Archive for April, 2016

JEWS BY CHOICE

The legendary comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The Groucho persona was highly individual. But isolation offers little to the soul. In that regard, some people join one particular “club” that accepts—but doesn’t seek—members.

Last week, a young man named Collin went before a three-person beit din—a Jewish religious court. As his mentor, I was part of that beit din. Colin answered questions regarding his desire and readiness to convert. Then he immersed himself three times in the mikva (ritual pool). He emerged as a Jew.

For over a year, Collin studied Judaism at my San Francisco synagogue, Sherith Israel. He was all in—enthusiastic and committed. He took our introduction to Judaism class. He learned to read Hebrew. He attended Shabbat services and Torah study. Two Torah study groups. We chatted over coffee every other week before Friday-night services. We discussed his challenges and progress, and a wide variety of topics from kosher eating to Israel to Jewish life (my own) in New York. He became part of “the guys’” coffee group. (A young woman who recently converted joins us occasionally.)

Why would a young man—why would anyone—cast his lot with the Jewish people? Make no mistake. Judaism is a “club” I want to belong to. I’ve found great meaning and stability in living Jewishly. But let’s face it. We Jews have had a difficult history in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear after the Holocaust. It has simmered and periodically flared up in Europe, and come to a boil in the Middle East.

Moreover, while Jews welcomes converts, we don’t proselytize. (We stopped when Rome made that a capital offense in the late fourth century.) Still, some people explore Judaism at Sherith Israel and elsewhere. A few engage intellectually. Many are non-Jews with Jewish partners. Of those, some pursue conversion. Others don’t but wish to build and maintain Jewish homes and families.

Then there are people like Collin, who is single. They discover that the Jewish soul matches their own. Many say they’ve always felt Jewish. Maybe it’s the breadth and depth of our traditions. Maybe it’s the fact that questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. And that within Reform Judaism, each individual explores observance in his or her own way.

The Tanhuma—a collection of stories and wisdom—states: “Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” After all, the Israelites witnessed God’s power through incredible displays of thunder and lightning, as well as the shaking of the mountain. The convert did not, yet still accepts God’s commandments.

With Passover beginning this evening, it’s worth noting again that the Jewish people has survived many tragedies—slavery in Egypt being the first. Existential threats still exist. Yet some people outside our tradition find Judaism deeply meaningful. Their choices teach us born Jews a lesson. As Larry Raphael, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, says, “In America we are all Jews by choice.” A free society offers us the option to drop out—even if doing so is somewhat illusory. Jews who come from outside our tradition demonstrate the value of choosing Judaism. And the courage involved in making that choice.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re celebrating Pesach: Chag sameach!

The blog will take a holiday next week (April 29).

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THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD

In this world of digital celebrity, I have to make a terrible confession. No, I don’t snatch purses from little old ladies or take candy from babies. And you won’t see me in videos getting drunk, hitting on women and throwing punches. It’s worse.

I’m boring. You may have seen the Dos Equis beer commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World. “When in Rome, they do as he does.” I’m the opposite. Over the years I’ve acquired the title of The Least Interesting Man in the World. Admittedly, I’ve earned it. I’m so boring…

When I comb my hair in front of the mirror, my reflection yawns… When I go on a walk, my shadow trails a block behind me… Comedy clubs pay me to stay home… At dinner parties, the hosts give me my own table… Insomnia clinics pay me to spend time with their patients… Mimes shout at me to go away.

As a young guy, I used to speed date alone… My laptop refuses to wake up when I click on the screen… Telemarketers hang up when I say hello… My dental hygienist cleans my teeth over Skype… When I deliver meals to homebound seniors, they make me leave them at the door.

When I talk to myself, I refuse to listen… People always warn my wife that my pacemaker has failed… Candles on my birthday cake blow themselves out… Friends and I go out to coffee by email… When I ask Siri a question, she turns off my iPhone.

I’m often asked if I need assistance returning to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum… When I sing in the shower, the water turns itself off… When I was young, my dates and I went to separate restaurants… When I cross the street, the walk sign waves me back… My college alumni association sent me a check to stay home on reunion weekend.

Bars deliver drinks to my house… My optometrist’s eyes start closing on E… At the old Playland by the Beach, Laughing Sal gave me the silent treatment… Facebook unfriended me… My therapist does all the talking.

When I fly by myself, airlines make me buy an entire row… Little kids read me stories so I’ll doze off… The newspaper informed my family they’ll never print my obituary… Dogs sniff me, lie down and play dead… Jehovah’s Witnesses plead with me not to bother Jesus… I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, the brand is generic.

Now you know. Dos Equis is retiring The Most Interesting Man in the World. They’ve given him a one-way ticket to Mars. I doubt I’ll be starring in their next ad campaign. But perhaps my title as The Least Interesting Man in the World is better than no title at all. Although I have nothing particular to say about that.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts—and you weren’t too bored to get through this one—suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. But please, not a video of you yawning at my photo.

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OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE

Merle Haggard died on Wednesday. I first listened to the Country Music Hall of Famer when I lived in San Antonio. One of his greatest hits stays with me—particularly in this election season.

I’m not a big country music fan, but country tunes still tickle me. As a writer, I appreciate that country lyrics are meant to be heard—to tell a story. I even wrote a country song for my novel Flight of the Spumonis: “A Good Ol’ Country Boy is a Sufferin’ Man.”

I love Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Bug.” She sings, Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. When it comes to explaining life and love, it doesn’t get better than that. And I’m drawn to Blake Shelton’s ode to rednecks, “Boys ‘Round Here.” Its great hook: Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

Back to Merle Haggard. One of country music’s fabled “outlaws”—he served time in San Quentin—he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” with Roy Burris. The song debuted in 1969. It was strictly middle American and silent majority. Haggard was proud of his roots. An Okie by descent, he grew up in Bakersfield at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Oklahomans fled the Dust Bowl during the Depression in the 1930s for a better life in California. No one told their story better than John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

As to the song, Haggard first twangs: We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD. We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street. ‘Cause we like livin’ right, and bein’ free. Haggard said the song was a tribute to his father, who died when he was nine. But there’s no question about it making a conservative political statement. Richard Nixon was serving in the first year of his presidency. Hippies challenged Nixon’s and the establishment’s views while much of a new generation protested the Vietnam War and embraced sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But not all.

Am I a closet redneck? Nope. There was much about the ‘60s I didn’t like, but I didn’t identify with Merle Haggard. We’re from different backgrounds and cultures. But living in Texas for six years gave me insights into other folks’ ways of looking at things. And I just loved singing along with that tune.

I note that the second verse includes We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do. I moved to San Francisco in 1974 and never looked back. I also note that for some time, a number of major country stars have worn long hair and beards—like the hippies they or their parents reviled. Times change. Attitudes change.

And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, Haggard sang. It’s incredible that someone can write and perform a culturally or politically oriented song that you don’t agree with all that much—or at all—and you still like it. As the race to presidential nominations moves towards its conclusion, I ask myself why there’s something special about hearing someone out even if they come from something of a different world. I answer: It’s because their world is different. Tearing down walls beats building them.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts—and you weren’t too bored to get through this one—suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. Give “Okie from Muskogee” a listen, too. And be proud to be whoever you are.

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THE PERILS OF ENTITLEMENT

This post is about pro basketball, but it goes deeper. Sports offers meaningful insights into American society. Two teams reveal compelling stories about failure and success.

The New York Knicks long have been woeful. Owner James Dolan—who inherited the team—is noted more for dollars than sense. In 2011, the Knicks traded good young players for Carmelo Anthony, an all-star with Denver who scores lots of points but rarely makes his teammates better. They kept losing. Before the 2014-15 season, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who coached 11 champions, as team president. Jackson, who gets $12 million a year, never held a front-office post. He hired a rookie coach fresh from the player ranks and insisted that the Knicks play his triangle offense. Last season they finished 17-65. This season they’re currently 30-46—better but still bad.

The Knicks long have hung their hopes on luring superstars free agents they assume will sign contracts since New York is the center of the universe. More than a year before Cleveland’s LeBron James became a free agent in 2010, New Yorkers considered him signed, sealed and delivered. LeBron chose Miami.

The Golden State Warriors’ principal owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber also are rich but run the team as they did their other businesses. As president they hired Rick Welts, who served in a similar capacity with the Phoenix Suns. They brought on NBA legend Jerry West—a Hall of Fame player with years of front-office success—as a consultant. In a daring move, they selected Bob Myers—an agent—as assistant general manager in 2011 and promoted him to GM a year later. They acquired players many observers questioned.

Seeing the limits of coach Mark Jackson, who helped the team improve but did not relate well to management, they hired Steve Kerr—a rookie coach who passed on joining Jackson in New York. The key: Kerr was long removed from his playing days on five championship teams, three in Chicago under Jackson and two under San Antonio’s remarkable Gregg Popovich. He’d served in Phoenix’ front office and been an outstanding TV commentator.

Last season, Kerr’s first as coach, the Warriors finished 67-15 and won the NBA title. This season they’re threatening the all-time record of 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls on which Kerr played. They did it by gathered talented players who sacrifice parts of their game for the team.

Importantly, the Warriors claim no sense of entitlement. Top free agents—like Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant—may want to sign with the Warriors. Or not. The team makes no assumptions. It already has a superstar in Stephen Curry—once a question mark. If Durant signs elsewhere, the Warriors will attempt to keep their own free agents and seek solid role players to strengthen their roster. They’ll remain a team with character rather than characters.

Egos fill American sports, business and politics. People in the spotlight often claim success as a right. For pro sports franchises, glitter and glamor go only so far. Small-market teams often produce bigger results. I hope the Knicks and New York lower the noise and turn things around. I’m proud that the Warriors go about their business without proclaiming that they’re special. Which is one reason they are.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And root for the Warriors wherever you are.

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