Archive | May, 2014

Speaking of and With Jews

26 May

Jewish learning


Last week I spoke to a havurah in West LA.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a havurah is a kind of Jewish interest group, a collection of Jewish people mutually interested in study, or music, or prayer, etc.   By forming these small groups and meeting at weekly or monthly intervals, members of large and impersonal congregations can create intimate groups of friends and colleagues. The group I spoke to seems most interested in dessert—learning, too, but dessert plays a big role in the way they plan and structure their meetings.  The first time I spoke to them (I have visited this particular havurah three times in as many years) my host made much of the group’s intelligence, their lengthy history as a havurah, and, of equal importance, the quality of their desserts.  As a fat guy, I really appreciate their interest in post-dinner noshing, and as a scholar of the American Jewish experience, I appreciate the fact that, despite having heard me speak in the past, these folks continue to invite me to their gatherings and pay me for the privilege of talking and eating—two things I would gladly do for free. 

My talk focused on a side project I’ve been interested in for a few years, now, a study of the Jewish institutions on the Sepulveda Pass, what they mean and how they got there.  And so I spent an hour or so talking about the rise of Conservative and Reform Judaism, the ways in which American Jews have celebrated ethnic pluralism, the westward movement of Jewish communities in the City of Angels, and other topics of interest…well, at the very least, topics of interest to me.  At the end of my presentation I asked if there were any questions and to my delight there were.  The first question was about the Holocaust, as was the second, and the third.  The fourth question may have been about Israel, but surely the fifth question was about the Holocaust, and on, and on, and on. 

The Holocaust was not really my topic of conversation—though one of the institutions I talked about was named after a prominent German rabbi who survived that terrible tragedy.  I had spoken of America’s history as a center of Jewish creativity and vibrancy, of the ways that American Jews had formed new ideas and new approaches to Judaism that continue to have meaning and resonance, and my audience, a dozen or so well-educated, upper middle-class Jews whose very gathering (the havurah) is part of a lengthy trend in American Jewish innovation, wanted to know more about the tragic past of European Jewry and about how to protect the State of Israel from its critics.  I was extremely disappointed.  No, that’s not the right word, I was… disillusioned, disenchanted, disheartened?  I don’t know.  None of those words seem to sum up my simultaneous feelings of frustration with, sadness towards, and, yet, affection for the members of that havurah.  Even now, I suspect that my written attempts to express my feelings on that night are as utterly confused and confounded as they were during that question and answer session.  Even their very fine desserts could not ease my mind.

While I was extremely frustrated with my audience’s questions, sadly, I was not at all surprised.  I see it all the time.  A sizeable number of American Jews (somewhere between, let’s say “some Jews” and “a whole lot of Jews”) myopically focus their interest in the Jewish past and present on these two important, but limited and fraught topics. These people, my people, are the inheritors of a fascinating, complex, and exciting history, and yet, when it comes to thinking about the Jewish past and the Jewish condition, they will only think about and discuss an historic and horrific genocide and/or how to protect the State of Israel (this despite that state’s continued demonstration of disdain for the validity and vitality of the American Jewish experience).  Indeed, often when I tell people that I am an American Jewish historian they ask me if I have seen the latest Holocaust documentary or read the latest book on that awful, painful tragedy.  When I tell them that I don’t study the Holocaust, they move on to discuss the history of New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, a topic I also don’t study.  Soon, a bewildered look will cross their faces as if to ask, “Well what the hell do you study, then?”

To be clear, the Holocaust and the State of Israel are important topics for any Jew, and they are extremely worthy of serious discussion, consideration, and commemoration, but so, too, are other fascinating topics in Jewish history.  I have spoken to numerous havurot (the plural of havurah), always about the exciting and meaningful ways that American Jewish thinkers have tried to keep Judaism and Jewishness a vibrant compelling option in the American marketplace of ideas, and yet when we get to the Q & A very few people ask more in-depth questions about that topic.  While I wish I could say that my talks are so good, so complete and informative that people need not ask questions about the topic of my discussion, that is surely not the case.  And even if it were, when these folks go off topic, which they typically do, they do not ask me about the Jewish experience in Muslim Spain, or the remarkable development of Jewish culture that took place in Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They have no interest Hank Greenberg (the great, Jewish, baseball player), Simon Greenberg (the one time president of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary), or even Señor Greenberg (the San Diego restaurateur who cleverly opened a “Mexicatessen” in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to appeal to American tourists).   No, they are only interested in two things, the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

Jewish history is lengthy, rich, and complex.  It is filled with stories of brilliant scholars, powerful leaders, unsavory (but let’s face it, very interesting) gangsters and criminals, of horrible tragedies and heartwarming triumphs, of successful AND failed attempts at building new types of communities and centers of learning, and much, much more.  When we boil this rich and complex history down into two admittedly important but extremely limited topics we deny ourselves a valuable historical inheritance.  Equally important, by narrowing the focus of Jewish history down to these two topics, we create a story about the Jewish people that operates between what has been called the two poles of Jewish history—the lachrymose and the triumphant.  And while, yes, those parts of the Jewish experience are very real and very important, so too are the other parts of the Jewish story.  We are not just victims and heroes.  We are scholars and athletes, farmers and soldiers, scientists and entertainers, mothers and fathers, rabbis and congregants, and (of particular importance to my insatiable appetite) bakers and chefs, to name a few.  And the American Jewish community, with its almost unlimited access to a wide variety of media, is likely better positioned than any other Jewish community on Earth to learn about the entirety of the Jewish global experience (I am sure my European and Israeli friends would beg to differ with me on this last point).  I say we start with a focus on the lives and experiences of American Jews.  Europe and Israel are cool, too, but we live in the States so let’s start there.  Let’s just hold off on discussions about the Holocaust and the latest efforts of the BDS movement for a bit, OK?  We can talk about those things later.  For now, let’s try and learn something new. And afterwards, dessert!

As always, stay tuned.


Charting a New Course

21 May



Last week I had the great good fortune to spend an hour or so hanging out with some really big time historians…two major dudes, well connected in the field with impressive careers and equally impressive positions. The type of historians you dream of becoming…that is, if you actually dream of becoming an historian.   Just a few years back I used to do this all the time as part of my doctoral training, but since my hooding two years ago, I spend a lot more time managing staff, planning budgets, and helping to write grant proposals than I do studying the past or chatting with renowned historians.  As the conversation went on, one of the pair, a longtime friend and colleague, observed that my blog is a far better reflection of my personality than is my academic writing.  “You really found your voice in your blog,” he said.  “By contrast, your academic style was something that seemed imposed on you.”   I smiled and said something about the demands of academia, but as the conversation went on two thoughts came to mind.  The first was that my friend was right.  I think anyone that knows me even a little can “hear” my voice in this blog.  I tell stories.  I make jokes.  I whine and complain.  I’m not a particularly private person, and I really don’t know when to shut up.  This is how I talk in the real world, and this is how I choose to write in my blog.  My other thought was, “Well that’s just great!  I’ve spent the better part of a decade learning to write a work of history in a voice that is utterly alien to me.  What the hell am I supposed to do now?” I think the answer is to really hone my blog voice and to try it on new topics and in new forums.  I think that the first step in that process will be to expand the scope of my blog.

In some sense, I have expanded the scope of this blog on several occasions already.  Last October, when I began this project, I was focused on one persistent, terrifying thought—that I have lymphoma.  Those of you who have suffered through a dangerous and/or chronic disease know how all-consuming this kind of knowledge can be.  No matter what you’re doing or thinking, somewhere in the back of your mind is the ever-present thought “I have cancer.” In an effort to deal with that very scary idea and to, perhaps somewhat selfishly, ask all of you to share my burden and ease my fears, I set off to write this blog.  My early postings were ALL about cancer—fears about cancer, friends with cancer, cancer treatment, even cancer jokes!  Then, as I learned that I did not have cancer, I started to explore a broader range of topics that might reasonably fall under the heading of health and wellness. One more misdiagnosis and the blog moved from health and wellness to fear and suffering, and on, and on, and on. 

Point is, despite my initial reasons for creating this blog, over time I have found it to be a really wonderful opportunity to think about things that are stuck in my head and to try and let them out of there before somebody gets hurt.  And while health, wellness, and the lemon-sized tumor inside my chest are ever-present in my psyche, so too are other thoughts. For example, while this may seem silly to some, I have begun to feel ambivalent about my love of football, which was once a great passion but now, with the continuing revelations about athletes who have suffered brain damage, proves harder to watch (and yet I still love the game!).  I think quite a bit about the ways in which Americans and American Jews understand and relate to history. I am deeply troubled about the nature of political discourse in our society. I fret about my daughter’s inevitable departure from our home.  And I am concerned that my newfound love of craft beer may signal a troubling low in my continuing decline into insufferableness. 

To be clear, health, well-being, and my ongoing engagement with the healthcare system will still play a large role in my blogging.  To my knowledge I still have a large, benign tumor in my chest (only next month’s scan can tell for sure, but c’mon, do we really think it’s disappeared?).  I still have sarcoidosis.  I’m fast approaching 50, and I’m still overweight.  I now have just as many doctors interested in me as I did when I was writing my dissertation—four to be exact.  Back then, of course, the four were PhDs and now there are four MDs on team Erik—five if you include my thoracic surgeon.  For these reasons, and for others, I intend to keep the blog’s current title, Limbo—strictly defined as a place between heaven and hell, but which I have also taken to mean a place or state between health and illness, happiness and sadness, youth and old age, being and becoming, and other structural opposites.  I’m still in Limbo and I still plan to write about that.

While thinking about this new direction in my blog, I actually went back and reread my first post from October and found that, in some sense, the point of this project has always been vague and subject to change.  At the close of the first piece I wrote that, “Perhaps I am just talking to myself, here, to be comforted by my continued ability to communicate clearly in the written form, and to use that as some kind of gauge for my health and happiness.  I simply don’t know.  I just know that right now I want to write and to do so publicly.  To share my stories and see if they resonate and what they generate.”  And so the process continues. I still want to write, to share my stories and see if and how they affect people.  It’s just that now, I want to expand the range of potential stories.  I hope that some of you will continue to follow me on this journey.  I have found your comments and support to be invaluable, and I look forward to seeing how you may or may not respond to my efforts in the future. 

As always, stay tuned.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.

13 May



About eighteen years ago I quit smoking, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.  To be clear, I didn’t quit cold turkey.  The whole process took about three years…three difficult, challenging years.  I quit.  I started again. I tried hypnosis.  I cut back to smoking one or two a day.  Over time I replaced my addiction to cigarettes with other addictions (gum, cookies, etc.,) and finally I quit altogether…sort of….  It still took about six more months after quitting the actual act of smoking to give up my dependence on nicotine gum—which gave me all the pleasure of a nicotine rush while still allowing me enough wind to walk up a flight of stairs.  Still, eventually I did quit, and I haven’t had a cigarette or any nicotine products for some eighteen years.  I say all of this not to brag about my non-smoker status, but rather as a reminder to myself that Rome was not built in a day—nor was any other large metropolitan area for that matter—and that the act of personal reformation takes time…to say nothing of urban infrastructure development in South Central Italy.

We are fast approaching the nine month mark since I was first told that I did not have cancer (which as you know was then followed by claims that I did have cancer, only to be disproved sometime later by exploratory surgery).  As those of you who read this blog may recall, shortly after I learned the good news, I posted a piece in which I dedicated myself to trying to reform my life—to eat better, exercise more, be more calm, and to regularly pray with meaning.  And for a good three months after that I was unstoppable.  I eliminated red meat and processed sugar from my diet.  I exercised four times a week and went to Tai Chi class once a week.  I meditated twice daily, and was, generally speaking, feeling great.  Then came the questioning of my previous diagnosis, the call for exploratory surgery, and a weeks-long downward spiral into self-pity and fear, all of which were accompanied by a brutal cold.  I exercised less, meditated less, ate a little less good, and felt a whole lot crappier.

 Since that time I have tried to get my efforts at reformation back up to speed.  I’ve been at the gym for about a month now.  I got back into Tai Chi class as quickly as possible.  And perhaps 50% of the time I’ve gotten back on my anti-inflammatory diet (no red meat or soda for me, but cookies and other sugary treats have exerted a powerful pull on my psyche….and my stomach).  But things haven’t been easy.  I have found that since surgery, my recovery time after exercise has grown considerably.  I get achier. I’ve come down with a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome, which at times can really hurt, and I seem unable to walk past a tray of baked goods (which are frequently present in my workplace) without grabbing something.  Friends have told me that surgery, no matter where in your body, can have a lengthy systemic effect with aches and pains that last long after the actual event and can happen anywhere in your body.  They tell me I shouldn’t worry so much and that things will be fine.  Also, over a beer the other day, a colleague of mine, a pretty fit guy, confessed that he too suffers aches and pains and that we are all growing older.  In short, everyone has told me to relax (which is more difficult than it used to be, too), that what I’m going through is normal, typical really, and that everything will be alright. As always I appreciate everyone’s good thoughts and advice, and yet I still can’t help but feel that I am backsliding.  That I’ve become complacent, and that I’ll never get back to the discipline I had in November and December of last year.  If nothing else, I am stalled, stuck in some kind of mental mud, my wheels hopelessly spinning and getting me nowhere. 

It’s at times like this, though, that I need to remind myself of my experience quitting smoking.  It took me three years to quit smoking.  Nothing about that process was quick, easy, or direct.  It was a lengthy and circuitous course filled with great advances, disheartening failures, ridiculous justifications about my inability to succeed, and powerful denial about the problems I faced.  Ultimately, though, I succeeded.  I did so because it mattered to me greatly, because my health and life depended upon it.   Now, too, I believe that my life and health depend a great deal on my ability to sustain an exercise and meditation regimen, to maintain a healthier diet, and to learn to relax a little bit.  And so I suspect that over time, I will succeed.  The process won’t be quick or easy, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get it done.  Still, the backsliding can be terribly frustrating, and so I need to remember what the urban historians tell us, that Rome wasn’t built in a day…Naples, perhaps, but Rome….never.  

As always…stay tuned.

What, Me Brave?

1 May


Over the past week or so I have received a lot of compliments on my writing.  While I am grateful for the kind words, I am saddened by the need to write the missive that led to those kudos.  The folks who said such nice things were volunteers at our museum, and the document they complimented was not my blog, but sadly a letter announcing the passing of the spouse of one of my coworkers.  His sudden departure from this world and the brief and difficult illness that preceded it hit many of us quite hard, to say nothing of his wife (my colleague) who undoubtedly will spend a very long time coming to terms with the terrible heartache she’s experienced over the past few months. 

Compliments about my writing have been fairly common over the past six months.  Whether driven by an obligation to say something nice to me or by a genuine belief that my work has struck a chord, many of you who read these posts have written or said some wonderful things about my blog.  I have received compliments on the clarity of my writing, the veracity of my insight, and the success of my occasional joke.  Your Facebook comments in response to my blog posts have portrayed me as wise, steady, funny, honest, and, most surprising of all, brave.    

This last point, comments about my alleged bravery, doesn’t quite sit right with me. Naturally I am pleased—flattered, really—that anyone would call me brave, because prior to this experience no one has ever described me in that way.   I am known for many things but bravery is not one of them.  I have never jumped out of a plane, climbed a mountain (or even taken a terribly difficult hike), slayed a dragon, returned the Ring of Sauron to the fiery furnace from whence it came, nor willingly taken on any adventure or task that might test my courage in any significant way.  In the realm of the mundane, I have similarly never really evinced any behavior that might be seen as brave.  I have never stood up to a bully, never eaten blowfish, never really shed the trappings of a tourist to live like “the locals” in some exotic land, and never done a whole bunch of other brave stuff.  Indeed, I have never even been on a camping trip since my last year at Camp Winaukee (in 1979, I believe).   While I deeply appreciate that some have characterized my blogging as an act of bravery, I suspect that my writing is more about neediness, about my profound fears concerning illness, age, dying, and about my fervent desire to be reassured that everything will be alright. 

I say all this not out of a sense of false modesty (no one has ever accused me of being modest either), but instead because I have seen real bravery up close.  This has been a tough year for some of my colleagues. One woman just lost her husband, while another coworker has battled cancer for well over a year now.  Both colleagues have done so with a tremendous amount of dignity and courage. They have done so quietly, without making a big deal around the office and, unlike me, without sharing their fears in a very public venue like the internet.  These are tough, brave people. My recently widowed colleague nursed her husband through an incredibly painful disease.  Over the last few months of her husband’s life she fought with doctors, hospitals, social workers, and her insurance company in an effort to fight his disease, then to ease his pain, and finally to insure that his passing would be dignified.  She did all of this while routinely showing up to work, which she says offered some respite from the unrelenting challenges she faced at home.  My friend with cancer has undergone one year-long round of chemo and never complained once.  Seriously, not once!  She missed one day of work, I think, because she was in the hospital with a fever from an infected port.  And now, as she undergoes a second round of chemo (a much more powerful cocktail), she continues to show up to work as if everything is normal despite the drugs’ obvious effects.  Just the other day I was exchanging texts with her and she told me she was quite nauseous.  I responded with some fairly pro forma words of support and then told her to take all the time she needs to return to work.  She responded by telling me that she plans on getting in as soon as possible.  Chemo is tough, she told me, but wallowing in self-pity made it even worse!  She is one tough, determined, and incredibly brave individual.  By contrast, I feel weak and whiny. 

I’m not trying to say that my friends’ assessments of my bravery are false.  For all I know, they may be right.  Maybe blogging is a brave act. Maybe being brave means not being afraid to ask for support in trying times.  Maybe each of us is brave in our own way and in our own time.  After all, what do I really know about bravery?  I suppose the point of this post is not to dismiss the wonderful things folks have said about me, but instead to acknowledge the courage and fortitude of some wonderful friends and colleagues who are going through tough times.  They have faced challenges that dwarf those I’ve encountered, and they’ve done so in this powerful and dignified manner.  I am continually in awe of their courage and bravery, and I pray for their comfort and recovery. 

As for me, I muddle through in a very different, very public way.  As I’ve said before, I live to scan another day, and that day is coming up in about a month.  I’m not scared of my approaching Petscan….yet, but when the fear does set in (which in some sense is inevitable) I will tell you about it here.  Because I’m brave that way…I guess.

As always, stay tuned.