Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dessert and a Side of Cynicism (New York reflections)

I spent most of this week in New York. I went to accompany Rosa on the first leg of her journey to Jerusalem, where she is now starting a semester of high school on NFTY’s Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program. I will be writing more on this in the weeks to come; it’s a fabulous adventure for her, and for me, a taste of life as an empty-nester. But that is a much longer story for another day.

After the big farewell at JFK airport, I spent the rest of my time in New York wandering the city, enjoying its abundant sights and unique vitality, and the company of my cousin Liz, who hosted me. She has a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side and is currently covering the crime beat for the New York Times, so I got to see quite another side of the city through her eyes.

Today, though, I want to write about two things: dessert and rock opera.

First, dessert.

For lunch on Wednesday, I went to a superb sushi place in a hard-to-find basement near the UN building. The meal was terrific, but the most memorable part of the experience began when the server asked if I wanted dessert. I’d spent much of the morning walking—probably three or four miles—in bitterly cold temperatures, so I figured I had earned the right to finish with something rich and sweet.

The server mentioned a special, not on the menu, and strongly endorsed it. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was (it had a long Japanese name), but I decided to give it a try. After such a tasty meal, I thought I couldn’t go wrong with her recommendation.

Well, as soon she brought my order out, I realized that I had unwittingly entered into a different world, a haute cuisine realm of dessert, that I had recently read about in an Adam Gopnik piece in the food issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik describes new trends in desserts, originating with several young chefs in Spain but now making their way to America (OK, not the Boise part of America, but New York and LA). The gist of his piece: according to these pioneering Spanish chefs, dessert has, for far too long, been limited to butter and chocolate and cream and sugar and eggs—in other words, sweets. Today, finally, edgy and radical pastry chefs are experimenting with different tastes and textures.

Now it was my turn to experience that experiment because my “special” dessert at Sakagura turned out to be a cup of piquant chili-inflected, sake-flavored sorbet surrounded by mounds of transparent peppery, semi-sweet gelatinous stuff. Last month, when I read about this trend, it struck me as silly. I thought to myself, “This foodie fad will never come to Boise—and I won’t miss it” (unlike many New York culinary tends that I do, indeed, miss). Well, it turns out first hand experience confirms my initial instincts. All in all, I must say, following a gorgeous lunch with a rice-wine and hot pepper flavored sorbet with mucous-like accompaniment does not really seem like such a good idea. I’m glad I got to try it, but let’s face it: there is a reason that, for centuries, people have loved things like cheesecake and torte and chocolate ice cream and cupcakes and crème brulee.

The lesson I draw from this: while the courage to take risks is generally a laudable thing, not all change is good. Some things—classic desserts among them—are just fine as they are and need not be tampered with, thank you. I am an unrepentant liberal—in my Judaism and in my politics and even in my food choices (I am a pescetarian who is very thankful for advances in healthy eating—my grandfather’s steady diet of high-fat Ashkenazi Jewish food probably contributed to his dying of a stroke at the age of 69). But there are occasions when the conservatives are right, and the best thing we can do is conserve venerable traditions. I want change that I can believe in—but I also like a nice piece of pie every now and then.

Now, on to Rock Opera. . .

Later that same evening, I went to the 7pm show of American Idiot at the St. James Theater. I’m not normally a big Broadway musical fan, but this was something different—a rock opera based on the eponymous smash hit album by the band Green Day. I love that record, and have been a big Green Day fan for many years. Best of all, the band’s guitar player, singer/songwriter, and kohl-eyed charismatic front man, Billie Joe Armstrong is playing lead role in the show this month. He is “St. Jimmy,” a malevolent modern pied piper dispensing drugs and sexual favors—and his rock star verve infuses the show.

American Idiot is esentially a rock opera in the style of The Who’s Tommy or even the later play, Rent—which is to say, almost all music with very little dialogue. That is fine by me. The plot tells the story of three budding anarchist kids, who are deeply disaffected by the culture of their suburban parents in the aftermath of the election of George W. Bush and 9/11. The narrative is, by all accounts, a bit thin in places, but the show is fantastically staged and explodes with energy.

Mostly, as I watched it and then reflected on it afterwards, it struck me that American Idiot is this generation’s equivalent of Hair. Both are anti-war, coming of age stories filled with sex and drugs and rock and roll. But an abyss stands between these two plays, and that abyss reflects the enormous changes that have occurred in the four decades that have passed between them.

In Hair, sex is liberating, and drugs open and expand the mind. In the much bleaker American Idiot, sex leads to teen pregnancy and a kind of dead end life, while drugs bring death and disaster. But the biggest difference lies in the contrasting endings of the shows. Hair is about the power of youth to change the world, and it concludes with an enormous gathering of anti-war protesters singing: “Let the sun shine in. . .” (as a high school student, I dressed up in “hippy clothes” and hung out at the Mall in Washington, DC for the filming of the movie version of that scene). Today, Hair seems—sometimes it is—naïve and simplistic. And yet, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the young protestors really did help stop the war.

By contrast, in American Idiot, there is no concerted political action—just anarchy, anger, and cynicism. Kids rage against the system, but they are, ultimately, helpless. Sex and drugs consume them, and the play ends with the heroes—anti-heroes, really—returning home jaded and broken. Hair is an optimistic play about the power of youth, while American Idiot is a deeply pessimistic parade of the wounded, of young people coming to see themselves are powerless in the face of grim conformist forces. Hair, for all of its youthful hubris, is about changing the world; American Idiot, for all of its edginess, is about being crushed by it.

And yet. . .after watching American Idiot, I left the theater feeling exuberant and startlingly alive. Somehow, the force and vitality of the music, with its thrashing chords, booming bass and drums, and exuberant hooks touched me deeper and lingered longer than the despair of the lyrics and the plot. It struck me that in this manner, rock opera is very much like classical opera, in which the plots are similarly tragic—and secondary. In American Idiot, as in Aida or Madame Butterfly, the music is the thing. I don’t like classical opera at all—I find the style of the singing pretentious and, ultimately, highly irritating (much as classical opera fans would loathe the power chords and distortion of American Idiot). But the two art forms have, I think, more in common than one would suppose at first glance.

And in this, they are like prayer. Rabbis spend inordinate amounts of time debating over tiny disparities in the liturgy, pinning great importance on subtle variations of phrasing. Meanwhile, the people in the pews could care less. They mostly don’t understand the Hebrew anyway, and they find the English translation boring. What moves them is the music—and I’m with them. Words speak to the rational brain but music goes deeper; we feel it in our bodies and it moves our souls.

The music is the thing.

For a great clip from the Broadway show version of American Idiot, see:

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Door (portion Mishpatim)

The opening section of our Torah portion, Mishpatim, raises some serious challenges for contemporary readers. Last week, we marked the pivotal moment in our people’s history, as we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. What a let down, then—at least at first glance—to pick up just a few lines later with legislation dealing with the treatment of slaves. True, the bondage described here is not the same as that which we endured in Egypt (or that African-Americans suffered in this country), as much as a kind of indentured servitude in which people find themselves obliged to sell their labor for a fixed time to repay their debts. Even so, the opening of the parashah is not what we expect from Torah, and it can be jarring to modern sensibilities.

What, then, do we make of this section? My own inclination is to recognize and celebrate the fact that, on a literal level, these verses point to a notable case of genuine moral progress—and then to re-read the passage metaphorically in search of meaning for today.

Our section starts with Exodus 21:15, which deals with the end of the slave’s prescribed period of servitude: If the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

This raises an obvious question: why would someone voluntarily choose to remain a slave? Perhaps the prospect of freedom is just too frightening. As miserable as bondage may be, some may choose it over the heavy burden of autonomy, which entails accepting responsibility for one’s own choices. The Israelites of the wilderness generation fall victim to exactly this fear: terrified by their hard-won liberty, they spend forty years whining to Moses about their desire to return to Egypt.

In light of this, Rashi’s commentary on the beginning of our parashah is fascinating:
Why are those who decide to stay branded in the ear? Because it was the ear that heard God declare at Sinai, “I have brought you out of the house of bondage.”
To which a later commentator, K’li Yakar, adds: And why a doorpost? Because a door was opened for him to go free and he refused to go.”

Who among us has never succumbed to such fear, and thus turned away from a door into great possibilities? All too often, we choose the cage that we know, the prison that has become comfortably familiar, over passing through the portal to unmapped promised lands. Our challenge is to muster the courage to move forward into the unknown. This is terribly difficult, but if we learn from our past and listen, with our ears, for the encouragement of the Holy One, we can enjoy freedom’s fruits.

Let me conclude with a poem by Adrienne Rich, which can also be found in our siddur, Mishkan Tefilah:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Leap Before You Look (portion Yitro)

While reading this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, I recalled a recent article by Rush Limbaugh entitled, “The Answer is Conservatism.” The entire piece is, as one would expect, highly critical of President Obama and congressional Democrats, but it was one small detail in his attack on the president’s health care legislation that struck me in light of the parashah. Mr. Limbaugh mocks former Speaker Nancy Pelosi for saying, last March, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” For Rush Limbaugh, this is the height of absurdity.

But is it, really? The notion that we can make important decisions without fully understanding their ramifications is deeply rooted in the Torah; indeed, it is at the heart of our tradition. In Yitro, we reach the climactic moment in our people’s history: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. As Moses prepares the Israelites for that historic event, he asks them if they are read to commit to following God’s teaching. In an exceptional instance of supreme faith, the people respond in unison: “Na’aseh v’nishmah—We will do it and then we will understand it.” As all of the classic commentators note, the doing comes first. We freely take on the obligations of Torah before we can really comprehend what those obligations entail. We sign the contract without reading the fine print. We pass the bill so that we can find out what is in it.

I suspect that while this modus operandi may, at first, strike us as unusual and even problematic, upon reflection we find that in our own lives, this is how it works with nearly every major decision that we make. Selecting a college, getting married (or not), having (or not having) children, taking (or leaving) a job, moving to a new house or city, choosing to have (or to forego) a major medical procedure—in each of these cases, and in countless others, we make crucial life choices without really grasping their long term consequences. No matter how much we plan, or how much research we do before we act, we simply cannot know what we are really getting ourselves into. Our course at Sinai, Na’aseh v’nishmah—to act, and only afterwards, gradually, come to understand the full implications of our actions—remains the only way to move forward in our personal, professional, and communal lives. In the end, there is no path that does not demand significant leaps of faith.

Our portion, Yitro, reminds us that most of the time, when we proceed with integrity, our leaps will land us on solid ground. While we may wish that this reminder might relieve us of all of our fear at critical junctions, this is, alas, simply not the case. Sometimes, our challenge is to find a way to make the leap despite the fear. But one thing is certain: the only alternative to that frightful leap is a life of utter paralysis. If we cannot muster the courage to act on faith, we end up failing to act at all. To trust in God, in compassionate community, in family and friends, and in ourselves is the only way to grow.

I conclude with two modern takes on Na’aseh v’nishmah. First, an excerpt from W. H. Auden’s magnificent poem, “Leap Before You Look”:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear;
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

And for an inspiring rock and roll slant from one of my favorite teachers, Bruce Springsteen:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Narrative of the Night (Portion Bo)

This week’s portion, Bo, takes us into the heart of darkness. It opens with the eighth plague—swarms of locusts that darkened the land. Then Egypt is engulfed in a “thick darkness” so palpable that it renders the Egyptians incapable of movement for three days. All of this dark terror builds up to the final plague when, at the stroke of midnight, God strikes down the firstborn in every Egyptian household. At last, as all of Egypt wails in the darkness, Pharaoh “summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!’”

The darkness of Bo is inseparable from devastation and death. It is, therefore, a source of intense trepidation, not only for the Egyptians, but also for our Israelite ancestors—and for us. When, on the journeys of our lives, we find ourselves cast into dim places, we tend to reach desperately for light. The descent of darkness shatters our illusions of control and reminds us of our own mortality.

Yet Parashat Bo reminds us that darkness is also the incubator of hope, the place where redemption is born. In Egypt, the Jewish people become a nation. We are conceived in the darkness of bondage and delivered in the middle of God’s eternal night of vigil. This ancient poem from the Passover Haggadah recounts our story of miracles fashioned amidst the darkness: Unto God let praise be brought / For the wonders God has wrought / At the solemn hour of midnight.

It is natural to fear the dark. Nightfall is frightening. Still, if we, like our forebears, wish to grow from our experiences, we must learn to embrace the liberating power of darkness. In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd urges us to think of the divine dark that descends upon us all as a womb rather than a tomb. She asks: "Could it be that seeking real light comes only by dwelling for a time in the dark? How sad when we don’t incubate the new life pressing to birth inside us. How sad when we cut it short, forcing unformed answers and refusing to hold the tensions of pain. Everything incubates in darkness. Whenever new life grows, darkness is crucial to the process. . . . So why have we made God into a rescuer rather than a midwife?"

Parashat Bo challenges us to imagine God as a midwife, to embrace our night vision. The poet Theodore Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” In their Egyptian midnight, our terrified ancestors caught their first glimpse of freedom. In our own midnights, we, too, begin to see—but only if we find the faith to hold our ground despite our fear, to wait patiently in the shadows rather than running prematurely for the light.

The Aramaic term for blindness is sagi nahor—literally, “too much light.” Thus does the sacred language of our Talmud reveal a fundamental truth: in order to grow, we need the darkness no less than the daylight. And our tradition has always recognized that just as our Jewish months begin on the darkest nights, under the new moon, so too can our Jewish souls find sustenance in the shadows—if only we can muster the courage to tarry there.
Three months after the Exodus described in Parashat Bo, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. There, too, they encounter thick darkness, in the form of the “dense cloud” that falls upon the mountain. Torah tells us that this is precisely where God is to be found. Moses bravely enters that divine darkness, twice. He returns bearing the tablets inscribed with God’s black fire.
Out of the darkness—through the darkness—comes both liberation and law. Without the night and all of its terrors, there can be no Torah. This is the legacy of Parashat Bo.