Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dumb and Dumber Parents Teaching Kids Non-Accountability

A former Boston Bruin, Mike Milbury, landed up in our local jail, charged with assault and battery of a minor. At a youth hockey game that he sponsored and in which he served as one team's assistant coach, he grabbed a twelve year old kid's jersey and swore at him (A kid from the opposing team). The mother of the kid said Milbury went beyond that re. physical abuse. Milbury's version--provided in today's Boston Globe Sports section, maintains that the kid bullied Milbury's son, steadily throughout the entire game. Milbury asked the opposing coach to police his players; no response, just one of those "everybody's doing it." Milbury insisted he just tried to separate the bully from his own kid when all else failed. Who knows what happened? Witnesses support Milbury's story.

Assume his side for the moment. Where is the nitwit mother of the other kid? Are parents incapable of policing their own kids? Holding them accountable for their actions? Coaches too for that matter? In "Coach," what I think is his best book, Michael Lewis recounts his high school baseball coach, who lamented that for many kids today "All this is about a false sense of self-esteem. It's now bestowed on kids at birth. It's not earned. If I were to jump all over you today, you would be highly insulted and deeply offended. You would not get that I cared about you."

It's about over-parenting and under-parenting. Don't blame the school, the coaches, the teacher: blame your kid or at least try to ascertain their responsibility for their actions. And try to stay out of the damned way once in a while, letting professionals ply their trade. Lewis' coach lamented that he no longer enjoyed meaningful relationships with his players. "I can't get inside of them anymore. They don't get it. But most kids don't get it. The trouble is every time I try the parents get in the way."

For this life task we require no license? Amazing: the most important job in life and the least regulated....

Reform Orthodoxy

Regarding the recent Table piece on Reform orthodoxy.
The Political Orthodoxy of Hebrew Union College – Tablet Magazine

Orthodoxy reflects temperamental tendencies as much as actual thinking through of issues, and assessing them on their merits. It therefore comes as no surprise that Reform Judaism--in this case Hebrew Union College--struggles with its own process for meaning making and decision making on all sorts of issues, particularly Israel. When I served in a pulpit, a neighboring colleague who served in the nearby Reform temple, told me the following story. When he came to the synagogue, more or less fresh out of rabbinical school, if memory serves, he wore a kippah, pretty much all of the time. He informed the temple's senior rabbi that he planned to wear his kippah at prayer services. The senior rabbi accepted this practice, though he maintained no such observance for himself. But he asked the junior rabbi to speak to a senior board member and to inform him of his intentions. The younger man spoke to this board member, who responded, "That's fine, Rabbi, but if you do so I'll resign from the temple."
What we see in the recent controversy at HUC reflects this historical tension in what it means to be a liberal Jew. Does this term refer to the phenomenon of Jews "liberated" from large, pre-existing entities like Church and State and by implication free to chart their own course? Or does liberalism constitute a set of fixed positions on any given issue or cluster of issues? That board member, and by extension the "orthodoxy" at HUC, reflects the latter view, one that leaves little room for the illiberal view on anything and everything from Israel to social action to ritual concerns. Historians see "Classical Reform" in that light, a late 19th century worldview that sought to articulate and legislate a coherently anti-ritualistic Reform position. That view supplanted but I would argue undercut an older view that made more room for a religious liberalism centered on personal autonomy. Autonomy guarantees self-expression, but can one maintain strong communities unified around anything? That struggle continues to live at the heart of religious liberalism everywhere.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Israel and American Jews

Why the fuss about the Israeli attempt to reach out to diasporic Israelis?
American Jews took offense. They felt the marketing strategy painted them as both disconnected from Israel and bad for Israelis. Pardon my obtuseness--and some would say my classical Zionist mentality--but why the fuss? How is this not true?
Israelis should worry about yeridah; though the Start-Up Nation gurus extoll "portable Israel" as if its the Information Age's equivalent of the Torah as a portable Jewish homeland, they're hardly the same. Israel is an actual place, a state and society, whose very existence depends not just on security matters, but its ability to remain demographically viable. So is the reality of a large Israeli diaspora worrisome? How can it not be? That's not to mention certain specific sectors like the academy, where the brain drain worsens daily.
Ok, I hear you say, that may be true, but why the crude, mawkish commercials?
Anyone who works in Jewish life knows that Israelis here in the states can be hard to reach. Many of them behave like all immigrants; they instinctively gravitate to their like. That's fine. But their Jewishness, however complex and complicated in Israel, remains inextricably tied to Israel: its civic religion, its institutions, etc. Since little or none of that exists in diaspora, why are we surprised when many "non-religious" Israelis struggle to find their place in American Jewish life.
Finally, does anyone really believe that being here, where high school kids focus more on Stanley Kaplan than on deciding which unit one will be going to in the army, makes no impact on an Israeli's connection to Israel? Of course it does. These are two radically different societies, in spite of unceasing heavy-handed attempts to promote their congruence. That may be true compared to the strangeness of Islamic and or Arabic states, but that's really not the point.
So too with wounded feelings of American Jews that they feel that Israelis depreciate American Jewish connection to Israel. How many American Jews visit Israel? How many make aliyah? How many would like their kids to live there? How many--whether because of assimilation or genuine philosophical struggling--feel at least somewhat estranged from an ethnic Jewishness that their parents and grandparents embraced, centered on peoplehood tropes like the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel? As wonderful as AIPAC Policy Conference is, most American Jewry is not there, neither in body nor in spirit. Yes they want Israel to exist, but in what way is it actually consequential in their lives?
The bottom line is that these are two different Jewish communities, for better and for worse. One invented off of a religious paradigm borne out of Protestantism and the Enlightenment; the other romantically rebelled and internalized the need for a nation-state of its own for the sake of political and cultural renewal. Each benefits the other; each damages the other. Let's actually talk about this, rather than hunkering down and taking offense when the other acts for its own benefit. Israel should continue to work to create or recreate strong connections between the motherland and its wandering Jews, and American Jews should understand that without defensiveness. And Israelis should learn to appreciate the vitality and diversity that has marked American religion generally, and American Jewishness in its own more modest way.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Defensive? Moi?

We invest so much in our kids, and therefore rational thought often/usually eludes us when it comes to the JEWISH IDENTITY conundrum. We can't figure out exactly what we want to be, much less what we want our kids to be, much less how to get there, much less how to apportion responsibility among us, our kids, their schools, teachers, social settings, synagogue, etc. So my explicit/implicit critique of Schechter in no way ignores the much fuzzier reality that is much larger than the school and what it can and should be doing. Having said that, what should these schools be doing and why?

1. Clarify the nomenclature: what are they exactly? Independent schools, parochial schools, movement schools? That's just another way of figuring out what the worldview is...

2. Think more like summer camp. Camp's organic, removed, fun. None of those apply to school, at least not all the time. But try to have the Jewish equivalent of Phil Spectre's "Wall of Sound" where everything reinforces everything else: teachers talking Jewish "have a good shabbos" to kids on Fridays, music on the intercom, dancing, art, the works.

3. Try to work more closely with synagogues and rabbis again to reinforce messages/content. Lots of wasted energy that falls through the cracks.

4. WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS FOR JEWISH STUDIES? Hebrew? Bible? Rabbinics? Halakha? Israel? What do we want these kids to know and why? Is there a logical sequence to the curriculum?


The last one is the rub for me: I can't help feeling that we try so hard to be inclusive and non-judgmental that we end up shortchanging families in terms of taking them seriously re. saying "you're here...we want you to be here + 35% when you're done at SSDS." If you're not willing to push, to critique, to make claims about what constitutes Jewish excellence, which yes does include making our best claims and value judgements, then how is growth possible? We do that for math, science, english, are we doing that for growing the Jewish person?

I once heard a rabbi say to students: "why would you do any of this stuff if you didn't believe that it was true?" We need to have the courage to ask that of ourselves? what is our truth? What are we willing to do for it? To teach it to others?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reflections on a Schechter Education

The SSDS of Greater Boston celebrated the 50th anniversary of the school's founding. Eight hundred plus people came to remember, see old classmates, teachers, colleagues, friends. The community should take pride in what it built and what it accomplished: creating an alternative vision of what a day school could be, vis a vis the Maimonides School. I think of some of the virtues that Schechter the man embodied upon which the school founded itself: a love for Judaism, for tradition, for intellectual breadth and depth, a strong engagement with peoplehood, the Hebrew language, Zionism, and the modern State of Israel.

Those commitments still animate today's school. Sad to say there weren't much in evidence at the "party." There was one devar Torah, but it was given by Barry Shrage, not by one of the school leaders, professional or lay. And it was not delivered at a time when the entire gathering could hear it. There were no substantive remarks: the heads of school talked more about the 8th grade plays than they demonstrated what the school cared about on the deepest level. It's disappointing because many of us want a serious egalitarian Judaism; this sort of messaging subtlely and overtly perpetuates the distinction between Torah-centered Orthodoxy and liberal Jews who are centered on what exactly? At least the Reform Rashi school talks and acts re. social justice as a "Jewish value." What does SSDS talk incessantly about?

Education has to be about teaching students how to think. It has to orient them to contribute to the larger world. And it has to be about relationships inside and outside the classroom, modeling what it means to take seriously the blessing of life, the blessing of freedom, the blessing of being able to receive, to transmit, and to create. At its best SSDS creates that sort of environment. But it needs to push itself to do that as a truly, deeply, Jewish school. That is the hard part.

Monday, July 11, 2011

thedavidstarr: Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, ...

thedavidstarr: Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, ...: "William James, I think, noted that the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. We all want some grand idea that makes sense..."

Left and Right, Right and Wrong, Sane and Insane, in no particular order

William James, I think, noted that the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. We all want some grand idea that makes sense of everything for us, most famously Einstein and his search for the unified field theory. But theories end up being just that: an incredibly smart yet ultimately dumb form of magical thinking, a mapping of our own constructs onto reality. If we're lucky, this occurs only with us powerless types, in bedrooms and barrooms but not in the halls of power. If we're unlucky, these theories go on the march, in town squares and frontiers, and they play an actual role in the ballot box and in government offices and in the news stories we consume.

Right now we have a bull market in this stuff. Congress types who pretend we can balance the budget without tax increases, who think that tax cuts for rich folks will help the economy. Bankers who confuse their business and their profit with the business and profit of the American people. Liberals who think entitlements can go on forever. Israeli settlers who think that Israel will survive as a Jewish democratic state without partition and a Palestinian state. Israeli leftists who fantasize that if only Israel will reform peace will come.

The unified field theory gives way to the messiness of it all. That's why I love the writer Janet Malcolm. She always comes back to the messiness of it all, the contingent nature of life. The settlers have to come to terms with the limits of their dreams; the lefties have to come to terms with how nasty Hamas/Iran is. And so it goes. The Tea Party has to connect whatever century they're living in with the one we're living in. I know this all sounds like warmed-over David Brooks and Jeffrey Goldberg. When they're right they're right. Values and conviction yes; theories "not so good" as my daughter would say.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fake Din; or Bring Me the Broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West

Cutesy titles annoy me but I couldn't resist, or I should say I wouldn't resist. Snippets of conversation here and there suggest that Bet Din's function in less than optimal ways, particularly when it comes to conversions. One category is racial/religious: I've heard some racially charged stories about questions put to African-Americans, and then there's the Jesus thing. That's understandable, after all the point is to help an aspirant, and the court, figure out what one believes. Being Jewish is hard enough; being Jewish-Christian is that much more convoluted. I guess I wonder if our own ethno-cultural-religious chauvinism plays a role in this: we just don't like or respect Christians or Christianity very much and therefore we don't want those sorts of players on our team. We fear the Trojan Horse syndrome: they'll damage us more if they get inside the city. And some of this is good old fashioned post-Holocaust rage: we can't take our pain out on real live Christians who acted as perpetrators or bystanders, unless one of them shows up at our court wanting to become one of us. So we hurt the ones who actually want not to love us but to be us.

And then there's the fertility challenged scenario of Jewish parents wanting to have a baby converted. The IVF or adoption or the other stratagems. Here again, life's unfair: any Tom Dick or Harry can father a Jewish baby (as long as the mother is Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah), but if biology gets in the way not only are these families put through the wringer financially and emotionally, but they have to deal with these courts that make them wonder "why am I going through all this trouble to have a 'Jewish' baby when the Jewish court hassles me so much about trying to do just that."

Last time I checked aren't we still in demographic recovery mode from losing six million of our beloved people? Shouldn't we be trying harder to make more Jews rather than push them away?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Emil Starr and Eleanor Roosevelt

This is a picture of my father, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a group of members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, taken at Val-Kill, Roosevelt's home, on the grounds of the Hyde Park home of her late husband, FDR. The picture dates from the mid-1950's. My father at the time served as National Education Director of the Amalgamated (adult ed--what a weird job?:)
This event was a part of a series of workshops he created to educate union members about the context in which unionism occurred and mattered, things like politics and citizenship. This was the gospel upon which my parents raised me: the human dignity of workers, the importance of unionism for the functioning of a free society and polity, and the importance of education in safeguarding these sorts of rights and obligations. So even though I wasn't even alive I think when this event happened, it's a kind of sacred image and memory in the collective identity of our family.

I confess the image also makes me feel a bit sad. Not just because my father isn't here, nor because of the precarious state of collective bargaining in our society. My father felt comfortable around and worked with all sorts of people of race, color, religion, ethnicity, class, you name it. He raised me to be the same way. Yet I spend most of my time with upper-middle class Jews. I embrace the choices I made to lead a different sort of life, yet how narrow that has worked out to be. A bit more frequently these days I ask myself: "does God really care about this tiny people of ours, and should I be spending most of my time and energy upon that people?
To be continued...


Interesting post by Meir Soloveitchik in Jewish Ideas Daily about Irving Kristol.
Of course I wonder why no one ever talks about what these old guys were doing was making new stuff up?

Death, a p.s.

Don't you think there are two kinds of people out there? Those who've looked death in the eye, and everybody else? And if you're questioning that polarity, doesn't that place you in the latter? Enjoy your error.


I rented the movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson. I want to watch it with my soon to be off to college daughter. It's the story of a young woman who takes off on a Grand Tour of Europe, with a friend. They're kidnapped by scummy white slaver types; Neeson spends most of the movie tracking them and her down, thank goodness successfully in the end. In my heavy-handed way I want my daughter to see there's a lot of scum out there, be careful who you trust. What I'm really saying is: I can't protect you. Certainly not with the skills of a superhero like Neeson. And I feel weak about that. So kids feel afraid knowing that their parents won't be able to protect them. And parents get angry at their kids knowing they'll get into jams that remind parents how little control they actually have. Plenty of fear and regret to go around.


It's my father's 38th yahrtzeit, the Jewish way of marking the anniversary of his death. Jews say two things: a person's memory should be a blessing (for those of us the living) and or may they rest in peace. The latter's a lot easier to swallow. Memory pains us--unless we're lucky or simple memory is anything but simple, which makes its "blessing" at the very least complicated. I loved my father, a lot. I take after him in many ways: most of what I value as good in me I see hailing from him, and I'd like to think that he'd say the same of me. But he left me. So blessing and anger somehow coexist inside of those of us who feel like we've survived somebody we love.