Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Dancing with Gwen Ifill

I just returned from a family wedding in Denver, and aside from the fact that I left snow in Madison to encounter a blizzard there, we had a wonderful weekend of food, relaxation, and celebration.

Family has always been an important part of my life, but with my rabbinic profession demanding that I remain at Beth El on weekends – a time when many family life cycle events take place – it is somewhat rare that I attend family simchas.  That is not a terrible reality; it is simply a condition of my dedication to my profession and my chosen community in Madison.

But this wedding was a wonderful exception, and my family really appreciated my presence.  My cousin who tied the knot served as a news producer for PBS: at first, for the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, then for the Jim Lehrer News Hour, and then for the PBS News Hour, today moderated by Gwen Ifill.  And because of the years of their association, Gwen Ifill was wonderfully present at my cousin’s wedding weekend.

One high point of the weekend was the rehearsal dinner, with roasts, toasts, and fun.  Most prominent was a video parody of the PBS News Hour, which spoke about the “union of two powerhouses” (my cousin and his new bride) and the intrigue that accompanied their amalgamation of forces.  The video was ‘hosted’ by Gwen Ifill, and included many familiar PBS reporters for whom my cousin had produced news segments over the years.  The video was a stitch, a great parody, full of laughs and love that was developed between the PBS reporting staff and my cousin over the years.

And the next night, at the wedding, we were all gratified to see that Gwen Ifill was there.

Now some people dissemble excitement at the appearance of a celebrity.  They act cool, when they're really excited to no end.  But people left her alone, and I am sure that, from her standpoint, the evening was one of sacred presence for the bride and groom.

And when it was time to hit the dance floor, my sister Miriam and I found ourselves dancing in a circle of six people, including Gwen Ifill herself!

The tunes were 70’s and 80’s hits (You Millennials many not recall those ditties!), and Ms. Ifill – who was born the same year as I – was brilliant as we all danced and sang along to those former hits.  We discoed and we rocked, and all of us acknowledged the fun and the love that brought us together that evening.  The dancing together – simply having fun and enjoying the experience – was just that, and everyone appreciated the energy and the sparkle of the wedding couple, not the presence of this or any particular individual.

This night of celebration, and ‘dancing with a star,’ simply brought home to me the idea that people are people regardless of their profession and their circumstance, and that the notion of celebrity – however we define it – does not need to separate us, even though some become star-struck and immobilized when a person of notoriety enters the room.

If fact, we were present for some completely holy moment in the life of a family...and that was the most important aspect of all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Hunt and Peck

I think I am back in elementary school.

I am using the ‘hunt and peck’ typing method again.

As you undoubtedly know, I am going to spend five weeks in Israel beginning on April 10.  One of my activities will be to help lead services and offer some one-session discussions at Congregation Emet V’Shalom in Nahariya, a coastal Israeli city located about 30 kilometers north of Haifa, and 10 kilometers south of the Lebanese border.  This 45-year old congregation is the only Progressive (Reform) congregation in Nahariya.

In these weeks before my departure, I have been asked by the congregation's leadership to offer a d’var torah (sermon on the weekly Torah portion) to this congregation at Friday evening services on Shabbat Emor, that is, the Sabbath of April 26-27.  In this multilingual congregation (Hebrew, English, and Spanish are the primary languages spoken, with some Russian speakers making up the full complement of members), the leadership requests that the d’var torah be written and delivered in Hebrew.

Further, they ask that it also be sent to the service coordinator with enough lead-time to translate it into English and Spanish for those worshipers who need it.

So to follow the custom, I am writing the d’var torah in Hebrew, and in the process I am using a very powerful Hebrew-English word processor called DavkaWriter. 

(The Hebrew idiom “davka” is difficult to translate, but it means something like “indeed,” or “naturally,” “wouldn’t you know,” or “of course.”  Here is one sample usage:  “The mother was talking with her son, and even though she tried to avoid the subject of his borrowing the car, davka, he brought up the subject himself.”)

But the composing and typing my d’var torah is a challenge.  In English I might type 60 – 80 words per minute, even with returning to correct mistakes.  But in Hebrew, using an unfamiliar keyboard and trying to compose a literate sermon, I have been plodding along at about one page per hour, or sometimes averaging seven words per minute.  I am attempting to be precise, but trying to translate in my mind and, at the same time, spelling it correctly for the benefit of a translator, has been a challenge.  (I may end up translating it myself; I'll make it easier on them...)

My conversational and presentational Hebrew is coming back to me, and I have the benefit of a powerful English-Hebrew dictionary.  But I feel as though I am a fourth grade student writing a research paper, slowly hunting the right letters, attempting to select the right words, and offering concepts and ideas that will appeal to my audience.

It is a slow process, though I feel confident it will yield a d’var torah that is understandable and appropriate for that audience.  When I finish it and secure the English translation, I will post it here for your benefit.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Defensive Postures

Last week something happened to me that had not occurred since elementary school.  I almost got into a fistfight.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the pilot of my plane had gave the customary direction to turn off electronic devices, and the clean-cut young man (early 30's?) on my right, on his way home to Tulsa, seemed willing to comply.  But after a while, I noticed him thumbing through his email on his smart phone, hidden (or so he thought) on the seat between his legs.  This retrieving and reading was lasting longer that a moment, perhaps two minutes or more, and it was at this point that I decided to ask him to turn off his phone.

I tried to be as polite as possible:  "I wonder if I might ask you to turn off your phone.  The signals, so they say, interfere with the planes avionics."  ('...And I would not want your phone’s pinging to have been the cause of disrupted signals that might have caused our plane to crash…'  No, I did not say that.)

His reaction stunned me.

He turned toward me and stared into my face with something like anger, or resentment.  He just stared and said nothing, trying to judge my reaction to what I perceived to be his 'war face.'  And finally, with whatever feelings he had, he hibernated his phone - he did not turn it off - and placed it in his pocket.

I decided not to press the point, but I had obviously infuriated him with my simple request, and elicited an obviously defensive reaction.

So again I wondered about the human tendency to be defensive when one’s foibles are pointed out.  Why was his reaction not “Oh, I am sorry, let me do what I need to do,” or (playfully) “Hey, you caught me, and I am sorry.”

I know why it was not “Hey, get out of my face,” nor was it a swing at my face.  It’s because he was in the wrong, and he knew it.  He also did not want to create a scene.  But even with that knowledge, he could not bring himself to apologize, or acknowledge his mistake.  (Mistakes are, after all, human.)

I think that each of us, in our own lives, needs to examine this human tendency to avoid admission of guilt, and try to limit our hubris and our constant need to be right.

May we live better lives; may we get along better with our fellow humans; and may we actually grow in the eyes of others when we demonstrate self-awareness and restraint.

This is certainly something to think about, and act upon.