Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha b'Av: Why Does This Always Happen To Us?

I was in film school when I first read the extended joke explaining why bad stuff happens. The joke quotes several world religions' perspectives on evil. Hinduism: This stuff has happened before. Buddhism: If stuff happens, is it really stuff? The capper for me was, of course, Judaism: Why does this stuff happen to us? The joke seemed particularly appropriate at the moment I read it. Film making is the Sisyphisean exercise of constantly struggling to solve one problem after another.

Joking aside, Tisha b'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av) is the day on the Jewish calendar selected to embrace all the terrible events that befell the Jewish people. The two central events it commemorates are the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition holds that both temples were destroyed on the same day, hundreds of years apart.

Further tragedies befell the Jews on this day in whatever region of the world they found themselves. According to the Orthodox Union web site, the expulsion from Spain occurred in 1492. The Holocaust, of course has its own days of infamy tied to Tisha b'Av. And, the seed of the Holocaust, World War I, was planted on this day when Britain and Russia delcared war on Germany. Germany's economic privations resulting from the war and the Treaty of Versailles later became fertile soil for the rise of Hitler.

I grew up with no understanding of Tisha b'Av. Although I have since taken on significant aspects of formal religious observance, Tisha b'Av remained a blank spot. I had no model of how to observe it, and no voices of memory informing me why I should. The day approaches with a prologue of three weeks, in which observant Jews begin taking on certain practices of mourners, such as not attending live music performance. The last 9 days of those three weeks become a kind of home stretch. Mourning practices increase to include not eating meat except on Shabbat, showering only with cool water, and not shaving.

In past years, these prologue periods provoked me to discuss Tisha b'Av casually with friends. Those that had attended Jewish summer camp harked back to those experiences to guide their Tisha b'Av observance. Having so such references, I took a "pass" on any observance.

This year, subtle steps drew me towards a deeper understanding of the day. When I discovered Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust scheduled its summer fundraiser during the three weeks, I insisted we reschedule. Thus our comedy showcase at the Improv (seats are still available!) will be held Sunday night, August 16.

A more profound nudge came when I invited a religious couple, who had never been to the Hollywood Bowl, to join my wife and me for a Beethoven concert. My friend begged off. "Unfortunately we can't. It's during the Three Weeks." Rather than only feel sheepish about my faux pas, I resolved to think more deeply about Tisha b'Av. And then I decided to take baby steps towards my own observance. So I adopted some of the restrictions of the 9 days.

I made sure to attend schul on the evening of Tisha b'Av and to begin the fast included in the observance. The formal practice in synagogue includes the congregants sitting the floor, in imitation of the practice of Jewish mourning, and the chanting of Aicha, the Book of Lamentations. As I sat, subdued in the darkened sanctuary, several factors, like tumblers in a lock, combined to open a door to a deeper relationship with the day.

The minor actions I assumed during the 9 days probably laid some sort of foundation. As a result of reminding myself to keep the shower's hot water low, or that I needed a salad for lunch, I continued to raise questions of what exactly it means to be mournful. What am I mourning? Can I be commanded to do so, or am I just going through the motions? I tried not to grow frustrated as no answers came. I figured I could only evaluate the experiment's true results if I stuck to the protocol.

Then, last night in schul, the door cracked. First I felt a sense of belonging to a community. As I entered the sanctuary I heard the congregants' loud responses during the hetzi kaddish, a responsive prayer signifying a turning point in the service, before I saw the size of the group. In the immortal words of Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles), "I didn't know there'd be so many!" And as I took my seat on the carpet, this sense only increased. No matter the depth of my personal experience of Tisha b'Av, I was not alone, and together we were paying respects to our losses in our history as a people. I was now a link in a chain that stretched behind me and before me in time. I didn't need to be intensely involved to become a link. I just had to be there.

As various readers chanted Aicha, the images from its numerous extended metaphors took form in my mind. And these were images from the Holocaust, images one might see in the exhibits in our Museum. I heard:

[Children] say to their mothers: 'Where is corn and wine?' when they swoon as the wounded in the broad places of the city, when their soul is poured out into their mothers' bosom. Aicha (Lamentations) 2:12

and I saw pictures of children starving on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. At "Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heaven (4:19)" I saw the Nazi eagles held high on flags in mass rallies. I don't have to explain what I imagined when I heard "From on high He hath sent fire into my bones (1:13)."

I looked around me and, for no explicable reason, noticed the styles of shirts worn by the men around me. Checked shirts, white dress shirts untucked, blue shirts. I recalled the voice of Museum founder Thomas Blatt, one of the few Sobibor inmates who survived the 1943 prisoner revolt. The day before, he told me he was able to make it in hiding after the revolt because he never wore a camp uniform. "We had the clothes of the Jews who were killed. If your shirt got dirty, you just went to the sorting barracks and chose a new shirt."

Mental echoes comprise an occupational hazard in running a Holocaust Museum. Usually I try to let them go rather than note them or hold on to them. They're not thoughts one can bring up in pleasant conversation, such as at the dinner table. "Dear, could you pass a slice of bread? Did you know people in the camps would ration just half a slice for an entire day?"

But in schul, on Tisha b'Av, I didn't have to evade. This was the time and the place to engage. Doing so didn't just propel me towards a sense of the sadness that is the appropriate mood for the day. It imbued me with the wisdom of having such a day. Bad stuff does happen. Really bad stuff. Not just to a group of people who seems to have more trauma than any other group. To anyone. It is the nature of being alive. And rather than ignore the existence of misery and suffering, it seems profoundly wise to not only set aside a period of time to embrace it, but to orchestrate a slow crescendo of ritualized practices helping us reach out for such an embrace.

Getting back to the Jewish propensity as a people to always have bad stuff happening to us, there is a silver lining. We are one of the few groups in modern society who can trace their history back through thousands of years. Live long enough, and lots of bad stuff is going to happen.

And good stuff, too. Tisha b'Av is, after all, only one day.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Letter to the Editor: The Going Has Been Tough for Needy Survivors

In its July 24 issue, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles published an article about communal efforts to help people who've become needy due to the recssion: When the Going Gets Touch, Where Do You Go? Here is my letter to the editor in response.

Dear Editor,

We can all be proud of the organized Jewish community’s response to the newly needy among us (“When the Going Gets Tough,” July 24). Yet the going has been tough for some time for too many survivors. Virtually every challenge demonstrated in that article can be applied to needy survivors as well.

A recent community forum at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust highlighted the needs of indigent survivors. Representatives of the Federation, Jewish Family Service, Bikur Cholim, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, 2nd Generation, and Generations Connect described their efforts to meet those needs. Yet it emerged there is no complete understanding of the full extent of survivor poverty.

Many factors make this identification difficult. None is as powerful as the prison of shame, as stated eloquently by Temple Aliyah’s Jeff Bernhardt in Julie Fax’s effective journalism. Whether Holocaust survivors or not, no one wants to admit need. But even the resources available to survivors before the recession – augmented by some key philanthropists in our community -- could not meet the full need of many.

Rabbi Mendel Cohen of Generations Connect and I met recently with Federation and JFS leaders to chart next steps. The will exists to make a difference for the destitute survivors among us. The most well-intentioned leaders can fail without their community behind them. Each of us must ensure our communal safety net stretches further.

Mark Rothman, Executive Director
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bruno: Scratch an Austrian and Find A Nazi? Nein!

Bruno, the eponymous main character in the new Sacha Baron Cohen film, makes several references to Nazism and Hitler. These references include a quick goose step, a stiff arm salute, and a nostalgic reference to the way Bruno's fellow Austrian was ultimately treated by the world. The simplest conclusion to make is that Bruno demonstrates what some people presume to be a fear about German-speaking people in the shadow of the Holocaust: support for the anti-Semitic and despotic beliefs behind their countries' tragic roles in history lie just beneath the surface.

Were this the truth, Austrians and Germans watching the film would have even more right to condemn the film than the people of Khazakstan may have had to reject Borat.

Bruno's Holocaust-era references need to be taken in context with Bruno's character. The main character's inability to see outside himself, combined with his self-aggrandizement, drive the comedy in Bruno. He is the buffon who makes us laugh not with him, but at him. With rare exception he is not Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, making fun of the hypocrisy of others. He is a modern Mr. Maggo, substituting for near-sightedness an egotistical weltenschaung blinding him to almost everything beyond the end of his, well, penis.

One could easily argue his Nazi-ish references are thus gratuitous. He would be no less of a fool without them. But Baron Cohen's inclusion of them allows him to make a mature and ultimately healing statement: only a fool would embrace any casual and cavalier references to the emblems of a history good people deeply regret. As a Jew, Baron Cohen's statement carries added wieght.

Every joke has to have its topper. One of the biggest and purest belly laughs in the film comes when Bruno zeros in on a headshot of Mel Gibson and calls him "The Fuhrer." Baron Cohen's phony character-in-search-of-celebrity disproves once and for all the canard that an anti-Semite lurks just beneath the skin of anyone with a German accent. How? Through Bruno's idol worship of a real celebrity who only needed a few too many drinks to reveal the anti-Semite living just below his.