Saturday, January 6, 2018

On Love, Laughter, and Good Conversations

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. – Bob Marley
During a recent lunchtime walk, as I admired the sun’s reflection on the surface of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River a few blocks from my office, I reached for my phone to call my brother. For the past several years, I had called Steve every week or two. We would talk about how things were going in our respective lives, upcoming travel plans, and anything else that came to mind. But then I suddenly remembered that Steve was no longer with us, his number in my phone but a remnant of a past life. I placed the phone back into my pocket, looked at the still waters beside me and the blue skies above, and walked silently onward.

This has happened to me a few times since Steve died in early October. I am not sure why I experience these temporary lapses in memory. Others have told me it is a common experience and to be expected for anyone who has lost someone close to them. But it is at moments such as these when I am forced to contemplate the reality of loss, the certainty of death, and the fragility of life itself.

Another year has come and gone. Days pass ever so quickly as the steady drumbeat of life leaves me stranded on the abandoned tracks of time’s unrelenting forward progress. During a two-week stretch in early autumn, I forever lost the presence of two men I admired and respected – Andrea’s dad, my father-in-law, Marty Gelman, and my dear brother Steve. Through their deaths, Marty to natural causes at the age of 96 and Steve to brain cancer at 61, I am more intimately familiar with the temporary nature of life, compelled to appreciate more profoundly the importance of awakening to the wonder of each new day. For now and forever, it is the memories I will cherish, the shared experiences and momentary insights, the simple pleasures of a good meal and a good laugh.

I remember especially the little things, the quiet conversations with Marty on Sunday afternoons, the golf outings, ballgames, and childhood memories with Steve. “That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever,” writes Lauren Oliver in the novel Before I Fall. “Even after they’re over they still go on, even after you're dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.”

Marty and me, Thanksgiving 2016
Martin Gelman was a one-of-a-kind man who lived a full and meaningful life on his terms. (You can read of his many accomplishments and rich history here and here.) But what I will miss most are the many conversations I had with Marty about religion and politics, life and the world around us. Marty had a knack for listening and putting things into perspective – he provided a sense of historical insight, reminding us of the many ways life repeats itself. He had lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and for fifty years taught anthropology and psychology at a local community college, where he became one of its most popular professors. For 35 of those years, he counseled patients from all walks of life in his center-city Philadelphia clinical psychology practice, earning the love and respect of countless admirers. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as a B-24 navigator during the Good War and was a member of the Greatest Generation. And yet, through it all he retained a sense of humility and unpretentiousness that made you immediately comfortable and at ease in his presence.

I was especially inspired by Marty’s life-long love of learning, for he believed that, as members of the human race, we are on this planet to learn, think, question, and search. He was often the first person to read a new essay I had composed. I looked forward to talking with him about what I had written, eliciting his opinion and, hopefully, affirmation. Our talks typically led to a much longer conversation about related topics concerning philosophy, politics, family life, my love of the St. Louis Cardinals (which he admired and found amusing, even as it perplexed him), and other things about which we sometimes agreed and sometimes did not.

I debated often with Marty about the nature and existence of God, with my defense of God’s existence sharply challenged by Marty’s inherent skepticism. Having survived fifty bombing missions over the skies of Europe in World War II, having learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, having witnessed the repeated failures of human morality and humanity’s misuse of technology for the sake of greed and power, he had many rational and logical reasons to question God’s existence. But in all of our talks, while he asked good questions, he never insisted he was right, and he retained a hopeful sense of possibility, which allowed us always to find common ground.

He was intrigued by my embrace of the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believed that God’s presence, though concealed, was everywhere, and that it was up to human beings to make God’s presence known by experiencing the everyday wonder of the universe. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “[T]o get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” I believe this resonated with Marty because, despite his secular rationalism and deep skepticism born of the evils of 20th Century atrocities, deep down he shared Heschel’s sense of wonder and amazement. And I loved that about him.

I will miss Marty and our talks, his wise counsel, and the love and compassion he had for all who entered his life. Even at the end of his life, when he had lost his physical agility and needed help with the daily things of life, with eating and sitting and getting dressed, he never lost his sense of humor, his compassion and concern for others, and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of us all. He was a living example of Heschel’s admonition, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Steve and me at One World Trade Center
Fall 2016
My conversations with Steve were less intellectual, but he was my big brother, a source of encouragement and support I have always counted on. Steve and I shared a bond that went back a half century, to our childhood, when we found new and creative ways to have fun, played sports together, and shared life’s many adventures in a suburban New Jersey, Huck Finn sort of way. Steve was an incredibly fun-loving soul who never took life too seriously. When we were growing up in Moorestown, and later Hightstown, New Jersey, we did everything together. Although Steve was three years ahead of me in school, he let me hang out with his older friends and never excluded me from any activity. We played touch football in the backyard of our house with neighborhood friends, competed against each other in one-on-one basketball games, hit ground balls to each other in our backyard, pitched batting practice to each other at the local ball fields, and found all sorts of ways to have fun in the days before video games and technology kept all the kids indoors.

Although he possessed a perpetually childlike spirit, Steve was slightly defeated in later years, a touch beaten down by an adult life filled with heartache. When his first marriage ended in divorce, along with his career as an ordained Lutheran minister (a long story, to which I will say only that the then Bishop of the Southeastern Lutheran Synod was a rigid, unforgiving, and uncompassionate man who represented exactly the opposite of what the Church should be), he never fully recovered. He made his share of mistakes, but his negative experience with the church diminished his youthful zest for life. For years afterwards, though he retained his friendly nature and bright smile, a portion of his happy-go-lucky style disappeared and he developed emotional defenses that left him a touch guarded.  

And yet, Steve was among the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever known. He always found a way to make things work. Whatever sadness he harbored in later years, he continued on with dignity and fortitude. He found love and happiness again, restored his relationship with his two children, whom he dearly loved, and performed well in his new careers in banking and business.

Before he became too sick to speak at any length, when he still had his health and a sense of normalcy, Steve and I spoke nearly every week by phone. Some days we would talk about the pressures of work, the daily struggles to succeed and make a living. On other days we talked about politics, our kids, our shared passion for baseball and our past dreams of baseball glory. By the time we had reached mid-life, our childhood experiences were but faded memories of days long past. But even as time and distance came between us, we always remained friends and knew we would always be there for each other. Steve was one of the few people in life with whom I shared deep-seated memories and formative childhood experiences. And though we never made it to the major leagues, we understood our baseball dreams for what they were – the longings of young men learning as we go, providing support and encouragement along the way.

So, as a new year beckons and life journeys onward, here is to the memories of two kind and decent people who found a way to enrich the world with their presence, their dignity, and their generosity of spirit. Though they were distinctly different individuals, Marty and Steve each in their own way left the world a little better than they found it. I will miss them both, but I will forever cherish the many memories, of love, laughter, and good conversation. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

HOT OFF THE PRESSES - BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: The Journey Continues: Collected Essays on Life, Baseball, People, and Ideas 2014 - 2016

The Journey Continues: Collected Essays on Life, Baseball, People, and Ideas 
2014 - 2016:

"If we could place time in a bottle, we would have less need for memories and less regret for wasted days.” So contends Mark J. Ehlers in The Journey Continues, a new collection of essays on life, baseball, people and ideas from the author that brought us Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart and Life Goes On. In The Journey Continues, Ehlers writes about ideas and people who inspire and intrigue him, reflects on the mystery of life, and struggles out-loud with the human quest for understanding. He writes about family, of love, loss, and missed conversations. And he writes about baseball as a game that “embodies the American spirit, the promise of childhood, and dreams of young boys in old men’s bodies."

"I hope someday my daughters recall fondly the times they spent in a car with their Dad, the baseball games we attended, our conversations and shared adventures. For it is the memories that sustain us and help make sense of the past; that allow us to live with passion and purpose in the present.” - "Sunday Mornings and Hot Dog Stands"

"History, like memory, is elusive; what we choose to remember and document but a collage of selective images and stories. What seems important one day is lost on another, set aside in a vacant warehouse filled with old history books and dusty memoirs. As the years progress, we remember less and immortalize but a small sampling of men and women who over their lifetimes influenced the course of human events." - "Angelic Troublemaker: The Quiet Legacy of Bayard Rustin"

"When the end of our lives draw near, it will be the friendships we have made, the kindnesses we have bestowed, the lessons we have taught and learned from each other that will remain behind; tiny footprints of memory in the lives we have touched along the way." - "Done Too Soon"

"The world will forever remain a complex place, full of disappointment and despair. Religious extremism and religious conflict are part of the problem, but so is religious illiteracy -- the failure to understand the 'other' and the many dimensions and faces of religious belief and practice in the world today. Perhaps if we recognize how fortuitous are the origins of our own  religious identities, we will make more meaningful connections to people of other faiths, or of no faith, and the many who remain conflicted about faith. Then, too, we may see more clearly that which we have in common -- the desire for community and fellowship, the need for foundational principles, and the search for God in a broken world." - "The Interfaith Imperative of the 21st Century"

"Only through art can we achieve perfection. Through poetry and literature, a beautiful painting, a thoughtful sonnet, or perhaps a prayer for peace, we can put forth a thought, a story, an image, or a philosophical query that achieves precisely what the artist or author intended. When I write, I edit and re-write, changing words and sentences, restructuring paragraphs, until I am satisfied that the combination of written words has the desired effect. But life, as we know, is not a work of art; perfection eludes us all." - "Finding Strength in What Remains Behind"

"I understand that moral reflection is often a non-existent luxury in the heat of war. But it is imperative that, as citizens and human beings with a moral conscience, we continue to ask questions of and debate our past actions. For we have, in the words of Robert Kennedy 'unlocked the mystery of nature . . . [and] must live with the power of complete self-destruction. This is the power of choice, the tragedy and glory of man.' The real dangers come from us, from the egos, passions, prejudices and jealousies of humanity itself. It is these forces we must together overcome or, in the end, we will defeat ourselves." - "Reflections on the Darker Impulses of Humanity"

"Walking the grounds of Monticello, I thought of the many complexities, the shades of gray that so often permeate the human condition. Is anyone really ever the embodiment of pure goodness, or pure evil? So often, we place people and nations in black-and-white boxes, for it is easier to justify our actions when we do so. It is how nations build support for warfare and organized violence. It allows us to place on pedestals our own designated heroes. But rarely are the people who occupy the nations with whom we disagree full of pure evil, or the people who inspire us made of pure goodness. Criminals and prostitutes, businessmen and thieves, generals and inspiring leaders – all are at one time infants and children; all at some point in life long for the loving embrace of a mother or the prideful moments of a child’s accomplishments; and all are imperfect." - "Monticello and the Jefferson Paradox"

"No sport lends itself to the art of writing and the literary craft more than baseball. It is a game embedded in the ever changing landscape of America, from the crowded streets of 1950’s New York and Prohibition Chicago to the westernmost expanse of coastal California. Through the distractions of war and struggles for the rights of man, baseball’s appeal remains constant. It is a game that draws us to the memories of youth, of dirt stains and the scent of freshly cut grass on a spring day, of perfectly shaped infields and the lonely arc of a fly ball on a windy, sun-drenched afternoon. As I grow older and my athletic skills recede ever further into the distant past, I feel a small pain in my heart as I watch the ease and effortless joy with which today’s major leaguers perform the daily routines of batting practice and fielding drills. It is a young man’s game. I long for the rare moments of eternal grace, when the game allows me to stay forever young and live the romanticized dreams of childhood." - "On Baseball and Writing: Roger Angell and the Summer Game"

"For six consecutive seasons, I watched with a touch of envy as the Ripken brothers stood a few feet apart near the second base bag and fielded ground balls casually tossed from the first basemen between innings, or chatted with each other during pitching changes as the relief pitcher warmed up. I remember thinking how fortunate they were to be playing a game they loved and had played together as children. When most men had long since abandoned their dreams, here they were as brothers, playing alongside each other in a major league park, turning double plays for the same team, and sharing the experience of a lifetime together. It is the stuff of which dreams are made." – “On Brothers and Baseball”

"When I attend games in person, whether at the grand cathedrals of major league baseball or at the local high school fields and parks near my home, I love to watch the action between innings, when the pitcher takes his warm-up throws, the first baseman lofts ground balls to the infielders, and the outfielders play a relaxed game of catch from 200 feet apart. The graceful rhythms of the ballplayers create a symphony of movement, baseballs flowing in multiple directions, all with a sense of linear purpose. At these moments, the game encompasses my imagination, allows me to remember the feelings and love I had for the game as a player, and reminds me of the dreams I held onto until reality and life set me straight." – “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” 

(c) 2017 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing



Life Goes On: 
More Essays on Life, Baseball, and Things that Matter

Part memoir and part reflection, in Life Goes On, Ehlers addresses life in all its dimensions; the passage of time and of unmet dreams, the conflicts of faith in a secular age, the redeeming quality of the human spirit, and a lifelong bond with baseball. It is for anyone who believes that life is too precious to cease thinking and learning, and recognizes that, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "There is no human being who does not carry a treasure in his soul: a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence..." 

"Some people believe in destiny and fate, others in free will. For most us, life is but a roll of the dice, a complex mixture of chance and circumstance that affects the course of our lives. We do not choose the country of our birth and have no say in the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not choose our ethnicity, our race, or the major events of history that coincide with our own personal histories. Some people are born rich and privileged, while others are born poor and unloved. But all of us must learn to live with the cards we are dealt and, ultimately, choose how we live." - "Marty and Gertrude: An American Story"

"Conventional wisdom teaches that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. I have never quite understood this, as I believe human interaction is at its best when people are not afraid to reveal themselves, when we are open to civil discourse and healthy give-and-take on matters of substance. Besides, the weather has never been all that interesting to me. But perhaps this is why I am not invited to many dinner parties." - "On Faith, Politics, and the Christian Divide"

"Being a fan requires certain fortitude and a willingness to endure pain and heartbreak. Only true fans can really understand this. When everyone else says, “Grow up” or “Get a life”, we just shake our heads with the knowledge that the non-fan lacks discernment. A true fan connects to a team the way one connects to immediate family; we are wrapped up in our team’s identity, its players form part of our secret inner circle. I can criticize a player on my team, but if a Phillies fan knocks my second baseman, he just may find extra spices in his cheese steak, if you catch my drift."- "The End of Winter"

"If my world were to end tomorrow, I need only look back on my experience as a father, on the pleasure, humor, and excitement of watching young minds develop and characters formed, to know that it was all worthwhile. Whatever sadness my life has experienced, and whatever regrets about my choices and outcomes, I know that I am blessed, that life has been easier for me than for most. The small joys, the little pleasures, these will have been enough." - "Life Goes On"

(c) 2013 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing

ORDER Life Goes On

 Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart: 
Essays on Life, Politics, Baseball, and Religion

Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart is Ehlers' first collection of interesting and touching essays on life, politics, baseball, and religion. It is for anyone who believes that life is too short to remain uninvolved, time too precious to cease learning, thinking, caring, and laughing.

“It was not until I turned 50 earlier this year . . . that I sensed for the first time that certain of my dreams may forever be deferred, that time is a gift, its limits felt with the passing of each year. Though it seems as if I need constant reminding that I am no longer a young man, fresh from law school, determined to accomplish high-minded things, I remain confident and sure of myself about certain matters, full of doubts and insecurities about others. But I now recognize and feel, gradually, incrementally, the burdens of aging . . . I know now that life is not forever. Mortality awaits me and, for the first time in my life, I am truly aware of its dimensions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it forces one to recognize the truly important things in life – family, relationships, closeness with God, and the true meaning of success. As Albert Huffstickler wrote, ‘Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more.’” - “The Meaning of Fifty: A Personal Reflection”

“To study American history is, in part, to chronicle the distance between the ideals of American democracy and the realities of American life. One cannot proclaim to love America, yet ignore its blemishes. A true patriot recognizes the glorious nature of America’s past, but strives constantly to achieve that which our founders hoped to achieve – ‘to form a more perfect Union’ as stated in the preamble to the Constitution – and to narrow the distance between our ideals and our shortcomings.” - “Notes on Patriotism and Celebrating America”

“Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost sight of the common good; we have failed to recognize that the human race is in dire need of a helping hand, some understanding, and kindness, and that we are all in this journey together. Perhaps a search for meaning and purpose, in our work, in our relationships, in our lives, will lead the way to creating a more just and compassionate world, and an economic system that rewards hard work and success without leaving all others behind.” - “On Economics, Values, and Meaning”

“Perhaps someday I will grow up, develop perspective, finally realize that baseball is only a game, a pastime, a place of pastoral beauty, symmetry, and timeless perfection intended to soothe a weary soul. For now, I am forced to face the fall alone.” - “Life as a Cardinals Fan: Of Hope and Heartbreak”

“It is during these brief moments of sanity, in the quiet solitude of an off day, when I understand why those closest to me may mistakenly believe that my life during baseball season falls into an abyss of warped priorities.” - “Random Thoughts at the All-Star Break”

(c) 2011 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Does it Mean to be "Pro-Israel" in the Age of Trump?

The election of Donald Trump and his nomination of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel portends a new phase in the U.S.-Israel relationship. During the campaign, President Trump boasted that he will be the most “pro-Israel” president in history. But what does that mean? In the case of Trump, it appears to mean paying little deference to past efforts at diplomacy and long-standing U.S. policy. Thus, Trump repeatedly criticized the U.S. government’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which re-affirmed international support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemned Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory as illegal and detrimental to peace. Many of Trump’s advisers and supporters openly questioned the idea of pursuing a two-state solution. The 2016 Republican Party platform eliminated any mention of a two-state solution. Iowa congressman Steve King (R-IA), an early Trump supporter, said that the two-state solution “has run its course.” 

The Israeli right rejoiced at Trump’s election. Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party in Israel, stated, “Trump’s victory is a tremendous opportunity for Israel to immediately announce its intention to renege on the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country. . . . The era of the Palestinian state is over.” In recent months, there has been increasing talk of “Greater Israel” and a one-state solution. At a joint press conference in Washington earlier this week, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in verbal somersaults to avoid endorsing a two-state solution. Netanyahu heaped public praise on Trump and the new direction in U.S.-Israel relations: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump."

Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, a lawyer from Long Island with no foreign policy experience, has long supported the Israeli settlement movement and annexation of the West Bank. In an article he wrote for Arutz Sheva, he accused President Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and described supporters of the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” When he was later asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic to clarify what may be among the vilest statements one Jew can say of another, Friedman said of liberal Zionists, “They’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel.” Although he attempted to tone down these past statements at his confirmation hearing last week, there is little doubt as to his true sentiments.

So, what does it mean to be “pro-Israel” in the Age of Trump? Does it require unquestioning acceptance of the policies of the current Israeli government (or at least no public criticism)? What about the contrary views of a majority of Israeli citizens? Should not the term “pro-Israel” be reserved to those who support policies that are in the long-term interests of Israel, its security, and its status as a Jewish and democratic state? For those of us who care about the future of the Jewish state and of liberal Zionism, is it right to worry about where the Trump-Netanyahu alliance is headed? Is there any realistic alternative to a two-state solution?

Before his tragic assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood that the visionary ideals of Israel’s Zionist founders, of a free and democratic Jewish state, remained in constant tension with the more expansionist religious and nationalistic claims to a Greater Israel. As the first Israeli-born Prime Minister who had fought for Israel’s survival and performed heroically in defending Israel during the Six-Day War, Rabin understood that the future of his beloved country, and of Zionism itself, could not withstand a permanent military occupation of land populated by millions of Palestinians.  

“Israel is no longer a people that dwells alone,” he said in 1992, alluding to the burdens of occupation. Rabin knew that to achieve peace great leaders must be willing to negotiate and compromise with their enemies. Even when destructive forces are determined to sabotage the peace process, Rabin said, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way.”

Rabin set Israel firmly on course to pursuit of a two-state solution, believing it was the only way to guarantee that Israel remained both Jewish and democratic. It is a framework that continues to be supported by two-thirds of Israeli Jews, according to a recent poll commissioned by J Street in Israel. The poll, conducted by a highly respected Israeli pollster on January 8-9, 2017, found that 66% of Israeli Jews and 68% of Israelis overall continue to support a two-state solution. Even 62% of Likud voters favor a two-state solution. These results should not be surprising. For those who live in Israel, the complex reality of life on the ground compels sensitivity to the tenuous nature of the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state.

The two-state solution is also overwhelmingly endorsed by former leaders of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, a group of experts who can hardly be accused of insufficiently understanding Israel’s security needs. Indeed, it is precisely out of concern for Israel’s long-term security that these military and intelligence experts support two states for two peoples.

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu has at times paid lip service to a two-state solution, in eight years he has made no serious effort to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict and has repeatedly defied U.S. policy by expanding the number of settlements in the West Bank. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently told The Axe Files, Netanyahu is “now the father of one-State Israel;... the Prime Minister of Israel-Palestine.” Friedman (the journalist) noted that the Israeli-right wants three things: (1) a state that encompasses all the land of Greater Israel (including all or most of the land encompassing East Jerusalem and the West Bank), (2) a Jewish state, and (3) a democratic state. In reality, given existing demographics and current birth rates, only two of these choices are achievable. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be Jewish, but not democratic. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be democratic, but not Jewish. Or Israel can be Jewish and democratic, but not have all the land of Greater Israel. These options are clearly delineated and immovable.

As the J Street-Israel poll demonstrates, most Israelis understand that Israel can remain true to its Jewish and democratic character only if it seeks a secure Israel within internationally recognized borders, side-by-side with a demilitarized Palestinian state. Any other solution is effectively the end of liberal Zionism. To be truly pro-Israel is to care about the long-term future of the Jewish state and to seek an Israel that permanently preserves its Zionist ideals and democratic traditions, while respecting the humanity and equality of Palestinians. The two-state solution is the only realistic path to a permanent peace that preserves Israel's Jewish and democratic character. Supporting the two-state solution, as do a majority of Israelis, is the most pro-Israel position one can take.

Admittedly, peace with the Palestinians may be a long way off. The Palestinians have a lot to do to get their own house in order. They must overcome incompetent and corrupt leadership, the Fatah-Hamas divide, and continued attempts by Hamas and others to de-legitimize Israel. But Israel's true supporters will continue to insist on policies (including cessation of West Bank settlements) that help preserve a Jewish homeland as a viable democracy within secure borders. Any resolution other than one that results in Israel and the Palestinians living side-by-side within internationally recognized borders irreparably undermines a future of peaceful co-existence and of Israel as a democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

I have no confidence that President Trump understands what is truly at stake in all of this. Some of his public comments ("I am looking at two-states or one state... I can live with either one") demonstrate a baffling degree of ignorance. But the question remains: Will Israel remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts? We know where the majority of Israelis stand. I only hope that America under President Trump will remain pro-Israel in the truest sense of that term and not seek to undermine the majority sentiment of this Jewish and democratic nation.

Friday, January 27, 2017

An Act of Quiet Contemplation: Why Reading Matters

In 1968, when I was nine years old, my parents gave me the Prentice Hall paperback edition of From Ghetto to Glory by Bob Gibson, the great starting pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals. Although I was attracted to the book’s front cover, which displayed a picture of Gibson on the pitcher’s mound mid-delivery, From Ghetto to Glory was the first book I ever read from cover to cover. It was not great literature, or necessarily great writing, but it allowed me, a white suburban kid from central New Jersey, to better understand the inner life and struggles of a young, proud, black man in 1960’s America. Born into extreme poverty in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Great Depression, Gibson’s modest book described his coming of age as a ballplayer during an era of Jim Crow and segregation, and later, civil unrest and black power, when America was awakened from its history of racial oppression. By taking the time to read his story, I learned to look at the world from another person’s viewpoint, and gained in knowledge and empathy what I lost in my own narrow experience. Simply reading this one book made me a better person. In a small but significant way, it changed my life.

I was struck by the indispensable role books have played throughout my life when reading the recent interview of President Obama by New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. Seven days before departing the White House, Obama sat down with Kakutani and discussed how reading had nourished and strengthened his tenure as President. “Not since Lincoln has there been a president fundamentally shaped – in his life, convictions and outlook on the world – by reading and writing as Barack Obama,” noted Kakutani. “During his eight years in the White House – in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions – books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.” There is something comforting in knowing that our nation’s leaders, at least until now, have taken books and the ideas they convey seriously.

For President Obama, reading about history helped him evaluate how past presidents handled major crises or navigated through difficult times – Lincoln during the Civil War or Franklin Roosevelt in World War II. Reading literature and fiction helped him to think broadly about humanity and the world. Obama has “a writer’s sensibility,” writes Kakutani, “an ability to be in the moment while standing apart as an observer, a novelist’s eye and ear for detail, and a precise but elastic voice capable of moving easily between the lyrical and the vernacular and the profound.” It is yet one more reason why I love the 44th president.

Books allow us to slow down and develop a sense of perspective. A good book opens our eyes to the complexities of the human race, the follies and frailties of life, the dark acts of cruelty and gracious acts of kindness. Books help us escape into another world and share with our children, as I once did, the seven books of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Reading about the trials and tribulations of Harry, Ron, and Hermione led to discussions with my daughters about trust and friendship, prejudice and evil, courage and the fear of death.

Classic non-fiction books like Night by Elie Wiesel or The Diary of Anne Frank can help us develop empathy and experience life from someone else’s shoes. To understand where other people come from, to learn of their dreams and aspirations, their hopes and fears, expose our common humanity. Regardless of one’s politics or religion, a touching novel or moving story shows that we are all part of the human race, we breathe the same air and inhabit the same planet; that our destinies are tied together.

Books are fundamentally about engagement, for they place us in the arena and allow us to experience another place and time through the lenses of another life. Through language and narrative, a good writer transports her readers into the emotional lives of her characters. I love giving and receiving books as gifts, because to select the right book for someone else requires time and thoughtfulness. Implicit in book giving is the message, “I have been thinking about you, what makes you tick, what inspires you or makes you laugh and cry. I believe this book will enrich your life.”

My two favorite rooms at home are my study, where I read, write, and think (and yeah, okay, watch a lot of Cardinals games), and the living room, which is filled with books I have collected and read through the years. Whenever I enter someone’s house, I can tell immediately by their books (or lack thereof) how well we are likely to get along, and where the conversation may ultimately be headed. Good readers make good conversationalists, for a world enriched by books is a world filled with ideas and thoughts that touch the heart and mind, that move us, make us think, question assumptions, and give us the tools to evaluate the events of history and trajectories of life.

Books allow us to enter intimately into the lives of our subjects. Although I tend toward non-fiction, there is nothing like a good novel to escape into another world. My interest in Judaism and Jewish history was born in The Chosen by Chaim Potok, which led me to My Name is Asher Lev, Davita’s Harp, and Potok’s other wonderful novels that explore the tension between tradition and modernity, love and obligation. For me, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald remains one of the great American novels, whose moral dimensions and social commentary are as relevant today as in the Gilded Age of the 1920’s. Trinity by Leon Uris helped me understand modern Irish history and the fundamental causes of the Catholic-Protestant divide. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean continues to offer quiet moments of beauty and contemplation.

And yet, I am mostly drawn to biographies and memoirs, history, religion and politics, and long-form journalism. I have loved most everything written by David Halberstam during his lifetime, including The Powers that Be, about the growth of the major media empires, Breaks of the Game, about professional basketball, and The Fifties, about the social, cultural, political, and economic trends of a seminal decade in American history. Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remains to this day the single best biography I have ever read. An incredibly well written book rich with insight, Schlesinger masterfully explains Kennedy’s evolution and growth as a man and a politician within the context of the 1950s and 1960s. David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama is for me the definitive work on Obama’s pre-presidential life, just as David Maraniss’s First in His Class captured Bill Clinton’s early life and career. These books are good not simply because their subjects are interesting, but because they are written beautifully and help us think and feel with the people we are endeavoring to know better.

I could go on about the many books that have influenced my thinking and intellectual development during the course of my life. It is one reason I so much enjoyed the movie Liberal Arts, a quiet film about Jesse, a 35 year-old college admissions officer in New York who longs for the days when he studied literature at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. In one scene near the film’s end, he meets Ana, his future love interest who works in a New York book store. He soon discovers that he and Ana share a love of books:

Ana: I love books. I do, in like the dorkiest way possible.
Jesse: Oh, me too. It's a problem.
Ana: Like, I love trees cause they give us books.
Jesse: Super cool of the trees to do that, Right?
Ana: I'm actually... this is weird. I'm actually trying to read less.
Jesse: Why?
Ana: I felt like I wasn't watching enough television. No, l just started to feel like reading about life was taking time away from actually living life, so I'm trying to, like, accept invitations to things, say "hi" to the world a little more.

When Jesse asks how Ana's increased socializing is working out, Ana reluctantly admits that, on most occasions, she would really rather be at home with a book. Such is the life of a good reader.

“Reading is an act of contemplation,” writes author David L. Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010), “perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” It is why I will continue to live life one book at a time, in a quiet corner and a comfortable chair, refreshing my spirit and recharging my mind.

Like Ana in Liberal Arts, I will always love books and thank the trees for giving them to us. For me, reading is the lifeblood of conversation, of thinking and learning and growing, one sentence, one page, one book at a time. Life is a work in progress. It always will be. A good book simply makes the journey more meaningful.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

God in Search of Man: Experiencing Wonder in an Age of Indifference

As I sit and look out the window of my study, a blue sky beckons beyond the trees, their naked branches reaching upward as if calling to a hidden God. The green moss glides halfway up the trunk of the tallest tree in my sight and extends beyond the roof and chimney of the house upon whose land it has rooted. A still breeze causes the evergreens below to bristle. I am momentarily filled with wonder, amazed that on such a small and insignificant plot of land – a third of an acre is visible through my study window – there exists such a complex ecological oasis of life, plants, trees, dirt and grass, insects and birds, small mammals, everything existing in perfect harmony with the natural universe. A quiet peace descends over me.

With each passing year, memories of life at a younger age drift further into the distance. Some come easily. I can remember still, as a seven year-old boy, walking with my sister to the public library up the steep hill on Parry Drive in Moorestown, New Jersey, with no understanding of where life would take me, but believing even then that the world was full of wonder and fascination. I remember at age nine throwing a rubber ball against the brick chimney on the side of our house, betraying my parents’ wishes as I practiced fielding ground balls, trying desperately not to throw wildly and risk fracturing a bordering shingle. I remember as a teenager playing touch football with neighborhood friends at the ballfields of the local middle school, experiencing the freedom of the sun and fresh air on my young face as I dodged defenders and intercepted opposing passes. They are memories of an ordinary life in an ordinary town. Never certain of my purpose in life, insecure about my place in the world, and yet living each day with a profound sense of gratitude and good fortune.

As I grew older, I began to value the gift of education and thought, absorbing books and newspapers to help me better understand the world around me, its history and trends, its people and places. I pursued a career in law, created a family and developed a life, always uncertain of my destiny and conscious of my insignificance. For I am but one person among billions, living on a small planet in a vast galaxy that is, in the end, but a tiny fragment among many existing galaxies, planetary constellations, and solid masses of matter that exist beyond our present capacity to imagine and know. 

The world is at once beautiful and grand, frightening and scary, full of grace and wonder and acts of barbaric cruelty. As I continue on the journey of life, trying to do my best as a man fulfilling the roles of husband and father, citizen and co-worker, fellow traveler on the Spaceship Earth, I wonder still what it all means. And yet, I am constantly reminded of what a blessing it is to be alive, to have experienced the love I share with Andrea, to watch my children grow into kind, caring, thoughtful adults, and to be blessed with the gift of life and health in a world that does not always dispense fairly such gifts.

*     *     *     *

Readers of this blog know that I have at times struggled with questions about God and faith and the meaning of our existence. These days, I have more questions than answers and doubt the certainty and exclusivity of much of what passes for religious doctrine. I believe the vast majority of self-identified religious people have misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the Scriptural pretexts of their own faith traditions, or are otherwise simplistic and misguided in their unquestioning acceptance or rejection of religion. But I have always believed in a God, an ultimate Creator, however irrational that may seem to some. I realize that God’s presence is impossible to prove or discern, and that, if God does exist, he or she has bestowed humanity with free will, including the freedom to protect or destroy the planet, to act with love and compassion or to inflict indescribable cruelty on our fellow human beings. Anyone who takes time to read the daily papers knows that as a species we are not faring well.

It would be easy in modern times to reject completely the notion of God, or to conclude that God’s existence is irrelevant. Life will go on as we have always known it, and we will either save the world or destroy the world without God’s involvement. Still, I refuse to conclude that God, or some form of higher power, is completely absent from our lives. I continue to believe that which I wrote in October 2009 (In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief):
. . . [W]hen I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.
Although I may not have realized it then, my notion of God’s presence as expressed above is not dissimilar from what had been expressed far more poetically and effectively by Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout the course of his life. It may be why Heschel’s writings continue to touch me, for his writings describe the ineffable and affirm the presence of God in a world in which God often appears absent.

In God in Search of Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), Heschel wrote that “awareness of the divine begins with wonder” and is “a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.” Heschel believed that a world without wonder is a world closed off to the presence of God. For it is this sense of wonder that allows us to recognize we are not alone. “You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death,” wrote Heschel. “We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.”

Heschel took the Bible seriously but not literally. He believed, as do I, that religion and science are entirely compatible, that scientific knowledge “extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.” Heschel welcomed the interplay between science and faith and acknowledged that “the sense of wonder and transcendence . . . must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate.”

As an observant Jew, Heschel believed with certainty in the existence of God. But he acknowledged that, for most of humanity and throughout most of history, God’s presence has been hidden and actively concealed. He believed, however, that if we are open to the majestic splendor of the universe and the mystery of creation, and if we are willing to look beyond our sense of self, we are capable of experiencing the reality of a transcendent God.

I recently finished reading a wonderful and insightful book by Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder of Mechon Hadar, a Jewish educational institution in New York, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Indiana University Press, 2013), Held explains that Heschel sought “to remind his readers that buried deep within them was the possibility of a wholly different orientation to the world, one rooted in wonder and amazement rather than callousness and indifference.” A sense of wonder, Held notes, was for Heschel:
…the very antithesis of “taking things for granted.” A sense of perpetual surprise yields the realization that the world as a whole, and my life within it, did not have to be. They are not brute facts but rather gifts bestowed. To cultivate a sense of wonder, then, is to instill in myself the knowledge, at once cognitive and experiential, that I am not the author of my own life or of the world that I inhabit. I am, most fundamentally, not a creator of life, but a recipient thereof.
The question for Heschel was what to do with the sense of wonder, awe, and mystery that so defines our lives. Underlying his theology was the belief that God had entered into a covenant with humanity and that, as a result, something was asked of us. As human beings, we are naturally driven to focus on our individual needs, to acquire, to enjoy, and to possess. But the spiritual side of humanity provides a “will to serve higher ends” that transcends our needs. “The grand purpose of religion,” Heschel contended, is that “man is able to surpass himself.”

Heschel feared that the collapse of wonder, from self-centeredness, greed, cynicism, or indifference, has perilous consequences for the world and for humanity. Having witnessed in his lifetime the cruelty of Auschwitz and tragedy of Hiroshima, Heschel believed that only through a moral and spiritual reawakening could the world overcome its indifference to human suffering. One need only look at what is happening in the world today, with countless acts of violence and terrorism, millions of refugees fleeing their homelands, much of the world’s population living in squalor, and a mostly indifferent world turning away in apathy, to conclude that much of the world has lost its sense of wonder and the grace that accompanies it.

As Rabbi Held notes, Heschel sought to remind the world that “we matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give.” Real freedom, according to Heschel, is found not in the power of self-assertion, but in the power to rise above it. To respond to God is to bring an end to callousness and indifference. It is why Heschel in his time spoke so powerfully against the Vietnam War, fought for the rights of Soviet Jews, opposed bigotry and prejudice, and marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King in favor of civil rights.

If Heschel were alive today, I have no doubt he would raise his voice in opposition to the world’s indifference to Syrian refugees and the destruction of Aleppo; against the rising influence of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries; and against the callousness of the world’s institutions toward the suffering of our most vulnerable populations.

As another year comes to an end and a new year is upon us, my hope for the world is that we open ourselves to the wonder of the universe, the mystery of life, and the possibility of a God that seeks human partners to spread love and compassion and defeat hatred and indifference. We must acknowledge that only humanity can pursue peace, protect the environment, and save us from ourselves. Only humanity can make a better world.