquired along the way.

We talked bravely of things we had seen and done, we recalled memories of summers past and riding the waves at the beach, we worried about school and friends and girls.  We imagined what we might one day do and who we might be.  We took our time, we climbed trees with low hanging branches, testing our dexterity and derring-do.  We stopped for snacks under an old pine, the remnants of candy bars carefully wrapped in wax paper tucked away in our pockets.    Before long the streets would be lined with leaf filled trees.  Summer would stretch before us, its weeks to us like an endless ribbon of warm days and adventures yet to come.  But for now it was spring, and that was more than enough.

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Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –

     Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season.  From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.  

     But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball.  I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had.  But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing.  It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment.  Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man.  You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.  

     And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove.  You all know what a baseball glove is?  The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding.  Protects the hand against that hard ball.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another?  And how many of you know now where that glove is?  Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.

     The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played.  The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening.  The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs.  When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.

     The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room.  He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played.  There was no baseball glove in sight.  Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.

     Now you have to shift into the present day.  Forty years have gone by since that night.  Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio.  His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida.  The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday.  They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church.  Been doing it for years.

     Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt.  For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi.  Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son.  Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’  She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove.  They both had tears in their eyes.  How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know.  But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions.  Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.

     I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate.  It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah.  I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me.  From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit.  It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again.  That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning. 

     A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it.  I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time.  I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since.  I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord.  Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish.  And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis.  And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.

     And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives.  I know many of you have sacred objects at home.  It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather.  It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck.  Or it might be a baseball glove.  Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.

     Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things.  On the one hand, they remind us of what once was.  Family seders when our grandparents were still there.  A bedroom we slept in as a child.  A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters.  What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game.  Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.

     But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives.  I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis.  Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on.  High school and college.  Had my first real job.  Becky and I were married.  I became a father – three times!  I lost two of my closest friends.  Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi.  Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond.  And this old tallit has seen all of it.

     The holidays are like that too.  Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time.  Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness.  A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years.  But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now.  It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth.  And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.

     So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience.  May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.

May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope – 

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The Cul-De-Sac

In our neighborhood, just around the corner from our house.  Its blacktop is grey and faded and cracked, the result of close to thirty years of hot summers, cold winters, and wet springs.  No doubt it has seen better days, and will soon need to be replaced or refinished, whatever it is they do to blacktop these days.

It has served its purpose well.  Stoically bearing the weight of cars and trucks, the day to day traffic of a neighborhood, the deliveries and service vehicles, the daily commuters.  Its passive grey face has seen quite a bit over the years.  How many children learned to ride a bike on its surface, taking those first tentative and wobbly yards, and somehow magically discovering the trick of balancing those wheels?  All those skinned knees and bruised elbows and tears of frustration!  Soon the Cul-de-Sac could not hold them, as they whisked confidently around the neighborhood.

Countless dogs have trotted across its surface, occasionally stopping to take note of some interesting smell that found its way onto the blacktop.  For the most part it was merely a conduit for them, a means to an end as they journeyed towards some other place, the yard across the street, the high school down the hill, for a walk and to see what was going on out in the great world.

In the winter storms (when they came) its duty was to serve as a snow repository.  The plows would inevitably pile the snow in the Cul-de-Sac’s wide, circular space.  Those snow piles quickly became the site of snow forts and mini sled paths, children clambering to the top and sliding down, again and again and again.  Some years the snow was piled so high the mounds would last into the early spring until finally the warmer sun, glimmering from the white surface, caused water to trickle downwards, forming puddles, rivulets, tributaries, an entire water system of melting snow and fading winter.

On nice days we gathered in the front yards and spoke about the day’s events, caught up on sports scores, made plans, chatted about our children, commented on how perplexing the world was.  The Cul-de-Sac, with its symbolic circular shape joined us together, forming a kind of connective tissue, a common space that belonged to one and all.  Part of the fabric of the neighborhood, those of us who have lived there for decades know each crack and crevice, each dip and bump.

One day soon I suppose the cracks and bumps will be gone, replaced by a smooth and shiny blackness.  But new cracks will slowly begin to form.  It is the way of things.  New seasons will come and go, new piles of snow will grow in the winter and melt in the spring.  There will be more skinned knees, more bikes that are taken for that very first spin.  New neighbors will move into the houses, carefully tending their green lawns and trimming their bushes.

The cul-de-sac will be there for them, as it was (and is) for us.

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What a Swing Set Measures

For almost twenty years the wooden swing set had been standing in our back yard.  The wood beams and metal jousts gracefully and patiently bore the passage of time, the vagaries of the weather, the hot sun of summer, the cold and snow of the winter months. For many years the swing set was busy.  It would creak with delight when children were swinging on its bright blue swings, laughing and trying to reach the sky above them.  Its crow’s nest was host to various clubs and secret societies. Meetings took place there where important topics were discussed, like the best way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, or what might be the perfect container for a pine cone collection.

In those days the swing set was a hub of activity.  When the locusts swarmed one summer, its crow’s nest provided shelter from their flying, buzzing bodies.  One winter the snow piled so high the swings disappeared, and the children built a snow man to guard the old wooden structure until spring came and the snow melted away.  In the fall, when we built our sukkah, the swing set was just a few yards away, a welcome escape from the confining walls of our temporary harvest tent.  One year, in a high storm, the swing set watched stoically as our entire sukkah was blown over by a strong wind, almost laughing at the sukkah, as if to say ‘Look at me, I’ve been standing here for years, and this wind can’t even move me one inch.’

As the years went by trees grew up around the swing set.  A cherry tree’s branches intruded on the crow’s nest.  A strong maple grew up just behind the swings, so that children might feel they were swinging high up in the branches of a magical tree.  Finally a great willow grew swiftly, its massive branches blanketing the old structure in perpetual shade.

There were fewer and fewer visits to the swing set as the years passed.  Its crow’s nest was mostly silent and empty.  Squirrels scuttled across its top beams, but children rarely visited.  They were grown, too big for the swings, to old for such things as ‘crow’s nests’ and ‘secret clubs.’  The swing set became a kind of artifact.  It told stories.  Of a broken arm from swinging too high and landing too hard.  Of aimless summer days.  Of intricate projects and plans that were made and made again, but never implemented.  Of back yard barbecues and tie dye birthday parties.  Of watching young children grow.

We took the old swing set down this week.  Its time had come and gone, but it was a bitter sweet moment.  All of those memories wrapped up in its grooved and worn boards, its tattered canopy.  As it rested in the front yard, waiting for someone to come haul it away, a young woman drove by with her three young children in tow.  She noticed the aged crow’s nest, still proudly standing strong, bravely awaiting its fate.  ‘Were we getting rid of it?’ she wondered.  ‘And would we mind, if she could find someone to bring it down the street, if she gave that crow’s nest a new home?’

Just yesterday we walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon.  It was an end of summer day, the sun warm and high in a bright blue sky, but the trees already starting to shed their leaves.  There at the bottom of the hill we saw the crow’s nest, tucked neatly away in a new back yard.  It was again surrounded by trees, not the old willow and maple, but evergreens that will guard it from the wind in the cold winter months.  Our neighbor scrubbed at the wood, working to sand it smooth so it would be ready for bare hands and feet.  It won’t be long.  Soon children will be playing there as they once did, and we will hear their laughter, as we walk by wondering where the past has gone, or if it has gone at all.  FullSizeRender 3

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Sunrise

You missed it if you slept late, seduced by the warmth of the covers, waiting for the heat to slowly warm up the house.  There was a ribbon of red in the  eastern sky, the bare tree tops forming an uneven silhouette in the distance, their leafless branches reaching and twisting, waiting for first light, and soon, spring.  There is a pattern there, ancient secrets, chill morning air, fresh wind, light growing softly.

And you would not believe how brightly Jupiter burned in the western darkness!  Cold and beautiful.  It too looked back towards the east, acknowledging the coming of a new day, yet reluctant to leave its post, king of the predawn quietness.

Across the field I saw a light go on in the window of a home.  All over the neighborhood covers were being pushed back, feet were touching cold floors, yawns and stretches and first thoughts were emerging from a deep world of dreams.  Soon coffee would be brewing, sleepy eyes might glance at the headlines of a news paper.  Tousled hair would be combed, clothes chosen, bread toasted, or perhaps a special treat for breakfast on a cold morning – cream of wheat?  Oatmeal?  As the light of day grew stronger, the trees began to look ordinary, with just the faintest hint of their former magic.  Even Jupiter dimmed, turning in for the day.

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