And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention

A pondering:

In the history of the world’s civilizations, when did the act of murder switch from being just a bad thing that was a nuisance, to something that is wholly agreed on by (sane) people to be both bad and immoral; something that merits the force of government and society at large to prevent, protect against, and punish offenders when necessary?

A corollary:

In the history of the world’s civilizations, when will abuse of the planet’s resources, wanton destruction of natural habitats to satisfy our constant need for stuff, cruelty to animals for the sake of human pleasure, and corporate control of destructive energy production switch from being seen as things that might be bad but are “necessary” to maintain the standard of living most (western) people are accustomed to, to things that merit the force of government and society at large to prevent, protect against, and (truly) punish offenders when necessary?

Put another way: we don’t have world conferences on murder. We may disagree about how to deal with those who commit murder, and the best ways to prevent it, but we’re long past debating whether or not murder is a problem, whether or not it is immoral. When will the plethora of human activities that are destroying of our planet switch from being agenda items that are paid lip service to at world summits to things that we all agree are horrible, wrong, and immoral?

We talk about a greening revolution and the resurgence of environmentalism, but there hasn’t really been a true paradigm shift. Until we look back on our history and find it impossible to believe that we used disposable, toxic, plastic bags to carry our groceries home, we’re still in trouble. Until using plastic bags is viewed as an immoral, unethical act, we’re in deep trouble. And that’s just one example.

Until we look back on our perversion of the Earth as part of our uncivilized, unenlightened past, immoral past, we’re just as bad as the Romans were when they killed humans for sport.

I stopped

Eating meat.
Five months ago, today.
And I feel great.

At first it was entirely a personal decision. But now the ethical judgements are starting. And I truly don’t want to judge people based on their own choices.

But I’m finding that Kant is haunting me and as much as I think a lot more about what I’m eating, I’m also thinking a lot more about what other people are eating.

My body feels great. Now I need my mind to feel the same.

Dr. Maimonides would be proud

Judaism + Health Care + Politics = an equation you NEVER have to think about in Canada. Down here in Jesusland, it’s an entirely different story. If you haven’t been engrossed in the raging, virulent debate that’s been taking place the past few weeks, consider yourself lucky.

I’m not really going to weigh in, aside from stating that I generally support Obama’s plan. My only hesitation is that I don’t think it goes far enough. But that’s another post.

On the Judaism front, I’m trying to formulate a cogent argument as to why almost all of Jewish thought lines up in support of a socialized health care. For now, I’ll defer to Rabbi David Saperstein who has made the argument that the Talmud itself calls for universal health care:

“by the time of the Talmud 2,000 years ago, [the moral norms of the Torah] had developed into health care systems and rules and requirements to provide adequate health care for all people. Any community that wanted to be considered a moral community had to provide health care, had to provide health care providers. These are not new ideas.”

Leonard Cohen’s “psycho-religious” Jewish Journey, Part II

This is a brief follow up to an earlier post about Leonard Cohen‘s incredible Jewish Journey and status in my books as an all around kick-ass dude.

It seems The Forward generally agrees with me that this is a man who should not be ignored. In an article this week, the Jewish paper covered an interesting incident that transpired outside on of his Radio City concerts.

Turns out that instead of a camp-out for tickets, it was the myopic and hypocritical anti-Israel throngs who were making noise outside of Radio City, in an attempt to boycott his concert (did they have tickets? Was it really a boycott if they never had tickets?) and hold a rally, all in a vein attempt to get Cohen to cancel an upcoming concert date in Israel.

I’ve got three things to say:

1. Cohen is exactly the kind of person who these protesters should be encouraging to go to Israel. He is unsatisfied with the status quo, is an ardent supporter of a two-state solution and equal rights, and regularly uses his music to rouse the populous out of dormancy. They should charter a jet and send his ass into Jerusalem right now.

2. Political ponderings aside, the Forward article makes an interesting (and very brief) statement about the differences between Canadian and American Jewry. Check this excerpt out:

Born and raised in Montreal, where he attended Orthodox day schools through high school, Cohen is one of a trio of iconic figures in the city’s intensely ethnic Jewish culture, along with late novelist Mordecai Richler and poet A.M. Klein. All three became towering figures in Canada’s general culture through writings that were deeply suffused with their Jewish experience, in much the same way as American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Unlike the Americans, however, the three Canadians remained deeply engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community throughout their lives.

3. Any article that includes the phrase “a live psychodrama of his psycho-religious career” is worth reading. Check it out.

At least I don’t have to wear a Sheitel

photo-852It’s been two weeks since I’ve shaved. The itchy, irritating, and ever-growing mound of hair protruding from my face is starting to get annoying. Friends at work are asking about it, and I’m starting to get stared at on the subway. That means something in New York. And let me just say at this point that necks should not be allowed to sprout hair; it’s more than a minor inconvenience. It’s weird.

Some have asked if my folicular growth experiment is an homage to my country’s national sport and its related superstitions at this time of year. No, it’s not. I wish it were, though. On Monday night, I was asked by one of my youth groupers if I was just trying to fit in more at a concert I’ll be seeing in June. I laughed.

So the beard growth – for those who aren’t familiar with the Jewish obsession with hair – is one of the customs related to the Counting of the Omer. I’ll say flat out at this point that I’m not mourning any ancient plague or series of destructions. That’s not why I’m growing out the beard. I’m not mourning. I listen to music during these 49 days, and I continute to be a generally happy person. Although there wasn’t a new LOST tonight. That’s a downer.

The reason I let my hair grow is that it is a physical, bodily, intimate symbol of my being a Jew (intentional use of the Present Active Participle form of the verb “to be” ). For 49 days, part of my physical being exudes Jewishness. It’s more than wearing a kippah. It’s something I can’t just take off. Now as a Jewish male, part of my physical being always exudes Jewishness… but I didn’t have any choice regarding whatever was exuded 8 days after I was born. During this time period, I make the active choice to be present with my Judaism.

And what exactly does growing a beard have to do with Judaism? Good question. Like LOST, Judaism has this funny thing with time. 6 days you shall do this, 2 days you shall not do that, these days you shall not eat, these days you shall drink a lot, during these hours you shall do this, at the time when you can see the light of the sun you shall do such and such. And then there’s the custom of not shaving for the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot.

What’s it really all about?

For whatever reason you choose to buy into, ultimately our ancestors decided that this was a time period when people shouldn’t be engaging in celebratory actions (read: don’t shave, because we don’t shave when we’re mourning, and if we’re not celebrating, then we’re morning). My personal favourite reason for not celebrating at this time is that the period between Pesach and Shavuot comes at the time leading up to the grain harvest in Israel. Our ancestors’ lived a deeply agrarian lifestyle, and their livelyhood and existence was entirely dependent upon the grain harvest. Not wanting to jinx anything or count their sheaves before they hatched, they treaded lightly – avoiding any early celebrations, and going so far as to adopt tribal mourning customs.

So today – in this time – while I can celebrate that Trader Joe’s was not as busy as I thought it would be today and I could harvest me some kickass Mexican avocados, I can also remember that this was not always the case. In fact, for most of our history it was the exact opposite. We were dependent upon the seasons and the rainfall and the dew and the sun and the power of God, and we knew we had to be mindful of that. Time has changed…

Judaism is a religion with practices deeply intertwined with the space-time continuum; a religion that understands that the laws of nature and the laws of physics are part of the laws of halachah. Allow me to wax cliche: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven” (Kohelet 3:1). Cliches are cliches for a reason; they’re often truisms, too. While Steven Hawking, Albert Einstein, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Pete Seeger discover the quirks of time, it’s God who ordains them. And those are some d(D)udes you don’t want to mess with. I may not understand the mechanics of time, or know how to till the soil, but I am able to say “for this time, in this place, I am and will be reminded of the essence of my Jewishness. I can take 49 days and remember that Judaism is a religion that accesses God through the creation of the Earth, and through the experience of time.

That may sound hokey or hippie or maybe even Buddhist. Sure, I’m Jewish and always will be. It’s part of my essence, and I don’t really need to be reminded of that everyday. But it’s nice to physicalize the essential every now and then. How often to we get a chance to internalize and externalize at the same time? As my wise friend, Andy, is currently relaying to me through instant messenger: “We’re too settled in our world of technology, too desensitized. At the end of the day, I think people just need to take a moment to say “damn.'”

I’ve got an itchy beard.


Israel vs. The Rest, Part Three

A review of my experiences at yesterday’s pro-peace Rally, this is Part 3 in a series of posts on rallies related to what’s going on the Mideast. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Today, as I think about yesterday’s rallies, I am certain of three things:

1. The frequency of people tagging blogs with “Gaza,” “Israel,” and “Palestine,” has shot through the roof. Needless to say, not everything is newsworthy or even cogent, but at the very least, it does indicate an increased awareness.

2. In my next post, where I focus on what a rally really is, and what it really needs to entail, I’ll argue that the vast majority of the 10,000 people at the pro-Israel “rally” don’t know much about what they are supposedly rallying for. For now, I’ll throw this out there in support of why our protest was a real rally, and the other wasn’t:

No dialogue resulted from the other “rally.” It was just a bunch of guys on a podium shouting platitudes, with a bunch of people cheering. There was no working to bring about change. It was monolithic. Everyone even looked alike, as all were given “tzeva adom” (red alert) hats to wear. The organizer informed the multitudes that these hats were “a symbol that the missiles would stop falling, and the alerts would end.” Right. Hats. Why not take the money that was spent on the hats, and donate it to assist those lives in peril in southern Israel? That’s really advocacy. That’s real activism.

At our rally, there was dialogue (albeit hostile at times), that had the express intent of bringing about a change to the status quo in the Jewish community. We may not have changed people’s point of view, but we made it undeniably clear that this is not a black and white issue. We got attention from a wide variety of media and press, including Radio-Canada, who interviewed me in French when they heard I was Canadian. They all seemed mildly surprised that there could possibly be supporters of a “middle-way.” No surprise, given that much of the media was focused on the giant stage on 42nd Street.

3. Here’s a run-down of the colourful remarks hurled – by Jews – at me and others yesterday:

“You’re leading the way back to Auschwitz!”
“You’ll bring about another 9/11”
“You’re not Jewish! Take off your kippas! You’re not a real Jew!”
“There are no innocent civilians in Gaza!”
“Shame, shame shame!” (Repeat, ad nausea…)

Deeply hurt, I didn’t take any of these slurs personally. They hurt because they’re a stewing indicator of the inability of people to see beyond their own point of view. If there is a solution to the shit, it lies in people who are able to see beyond their limited horizons and outside of their borders.

While I’m not so sure I want to remember everything, I’ll have photos and video posted soon.

Next up, Part Four: Rallying the way to Victory

What’s in between?

I was sitting on the train platform today, staring off into the distance of tracks waiting for the train to come. No train. Yet. Then I looked down at the tracks in front of me. A glass bottle sitting. Waiting. It might shatter when the train arrives. Then I look off into the distance of tracks that I will soon hurtle down. And then… for a brief, fleeting moment, I am a philosopher, scientist, astrophysicist, mathematician, and poet. So is life. The train track is quite possibly the most obvious symbol of the existence of time. And the platform is where we live our lives. At some point or another, the train comes hurtling into the station. We get on the train, and are whisked off to another platform where we await another vehicle to come down another line of existence.

So time travel exists. All time always exists in all places. It’s just a question of which tracks and trains we make our homes for fleeting moments.

It occurred to me today that there is an entire pantheon of books that I have not read.

And at some point or another, I will read some of them.

They exist at varying points in the past. They will exist – stretching indefinitely – into the future. And at some fortuitous point, we will intersect in a literary space-time nexus. These books exist in the past, present, and future. And when I pick one up to read it, I will inevitably travel through time.

I was thinking all this in the course of ten minutes or so as I waited for a train back to New York from Chappaqua. Two different worlds existing at two different speeds. No wonder I feel nauseous when I get off the train at Grand Central. I was thinking all of this as I sat, waiting for a train, holding a book in my hand. A book I have never read. Up until that point.

The night before, in a bookstore where I gave express instructions to my companions not to let me spend money on books (I have something of an uncontrollable literary fetish), I picked up Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve never read it. But I’ve been meaning to. A work of the past, it existed in the future for me.

And so, today, on the track, I was whisked into the future, or the past of this book came forward to me, as I opened it and began to read.

Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time…
All moments, past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist.

There are eerie moments in life. Slightly beyond coincidence, but most certainly not nearing fate. In between, there exists a plane of eeriness that is loaded with meaning and significance. Eerie that I would ponder such time travel literally seconds before opening a book that focuses on it.

Can it be said that it was fate that I should buy that book and choose to read it on that train platform at that moment in time? If it was, then the entire notion of choosing which path to travel through time is negated. I’m not a fan. Or can it be said that it was entirely a coincidence? If it was, then there’s no meaning in the crossing of paths. If it’s just chance… there’s no bigger picture.

I’m a fan of the bigger picture. Of trying to see it. Of trying to paint it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s just a little too big. Our field of view is never large enough. It seems we can only ever see just so far in either direction down the tracks.

So not fate that Vonnegut should finally enter my life today. But not coincidence, either.

Something in between.

What is that something in between? I suppose that’s what Sartre, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Plato, Kerouac, and Dostoyevsky are doing on my bookshelf. Trying to figure out what’s in between.

Degrassi as Foreign Policy

Meet Losang Rabgey, she’s the National Geographic Emerging Explorer and co-founder of Machik, a nonprofit helping communities on the Tibetan plateau. She sums up what should be every country’s foreign policy platform in four short sentences:

“My cousin in Tibet is an illiterate subsistence farmer. By accident of birth, I was raised in the West and have a Ph.D. The task of our generation is to cut through the illusion that we inhabit separate worlds. Only then will we find the heart to rise to the daunting but urgent challenges of global disparity.:

I’m lucky enough to say that I have had the continual pleasure of working with people from a multitude of cultural and geographical backgrounds. In particular, I have spent a great deal of time working with youth from across America, Canada, and the world. Right now, I happen to be working in New Jersey with a phenomenal group of teens.

One of the byproducts of spending so much time with Americans is having to put up with a great deal of humour directed at Canada and my Canadian-ness. I’m used to it – I roll with the punches, and poke fun right back at the Americans’ quirks. As a result of this vast experience in being the butt end of Canadian jokes, I have come to surmise that a book has been compiled and circulated amongst all Americans detailing the steps they should take when meeting Canadians, because I have virtually the same experience every time I meet a new group. It looks something like this:

How to meet a Canadian: What Americans must say when meeting someone from North of the 49th Parallel.

Step One: “Can you say a-boot?” (About)
Step Two: “Can you say oot?” (Out)
Step Three: “Can you say sow-ry?” (Sorry)
Step Four: “Do you watch Degrassi?”

And that’s just about how it goes every time. Most of the time, when I meet a new group of Americans, there are a few days where my cultural and linguistic “other-ness” is the highlite of the day, and then we move on. But not so for the past two weeks.

These past two weeks, I have been working with a group of teens who have felt the need to reference my being from Canada at least once an hour. I am constantly made aware of the fact that I am supposedly “different,” “the stranger,” and “the other.” While I can take it all in stride and know that they bear no real malice, I’ve come to grow quite concerned at what appears to be an increasing level of xenophobia, or at least a growing perception of disparity between Canadians and Americans. Perhaps it is a result of current foreign policy in both countries, or maybe it’s related to education; whatever the case may be, it is a disturbing reality.*

The past two weeks have been intriguing. They’ve been a continual reminder that in the 21st century, the notion that we all “inhabit separate worlds,” is not only false, but destructive. It is quite true that we all percieve the world differently and interact within it in (sometimes vastly) different ways, but it is clearly the same world. The (slowly) growing realization that environmental protection is not a series of national crises, but a singular international one is proof positive of this reality.

When we waste time highliting the differences between Canadians and Americans, we lose the opportunity to talk about meaningful things. When we waste time questioning our compatability, we lose the opportunity to make positive change in the world.

The more we percieve non-existent disparity to exist between cultures, the more it has a chance to actually exist. We self-actualize our differences… they aren’t forced upon us by outsiders. Such a simple reality to confront – shouldn’t we be able to start with educated teenagers from America?

*I should note that after making reference to my concerns, I have been approached by a number of the kids who offered sincere appologies. I laughed it off and told them I knew that it wasn’t intended to be hurtful, but reminded them that one of the highest Jewish values is welcoming the stranger. A good learning opportunity for them.

People don’t come with bar codes

Since I started blogging regularly (let’s say about five years ago), there have been a few gaps in my writing schedule, mostly due to stage productions I’ve been in. Usually, following those absences, I post a half-assed apology and just get back to writing. So my most recent absence (hiatus?) from writing shouldn’t really come as a surprise to others or myself. It certainly hasn’t been my longest hiatus. It is, however, the longest I’ve gone without writing during a period of great personal upheaval. Much has changed since I left Canada for the grassy fields of Warwick, NY.

These have been an incredibly introspective few months. Normally, I like to share almost everything that’s going on in my life with those around me. I talk a lot. These past few months… not so much. I’ve really only spoken with a few people to get some insight into various life altering changes. To those people… thank you.

I am – according to Mr. Jung,and the folks at Meyers Briggs – an extrovert. an “E.” For those not familiar with the MBTI personality test, it is essentially a psychological tool used to asses how one interacts with and processes events and information. As an “extrovert,” I recharge my proverbial internal battery by interacting with others. While others need personal time to reflect and recharge, my “down” time is usually spent with others. I’ve always been that way; save for some rare occasions, I’ve always felt lonely and anxious when I’m alone for extended periods of time.

So as an “E,” I find it extremely odd that I’ve withdrawn from blogging and talking to people – even some of my best friends – over the past few months. At a time when I’ve required the greatest amount of recharging and reenergizing, I’ve drawn into myself and spent a great deal of time on my own. I stopped blogging. I haven’t spoken with my family as much. I haven’t spoken with my best friends. It has been a strange few months.

And yet, this sudden, seemingly strange change in my behaviour is also extremely comforting for me. Over the past few months (really years), I have been engaged in a great internal debate. If I hadn’t noticed a change in my normal behaviour, I fear my choices might have wound up being a little too callous or arbitrary. So while I am growing increasingly tired of people hiding behind their MBTI “bar code,” claiming that “oh, I’m an ‘F’ you’ll have to excuse me while I go hug someone…”, I am also quite relieved to have been acquainted with it, as it has been of great assistance to me.

Over the course of these months, I have reached the culmination of one of the greatest personal challenges I have ever faced. It has been an ongoing struggle – one that has lasted for many years. Three weeks ago, I woke up at camp and was pleased to realize that I had finally made a decision that I had been pondering for years. I made what is likely going to be one the most important decisions of my life. Three weeks ago, I called my directors at school and withdrew from my studies at the National Theatre School of Canada.

And I feel good. Great, really. To get a sense of how long it took me to come to this decision, look at this post of mine from two years ago. Or this one, from three and a half years ago. The internal debate has been raging for quite some time now, and thankfully, it is over.

Over the course of the year at theatre school, I had felt as though I’ve been sacrificing a little too much of myself for the sake of theatre. For someone who has lived and breathed theatre for as long as I can remember, this was a very painful revelation. So while theatre will remain close to my heart (and body), I will be returning to Jewish youth work, where the sacrifices will be more rewarding and hopefully a little less painful.

And that’s the story of the past few months.

Outside of my personal developments, I am pleased to note that this has been the greatest summer at camp I have ever had. I will write more on that later.