End of the Holocaust Generation

I officiated at a funeral on Friday that I realized afterwards may be a consequential moment. The deceased was in her 90s and she was a Holocaust survivor. She was a very young child when Hitler came to power. The significance is that this may be my last funeral a Holocaust survivor, as most of them have passed.

I have buried a number of aged survivors over the years and always, the funeral and internment were unique points of sacredness. These funerals have been more complex than most, with unusual layers of meaning that have been shared but will not be spoken, and with more layers of meaning that have never been spoken and will be left unsaid, even though we, the next generation, know the content. God: mentioning God at a such a funeral is a minefield of accusation, futility, anger, regret and in rare moments, reconciliation. Yet, they requested a rabbi to officiate.

Holocaust humor is an extreme form of gallows humor, which often circles around the subject of God and God’s apparent impotence to save the Jews. While gallows humor seems to transcend generations, Holocaust humor appears to be quite specific to the immediate generation. I have had this bit of Holocaust humor sitting in my files for years, waiting for an appropriate context. The piece was left unused because the humor is biting and quite frankly, the opposite of what most people consider to be humor. Even more, placing the piece between paragraphs of context before and paragraphs of explanation after diminished the stark power of this humor.

The Holocaust generation is almost gone though, and this piece, with its contradiction and condemnation, should be preserved.

“A Jew dies. He ascends to the heavens and meets God. Standing before the Throne of Glory, the Jew tells God a Holocaust joke, but God does not laugh. When he realizes that God is not laughing, the Jew shrugs and says, “I guess you had to be there.”

My younger colleagues will never know the privilege of officiating at a funeral for Holocaust survivors. It is a privilege I never wanted and one for which a person could never prepare. Their presence in my rabbinate has been a blessing.

 

The Last Storm

Thunderstorms rolled through Tuesday afternoon, possibly spawning tornados. Strong winds bent and broke healthy trees, sending them careening through powerlines, houses, and even several cars. People died. Because of two trees down on two different streets, I was trapped in my neighborhood and my wife, stranded in Grand Central Station, had a staggering five-hour journey to our area, but not our home. She did not make it to our house until after sunrise the next morning.

My bona fides: We lived through Superstorm Sandy on the south shore of Long Island in 2012, living in our flooded house without electricity for fifteen days. In our new location north of New York City, we lost power for eight days from the second nor’easter of the year to rip through the area and now, we just had four days without power from a line of powerful thunderstorms.

My heightened sense of fear of life without electrics paid off. My house has a built-in generator with its own emergency electrical panel and is powered by a huge propane tank. In the aftermath of Sandy, I had to walk a mile and a half to the closest powered gas station (courtesy of the National Guard) and stand in a long line to get my two gallons of gas for the generator.

My propane generator powers a few things such as the water well, the refrigerator, two outlets, and lights in the kitchen. My stovetop uses the same propane tank, leaving me the ability to cook meals. I can function, even though my cell phone and tablet are poor substitutes for a dedicated desktop connected to the internet.

Still, the loss of electrics throws us into a crisis and overlays our days with an ever-creeping sense of helplessness. Our neighbors are good people at heart and just as helpless. We shared a shot of bourbon as we commiserated over the fallen tree, our cars trapped on both sides. We shook hands with Tony, the contractor working on the house next door, who brought over his chain saws and set his crew to cutting up the tree and moving it out of the road.

The area in which I live is used to trees falling on powerlines. Most of us own generators, which are highly inefficient machines that generate small amounts of electricity while spewing toxic emissions and producing an ear-splitting amount of racket. Our wells require power to bring water into the house. We have temporary measures to ease us through the outages.

My immediate history is not bad luck; it is climate change. Following the science closely because of my job, the models predicted these vicious bouts of weather. Weather events, such as hurricanes hitting Long Island are expected, but the violence of these events is ratcheting up, such as the rain bomb of the Houston hurricane and the wind shears over Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. One hundred and five hundred-year storms are hitting some areas every eighteen months. The most extreme models of climate change are proving to be the most accurate. These events are not my or anyone else’s bad luck; these destructive storms are the outcome of years of spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

I ran into a representative from my local electric utility at a state convention last week, two weeks after the storm. With a brief description, she was able to pinpoint where I lived without me surrendering even a partial address. I asserted, and she confirmed that the present infrastructure was not designed for and had poor resiliency to cope with the climate patterns of the past several years. My experience and the utility’s experience are confirmations that these early effects of climate change are already profound, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and sweeping changes in human behavior.

I cannot escape these changes. Funny thing about climate: no matter where you are reading this essay, you are experiencing climate change and sometimes, its devasting effects. Like me, you depend upon electricity as an uninterrupted service. When one cell tower goes down, connectivity plummets, bringing work to a stuttering halt. Daily functioning stumbles and work-arounds prove themselves to be fantasies.

This is your life as well; I have a generator at least.

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob and I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light. Our mission is to inspire and engage people of faith and religious communities to actively steward and sustain our natural environment. In one unified voice of the world’s religions, we lead the battle to bring clean renewable energy to our communities, lobby for energy legislation, and teach others how to bring the many varied voices of our country together to save the planet. Please join us.

The Italian Market

When I am travelling abroad, one of my favorite stops is always the markets and food shopping districts of towns and districts. Everything about an area, its geography, its demographics, its climate, and its economic life is in context. Children run and play, or pull their favorite adult towards the treat spot, whether it is a cart, a kiosk, or a stall. Some sellers look stressed while others smile and nod. Some even invite in a stranger like me and show off their wares and their produce. These experiences give me great pause and cause for reflection.

…Then the opposite happened. I was standing with my wife at my favorite butcher’s counter in the Italian Market in the Bronx, when the tour bus came through. I do not get many opportunities to visit my butcher in any given month and when I do make the trip, I stock up. I had a stack of chickens, cuts of beef, and a lamb shoulder all being wrapped in brown butcher paper as we waited patiently on the other side of the shoulder-high refrigerated cases with a scale perched on top.

In this great hall, the deli had a long line and no empty seats. The bar, with its long tables, was packed. The vegetable vendor was grabbing bags to weigh with blinding speed and there was a line to buy the freshly hand-rolled cigars. The place was full of happy noise. In the midst of this bustling cacophony, a bus-full of tourists came bursting in to watch and to learn.

“Huh,” I said to my wife. “So, this is what it looks like when we travel.”

At first, I was envious. I wanted to be the traveler, the one experiencing a different culture and a different people. Their questing eyes and curious looks made me look at the counters and the tables with fresh eyes, and appreciate the layers of peoples, communities, and culture that were woven into the fabric of the stalls, their employees, and their wares. After all, this is not some chichi Food Hall in Manhattan, but a neighborhood shopping district in the north Bronx.

Their guide was impatient to begin his spiel. He was waving his arms, motioning his charges to gather around and listen. I paid my bill. Picking up my heavy bags, I smiled and nodded hello, and added an “excuse me” or two as I maneuvered around the gathering without whacking anyone with my bags.

We still needed a couple of bottles of wine and my wife and I had agreed to indulge in a couple pastries. Then there was the pizza pan on display in the window and a question of whether we should buy a new one now or replace it later. The sun was bright and people were sitting outside enjoying the afternoon.

The visitors got a taste of an old neighborhood shopping district in the Bronx, which I thought was an excellent excursion. Still, their trip was just a taste because the cheese monger is a tiny storefront and there are at least a half dozen pastry shops and bakeries within two blocks of each other – and pizza, and bareks, and oysters on the half shell and a couple of decent expresso joints, and, and.

I suppose my travels abroad have helped me to appreciate what I have near to home. Even more, I have learned that there are a lot of people across the globe like me, who want to step into the day-to-day lives and cultures of other countries and just breath in the smells and sample the tastes. I may be imagining or embellishing, but when I visit such touchstones, everything seems to be delicious and worth savoring.

It was a good day.

Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

Immigration 30 Jan 2017

Waiting for the train into the city, I overheard two people talking with the casual loud volume long attributed to Long Islanders while we waited on the platform. “Thank God, I did not have to fly out yesterday,” the first one said. “The airport was a mess.”

“Yeah,” said the other, “the getting in/getting out was ridiculous.”

My spirit sank into my belly, listening to these two adults discuss the spontaneous protests that broke out at JFK airport yesterday when President Trump’s travel ban was put into force. They appeared not to have a care about the issue of immigration and morally reprehensible nature of the executive order. Their only concern was selfish inconvenience. The protest spread across the JFK property, blocking lanes and parking garages, splashing the headlines, but these two did not want to discuss the politics that provoked it. To me they were ostriches with their heads in the sand.

Then I received an email from a foreign journalist trying to track down one of the board members of my organization. The reporter informed me that my board member was overseas and found herself barred from returning to the United States. She is Muslim and the reporter wanted to interview her. Frantic emails over twenty-four hours went unreturned. The board of directors bounced back and forth, debating what we could do besides pray, to help our stranded friend and compatriot. The terrible numbness of helplessness appeared on the edges of the conversation.

This morning we heard from her. She is okay and her company has provided attorneys. On the advice of her attorneys, all information is being kept confidential for the moment until they give us clearance to speak. No promises though.

My dismay and disgust with this unconstitutional and racist order did not grow when I had a name of someone I know affected by this evil decree. My abhorrence had already reached a critical mass. This morning I am left with planning an organizing initiative on behalf of my board member and praying that I do not have to use it.

Speak out. Demand that your community leaders go on record opposing this executive decree. Remind your state and national leaders that their party affiliation, Republican and Democrat, will not shield them from the repugnance in the streets of their districts. Insist that your clergy denounce it publicly. Remind your friends and acquaintances that there is no more time to hide one’s head in the sand, hiding behind misplaced partisan loyalties. Remember as well, this was only the first week of the new presidency.

In Season

When I updated my climate change website and added pointers on approaches to purchasing food stuffs, one of my “friends” who may not receive another invitation to my table for awhile pointed out that my menu did not practice what I had preached. The first point was to buy in season.  This is November and there are plenty of winter squash recipes but few green vegetable recipes, such as Brussels sprouts. I will forgive but the public fault finding did send back into the kitchen. For the late fall in North America:

Fall Roasted Salad

1 small red onion

1lb Brussel sprouts

3 small beets

3TBS olive oil

Red wine vinegar

½ cup fresh parsley chopped

1tsp kosher salt

Salt/pepper

 

8 hours (or more) before serving: peel onion and slice thin. Shove slices in smallest mason jar possible. Add 1tsp of salt. Add red wine vinegar to top of jar. Seal with lid, shake, and store in refrigerator up to three weeks.

One and 0ne-half hours before serving: Preheat oven to 400o . Wash beets and either put them in pie tin and cover with foil or just wrap them in foil. Cut off stems of the Brussel sprouts and half them vertically. Roll them in 2TBS of olive oil and lay them out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with salt. Small beets cook approximately 45 minutes and medium sized ones about 1 hour. Brussel sprouts cook ½ hour.

Pull out the vegetables after roasting and let them cool a bit. Peel the beets and cut off the tops. Dice the beets and add to bowl. Slide Brussel sprouts into bowl. Add last TBS of olive oil and fresh parsley. Add pickled red onion to desired taste. Adjust seasoning by adding salt and pepper.

Can serve warm or cold, but serve warm anyway.

Reasonableness

Reasonably one can argue that the death of old ideas leads to new ones but there is a process akin to mourning when a cherished belief is killed off. Learning new ideas also includes learning how to discard old knowledge that is no longer relevant or just plain wrong; in fact, this sort of learning is a necessary skill set. Knowledge changes and evolves as human beings mature and gain life experience. The ideas of a five-year-old are not relevant to the ideas of an eighteen-year-old, nor should they be. Our decades as adults are also dynamic and ideas will continue to drop and add through the years. Saying goodbye to immature ideas is part of the human process of growth.

Ideas actually have parts to them. They begin with assumptions that are taken as true simply because they exist. From the assumptions come the arguments, the justifications of the idea. The last part is the conclusions, the idea itself that appears solid because the assumptions are true and the arguments are sound. When most people talk about ideas, they take the assumptions and arguments for granted and speak only of the conclusions. However, when the soundness of an idea is in question, it is the assumptions and the arguments that are reviewed.

The idea of God is subject to the same rules of assumptions and arguments. In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds, the arguments for the belief in God have been disproved over and over again. Sometimes the weakness is the argument; however, the fatal flaw in all of the ideas about God is the assumptions. (See the work of Immanuel Kant.)

When the assumption is wrong, everything that follows from it is also wrong. A loss of a belief of this depth requires a fundamental reshaping of how a person approaches and operates in the world. The old responses are now empty and hollow because they no longer make sense. While the philosopher can hide in intellectualism and scientist can stand behind rationalism, most of us adhere to the principle of reasonableness, which includes the non-intellectual components of human thought such as emotions. For reasonable people, losing a cherished idea such as a God who is personal and personally involved, is also painful, something that may require mourning.

Ideas are not purely rational or utterly intellectual, contrary to the rigid strictures of the day. There is an interiority* to our search for ideas that resound. They have to also satisfy some need in our interior life or at least offer balm to the questions of why? and why not? of our deepest thoughts. That an idea would satisfy our cravings for answers about the meaning of life or the meaning of our existence is . . . reasonable.

Reasonable as a criterion is much more personal, more personally painful than purely logical arguments. They are also much more satisfying too.

*Philosophy term indicating inner dialogue and reflective thinking of human beings.

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

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TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography