Sunday, September 18, 2005
The board of a prominent Los Angeles Orthodox synagogue recently held a meeting entirely devoted to cholent, which it serves every week (and thus invalidates the need for many people to eat a separate lunch).
Their rabbi says the kiddish wars in the community are out of control, with synagogues trying to top each other with the lavishness of their offerings (thus trying to attract more paying members and up their prestige as richer synagogues throw richer kiddishes).
Prominent New York Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot was brought in by one L.A. shul this weekend to be the scholar in residence, and on the request of someone on the board, he spoke against extravagent kiddishes, weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations (call him The Rabbi Who Killed Kiddish).
He said he's been reading this summer full-page ads in New York Jewish papers promoting a Passover vacation in Palm Springs with lavish meals. He says this frustrated him because of the withdrawal from Gaza and Hurricane Katrina. He says that we should be more modest in our celebrations. He didn't want more than four meat serving stations at his wedding.
I think that is not only nuts, but not necessarily moral.
First, there are always bad things happening in the world. Does that mean the Jewish economy should grind to a halt, and people should stop advertising their services and stop trying to please their Passover customers with 24-hour tea-rooms with spreads of cake and fruit?
Second. When the rich throw major celebrations, they usually give the rest of us something good to chew on. At a good Bar Mitzvah spread, there'll be ten different types of desserts, which is just what God intended. I'll have some of each. For the last three weeks, the best meal I've had each week has been at shul Shabbos morning. I refuse to believe that lemon squares and chocolate chip cookies are against God's will. After I've had ten of each, I can go home and sleep away most of Shabbos, thereby fulfilling the Jewish destiny.
Third. My life is pretty much a vale of tears. I don't think a few bickies at somebody else's expense is so wrong.
Fourth. These lavish celebrations are not only good for the Jews (give us a reason to go to shul and perform the commandments of the Torah, frankly, without food inducements many of us couldn't stand to be around each other) but they allow poor Mexicans to earn a few shekels and put food on their table. When a Peter Lowy throws a massive bar mitzvah, not only does his synagogue get windows, but the Mexican bus-boys get work, and can then send joy and dinero south of the Rio Grande.
Lavish kiddishes equal tikkun olam (repair of the world). Rock on rich guys.
Thesaurus Entry For 'Conservative'
In his second hour, Dennis Prager sent his listeners to www.thesaurus.com for the entry of "conservative", and these were the supposed synonyms:
I checked it out and this was the list of synonyms for the entry "bigotry" not "conservative."
Prager corrected himself and said to type in "conservatism," where it lists those above synonyms for bigotry.
Prager looked up liberalism and read a beautiful list of synonyms.
Prager went off on the bias of Roget's Thesaurus and the Liberal world.
Then Prager's listeners called in and pointed out his mistake.
"So much for that folks," said Dennis and moved on and moved on to lambast Sentor Durbin for saying that the courts are for the little guy.
During my 17-year struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), I've often felt as U.S. women's soccer player Michelle Akers says in this movie -- that she died on the day she got sick.
This is a superb documentary on CFS.
From IMDB.com: "In 1984-85, people at Lake Tahoe fell ill with flu symptoms, but they didn't get better. Medical literature documents similar outbreaks: in 1934 at LA county hospital, in 1948-49 in Iceland, in 1956 in Punta Gorda, Florida. The malady now has a name, chronic fatigue syndrome, and filmmaker Kim Snyder, who suffered from the disease for several years, tells her story and talks to victims and their families, and to physicians and researchers: is it viral, it is psychosomatic, is it one disease or several (a syndrome) ; what's the CDC doing about it; what's it like to have a disease that's not yet understood? Her inquiry takes her to Punta Gorda and to a high-school graduation."
Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times: "Snyder is an investigative journalist who does her own detective work...a documentary which does what the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta shamefully failed to do: connect the dots."
I wonder what happened to high school senior Stephen Paganetti, who was too sick to even feed himself. Few of his friends visited him once he got sick. (His mailing address is POBox 145 Durham, CT 06422-0145.)
Most of my friends my age ignored me once I got sick, or said that it was all in my head.
One of my strongest beliefs from my illness is that older people are more compassionate with illness than younger people. They are more likely to visit you and to help you.
...Judaism doesn't embrace sinners as much as Christianity does.
Chaim writes: "Why are Christians always returning to the Church and leaving porn behind, but not so with Jews? I guess if you are a sinner trying to turn things around and in need of help, it is better to be Christian than Jewish."
Fred writes: "Luke, do you think that one of the big aspects of Christianity is responsibility avoidance? Sort of like saying "I sinned, but I believe, so I get to avoid taking resonsibility for all my screw-ups." Judaism requires much more contrition for one's sins."
Faith Does Breed Charity
I Hate The Psalms
The more I read them, the more I hate them.
I feel much closer to God and to love while reciting Air Supply lyrics.
If the Psalms didn't exist, my daily prayers would be about one fifth as long.
Every time I read a book on the Psalms, I hate them more. I prefer masculine things like laws and tales of rape (Judges).
The latest book I've read is Keeping Faith With the Psalms: Deepen Your Relationship With God Using the Book of Psalms. Author Daniel F. Polish wasn't content with just one dull book on the Psalms, he wrote two. Keeping Faith is 50% lengthy quotes of Psalms and 50% trite commentary.
Instead of the Psalms and commentaries upon them, I recommend Hell-Bent: The Inside Story of a "Win or Else" Dallas Cowboy Season, Jack, and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
I'm embarking on a formidable Sinclair Lewis kick.
I also recommend that you never read anything by the pretentious A.O. Scott.
Good thing I picked up the Jewish Journal Friday. I found out that there had been a hurricane in New Orleans and how I could help. I didn't know that there was anything we could do.
Key Quotes On Religion
I have four times as many quotes as Kenny G, twice as many as Stanley Fish and just as many as Gandhi.
Thursday, I spoke to a member of the band Celebrity Skin. He talked about the increasing attention his band was receiving. That he'd just spent 90-minutes on the phone with the Music Editor (Kate Sullivan) of the LA Weekly. That she'd pushed him to have her boyfriend's band Tsar open for his.
I emailed Kate Sullivan about this. I did not receive a reply.
Full disclosure, I've chatted with Kate several times socially and once pitched her a story about the 30th anniversary of Air Supply.
What Changed In Our Air Supply?
This essay is dedicated to my future wife.
Between 1980 - 1982, the Aussie band released seven straight top five hits. But since then, they've fallen off the charts.
Did Air Supply change or did we change?
I don't think they changed. Therefore, we must've changed. We must've hardened our hearts to honest ballads about vulnerable love.
This does not portend well for the future of our civilization.
It is time that we each examine our lives to see if we can't once again make love out of nothing at all.
Upon reading this title, I immediately thought, "This will be fair and balanced. Definitely superior to that wanker Alex de Tocqueville and his toadying Democracy in America. At least with this Andrew Gumbel chap, he won't be constantly bending over backwards to tell us how much he loves us. He'll give it to us straight. "
My own bias is that voting rights should be made difficult to keep morons away from the ballot box (morons usually vote for Democrats and more government entitlements). I'm in favor of literacy tests. I'm for restricting voting rights to those who own property. I don't want felons voting. I don't want people voting who are afraid to show ID in case they are picked up for parole violations or warrants.
[Andrew writes Sept. 6: "You are certainly not alone in those beliefs. But I also hope you are willing to recognize that this is not a small-d democratic position."]
Andrew: "I'm talking to you while I'm running a few errands.
"Hold on a minute. I'm going to walk into Trader Joes.
"I did a piece for the Independent in 2003 looking into the shortcomings of electronic voting machines. I talked to a lot of computer science experts and voter-rights activists and became hooked on the subject.
"I felt from the way people reacted to that initial piece for the Independent that I should take it further. People were taken aback by the whole Florida battle between Bush and Gore and their legions of lawyers. The incomprehension carried over when it became clear that the new generation of machines that came in to replace the old punch cards were no better and in some ways more frightening in their scope for foulplay and malfunction.
"What kind of democratic culture does the United States have and where does it come from and why is the United States materially different from a lot of other democracies around the world. Here we have the world's most powerful democracy that goes around lecturing the rest of the world on the need for democratic values. Why they can't get their own democratic act together. It's a compelling subject and as I looked around, I realized that nobody had ever asked that question and attempted to answer it in a book-length format."
Luke: "Is the American voting system that much more dodgy than England or Australia or any other democracy?"
Andrew: "Yes. The whole mechanics of voting in the US is different. There are many more races on the ballot in the US than any other country I know of. On the one hand, that gives the impression that democracy is thriving. On the other hand, it creates a lot of logistical problems. As we've discovered with hurricane Katrina [and the inadequate government response to its affects], government in the US has been denigrated, downgraded and depleted over the past 30 years and election offices are no different. You're trying to organize this massive logistical exercise with limited resources. When you go back over the history, you realize that this has not only always been the case, but that it has been cultivated that way because it makes it that much easier for the political parties to manipulate things their way. The profusion of races at election time also means that you can't do what other countries do -- use straightforward paper ballots and count them by hand. That's impractical in an American setting.
"The overarching problem is that it is the two major political parties who are in control of most of the political power structure in this country. It is in both of their interests to keep the system a certain way and discourage third parties. They've developed this Hobbesian attitude towards the way elections happen. If one happens to be in control of one county or one state and plays fast-and-loose with the figures, coerce people at the ballot box, arrange for people who are dead or unregistered to have their votes counted anyway, there's been an understanding that they won't rock the boat with the other party because both of them do it when they have the chance. There's a fundamental attitude that elections are a visceral struggle rather than having anything to do with fairplay."
Luke: "Do these problems make a difference?"
Andrew: "Absolutely. There are cases of electoral fraud where we can be confident [that fraud gave the wrong result]. One famous example is John Kennedy's margin in Cook County, Chicago. It was staggering and helped him win Illinois and propelled him into the White House.
"Another example is the 2002 governor's race in Alabama. The Democratic candidate was all set and then a Republican county judge in rural Alabama decided, after most if not all of his staff and volunteers had gone home, that there had been a computer error (never explained) and that 7,000 votes awarded to the Democrat belonged to the Republican. That alone switched the result of the election. And when the Democracts demanded a recount, they were turned down by a Republican.
"People shouldn't be deluded into thinking that cheating is the province of one party. My conclusion from looking at the record is that both of them do it when they get the chance."
Luke: "The Independent in British terms is centrist and in American terms it is center-left?"
Andrew: "I don't think anybody in this country had much of an opinion about the Independent until September 11, 2001. There's a broad consensus overseas that the Bush administration [since 9/11] has been intrinsically alarming, which in turn triggers a chain reaction here among the screamers on Fox News and elsewhere. That we must be left-wing lunatics."
Luke: "But you guys are left of center?"
Andrew: "I wouldn't say so. The paper was founded in 1986 because The Times, which used to be the paper of record in England, was taken over by Rupert Murdoch. It wasn't so much the politics that changed as the quality.
The Independent had a notion that it should be a newspaper that was interested in the world, that wanted to present facts in an intelligent way, and presented an array of opinions. The paper is politically nonaligned. It calls itself the Independent for a reason.
"I've tried in the book not to express a preference for one party or the other. My biggest criticism is of the system as a whole."
Andrew says there's no evidence that George Bush stole Ohio and the 2004 election.
Andrew: "Starting in the late 90s, the establishment in Florida decided to draw up a list of people who should not be allowed to vote. And it was based on their criminal records. As it is, Florida has unusually repressive rules about who can vote because there is no automatic restoration of voting rights for felons after they have completed their sentences.
"Florida's prison population is disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. You have an inbuilt bias against African-Americans based on that when they get out of prison, they don't have their voting rights restored."
Seven states, all in the South, do not allow their ex-felons to vote. "These are all states with a bruising records of race relations. Former members of the Confederacy. States that indulged segregation and Jim Crow laws.
"On top of that, this [Florida] purge list (about 180,000 names) was not done properly. We know that those county officials who took the trouble to check found that the overwhelming majority of the names on the list were not valid, such as in Leon County, where the election supervisor found that 95% of the names on the list were wrong, so he threw it out. But many other counties didn't check.
"We're talking about tens of thousands of people, who were likely to have voted for Al Gore in overwhelming numbers, who were prevented from voting. Remember that George Bush took the state by an official margin of 537 votes."
Luke: "Are you saying that it is a denial of voting rights to not allow felons to vote?"
Andrew: "It is unusual for their voting rights not to be restored once they've completed their criminal sentence. I feel that without question that once people have paid their debt to society, I can't think of a reason that you would deny them the right to vote. I also see no reason why at least certain categories of felons should necessarily have their voting rights denied. Two states, Maine and Vermont, do not penalize felons in this way. Perhaps it should be left up to the judge.
"The US has a much bigger prison population than any other industrialized country. That population in turn has expanded dramatically in the past 30 years because of the war on drugs and the explosion of prosecutions of mostly poor people on mostly petty drug offenses. In California, you have the Three Strikes law which openly targets people who've been charged on petty drug-related offenses, who, on their third strike end up going down for life. That's a gross injustice. There's a large movement of people in California who feel the same way."
Luke: "What's petty about committing certain drug felonies?"
Andrew: "We're talking about people who've been sentenced to life in prison for stealing a slice of pizza, for stealing a pack of batteries."
Luke: "They had to have had committed two other felonies before that."
Andrew: "But all three strikes were crimes of that nature -- petty thievery with a view to purchasing drugs to feed their own habit.
"I was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down with the massive street protests against the communist regime. Later, I was in Belgrade they had massive street demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic when he tried to deny the opposition the fruits of their victory in a series of local elections. I was in Albania for a couple of elections, one which was manifestly stolen.
"I came to the United States in the middle of the impeachment thing [against Bill Clinton], and I couldn't help feeling that whatever else your opinion was of Henry Hyde and Kenneth Starr and all those people, great grassroots advocates of representative democracy they were not. Then the 2000 election happened, which happened to be the strangest exercises in democracy that I've ever witnessed. It left me feeling queasy. When the whole thing was over, I felt lousy. I went for a bike ride and could barely make it up the hill to my house. I was nauseated by what I had seen."
Luke: "Wouldn't you have felt the same way if George Bush had won by a landslide?"
Andrew: "What made me queasy was not the result, but the way they got there.
"In my chapter on the 2000 election, I bookend it with what happened in Washington State where you had a similarly close race in the Senate race. The morning after, the Republican appeared slightly ahead, but they hadn't counted the absentee ballots. They knew that the machines for counting the votes were not especially accurate.
"The local democratic culture in Washington is healthier than Florida, which has a long tradition of fraudulent elections and results being overturned in the courts. The other thing that was different was the nature of the political battle. With the presidency, both political parties were focused on winning at all costs rather than making sure that the appropriate outcome came to pass.
"In Washington State, the two candidates agreed on the rules and sat back and waited. After a few weeks, it turned out that the Democrat was ahead and the Republican conceded. There were no lawyers involved.
"There was an obvious thing done in Washington State that was not done in Florida -- count all the votes and as accurately and fairly as possible with a uniform standard on the way they were counted."
Luke: "Do you deal with things like Proposition 200 in Arizona which denied illegal aliens the right to vote."
Andrew: "If you're not a citizen, you're not allowed to vote anyway. Proposition 200 was not about voting rights but access to public services like health care and education."
Luke: "It didn't have anything to do with voting rights?"
Andrew: "It had nothing to do with voting rights. If you're not a US citizen, you don't have the right to vote. Full stop.
"Arizona is an interesting case in one respect. There's a been a tremendous amount of teeth gnashing about the way people get registered to vote and their eligibility for absentee voting. In Florida, there was tremendous suspicion and material evidence to suggest that people were being discriminated against when they applied for voter registration and absentee ballots, based on where they lived and what their likely voting patterns were. In Arizona, to my great pleasure, that doesn't exist at all. If you want to register to vote, you can mail it in, you can fax it in, and you get your registration card within 24 hours."
Luke: "Proposition 200 in [Arizona] requires proof of citizenship when registering to vote and proof of identity when voting, so it does have to do with voting rights."
Andrew: "I forgot about that aspect. The question of presenting identity cards at polling stations is a fraught one. If things were managed honestly, there would be no reason why that wouldn't be a respectable requirement. The problem is because of various historical ways that votes have been suppressed and fiddled with, there's a tremendous amount of suspicion in minority areas, in black areas, that the requirement to bring ID is a way of intimidating people who may have outstanding warrants, unpaid parking tickets, unpaid library fees, wanted for parole violations... And therefore, the requirement to have ID is seen as a mechanism for suppressing votes among a certain chunk of the population who may be living hand-to-mouth and are afraid of authority because they can't make ends meet in an honest way from one month to another."
Luke: "Do you buy that?"
Andrew: "It's a genuine concern. You've got to accept that that is the way they think. There's an argument to be made that [requiring a photo ID] does act as a vote suppression mechanism.
"I'm agnostic on the ID question, at least in theory. In practice I'm against anything that suppresses what is already a dismally low turnout rate."
Luke: "Why do you think low turnout is a bad thing?"
Andrew: "I start my book by saying that the only ideological position I take in the book is that representative democracy is a good thing and the more representative the better. That particular debate is not undertaken honesty in the US. The genuflecting to representative democracy in public discourse is not reflected in the way the voting system works. There are people who feel that those who are ignorant of what is going on politically shouldn't vote. Or that those with any kind of blemish on their character should be disqualified. My own take is that if you have voters who are ignorant, you need to educate them, not exclude them. If people feel disaffected, you need to find ways to bring them into the process. I think that the strength of a society is measured by the participation of its citizens."
Luke: "In the voting participation?"
Andrew: "Once you start deciding that some people aren't worth bothering with, that the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile are inferior, that is a dangerous road to tread."
Gumbel said that in the early part of the 19th Century, the US led the world in suffrage rights, but towards the end of the century, the captains of industry and political elites decided "to rip the heart out of the American electorate. And they were very successful. Not only did they disenfranchise blacks in the South, but the entire working class, the bottom 50% of the electorate by the introduction of literacy tests, character tests, moving poll stations around, restriction information on where the polling stations were... You went from a voter turnout rate of 80% to 50% and the country's never recovered.
"Only in the United States is there a close correlation between those who don't show up to vote and their [low] socioeconomic status."
Luke: "If people have the opportunity to vote but choose to do other things with their time, what's wrong with that?"
Andrew: "It's more complicated. There is something intrinsically wrong with a political system that turns off so many people."
Luke: "Couldn't you just as easily argue that there's something right with the political system that so many people don't care to vote?"
Andrew: "I vehemently disagree with it. If people aren't voting in the US, it isn't because they are happy with the way things are, but because they see their vote as pointless (because of things like gerrymandering)."
Luke: "There are a lot of countries with higher voter participation rates than the US but I don't see any of them as being cites on a hill in comparison to the US. I've lived in Australia, where there is almost universal voting because people get fined if they don't vote. I fail to see any practical difference with the US."
Andrew: "I've been to Australia. I'd argue that there's more vigorous debate about policy questions in Australia than the US. And the media, part of which is owned by the state, is much more informative about not only Australia but the wider world as well. There is much more of a culture of awareness in Australia about how the world works and what Australia's role is in it."
Luke: "What's wrong with having a literacy test before someone can vote?"
Andrew: "If you believe that everyone has the right to vote, then anything that impinges on that is hostile to that idea. Why shouldn't people who are illiterate be able to vote?"
Luke: "Because they're not smart enough."
Andrew: "Why do you need to be smart to vote? All you need to know is what it is you care about and have the issues that impact you explained to you.
"If you write off whole categories of the country, then the political system will pay them no heed, which is what we've got in the US. We have a huge underclass and tremendous degrees of malnutrition, poor education, poverty."
Luke: "Thanks Andrew."
Andrew: "Thanks for challenging me. Most people don't. You'll be interested to know that I had to concentrate on the conversation hard enough that I picked up one loaf of bread the entire time we've been talking."
Andrew responds: " I don't generalize at all in the book, all politics is local etc, and Florida has a very different culture from, say, Oregon or Washington. And I make the point that American elections are particularly fiddly because of the multiplicity of races, with knock-on implications for administration/appropriateness of paper ballots etc etc. So the emailer's assumptions are basically wrong."
A month ago, I listened to a book on the life of baseball great Lou Gehrig and the horrible way he died.
Shortly thereafter, I jumped up to a branch I've often done pull-ups on. I missed. I jumped again and missed again.
My coordination is shot.
Eversince listening to that damn book, I've feared I've got Lou Gehrig's Disease. My hands tremble without cease and I feel everywhere uncoordinated. I struggle to bring words to my lips and once they get there, they're slurred.
I was a soggy verbal mess at a barbecue Monday night. I fear that I'm in my final days.
Or, an alternative explanation is that these things are just a side effect of my 600mg a day lithium dosage.
Either way, I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned
Why do I want to destroy life when I can make it better? (A question posed by Jackie Chan to the bad guys in Who Am I?)
According to IMDB.com: "Michelle never considered acting, but on the set of "Who am I?" when she tried to interview Jackie Chan, he was struck by her, and asked her to audition for the film--which she did, and landed a co-starring role in the film."
It's her only movie. Her background is journalism. She's worked as a CNN correspondent in Japan and as a gameshow TV hostess.
Born June 13, 1973, she speaks Japanese, English and some French. Her favorite sports are short ski, snorkeling, fishing and tennis. Her hobbies include Japanese ink painting, walking, watching movies and plotting scripts.
Race And Class
The devastation in New Orleans forces the American media to discuss race and class, two things it prefers to ignore.
"I'm a Lame Hack" (Luke's tormented inner child) writes Luke:
How Was Your Sabbath, Luke?
I read three books by Joe Queenan (I have now completed his ouvre) and one by Rodney Stark - One True God. I'm almost finished with The Da Vinci Code.
I believe with all my heart and soul that the Dallas Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl this year (and I haven't felt that way for eight years).
Rabbi/Author Dana Evan Kaplan Interview
I call Dana Evan Kaplan Wednesday morning, August 31, 2005. He wrote American Reform Judaism: An Introduction and edited Platforms and Prayer Books: Theological and Liturgical Perspectives on Reform Judaism: Theological and Liturgical Perspectives on Reform Judaism, Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism: Conflicting Visions, and The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism.
Here's a symposium in Judaism magazine about Dana's book American Reform Judaism.
Luke: "Rabbi, how are you?"
Dana: "Luke, you can call me Dana."
Luke: "Why are you Reform?"
Dana: "I was raised by two parents born Jewish, which at the time was the standard. They weren't really sure what they were. We lived in [Manhattan] New York and the nearest synagogue was Reform. It was kinda an accident. On the other hand, they sent me to the Orthodox Ramaz day school through sixth grade. You can still see a lot of the residual impact of that.
"I'm very Reform in that I like autonomy and pluralism. I like the religious ideals of Reform Judaism. It strikes me as more consistent with scholarship and today's spirit of the age. On the other hand, I miss the intensity of Orthodoxy. To see people who really devote themselves to it is something hard to find in the Reform movement. But I'm not drawn to Orthodox practice and I don't believe in Orthodoxy."
Luke: "Could you give me some specifics about your observance? Do you keep kosher? Count the omer? How often do you don tefillin?"
Dana: "I don't usually eat pork or shellfish. I do not usually don tefillin. I have a mezuzah on my doorpost, but only the front door."
Dana describes himself as pragmatic in ideology and left-of-center in practice.
Luke: "Why did you become a rabbi?"
Dana: "Because I wanted to learn more about Judaism and share it with others. I thought that doing a PhD in Jewish history and getting a rabbinic degree would be a good balance [he got these degrees in Israel the early 90s].
"I had some idea about staying in Israel. Within a short time, I realized the Reform movement there was under siege and was a small minority movement and highly stigmatized by the majority of Israelis. What Israel's Reform movement needed was native-born Israelis who could convince other Israelis that Reform Judaism wasn't an absurd American import. Every time I opened my mouth, I reconfirmed the prejudices that existed there that the only one who would be committed to Reform Judaism would be an American.
"I sent out letters to American congregations for summer internships but at that time, there wasn't too much interest. Someone suggested the southern hemisphere. I sent a number of letters to South Africa and Australia. I went to Australia to Brisbane to Temple Shalom (about 60 families) in the middle of 1992. It had been founded by an Australian who had intermarried and an American couple who had been Conservative in Minnesota and a guy from India. They bought a little house and put up some stained glass windows. They hadn't even had a student rabbi for several years.
"It was exciting. I was able to generate a tremendous amount of interest even from the Orthodox community. There were two other synagogues -- the Catherine Street synagogue [that I attended in 2000] in the downtown, which was a British United Synagogue-style Jewish establishment of Brisbane, and an Eastern European [Chabad] on Schoonders Street. Now there's also a liberal group on Saint Lucia near the University of Queensland called the Kadimah Progressive Jewish Congregation of South-East Queensland.
"In many ways, Australia is the furthest outpost of the Jewish world and Brisbane is the furthest outpost of Australian Judaism. There wasn't that much familiarity with some of the innovations taking place elsewhere.
"I was there for four months. Then I came back for another four months serving Temple Shalom in Surfers Paradise and Temple Shalom in Brisbane on alternate weeks. Whenever you have a congregation named Temple Shalom, which means peace, always be careful. Apparently the two congregations had gotten into quite a fight when Temple Shalom of Surfers Paradise had started and taken that name.
"The Brisbane congregation was mostly young couples and the congregation in Surfers Paradise was mostly retirees, many of whom were originally from Britain. There's virtually no cooperation between the two congregations.
"In 1994, I graduated from rabbinical school and took a job in August at Temple Israel of Cape Town, South Africa, right at the end of apartheid."
Luke: You are interested in Judaism in different parts of the world?
Dana: "Originally in my book American Reform Judaism, I had several chapters on Reform Judaism around the world. As we started editing the book, it became clear that the dynamics in these communities were very different from what would be found in the United States.
"I remember in South Africa having lunch with a member of one of the Orthodox synagogues. He looked at me and said, 'You Reform people are terrible.' He goes on and on about how Orthodoxy is the right way and Reform is the wrong way. The waitress comes over and he orders a pizza with pepperoni and shrimp and I don't even know some of the things on that pizza.
"I said, 'You've just finished lambasting me for not being Orthodox and here you are ordering such a pizza. He said, 'What I do in my private life is nobody's business, but when I go into the synagogue, I pray the way that my father prayed and my grandfather prayed. I do it the right way. You Reform change everything.'
"The whole concept of American Reform Judaism is that you try to bring Judaism into the way you live [rather than living a bifurcated life], not serving as a museum for the way Judaism may have been hundreds of years ago.
"In Reform, the idea is to do away with this hypocrisy. When intermarriage became a major issue, it was Rabbi Alexander Schindler who made some bold speeches and said we have to change. 'We've always accepted that people could convert to Judaism but now we have many non-Jews who are married to Jews and don't want to convert to Judaism. What do we do with them?' He proposed outreach which would start with conversion but would move down there so that if you don't want to convert, we'll accept your family as they are and accept your children as Jewish through patrilineal descent."
Luke: "Ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis seems to be a fait a compli in Reform?"
Dana: "Yes. I haven't heard of any problems with the non-acceptance of gay or lesbian clergy. The first transgendered rabbinics student started a couple of years ago on the Los Angeles campus -- Reuben Zellman. This is a person who started off as a woman and has now transgendered into a male identity."
Luke: Which movement represents the majority of America's Jews?
Dana: "It used to be that the Conservative movement was the broad tent that almost everybody in the American Jewish community could fit in no matter what your views or practices. That's no longer true. It's the Reform movement. It's in the interest of the URL (Union for Reform Judaism, renamed from UAHC - Union of American Hebrew Congregations) to be as inclusive as possible. There's nothing to be gained making statements attacking bisexuals, gun owners or people who oppose abortion, although in all three cases the Reform movement has a policy against that."
Luke: "There's little sense of sin being taught in Reform Judaism."
Dana: "This is not only in Reform Judaism. If you look at Alan Wolfe's recent book, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, he argues that American religion over the past 30 years has done away with the concept of sin. American religious leaders have found that Americans want a feel-good religion that emphasizes what religion can do for me. How can religion make me feel better? How can religion teach me how to be happy? How can religion enrich my life? They don't want to be scolded and threatened."
Luke: What is the central thesis of your book American Reform Judaism?
Dana: "For decades, the movement was dominated by Classical Reform, a form of practice that emphasized the belief in ethical monotheism and rejected most traditional practices. But over the last several decades, this rigorous if nontraditional form of Judaism became, for many, an excuse to do little and care less. The Reform movement became a "low tension" religious group, which sociologist Rodney Stark explains is a religious body whose beliefs and practices do not dramatically set it apart from its environment. In contrast, a "high tension" religious group has beliefs and practices that conflict with the surrounding ethos. The Reform movement's traditional open-door policy allowed people not only to come in without any concrete expression of commitment, but also to stay without any active participation. The book explains how the movement "rejewvenated" itself in the 1990s up until today."
Lawrence Grossman writes in Judaism magazine:
Dana: "Correct. Having studied in an Orthodox school, I can't help but evaluate Reform, in part, based on my early experiences with Judaism. I continue to see a lack of real commitment and dedication outside of a small circle. If you go to the URJ Biennial, they have about 6,000 people who all know the songs and are all tripping over themselves to not come late to services. The dedication and enthusiasm is unbelievable. But these are the leaders of the congregations who, instead of taking a vacation in Nassau, go to a Biennial in some freezing place. If you look at this elite, you are very optimistic about the future of Reform Judaism.
"I do a lot of scholar-in-residence weekends across the country. I've been to all sorts of Reform synagogues and there's a consistent 5-10% of people who are interested and the vast majority of the congregants in every synagogue who are passive and uninterested other than life cycle events (such as births, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, deaths)."
Luke: "After you lay out the evidence, in the final paragraphs of your chapters, you always push a note of optimism in there."
Dana chuckles. "We Jews are optimists. I didn't want to be too pessimistic. I wanted the book to be read by a wide audience, including many typical congregants in Reform synagogues, and I didn't want them to come away all depressed and nihilistic.
"I take things that aren't always terribly promising and put the best spin on them that I can.
"The Reform has excellent leadership, a large laity and vital lay leadership. My book is meant to point out that underneath the superficial success there lies the potential for a meltdown, which could come suddenly, because the vast majority of Reform Jews have a superficial commitment.
"Things have changed tremendously in Reform. If you had attended a Reform service in 1930, you would've found a service that was formal with heavy organ music and people sitting stiffly and the rabbi would've been seen as a priest doing the ritual items for the congregation. The rabbi would've been the only one to speak Hebrew, the only one to lift and read from the Torah. The bimah (pulpit) would've been high up. The choir would've been in a loft where you wouldn't be able to see them.
"I remember when I was working in a synagogue in Wisconsin, a woman in her 80s was telling me about Rabbi Samuel Hirshberg, who was the rabbi there when she was a child. She always saw him way up on the bima, this man in big robes and way up high, and she thought he was God.
"One day at religious school, they didn't call it Hebrew school because they didn't speak Hebrew, she saw the rabbi walking down the hallway in the opposite direction. In those days, he wouldn't greet a little kid. Her mouth dropped open. It was like bumping into God in the hallway.
"Today we have a low bima. The division between the congregation and where the rituals are performed is minimized or eliminated. The choir has come down and is involved in participatory music. The goal is not so much to perform for the congregation but to encourage the congregation to join. Things are more casual. The way people dress reflects that. Children are more welcome. This parallels changes in American religion generally.
"For the first time in history, Judaism is in direct competition with Christianity over the same people. You have a large number of people in flux who could embrace Judaism, Reform Judaism in particular."
Luke: "There weren't big debates in Reform over patrilineal descent or ordaining gay rabbis. Those issues are settled. What are the religious disputes within Reform? They seem to be more over liturgy."
Dana: "The conflicts facing Reform have more to do with personalities and strategies and geography and finance. They're not ideological. We're in a post-ideological age."
Luke: "I think apathy is the reason we don't hear more dissent within Reform about such things as ordination of gay rabbis and patrilineal descent."
Dan: "Which, if you're part of the elite pushing a particular position, has its advantages.
"The Religious Action Center of Washington D.C. is a political lobbying group led successfully by Rabbi David Saperstein. It's been a model for other movements in Judaism and other religions. But many of the issues it pushes are very liberal and not supported by everyone in the Reform movement. But this is apparently ok. In my congregation in Georgia, we have a number of people who support gun rights. They can be loyal to the Union for Reform Judaism and ignore Rabbi Saperstein's center."
Dana agrees with this observation by Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in Judaism magazine:
Luke: Is your book mostly about Reform rabbis or do you study the average Reform Jew?
Dana: "I'm not doing a sociological study of Reform. I'm looking at the leaders and what they're saying and what impact that has."
Luke: "I find it difficult to believe that Reform laity are going to engage in ideological battles."
Dana: "That's not necessarily a disadvantage."
Luke: I got a kick out of Jewish Renewal Rabbi Arthur Waskow's response to your book. He said you are whispering what you should be shouting.
Dana: "Rabbi Waskow sees Reform Judaism as hopelessly parve (neither meat nor milk). He's right but that's the way it is. His recommendations are not going to be helpful because his "Down-To-Earth" Judaic philosophy, attractive as it may be to the core of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and the Shalom Center, does not resonate with amcha in the Reform movement."
Luke: Are you worried about the future of American Judaism?
Dana: "Yes. Despite my desire to be optimistic, there are troubling signs. Just look at the new demographic survey-the 2001 NJPS. The next several years will be crucial. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie stated at the 1997 biennial: 'This is the single most momentous hour in the history of our movement. We must now decide if our Reform heritage will be permitted to wither, or if it will be handed over to generations to come. We have a few years, a decade at most, to respond to the spiritual emergency that threatens to engulf us.' Our time is almost up."
Steven D. Starke writes in his book Meet the Beatles: