Friday, June 28, 2013

Who Else Out There Likes "Mad Men"?

Rona and I have just finished watching season five of Mad Men, and I'm curious: do you watch it too?  Why?  What keeps you going back?

Mad Men Season 1 Episode Photos

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Communicate! Blog

You may have noticed that in this blog, Welcome to My World, I've gone back to musing and ranting about Jewish and political topics from my personal perspective. 

I've moved the more professional topics (about social media, writing, and communications strategy and technique) to a new Communicate! site:

If you're interested in any of those topics, you're invited to follow that blog too.  And if you're not, just stick with this one.  I've got plenty of good things for you to read coming out in July.  Thanks for reading me!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chanting the Torah and Haftarah: a resource list

 BBC - Norfolk - Faith - Divine Art: Torah scroll

When I tutor people who are studying for bar or bat mitzvah, I record the tropes, the traditional chants, myself each time.  That way, I can sing in a key that student can easily follow.  I also use a simple, less cantorial style that's easy to pick up.

Sometimes, though, it's convenient to go on line and hear how other people chant the tropes.  So, here are links to a variety of places on the web where you can listen to the tropes and study them:

Ezra Katz,

Ellie's Tropes,

Cantor Ofer Barnoy,

Cantor Jack Chomsky,

There are also commercially produced tools for teaching and learning tropes, and you'll find many of them at

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Longing for Leadership: a lesson from a bat mitzvah

In my blog entry "Wrestling with Rebels," I showed some of the different ways that interpreters have treated Korach's rebellion against Moses and Aaron.  Here is the way my student Abby K made sense of it at her bat mitzvah: through an interpretive story, or midrash.

Abby said: As I studied this story, I wondered if we were really seeing an overly biased account. When you think about it, history is written by the victors, and the story of Korah seems to be told as pro-Moses, showing Korah as a villain.  
There are two sides to every story, and I wondered about Korahs side. Suppose things had turned out differently, or that it was one of Korahs followers rather than one of Moses followers who would have written the account.

The rabbis often filled in gaps in the text of the Torah by writing their commentary or stories known as midrash. And so, I decided to write this midrash, trying to explain why Korah revolted against Moses:

Once, in the land of Egypt, there was a young boy named Korah.  He had the difficult life of an Israelite slave.  One hot, sunny day, he saw the taskmaster beating a slave, which was not uncommon.  Suddenly, a peculiar thing happened.  While Korah watched from the shadows, a young man ran up to the slave and the taskmaster, and killed the taskmaster. The young man happened to be Moses.
Korah was in awe.  If only I had that power, that control, Korah thought.  Having no authority as a slave made him fume.  After the Israelites escaped Egypt, his hunger for power only grew stronger. He was seen as noble in the community, but that wasnt enough. He decided to gather followers, and rebel against Moses and Aaron.  He blamed them for acting too holy.  Very soon after, he and the other rebels died.
Some said that slavery made him bitter.  After the difficult life of labor, he wanted some respect, some power.  Others said he was envious of Moses and Aarons authority.  But in one thing the community was certain:  he wanted leadership.

Abby concluded: In the Biblical story, Moses was right and Korah was wrong.  But by writing this midrash, I can see Korah's point of view. Even sometimes when there is a definitive right or wrong answer, always try to see the story in a fair way. Also, it is important to understand why a person does what he does. That's why I wrote this midrash, to understand why.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Happy Days Are Here Again?

At 55, I watch the stock market more than I used to.  Oh, not its daily ups and downs, which are like my cats chasing each other around the house: something spooks them and off they go.  But I have a graph in the back of my mind. I'm aware that my hopes of a retirement with Rona partly depend on the value of our retirement accounts.  When the line is going down, as it did in the Great Recession, we have to exercise patience.  When it's going up, we get to wonder how two children of working-class parents can grow up to be secure, even at a modest level.

That's why I take personally the question that James Surowiecki raised in a recent article in The New Yorker: "Boom or Bubble?"  The stock market has been going up, even though employment, housing, and income equality have lagged behind.  Is this really sustainable? 

The answer I get from reading the article is: unfortunately, yes.

The value of stock is based on the triumph of corporate power.  The last time what we now call "the 99%" could consistently force the wealthy to share the wealth we all created was when I was a teenager.  Since then:
  • Corporate tax rates have fallen dramatically (and so have the rates that rich people pay as individuals).  
  • Corporations have gone global. A study of "American" corporations that Surowiecki cites found "they got forty-six per cent of their earnings from abroad."
  • Partly as a result, corporations have broken the power of unions and forced wages down.  (Retirement benefits, too.  If we had pensions instead of 401ks and IRAs, stocks would be lower, and we wouldn't care.)
And one more thing that Surowiecki doesn't mention but his colleague Elizabeth Kolbert makes clear: raping the planet is good for profits.  If the companies that our financial advisor has invested us in were to pay the full environmental cost of just the energy they use, then they--and we--would have far fewer dollars in our accounts.  But that is just what I would like to see.

I would like to see fewer new products and more days when the air is clear.  I would like to see lower profits and more social benefits.  We and the vast majority of other Americans would lead happier lives if corporate taxes went up instead of the stock market--and we used that tax money to pay for universal health care and a more generous retirement benefit for all.  No boom, no bubble, just lives of useful work and pleasurable leisure with friends, followed by an old age not hampered by concerns about my investments, your children's future, the fate of our earth.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wrestling with Rebels

Tomorrow, my student Abby K becomes bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose.  She will read from Parshat Korach and comment on it, and I can't wait to hear what she says.  It's a most puzzling portion!

This is the Torah portion where Korach leads a large group of Israelites in challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron to lead them.  "Are not all God's people holy?", they ask.

My students and I have wrestled with this parshah over the years.  It raises so many questions.  Here are several of my previous posts about Korach's rebellion:

  1. David Matthews (the son of a friend, who became bar mitzvah at Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville) painted Aaron as the model of nonviolence, an ancestor of Gandhi and Occupy.
  2. That made me wonder: didn't Korach have a point
  3. When is questioning authority legitimate and when not?
  4. How should authority respond?
  5. How do we build institutions that force us to do the right thing: to respond to dissenters and not silence them?
Do you have your own answers to any of these questions? Please share them.  Shabbat shalom! 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis (ed. Harris & Gorenflo)

This is really three books in one.  "Share or Die" is the theme of several essays in the book, and you will find inspirational stories about how people pool resources, from housing to knowledge, in order to live better than they would otherwise.  You'll also find how-to tips about educating yourself, choosing a roommate wisely, and starting worker co-ops and housing co-ops.  Implicit in these essays is a critique of consumption as a lifestyle and of capitalism as a system that demands consumption to survive.

Another set of essays focus more on the "Get Lost Generation," the Millennials or Generation Y, who came of age expecting that a college education would allow them to do it all, have it all, and change whatever discomforted them in the world they inherited.  Society fostered some of these expectations.  Others seem to have been mass delusions.  In any case, the Great Recession dashed a lot of hopes and made young people re-examine the value of a college education, a job, owning a home, marrying (since none of them have turned out as expected, at least since the Great Recession). 

If you are white and from a middle-class background and a member of this generation, you will probably find yourself or people you know portrayed in this book.  For a late Baby Boomer like me, it offers a chance to listen in to conversations and soliloquies I might not otherwise hear.  I do think a limitation of the book is that it doesn't solicit the voices of Black, Latino, and/or immigrant youth.  I have worked with people from those cohorts, and I think they would have a whole different set of concerns (and express shared concerns in a very different way).

The least developed set of essays in the book deal with the "age of crisis" we live in.  When I was in my twenties and attending graduate school, I provided personal care to an old leftist who had suffered a stroke.  One day, I told him that the undergraduates I taught didn't know about Vietnam or Watergate. "They have no sense of history!" I exclaimed.  "Neither do you," he retorted, and reeled off a series of important events from the first half of the twentieth century that I had barely heard of.

So, I am not in any position to blame the writers of this book for exaggerating the unique quality of the age they live in--but that is what they do.  There is no sense that protest began before Occupy Wall Street.  There are no references to the long history of cooperatives in this country, let alone Mondragon, in Spain.  And few of these writers consider that some of the wonderful experiments in collective living, collaborative consumption, and political activism they are engaged in might not survive when they need enough income to raise a child, or health insurance for themselves, or money and leisure to afford to take care of an aging parent.  (The essay "Get on the Lattice" by Ahlander and Kofman is a notable exception.)

We should all read this book--and share it with others.  Then, we should invite friends and strangers to a potluck dinner and discuss what it means to each of us.  That way, we can take up the challenge this book poses and carry it further.

The Spies at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs

This past Saturday, Jews around the world read Parshat Sh'lach, the section of the Torah in which Moses sends out spies to scout out the land of Canaan. 

It's notoriously difficult to turn human intelligence into policy.  There's always room for interpretation.  We find that in this Torah portion, where ten spies have one report and two another. Moses and Aaron react calmly to the reports, whereas the mass of the people of the Israel want to stone them to death for leading them into a trap!

What's bad for policy--diverse interpretations--is good for reading.  Since my dear niece Fay Stoloff's bat mitzvah five years ago, I have heard three entirely different readings of Parshat Sh'lach. 

  1. Rav Jeremy, the rabbi at Fay's temple in Willimantic, says that a can-do attitude can be more discouraging than an honest assessment of the problems we confront.
  2. Aaron O'Malley, a bar mitzvah at Temple B'nai Brith, admires his namesake Aaron the priest for speaking truth in the face of opposition.
  3. Anna Carton Smith, a bat mitzvah at Temple B'nai Brith, reminds us that our doubts about ourselves may not be how others actually see us.
All good lessons.  All useful to different people at different times.  I thank these three readers for "spying out" some of the meanings of the story, and I invite you to click on the links and spend a minute with each.