Friday, January 28, 2011

Special day remains spiritual gift for some

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let’s explore a spiritual gift that we often ignore.

Shabbat is a restful, peaceful day, a spiritual time offered up as a gift. The yin and yang of it all is detailed in the Torah and you might recall that observing this special day is one of the Ten Commandments.

Once upon a time the faithful paid close attention to the Sabbath – doing no work, attending religious services of some sort, spending time with family and friends. There was much that was good about this and, unfortunately, some bad. Across the Land of Cotton a series of draconian measures – collectively they were known as Blue Laws – detailed what could and, mostly, couldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

On the Lord’s Day, there was to be no work – or, ah, play. So most businesses, movie houses, theaters, restaurants and, of course, bars and cafes were shuttered. The problem is the Lord’s Day was Sunday and all Jews and some Christians were just about certain that the real Sabbath fell on Saturday!

There was also that little problem of Church and State – they were meant to be separate, here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Our legislators eventually got that part right and most Blues Laws were repealed years ago. In fact, about the only such laws remaining on the books have to do with the selling of booze on Sunday – bizarre, but still part of the fabric of life in the Land of Cotton.

I offer up this little history lesson only as preamble, detailing what was once the norm, but now apparently is cause to toss out the baby with the bathwater. Today, Shabbat is just another day. No matter one’s religion, Saturday and Sunday are days like all the rest, a time to work, play, shop and, if we find the time, rest!

There are those among us, however, who pay special attention to the Sabbath – if Jewish, they are said to be Shomer Shabbas, Guardians of the Sabbath. From Friday night until three stars appear in the evening sky a day later, they do little work, hunkering down in their homes and communities to mostly pray and study; eat, nap and spend time with family and friends.

In fact, they sort of do on Shabbat what most of us in the Land of Cotton found ourselves doing for several days earlier this month. If you recall, we had a little winter storm – snow, ice, sleet and freezing rain – that lingered across the region for a week. Many of us found ourselves stranded in our homes, unable to make it out of our neighborhoods.

That first day was fun and unique, not unlike Shabbat. It was a special day when mom, dad and the kids were forced to figure out creative ways to spend some quality time together. A feature story by a friend of mine still working for that place with the printing press, reported that all this togetherness was a good thing.

Families found that they could actually do stuff together – share a meal, build a snowman, sit together in the den and, um, talk. I imagine a few folks even prayed. The details were different, but the ambiance was pure Shabbat.

Even when it’s forced, it’s nice to know that ancient rituals are often about truth and the human condition. Our ancestors knew that it was important that we take a moment each week to break away from the mundane and explore the mysterious, spend time with one another and renew connections.

Wintry weather offers such opportunities. So, too, Shabbat!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I've eaten my way into a sugary corner

Turns out little bits of all those donuts, cakes and cookies I’ve been noshing on for years have started swimming around in my bloodstream. My doctor isn’t amused.

So to keep him happy and me kicking about for a bit longer, I’ve started paying attention to the labels on the food packaging at my local grocery store, especially the details on all those things I love so much – bread, muffins, cereal, pasta; you know, the good stuff!

My neighbor, a lot more serious about finding healthy food choices, mentioned to the lovely Miss Wendy recently that she’s come across a brand of bread that is tasty, healthy and, ah, cosmically touched. The cosmic part made sense once I learned the name of the product – Ezekiel 4:9.

I picked up a loaf the last time Wendy and I stopped by Trader Joe’s. Its name rests just under the company’s logo and name, Food for Life, and just above a dove nibbling on an olive branch. The packaging also makes it clear that the product is organic, low glycemic, flourless and all natural with no preservatives.

So Ezekiel 4:9 is all about healthy eating and, ah, scripture. The point is hammered home when actual scripture becomes a selling point on the package. "Take also unto thee wheat and barley and beans and lentils and millet and spelt and put them in one vessel and make bread of it …" Ezekiel 4:9 … Complete protein; no fat! That last part isn’t in the Bible.

If you still want more info, all you need do is flip the package around and all that stuff about “live grain” is offered up in more detail under the heading: "The Miracle of the Sprouts." In case anyone has yet to get the message, the dove with the olive branch is also back for an encore. And let us say, Amen!

Now, apparently preaching to the choir, here’s what you’ll read about the “miracle” of this product: “This unique bread is made from freshly sprouted live grains and contains absolutely no flour. We believe in sprouting the grains we use in our breads because sprouting is the best way to release all of the vital nutrients stored in whole grains.”

I have no idea what any of that means. I do know that a slice of the bread has 80 calories, absolutely no saturated fats or trans fats, no sugar and only 15 grams of carbs. The stuff also has a glycemic index of only 36 – that’s a really good thing – and, if you care about such things, the makers of Ezekiel 4:9 report “This Biblical Bread is Truly the Staff of Life.” Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, Ezekiel 4:9 tastes like roofing shingles. There’s a grainy feel and texture to it and a slight nutty aftertaste. After trying a slice – well, actually a bite or two – I found bits of all those sprouting grains resting uneasily against my gums and between my teeth. Yech! I’ll let maggots at the local trash dump finish off the rest of my biblical bread.

Spiritually speaking, this much I know is true. If there really is a heaven, I’m pretty certain only fallen angels will be eating Ezekiel 4:9. The rest of us will be feasting on Dunkin’ Donuts!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Columbus: Fading memory was once my home

Blogger's note: I came across this column recently while going through my files. For those of you growing up in my little corner of the world, I hope it brings back happy memories.

Somewhat like the fictional bar "Cheers", Columbus in the 1950s and '60s was a place where just about everyone knew your name — and what you were up to and often what you were thinking. Small town life — especially along the clay-stained streets of central Georgia — could be very special and, sometimes, challenging and difficult.

At its best, Columbus was a safe, comfortable, caring community. It was the sort of place Hollywood screenwriters try to capture in coming-of-age movies and old folks picture in their minds when they grow melancholy and start their conversations with the bitter-sweet phrase, "I remember when ..."

Columbus was mostly about the good life, a "Beaver Cleaverish" little city — at least on the surface — where the Jewish community was an integral part of the fabric of society. In the '50s and early '60s there were no malls or mega-stores or outlet factories. Downtown was a cluster of aging shops on a dozen or so streets hugging the Chattahoochee River. And going downtown was an exciting adventure. On weekends and holidays the streets were bustling with shoppers and soldiers (Ft. Benning was just to the south), working their way around cars and buses and the occasional trolley car left over from the '40s.

My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Novelty Shop on Broadway, owned and operated by the Kravtin family. Next door were a cluster of businesses — Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and "Tots and Teens" — all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.

Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop, and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store. Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (perhaps the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.

The city eventually muscled its way eastward, down Wynnton road where shopping strips and malls would later sprout, along with tract houses and subdivisions that offered all the modern conveniences that would come to define the American dream as the country grew and matured. It was here that the Jewish community took root, centered around Shearith Israel Synagogue (Conservative) on Wynnton Road and Temple Israel (Reform) about a mile or so to the North on Wildwood Avenue near Lake Bottom and Columbus High School.

The war and Holocaust and anti-semitism were fading memories but the Jewish community remained closed and insular. We went to school and worked with the rest of the community, but we prayed and partied only with one another. Assimilation was not yet a blip on our cultural radar screen.

So we kept bumping into the same people. We all belonged to either the synagogue or temple (some of us belonged to both); prayed mostly at Friday night services (except during football season when we prayed at Memorial Stadium on Victory Drive) and almost always ended the evening with a "sock hop" at the home of the current AZA Sweetheart — Debbie Lapides, Anita Satlof, Pat Robbins and Nancy Rainbow in the mid-60s.

We danced and swam at the Standard Club (until it was torn down to make way for an apartment complex) or the Harmony Club; belonged to both USY and BBYO; attended the AZA Sweetheart Dance and USY Building Spiritual Bridges Dance each year and traveled to Macon and Augusta, Birmingham and Montgomery for youth conventions where we met other Jewish kids doing pretty much the same sorts of things in their cities that we were doing back in Columbus.

We water skied on the backwaters of the Chattahoochee; saw movies at the Georgia or Bradley Theaters downtown; hung out at Pizza On Call in Dinglewood and each fall attended the Chattahoochee Valley Exposition — the county fair. We graduated high school, went away to college and, many of us, never looked back.

For me, Columbus today is a place that speaks of a different, somewhat gentler time. It remains only in my mind and imagination and magically in black and white photos, filled with the aging ghosts of family and friends. This is the place of my childhood, and although it has been over 40 years since I lived on Briarwood Avenue in a tiny three-bedroom home with my parents and three brothers, Columbus remains my home. In a strange sort of way, it always will be.

FADING MEMORY: Broadway, in downtown Columbus, was a happening place (photo above) in the '50s and '60s, especially on the weekends and soldiers' pay day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sometimes all it take is one courageous person

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let's travel to Eastern Europe and recall the heroic deeds of a man who stood againsts the Nazis and single-handedly saved thousands of Jews from slaughter.

Budapest is a lovely city, filled with surprises. Turn a corner and you stumble onto the Danube, flowing leisurely beneath the Chain Bridge, one of the most impressive suspension bridges in the world. A moment later you catch site of the spires of Hungary's magnificent parliament building, a massive structure and notable landmark.

There are intimate pedestrian walkways and expansive, tree-lined boulevards, surrounded by shops and offices, apartments and mansions. And all of this is pulled together smartly, a sophisticated, eclectic blend of architectural styles — Classical, Romanesque, Gothic — that look and feel, well, European.

You're feeling oh-so worldly about now, toying with the idea of stepping into a nearby cafe for a cup of coffee. And then you see something odd, a huge monument (photo above) attached to the side of a building. A slight chill fills the air as you manage to make out the name written across its top — Raoul Wallenberg.

For people of a certain generation the name is familiar. For younger folks it means little. And that's a shame. Wallenberg was a genuine hero, his life the stuff of legend.

His name surfaced again earlier this year in news stories, this time focusing on the death of his mother and stepfather in the late 1970s. Apparently the couple committed suicide after years of worry about the fate of their son. Such articles are published every so often because Wallenberg’s story is always worth re-visiting.

It began quietly enough, a life of luxury in Sweden, school in the U.S., followed by odd jobs in South Africa and Palestine. In 1936, Wallenberg returned to Sweden and, with the help of family, found work in Stockholm with an export-import company owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.

As the world moved toward war, Hungary aligned itself with Germany and Italy. In the late ’30s and early ’40s, the country enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws that set limits on the jobs Jews could hold, schools they could attend, where they could live and who they could marry.

It was clear that Lauer was no longer welcome in his homeland. Wallenberg, meanwhile, had become a trusted friend and confidante of his boss and was willing and able to help. He began handling the company's business in Hungary, often traveling to Budapest. Within a year he had become a joint owner of the firm and its international director.

In the spring of 1944, Jews across the country were rounded up and forced into ghettos. Only weeks later the first transports to Nazi death camps began. Even as Soviet troops neared the Hungarian border and freedom loomed precariously on the horizon, the trains continued to roll. By mid-summer, over half the Jews in Hungary — about 500,000 men, women and children — had been deported.

After years of indifference, world leaders were being pressured to deal with the slaughter of Jews across Eastern Europe. A rescue plan, encouraged and supported by both the U.S. President and British Prime Minister, was set in motion and Wallenberg was selected to lead the effort. He was a logical choice. He had spent time in Budapest, spoke the language and had contact with some of the country's top business and political leaders. Lauer would help him make contact with the Jewish community.

Wallenberg returned to Budapest in a semi-official role, attached to the Swedish Legation. His mission? Through bluster and wit, rescue as many Jews as possible. The stage was set.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1944, with the aid of a small army of Jewish agents, Wallenberg located and purchased "safe houses" in the city where Jews could evade capture. He created and issued "protective passports" for thousands of refugees and provided food and medicine to those in need.

When his documents were ignored and diplomacy failed, he used bribes and threats. When necessary, he followed transports and argued for the release of Jews he claimed were protected by his government. In one notable episode, Wallenberg hopped atop a train in Budapest, distributed dozens of passports, then demanded the release of refugees holding the bogus documents.

In January of 1945, with the Russians on the outskirts of Budapest, the Nazis decided to liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the city. Wallenberg confronted the SS officer in charge and threatened to have him hanged as a war criminal once the war ended if the order was carried out. The officer backed down and tens of thousands of Jews in the city survived the war.

The number of people Wallenberg saved in the final months of the war is staggering. Some historians credit him with rescuing over 100,000 Hungarians. His story, unfortunately, ends abruptly.

After Budapest was liberated in 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops — and disappeared. Soviet authorities reported several years later that he died in the late 1940s. But reports continued for decades that he was alive and still being held by the communists.

Wallenberg's heroic deeds and the mystery surrounding his arrest and imprisonment fueled books, movies and news stories for years. But over time, as the Cold War played out and the world moved on, the name of Raoul Wallenberg has become for many a hazy historical footnote.

That’s not to say he’s been forgotten.

These days you'll find Wallenberg remembered by international organizations and in textbooks, memorialized at Holocaust museums and parks. But there's a special connection between the man and Budapest, the city where he brought the gift of life to so many. So it only seems natural that there are schools and roads, plaques and monuments, expansive parks and intimate gardens here that honor his name and memory.

The monument in the heart of the city, next to the boulevard that bears his name, shows Wallenberg in hat and overcoat, holding a list in one hand while halting some phantom figure with his other. It’s here that he established many of the safe houses where Jews found refuge over 60 years ago. The houses are now shops and offices, but Wallenberg’s memory still lingers, a reminder that in difficult time’s one person can still make a difference.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and me

On that first day of the New Year when all about many folks are coming up with special new ways to change their lives, I decided that perhaps this year I’d work on my Bucket List – hey, I’m not getting any younger. I’m still figuring out those wondrous things I hope to do, see and accomplish before all goes dark, but the one word that has come to mind as I go about this task is “unique.”

Without much effort, I stumbled into a “unique” opportunity while visiting the Big Apple with Miss Wendy earlier this month. It was a quick trip and our only plans were to eat at as many delis as possible and see as many Broadway shows as our budget would allow.

We ate our way through a couple of iconic Broadway spots – Carnegie, Stage – and a lesser known little brother, Ben’s, hidden around 38th and Broadway. We feasted on the expected – hot corned beef and pastrami, matzo ball soup and mushroom-barley; a little chopped liver, some kugel and a bit of cheese cake the size of my carry-on bag. The delis were nice; but, well, not particularly unique.

We spent three nights in the city and managed to work in three shows – “Mamma Mia!”, “The Lion King” and “A Little Night Music”. The picks were a mix of spontaneity, availability and budgeting. Ultimately, I think, they proved to be a euphonic blend of music, theater, Broadway kitsch – and one incredible moment.

Just in case you’ve been hibernating for a decade or so, “Mamma Mia!” is a high-energy musical focusing on young love, old dreams and the music of Abba! The theater was packed with European tourists and foreigners from New Jersey, clapping and cheering to such songs as "Dancing Queen"; "Honey, Honey"; "Knowing Me, Knowing You"; "S.O.S.", "Take A chance On Me" and "The Name Of The Game".

The theater lights, sets and costumes – white latex jump suits and sparkles, all mixed together with a touch of Kiss – offered up a festive vibe that made for an exceptionally entertaining evening. But was it unique? Well, not really.

I certainly was familiar with “The Lion King” story – saw the film years ago. But I was pleasantly surprised by the creative use of puppetry and costumes and the hypnotic blend of dance and music; sort of an afro-centric opera and ballet. But it was very Disneyesque – I’m thinking A Small World on steroids – and I had trouble investing much emotional energy in the production.

It’s been playing at the Minskoff Theater for years – one of the largest venues on Broadway – and on this night several thousand European tourists and, ah, foreigners from New Jersey packed the place. It was fun and entertaining; a nice way to spend the evening. But was it bucket-listing unique? No, not really.

While walking through Times Square, just an hour after arriving in Gotham, the always lovely Miss Wendy and I happened to pass the Walter Kerr Theatre and I noticed that “A Little Night Music” was playing. We stepped inside and asked about tickets. Turns out the show was closing in three nights and only a few seats remained. The not so good news is that we’d be sitting in the last row of the balcony. The really good news is that the seats were affordable.

Did I mention the show was starring Bernadette Peters – yes, that Bernadette Peters – and the venerable Elaine Stritch. I knew nothing of the actual story, but the music and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim. It seemed cosmic forces were pulling together to create a bucket-list moment and all Wendy and I needed to do was stumble into the theater on our last night in Manhattan.

Our seats were a bit odd, sort of like sitting atop stools, peering down into a shadowy abyss. But the production was divine and nothing at all what I expected. It Turns out “A Little Night Music” is a little romantic comedy, a bit of a farce filled with twists and turns about love, loss and the absurdity of life.

Desirée – that would be the Peters’ character – performs the show’s signature number, “Send In the Clowns,” with “an emotional transparency and musical delicacy that turns this celebrated song into an occasion of transporting artistry.”

Those are the words of Charles Isherwood, the New York Times reviewer, who also wrote last August, when Ms. Peters took over the role from Catherine Zeta-Jones, that he had never “experienced with such palpable force … the sense of being present at an indelible moment in the history of musical theater”.

Five months later, Ms. Peters was still managing to raise goosebumps when she took center stage. The theater seemed to go black for a moment and totally quiet as two slight chords hinted at the song to come – Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? A single light focused on Desirée and Ms. Peters took full advantage of the moment and delivered yet again a memorable performance. Mr. Isherwood’s words remained true for our performance also.

"The halting phrases of the song suggest the overwhelming emotion Desirée is just keeping in check. Ms. Peters invests each brittle line with a full measure of feeling without losing the arc of the music or any of the delicate irony in the lyrics."

Looking about for a moment, I noticed everyone bending toward the stage, attempting to catch every word, inflection, bit of sound, light and magic hanging in the room. I knew that this instant was special, bucket-list unique.

The moment now is a memory, something Wendy and I will always have and share. Ms. Peters offered us – and thousands of others over the last several months – a poignant look at one side of the human condition. Guess I can check “Memorable Night on Broadway” off the list.

Bernadette Peters (photo above) sings “Send In the Clowns” during a recent performance of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical “A Little Night Music.” Credit: The New York Times

Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking a cab and hoping for the best

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were bouncing about in the back of a cab recently, minutes away from LaGuardia airport, headed toward Manhattan. At least that was the plan. It was cold and the ground was still covered with the remnants of a blizzard that had left the region paralyzed for days.

Our driver seemed a cipher – pale and quiet; a little frazzled, but focused; neither pleasant nor rude. I could see his name on his hack license, prominently displayed on that plastic thingy separating us from him. It was long, foreign sounding and oddly devoid of vowels.

We were zipping along surface streets and I expected at any moment we’d find ourselves on the Grand Central Parkway, swinging to the north before making our way via the Robert F. Kennedy Toll Road into Manhattan, just south of Harlem around 125th Street.

But after only a few moments, I realized we seemed headed away from the parkway and Manhattan, touring sections of Queens that seemed a million miles from our destination. We rode through residential areas filled with row houses, passed schools and parks, then slowly threaded our way through thoroughfares clogged with motorists going nowhere.

Our driver seemed to be circling at times, working his way block by endless block away from our destination; accelerating up one street, quickly hanging a left, then bizarrely backtracking along yet another maze of aging buildings and seedy shops. Wendy and I shared worried glances, hoping our cabbie knew the region like the back of his hand and was working his way along a cosmic shortcut toward the emerald city, just the other side of the Hudson.

More realistically, we feared we were simply being taken for a ride – a really long and expensive ride. In the past, given the unpredictability of traffic in the New York City area, the trip from LaGuardia to our Midtown hotel generally took around a half hour and cost $40 or so. We were already nearing $25 and it seemed we were much closer to Coney Island then Times Square.

I was just about ready to break the silence in the cab when, magically, traffic began to move, one last row of industrial buildings fell away and hope hung heavily on the horizon. Off in the distance I caught sight of the Queensboro Bridge and I happily realized that our driver was, in fact, a cabbie extraordinaire.

We said goodbye to Queens and zipped into Manhattan at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street, a good 60 blocks closer to our Midtown hotel then if we’d taken the more traditional route. A short 10 minutes later, after weaving through cross-town traffic and zig-zagging our way around the south end of Central Park, passed the Plaza Hotel and Carnegie Hall, we pulled to a stop at the Park Central Hotel on 7th Avenue.

The cost? Even including a generous tip, I handed over less than $40 – trust me, a bargain. And the moral of this little tale? Stuff happens, and sometimes it’s good!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Coughing my way to a new world's record

Just checked out the Guinness Book of World Records and learned that a Swede, Gunter Höötin Töötin Svenson, once held the record for the most mucous hacked up in a week. Gunter, affectionately known as Big Snöt by his, ah, friends and neighbors in the little village of Sjölunden, managed to wheeze up 1.2 metric tons of phlegm after a weekend outing on the frigid fjord of Frierfjorden.

Notice that I report Gunter “once held” this slippery distinction. No longer. While most of you were nesting comfortably at home across the Land of Cotton for the last week, enjoying nature’s icy gift and keeping your tootsies warm by a crackling fire in your dens, I was relentlessly stalking Gunter and his claim to fame.

After the lovely Miss Wendy and I returned from the Big Apple last Sunday – just hours before the region was grasped in the icy claws of Mother Nature – I noticed that I seemed to have a little, um, cold. The only thought that springs to mind as I recall those first tentative sniffles is the memorable aphorism, “Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”. Now, replace Oaks with flu and acorns with, um, sputum, and you might start to get an idea of how I spent the last six days.

Even though I was fading quickly, the missus and I managed to make our way to Trader Joe’s, where we bumped into friends and neighbors preparing for the apocalypse, even managing to maneuver our way around one of our favorite rabbis, walking away with one of the last half-gallons of milk in the market.

As she said goodbye and offered up a good-natured wish that my little cold vanish quickly, karma was already slipping its mojo about me. By the time we made it home, the sky had turned an ominous slate-gray and a wintry mix began falling across the region. Meanwhile, my sniffles had given way to creeks of viscous liquid.

For those interested, phlegm is in essence a water-based gel consisting of glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids and other substances. I know because I looked it up on Wikipedia. I’ve also spent the last week spewing it from my nose and mouth, coughing up gallons of the stuff.

BTW, for those really interested, the color of phlegm can vary from transparent to pale or dark yellow and green, from light to dark brown, and even to dark grey depending on the constituents. Excuse me just a sec … AHHHHHCHOOOOO! Oh, it can be a light bluish color also. Who knew?

But I digress. The guy from Guinness just left and after a little dumpster diving and working through tons of tissues, he’s figured I’ve hacked up at least 1.3 metric tons of snot, easily knocking Gunter from his sputum perch.

Thank heavens I let the rabbi with the curls walk away with a loaf of bread. There are much worse parts of the body that can expel watery-based gel-like stuff! Meanwhile, I’m happy to report I seem to be well on the road to recovery. So, too, the Land of Cotton, that is daily shedding its glistening coat of ice and frigid temps. Hopefully, we'll all be back to our normal routines come Monday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book shines light on ancient belief system

Well, it's not Friday, but it is time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let's keep it simple and explore the mystical and ancient beliefs of Kabbalah. IJS&F will return to its regularly scheduled slot next week ... maybe!

Even though the study of Kabbalah has become popular – even trendy – in recent years, most people have no clue about this ancient belief system.

Rabbi Yehuda Berg understands this point and has written a book that tosses aside much of the esoteric wordplay generated by kabbalists and scholars over the years and focuses instead on how its teachings can change a person's life.

"The Power of Kabbalah" doesn't ignore the cosmic – after all, the book's original subtitle is "This book contains the secrets of the universe and the meaning of our lives" – but it's clearly aimed at the masses. Why else include an endorsement from Madonna (yes, that Madonna) on the cover, above the title?

And Berg, an Orthodox Jew who is associated with an educational outreach program, the Kabbalah Centre, that offers classes in at least 50 locations worldwide, makes it clear that a person doesn't have to be Jewish or particularly religious to benefit from the wisdom of kabbalah.

"I just read that 35 percent of Americans are on anti-depressants," Berg said during a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles. "All people are looking for something to make them feel better, something that brings meaning into their lives. Kabbalah offers a way for everyone to find such meaning."

"The Power of Kabbalah" is easy to understand and includes just enough of the mystical mumbo jumbo found in ancient texts to give readers a taste of the complex nature of Kabbalah. But discussions of weighty, often indecipherable topics – bread of shame, light and darkness, the 1 percent and 99 percent worlds – are focused and clear.

"Wisdom doesn't have to be complex, humdrum and heavy," Berg writes in his book's introduction. "In Kabbalah, after all, wisdom is called the light."

Perhaps. But the light of Kabbalah has remained in darkness for thousands of years, studied by only a handful of mystics who were often viewed as wackos, hidden from the masses who often believed the secrets of Kabbalah could actually drive them insane.

"That was thousands of years ago," Berg says. "Study was secretive and difficult, emotionally exhausting. But today, the world has changed and studying Kabbalah is elevating." So, what are some of the secrets that Berg uncovers and explores in his book?

> There's the theological: God is a constant, the light that has always been.

> The psychological: All of humanity is driven by desire. We are our own worst enemies.

> The scientific: Ancient kabbalists held that reality exists in 10 dimensions and that six of those dimensions are compacted into one. Scientists today call that idea the superstring theory.

> The mystical: Time is an illusion, the distance between cause and effect.

> The paradoxical: The final outcome of any life process will be the exact opposite of the first impression – what appears easy will be hard, what seems hard will be easy.

All of this, ultimately, seems to make sense and – icing on the cake – is interesting and fun to read. "No hocus-pocus here," says Madonna in her endorsement. "Nothing to do with religious dogma, the ideas in this book are earth-shattering and yet so simple."

Overstated? Sure. But Berg's book does manage to lift a heavy veil of darkness from the mystical world of Kabbalah and, for those willing to spend some time with it, a special light does seem to shine from its pages.

Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit: Life, death, time and snakes

While the rest of the world was out getting drunk and celebrating New Year’s Eve, the lovely Miss Wendy and I were hidden away in a dark room, holding hands and playing out one of our annual traditions.

Yep, that’s right; we were at our neighborhood multiplex, enjoying a movie. We spent the evening with 50 or so strangers and a couple of strange brothers by the name of Coen who have made a few classic flicks in recent years – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men.

This time around they decided to remake a classic, True Grit. It’s fun, entertaining and filled with violence and nastiness – hangings, shootings, knifings and such. The original, starring John Wayne and directed by Henry Hathaway, was also violent and, well, gritty around the edges.

The Coen brothers have smoothed out some of the rough edges and added a few iconic touches – weird characters, situations and dialogue, all nicely filmed against expansive vistas and beautiful landscapes. There’s also much to ponder about good, bad and the role of grace.

Both in the novel and the film, Mattie, the young girl seeking revenge for her father’s murder, offers up a universe that is tightly controlled by divine forces when she details her worldview in two simple sentences. “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.”

Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities with a resume much too long to detail, explores the theological implications of Mattie’s words and world for the New York Times. I offer this link for those of you who’d like to go deeper into what I mean when I say Mattie ends up paying a very high price for her focused and relentless pursuit of revenge.

The full impact of her choices smacked me in the face when we met up with Mattie at the end of the Coen brothers’ little morality play. The precocious young girl has grown old, a spinster darkly dressed in a world with little light.

“Time just gets away from us,” she says as the music swells and the credits roll. My guess is the median age of the New Year’s Eve revelers at the multiplex was something like 84. So Mattie’s words hung coldly in the darkened theater – and around my heart.

Of course Mattie is right. Time does have a way of getting away from us. Oh, did I mention there was a pit with snakes in it? Unfortunately, like the time thing, that part is also true.

ROOSTER AND MATTIE: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld (photo above) star in Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Discover your passion and have a great year!

The old gives way to the new today, and once again we have been handed a clean slate, another year to embrace, enjoy and conquer. It's amazing how we manage to invest so much meaning in the passing of a moment, believing that some sort of cosmic force will draw a curtain around last year's missed opportunities, misdeeds and failures, allowing us a second chance to capture our hopes and dreams.

And yet, there it is – a splendid, sparkling gateway that beckons and fills us with hope. It's been that way for eons, no different today than when earliest man raised himself on his haunches to watch the rising of the sun each morning, and feel the warmth of its rays on his back.

This year a young boy will shout with glee as he and his friends play at life. He will dash after sunbeams, supported by the love and care of family and friends.

This year a teenage girl will become a young woman, filled with compassion for the world and a healthy belief and understanding that by reaching out to others she fills a wondrous need in herself.

This year a man and a woman will spot one another across a crowded room and the static of life will become calm and momentarily filled with music. They will embrace and whisper their love, and the burden of life will become a bit lighter.

This year people will finally manage to find their dreams and reach their goals: books will be written, fortunes earned, friends found and weight lost.

For all these boys and girls, men and women, this will be a year of joy and miracles. But, sadly, for many others, the New Year will be filled with pain, misery and loss. That this is the way of life makes it no less troublesome for those in agony.

Sometimes life becomes too much, a dark and lonely place. There are no answers. Hope no longer lingers on the horizon and troubled souls feel tossed about by the capricious winds of fate. But off in the distance there is light; perhaps dim, just a blip against a cloudy sky.

Poets and philosophers offer up this thought, echoing the constant truths found in the world's great religions. Life's secret is a conundrum that has to do with time and intent, the willingness to be calm and explore the soul – and the realization that belief can overcome doubt, faith can vanquish despair, and that life was meant to be lived with passion.