Then what?

Once you’ve become really good at doing something, then what? I mean really good.

For the purposes of this musing, I’ll define “really good” as ‘when the thing you are doing becomes so natural, so effortless that you stop thinking about the thing that you’re doing.’

When that happens, then what?

Do you keep doing it ad infinitum?
Do you keep doing it until it behooves you not to?
Do you stop, and look for something new to do that might accomplish the same goal?
Do you stop, and move on to something entirely new?
Do you not even ask yourself this question?

I’m wondering about this both in a general sense, but also with specific reference to Jewish life.

When we can identify Jewish things we do that become rote, effortless, mindless, and entirely on the keva side of things, what should we make of this?

My resolution

A slightly delayed goodbye (and good riddance!) to 2009 and hello (and how are you?) to 2010 post:

I’ve already made two big changes in my life this year. And I’m not one to normally use the secular new year as a way of marking personal resolutions.

So consider this just a quick attempt at improving myself and others at an opportune time.

In 2010, on this blog and in my daily life, I will do my best to kvetch a little bit less about my political opinions. (I may kvetch less, but you can be sure I’ll still be writing…)

I will try to put my dismay to more effective use, and not simply write about the injustices and issues I see. Truly, change only comes when people love something enough or get angry enough. And I’ve been pretty angry lately.

I will find ways to reach out and encourage other like minded people to effect meaningful change. I will maintain a sense of the supremacy of dialogue coupled with action.

And I will do so from a perspective that – while disagreeing with – maintains a respect for those who are politically conservative. The crux of my arguments of late against the Tories has not been one against conservative substance, rather it has been one against the Conservative’s abuse of power, their hypocrisy, their apparent disregard for ethics and law, and their role in diminishing Canada’s place on the world stage and the subsequent tarnishing of our international image.

Some food for thought as I close my commenting on the great political drek-show that was Canada in 2009, courtesy of John Ivison at the National Post of all places:

Stephen Harper is a despot. The decision to “padlock” Parliament is a cover up designed to avoid scrutiny over the Afghan detainee issue. The Conservatives have a very thin legislative agenda and no new ideas to put forward.

And that was that.

On Jewish Activism. Part I: Backburner Zionism

This was originally going to be one long post, but I’ve decided to split it in two for sake of ease. Today, in part one, I’ll identify a specific issue of great importance to Jewish activism, parse it out, and propose a few solutions. Tomorrow, in part two, I’ll take a look at the theoretical underpinnings of this issue and propose a new (though not that new) paradigm for Jewish activism of all kinds.

12.05.2009 UPDATE:I’ve changed the title of this post to reflect the direction my thoughts are moving in. It now looks like this will be a three-part series. You can read part two here.

* * *

About a year ago, in a series of posts, I commented on the trend for pro-Israel (what does that mean, anyways?) rallies to go around masquerading as a form political/social activism, while ultimately being nothing more than glorified (and in some cases, undignified) cheer-leading.

The gist of my argument was that while 10,000 people at a rally or boycott makes a nice, loud statement for the press, the trade-off is that you lose the ability to ensure that those 10,000 people stay intimately invested and active with the cause; most of them will go home with a false sense of accomplishment. The flip-side is that a small, grassroots political or social movement may maintain more personal involvement, but it can lack the punch of a 10,000 strong rally.

Case in point: recent attempts by anti-Israel folks to boycott Canadian companies that deal directly with Israel (specifically Mountain Equipment Co-Op and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) have prompted the Canada-Israel-Committee and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to launch – a campaign to get people to purchase the Israeli goods in question. A nice idea. Israel’s economy could certainly use help.

But if the overarching issue at hand as viewed by the CIC is that Israel’s economy does not deserve to be boycotted and that it should be supported by those in the international community, then why is there not a continually active “Buy Israel” movement sponsored by the CIC and Federation? (During the height of the intifada when tourism waned and Israel’s economy took a serious hit, there was such a movement in cities with large Jewish populations, though that has fizzled out as the intifada ended and there’s been less for people to react to). Why be reactive when you can be proactive?

I’m led to believe that the issue is less about an ingrained belief in the importance of economic support for Israel and more that the CIC and Federation don’t like it when other people speak out or organize against Israel. It’s easier to react to others than it is to stand up and maintain a proactive stance for something you believe in. Which is not to say that the boycott shouldn’t be responded to. It should. I don’t believe that Israel’s economy deserves to be singled out in this way, but that’s a separate topic of discussion. Do I believe that the CIC, Federation, and those who went out to buy underwear from Mountain Equipment Co-Op truly care about Israel and it’s financial stability? Absolutely. But do they care enough to make these actions a part of their ethos? Aye, there’s the rub.

If the goal of the counter-boycott was just to raise money for Israel and Israeli companies, then it was a success. But if there’s a greater goal, as one might assume from reading the Canada Israel Committee’s mission statement, then it is not entirely a success. The CIC’s mission seeks “the promotion of increased understanding between the peoples of Canada and Israel,” and seeks to “enhance Canada-Israel friendship.” Noble goals. Does the BUYcott lead to the achievement of these goals? Not so much.

This counter-boycott just balances the equation set in motion by the boycott, it doesn’t rise above it. It’s reactionary, and worst of all – like rallies – promotes a false sense of activism. Unless buying Israeli products is part of a larger movement by the purchaser to be actively and intimately involved in strengthening the Israeli economy, or in carrying on substantial discussions with the anti-Israel group, it remains a passive project wearing the mask of activism.

Yes, a tangible result is attained from the counter-boycott: Israel’s economy is supported (good) and the boycott is counteracted (which it turns out didn’t enjoy that much public support to begin with). And none of this is bad on its own. But it’s a closed project, it ends when people bring their clothes home from Mountain Equipment Co-Op. It’s just a step above chequebook Zionism.

To meet the stated goals of the CIC and Federation, and to take this BUYcott from a passive display to a proactive, sustainable, educational, and meaningful initiative, I propose the CIC and Federation use these questions as a guide:

– Where are the educational materials on Israel’s economy?

– Where is the list of Canadian vendors that carry Israel products?

– Where are the talking points for productive discussions with the boycotters?

– Where are the resources on Canadian economic and business partnerships with Israeli companies and organizations?

– Where are the resources on ethical sourcing?

– Where are the calls for further and sustained action?

– And most importantly, where are the communication tools and resources to form a peer-to-peer network? That would truly promote understanding between people and increase friendship. (To be fair, there are facebook and twitter links on the website, but they are in the footer, and aren’t framed as an integral part of the campaign).

If organizations – both Jewish and non-Jewish – want to enjoy popular support that is sustainable, lasting, and intimate, they need to foster that attachment. It must be a central part of the framing of all messaging. It won’t come from just reacting every time a person or group says something they don’t like.

Rallies (or group shopping trips) are exciting and they create noise and attention, but at the end of the day, the day ends. What comes afterwards? Keep a pot of water on the back-burner, and it will just simmer there until the water boils off. Want that pot to be a smorgasbord of activism? You’ve got to keep it in the front and stir it up, and keep feeding it ingredients.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll look at moving the pot from the backburner to the front.

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.”

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…

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.


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.