Heart of the Matter

Heart of the Matter photo 2

A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

Pre-Passover cleaning

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As we approach Passover, and prepare to read again from the Haggada, the "Telling" of the story of our people's transition from one situation to another, I return to my journals to remind myself where I was in my personal journey at points in the past. Here's a reflection from 10 years ago, during a Passover visit to a family member in New Mexico. I see now it's a mediation on cleaning house, and cleansing the spirit, before the holiday.

 April, 2004

 It's morning in Las Cruces, with the sun rising over the Organ mountains, and around me the essence of my relative's life: the home reflecting so much, even as the people who inhabit it sleep. The old cars and the antique cameras, the handmade woodcraft and the academic papers filled with mathematical theorems, the fading photos, the fraying around the edges of the whole construct and the fatiguing struggle to maintain it.

We build our lives around some essential outlook, which guides us as we spin our webs, create structures, and then at some point wither. There is a great need here to clean house, to clear away that which no longer serves a purpose, that is detritus, that is the crystallized echo of hopes and desires, aspirations and yearnings and ambitions, which no longer have momentum. The need is to take that stuff and simply discard it without ceremony, to note its passing but to fix the gaze not on how it all arrived, but on what might replace it. To be stuck, to be mired, to be a body beneath the accretion of sediment, to cling to it all with sentiment, believing in the kernel of unkempt truth that holds the key to the past, but may present an obstacle to the future--that is what we must overcome. 

A journey of (re)discovery

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What I learned on a recent visit to Israel, as recorded in my personal journal

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next week, God willing, I'll return to Israel for the first time in five years, or maybe four? I've been to that tiny country that looms so large many times—enough it seems to have the exact time of my last visit dissolve into the vapors that swirl in my head and form the mist of memory.

Being in Israel, inhaling its air, eating the fruits of the land, rubbing shoulders on buses and cafes with the salt of its earth, has left no indelible marks on my body. But my mind has been irrevocably touched. Romanticism roars forth from my soul when I think of the piney scent of Israel's forests, of the play of lemon and garlic on my taste buds after each swipe of humus on pita, and when I feel the hot-blooded kiss of Hebrew on my lips and ears. 

I'm in love, smitten by the sensual images of a faraway place. You have to come closer to see that grime and dust, and stark cruelty coexist with bougainvillea and loving hearts. Heaps of stone, rock piles of history, narratives slathered one on top of the other like palimpsests trapped within riddles of their own making, I prepare for all of this to drive me mad. Each step, each encounter, each brush with meaning will register on my spiritual tableau. It is with no clean slate that I will enter that hallowed place next week. Inscribed within are words of ancient songs and tapestries of dreams. Strike the chord of yearning and stumble into the glaring light of human frailty; somewhere on those craggy cliffs lies the foundation stone. Somewhere it waits to be found. Next week I'll search for it again.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Just back last evening, and the visit was all that I expected per the previous entry. A bit less breathless, a tad less exhilarating, a touch more exhausting. I am 60 not 40 or 50, and the difference shows itself to me. It's not simply physical stamina that's somewhat diminished, it's also psychic absorptivity. I can soak up only so much feeling without encountering walls that have lost a measure of their elasticity and permeability.

It was magical to reconnect with Israel on the dirt-in-the-street level. Again, the place enchanted me; again it exhausted me. And it also surprised me. The level of building and development, even in the past four years; the seemingly good security situation internally; the feeling of being in a stable and sane Western country, rather than on a tipping point of Middle Eastern madness. Maybe all the problems that seemed so central and so vexing have paled in the face of the turn of the wheel of time. Maybe Israel has normalized.

The visit provided a new benchmark against which to gauge changes over a long time span, from my first impression as an eight-year old boy, to the first year I spent in Israel as a 19-year old student, to living there as a 26-year old young professional, to my many visits throughout the past two decades. The Israel I knew as a young man has disappeared, has been paved over and blurred by prosperity and growth, and the concrete that accompanies all that. Distance from the founding traumas and triumphs places a mask of distance and distortion between the great and pivotal events and turning points, and the current situation. I see all this in personal and symbolic terms—and must accept that “my” Israel—the one that I discovered when I was young—no longer is there in the way that it was. The huge and world-class visitors' center at Masada, with its McDonald's, has robbed the spot of its remoteness and exoticism. There will be no going back. Big Macs served at Masada challenges my notion of what is unique and special about Israel and the Jews.

Of course, it's a good sign that Big Macs are there, but also a signpost pointing to things that have been lost, and no longer can be as easily defined or even considered definitive. Maybe, and for this I pray, normalcy has come, and come to stay.

A time to build

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Construction cranes sprout from the Tel Aviv skyline like new shoots in a fertile field. Crumbling old buildings, which give the city its disheveled charm, get a fresh coat of paint or plaster, or fall to the wrecking ball. For a visitor like me, who hasn't been here in awhile, the changes are stunning to behold. Development is both blessing and curse; rebirth spells hope, even as the demise of the old leaves a pang in the heart.

On the road to Jerusalem yesterday, the motif continued. The two lane road I recall long ago gave way to four lanes, and soon there will be six. The Romans, master builders in their time, would have been impressed.

I wonder how Iran's peevish leaders feel. The audacity of the Jews to build and to grow—a needle in the ayatollah's eye. Iran's Syrian proxy Bashar Al Assad, smashes the life out of his erstwhile citizens, while over the border in the Jewish state it's build, build, build.

Hardly reason for Mr. Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, to have a nuclear tantrum. And if you have to destroy something, how about those uranium enrichment centrifuges? Kiss economic sanctions goodbye; embrace the ingenuity of the Jewish state. Don't opt for mutually assured destruction, assured growth could be yours by doing business with Israel.

It's sad to ponder so many lost dreams and shattered lives in the Middle East. For so many of the people beyond Israel's borders it's hard to think of goodness prevailing. And for the Jewish people within Israel and outside, it's unimaginable to think of anything but good arising.

That was the message delivered today by Israel's President, the venerable and wise Shimon Peres. “Logic has a limit, but not courage,” he told the assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, meeting here in Jerusalem. “The greatest treasure in life is the human being,” he said.

And so the construction cranes dot the skyline, in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, and all over the Jewish state. Under them new apartment buildings arise.

Reflecting on the founding of the state, Peres said, “We answered the call of the time.”

Then as now, the call of the time must be to build, not to destroy. May others in this part of the world, where destruction spreads like an infection, come to see building, not killing, as the call of the time as well.

Listen to Aaron read the piece on our JUF News podcast page.

'A generation goes and a generation comes...'

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The generation of kids who fought World War II has been on my mind. Their herd is thinning. 

Funerals and shivas are coming fast now. I stand at attention and salute them, those kids raised in hardship in the Great Depression. Immigrant kids and kids of immigrants. Nothing guaranteed. No “entitlement” in the dictionary. No easy path.

Struggle, hardship, war, jitterbug, swing and the GI Bill. Out of all that they created the most prosperous and cohesive Jewish America ever.

Applaud them as they take their bow, applaud them.  Keep them on stage to bask in our cheers as long as possible. May they smile with pride. May their eyes twinkle in our praise.

“A generation goes and a generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). “The great conveyor belt,” my mother, of blessed memory, called it.

Soon I will be called to take the place of those who came before me, as my children step down the line to occupy the place I held when I started my career and family.

With each passing of a member of the greatest generation, I grow ever more conscious of time's bewildering expanse, as well as of its sleight of hand, and of its treachery. Such a small slice is ours to experience; such a vast realm is ours to contemplate. 

Erev Yom Kippur, at Kol Nidre, we learned of the death of Julia Fishelson, a “grande dame” (as her daughter-in-law called her) who figured prominently in my wife's family as a friend and even a role mode. Julia was a major philanthropist to liberal, women's and Jewish causes; to her hometown of Wooster, Ohio; and to the arts, especially in her beloved second home of New Orleans, where we were fortunate to spend time with her. 

“If she didn't have a great time, I don't know who the hell would,” her son Nick said in her eulogy. 

We were lucky to be in Wooster for Julia's funeral, and to attend it with my father-in-law, Albert, now 89. “I'm now the oldest member of this congregation,” he noted wryly at Ne'ila the previous day.

“Adonai gives, and Adonai takes away” (Job 1:21). How laden with meaning and portent it was to stand in the Jewish section of the cemetery with the elders of that small-town Jewish community; to contemplate the going and the coming, the giving and the taking; to consider my own movement on that great, unidirectional conveyor belt.

My parents and their peers were scrappy fighters and survivors, men and women who mastered their own destiny at great effort and sacrifice, who gave to my generation every privilege and opportunity, and who, thank God, in the main, have enjoyed unprecedented longevity.

Each one of them who passes takes a piece of my heart, and fills me with desire to pass on their tales. I will leave that for another time.


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Certain anniversaries have significance. I'm not sure 19 is one of them, at least in the sense of having a special moniker, like silver or gold, or numerological meaning, like we ascribe to numbers like 7, 18 and multiples thereof in Jewish tradition.

But 19 becomes significant to me this July 18, as the number of years I've worked at JUF.

If you're reading these words (I make no assumptions), there's a chance you've been reading words of mine for all the while I've been writing with a JUF pen. So many years, so many topics.

A number of themes have prevailed: the situation of Jews wherever they are; the story of Israel's triumphs and woes; tales of lifecycle events seen through the lens of my own family; musings about life writ large filtered through the precious mesh of Jewish concepts; and my own wistful musings about the condition of the specific human being I call "me".

Speaking of me I'm reminded of another significant number: 60, as in years. August 1st I will count 60 arrows in my quiver of years of life experience.

How does it feel? Fantastic. There's no other age I'd rather be right now. I'd better appreciate that sentiment for as long as it lasts, I imagine, because something tells me that sentiment might diminish as the years rack up (I should be so lucky).

When I think about how good it feels to be here now, I must acknowledge JUF for its part. I was 40 (though for just a few weeks) when I started working here, and had no clue how long my tenure would be. I still have no clue, though surely I'm on the fast downward trajectory.

If you've been reading me for awhile, I'd like to think it's because you think that what I have to say is interesting. At least from the input end of things, JUF has afforded me the opportunity to be have a supremely interesting work life, not in the proverbial Chinese sense of "interesting times," but in the profoundly Jewish sense that life has meaning and purpose, as well as complexity, and that we are commanded to choose it.

In other words, it's been, in the parlance of the 21st century, "all good."

What a blessing. Thank you God. Thank you everyone.

The beautiful lane and the slippery slope

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Rolling on my bicycle through bucolic Wisconsin countryside on a spectacular June day, all felt well, secure, and settled. The undulating lanes meandered past picture-perfect family farms; around gentle bends stands of leafy shade trees gave way to valley vistas. Drivers of occasional cars raised two fingers from the steering wheel in typical country-lane salute. Tidy white clouds dotted a blue sky that perfectly augmented the crisp green fields.

Then kablam, hiss, and I pulled to the side of the road with a flat front tire. No problem; I carry extra tubes. Quickly I saw that the tire itself had ripped open. Big problem. We were nine miles from the nearest bike shop. The plan was for my wife to ride there and back with a new tire, while I waited by the side of the road.

Sitting on a corner of a freshly mowed yard my thoughts turned to Syria, another place with beautiful country and family farms. Syria is a place of barbarity and slaughter; Southern Wisconsin decidedly is not. What tips the balance between slaughter and security, sanity and madness? How do we preserve the precious blessings we have and avoid, for generations to come, the horror that others endure?

Stranded by the side of that peaceful lane, gazing out on fields of prosperity, I at once felt thankful and alarmed. I was grateful only to have something as trivial as a busted bike tire chief among my immediate concerns, and haunted to imagine how the scene before me might appear were it the battleground of warring factions who cared not a whit for the toll of suffering they extracted from innocents.

In the middle of my muse a woman with her dog strolled over from a nearby farmhouse. "Everything OK?" she asked. "Need help?"

When I told her my wife had ridden off to the nearest town, she immediately offered to take me there. "Otherwise you'll be sitting here for hours!" she said.

In the car, we chatted about local life, and I asked her what she does for work. "I'm a deputy sheriff," she offered. I asked her about local crime.

"Thefts, scams, and drugs," she replied. "So many people have lost work, and they're increasingly desperate. We've had three heroin deaths recently, and we're going after the people who sold the drugs. Crime definitely is going up as people run out of money."

As she spoke, besides nature's emerald veneer I saw a sad narrative--of shuttered factories, closed shops, foreclosed farms, and broken dreams. Not to overstate the case, I saw the long slippery slope, which becomes a society's undoing if it slides down unchecked.

Of course, we are nowhere near such a catastrophe. As I spoke to my new deputy sheriff friend, we shook our heads and shared the concern that as a society we can ill afford any step that moves us in that direction.

"The only good news is that an uptick in crime brings me job security!" she quipped. As for me, I shared with her the deep satisfaction my colleagues and I derive serving an organization that helps people who are in hard straits.

I retrieved my new tire; she drove me back to my bike; my wife and I met up and continued our long and luscious ride. It was good to come back to work this morning, and continue the business of maintaining a safety net that, with everyone's help, can check the slide to despair.

Pursuing peace means opposing Islamophobia

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The biblical imperative "Bakesh shalom v'radfehu" (seek peace and pursue it) came to mind the other morning as I awoke to a local news story that nauseated me.

The story concerns a blatantly Islamophobic birthday card produced by Noble Works and sold locally. It features a hijab-wearing Muslim doll along with several incendiary phrases, overtly linking anyone who wears the traditional female Muslim head covering to terrorism. (Traditionally observant Muslim and Jewish women share the custom of covering their hair.) 

There's no dearth of stories that enrage, nauseate, terrify, disgust, or make me just want to stay in bed; this one struck close to home because, unlike the slaughter in Syria or many other world problems, you and I can do something about this.

We can be mindful of what we see on the shelves of stores selling greeting cards that cross the line of civility, and other public displays of bigotry. We must make our voices heard respectfully whenever we feel that something we see endangers the core values of our society.

This card, by directly linking traditional Muslim dress to terrorism, is totally objectionable in an open, diverse and pluralistic society. People of good conscience should oppose it for the same reasons they should oppose cartoons riddled with anti-Semitic imagery, such as appear all too often in newspapers around the world (and especially in the Middle East).

Is the card protected under First Amendment rights? Yes. Can a stationery story sell such a card legally? Yes.

But is it good for us as Americans--be we Jews, Muslims, or Christians; of African, Asian, or Latin descent; straight or gay--to acquiesce to dangerous stereotypes of "the other," whoever he or she may be, bandied about as though hateful words and images have no consequences? NO!

I am in regular discourse with Muslim Americans of faith, who share the same values as I do when it comes to the kind of society in which we both wish not only to live, but to live and let live. Proud Americans of all faiths must be vigilant if we are to preserve a society ruled by law, where people are judged, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "not by the color of their skin [or whether or not they wear a kippah or for that matter, a hijab] but by the content of their character."

The anti-Muslim card is a gratuitous, opportunistic, and disgusting display of fear mongering. For Jews it offends our ethical values and insults our collective memory. We know, better than many, how slippery the slope can be from hate speech to violence.

The purveyors of hateful message targeting a specific group may have the right to peddle their brand of pornography in public. Those who recognize it for what it is have the responsibility to raise our voices in protest. That is the best way I know to seek peace and pursue it.