Tag Archives: reading

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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Filed under America, books, civil rights, history, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.


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Winter Reading List

When the days grow short, the weather cold, and the pull of a comfortable chair next to a warm fire almost irresistible, we imagine we will weather our way through various and sundry winter storms while sipping hot chocolate or tea (or a fine Islay whisky!), cuddling up, and reading.  Here are some books that are on my winter reading list.

First up, I am almost finished with Ta Nehasi Coates’ slim memoire/social justice essay/letter to his son called Between the World and Me.  This 150 page volume should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the roiling racial tension in our society today.  With stark courage and unflinching honesty Coates describes the life shaping experience of growing up as a black man in white America.

Secondly, there are books a rabbi wants to read, and books a rabbi has to read.  Michael Oren’s Ally falls into the latter category.  It will be the topic of the Sisterhood book review on January 20, and also the topic of my talk during our annual ‘Snowbird’ program in Florida.  Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, has written a book that traces the Israeli-American relationship during his tenure.  His premise:  although the bonds between the two countries may stretch and strain at times, they are ultimately unbreakable because of shared values and goals.

Last (but not least), the English historian Mary Beard has written a new, comprehensive (but short!) history of the Roman Empire called SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome.  The civilization, thought, and values that were at the heart of Rome’s rise are still at work in our culture today, two thousand years later.  Understanding where we’ve come from better positions us to move forward into the future with eyes wide open.

Enjoy the books!

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Filed under books, civil rights, clergy, Israeli-American relations, Uncategorized, winter reading

Imagining a Better World

this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon –

This morning’s Torah portion provides us with a detailed description of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used as a site of worship as they wandered in the wilderness.  The Torah text gives us every measurement, it details every ritual item, from the sacrificial altar to the ark of the covenant, and it even tells us where the items were to be placed in relation to one another.  It is very difficult from the text to form a picture in your mind, to imagine visually what the words are describing, but there is a drawing in the back of our humashim that is worth looking at – it is on page 1520.

note first of all the space – there are two perfect squares, and at the center of each square is a sacred object, in one case the sacrificial altar (מזבח), and in the other case the Kodesh Hakodeshim, the Holy of Holies where the ark was located.

– There are three areas of sacred space in the enclosure, of ascending levels of holiness.  The least holy, the outer courtyard area.  The next, what is called the ‘Holy Place’ , inside the tent where the table and menorah were located.  Then the most holy area is where the ark is located, behind the curtain.  This symbolically corresponds to Mt. Sinai, where there were also 3 areas of holiness – the least holy area the foot of the mountain where the people were.  Then half way up the mountain, where Aaron and the leaders could go.  Then there was the top of the mountain, where only Moses could go.  In this way the Tabernacle is supposed to be a movable Sinai, a way of keeping the Sinai experience with the Israelites as they wandered.

now lets look at the objects, the furnishings for the tabernacle

In the Torah reading the most detailed descriptions, the most intricate instructions, are provided about the ritual objects – you can see the artist’s depictions of them on the opposite page, 1521.  It only makes sense that these objects get the most attention because they are the most sacred objects in the entire history of the Jewish people with the exception of the two tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain.  And the most sacred of these sacred objects are the lamp stand (the menorah), the table for bread, and the ark itself.  You can see from the textual citations that all three of these objects are described in one chapter, the 25th chapter of Exodus, the very first chapter of this morning’s reading.

These items were not only the most sacred items – they were also the most beautiful, and the most expensive by far.  The Torah specifies that any solid metal parts of these objects had to be made entirely of gold, and that any wooden part of the object had to be guided with gold, in the case of the ark, not only on the outside, but even the inside had to be guided with gold.  So these objects were not only sacred, they were breathtaking, visually arresting, made by the greatest artisans of ancient Israel.  But given all of that, there is something very strange about these objects, and that is that they were never seen, by anyone.  The only exception to that was on YK day when the High Priest would go in to the Holy of Holies, and once daily when a specially appointed priest would go in to maintain the menorah’s light.

But aside from that, these objects were never seen.  Despite their beauty, despite the gold that was used to make them, despite their artistic qualities, they were never seen by anyone.  Even when the Tabernacle was moved there was one Levite who first went into the tent, took special cloths, covered over the ark, the menorah, and the table, and only then did the tent come down and did people come forward to porter the objects.  They were never seen.  Ever.

And yet people knew they were there.  People knew that inside that tent there was a beautiful Menorah made of solid gold, and the intricate showbread table gilded in gold, and the ark with its golden image of angelic figures.  And knowing that they were there, but not being able to see them, created a particular dynamic, which was that in the minds of the Israelites – in their imagination – the objects must have been even greater, even more beautiful, even more sacred than they actually were.  That is what imagination does.  That is the power of imagination.  Knowing too much – seeing too much – can take that power away.

That it seems to me is a particular challenge that especially our young people wrestle with today.  I am going to call it ‘screen syndrome.’   Our young people today spend an inordinate amount of their time staring at a screen, whether their phone, a TV, or a computer.  Current statistics estimate that the average teen will spend about 50 hours a week interacting with a screen device.  More than a full time job!  And there are many potential problems that are involved with that dynamic, but one of them, I think, is that the more time you spend staring at a screen, the less time you spend using your imagination.  Because the screen gives you access to everything, instantly – you don’t have to imagine anything!  If you want to know what something looks like, or how something works, or how you need to do something, you just look it up on your computer.  What you gain in accuracy, you lose in mystery.  What you gain in efficiency, you lose in the discovery of new things while trying to solve a problem.  When you don’t have to imagine anything, I think you don’t dream the same way, you don’t look at the world the same way.  It makes it easier to see the world for what it is, but it makes harder to see the world for what it could be.  And that – imagining the world as it could be – more than anything else, is the job of a Jew.

I believe the Oscars are this weekend?  And I love a good movie, always have.  But I love a good book even more, in fact much more.  Whenever people make movies from books, there is always a debate about which version is better, the screen version or the paper one?  For me there has never been a question.  In a movie you can show me beautiful mountains, gorgeous rivers, ancient ruins, but the images on the screen could never match the way I picture them in my mind when I read.  With today’s special effects you can make magic come to life, you can realistically depict a huge dragon flying thorough the sky, but it could never be as magical and mysterious, as terrifying and fearsome and spectacular as it was when I read those pages and conjured up those images in my own imagination.  It was not seeing them that made them even greater.

We are often called the people of the book.  This is not only because of our love of learning, but also because of our ability to imagine the world in a different way – for Abraham to grow up in a world of idol worshippers, and yet to introduce to the world the idea of monotheism;  for the ancient Israelites to live in a place of slavery and death but to somehow imagine a world of freedom and life;  for the early settlers of the land of Israel to look out over a desert wilderness, but to imagine that dry land filled with lush green fields and fruit trees;  to dwell in a broken world, but to constantly talk about tikkun olam (#tikkunolam) – the fixing of that world – a central principle of our faith.

There are two words that mean ‘to see’ in Hebrew.  One is לראות – to see what is in front of you, the physical world.  But the other is לחזות – which means to see in a different way, to envision – to imagine a future possibility.  We must see in both ways – the world as it is, but also the world as it should be.


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A Winter’s Tale

Or book. Or books. For many years now I have put together a summer reading list that I post for the congregation. Folks seem to enjoy it, and some people even read some of the books on the list. The summer is a natural time for reading. We imagine ourselves enjoying long relaxing days on the beach, alternating naps in the warm sun with sitting in a beach chair, reading a good book, the unceasing waves gently lapping at the shore.

But the winter is also a good reading time.  Deep winter especially.  With long, dark nights, falling temperatures, the wind whistling outside through leaveless tree branches.  Snuggled in a chair under a blanket, perhaps with a dram of whisky by your side.  Here are two books I hope to read over the next weeks, as winter comes in.

The first is a classic ‘rabbi’s must read.’  Entitled ‘At Home in Exile,’ this new book by Alan Wolfe (professor of political science at Boston College) is an exploration of the importance of the diaspora Jewish community.  The subtitle of the book is Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, and the author dares to suggest that there are some things important, in fact perhaps even necessary, about diasporic Judaism.  After all, in large part Judaism is what it is today because of the experience of living in the Diaspora.

The second book is fiction.  Science fiction, in fact, a genre that is rapidly growing in respectability.  Michel Faber’s ‘the Book of Strange New Things’ chronicles a young clergyman who is sent to a far away planet to preach and teach faith to the native alien population.  How could a rabbi resist that storyline?

So there you have it.  Two books I’ll be reading through this winter.  I expect another one or two might make the list, but it is getting late, and I have a lot of reading to do.

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