Friday, October 2, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Conclusion of Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh

To the question I posed at the end of the last post, I have no answer at all except to say that, in my mind at least, I was and remain precisely the sort of person, the sort of human being, the sort of Jew, which places like Beth Tfiloh and Krieger Schechter should have prized. There was at least a time when I was smart and generous and truly coveted nothing more than the respect of my elders. I have always been better read and informed than just about any peer of mine, and even in my ugliest periods, I always valued Jewish tradition to the point that my life would be unthinkable without it. In any of hundreds of ways, my presence would have been of enormous use to them. If any one of the thousands of people I encountered in those years had found a way to accommodate me, the investment would have paid off in ways they and I could never fathom.

But it did not and will never happen, because in a manner that was sealed long before I ever knew of it, the only use a person like me ever had to this community is to demonstrate its severe limitations. I am the cautionary tale, the kid who flew too close to the sun, who had every gift and flushed it down the toilet. My presence in this community, the very act of knowing me and my story, is like a balance sheet that shows every limitation of a community so fat on self-congratulation that it can barely admit that it has limitations. My existence shows that this community is built on lies, lies more serious than any I ever yet told.

To walk around Beth Tfiloh, to walk around Pikesville, to walk directly to Pikesville's south, is to walk around the recent history of this country. I do not have statistics to back up what will no doubt seem like inflammatory assertions, but I hope that one day these statistics, wherever they lay, will be common knowledge to Jews who care about the ethics of what Jews do.

I don't know how to frame my part in all this except to say that places like Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno failed me for the precise reason that kids like me were clearly of no use to build the lumbering edifices they wanted. Their Makhers (movers and shakers) wanted a Las Vegas style Judaism with huge congregations, so they set about creating educational programs designed not to get students to think critically, but to become contributing members to Jewish congregations. They barely cared about the humanities, and as for the arts, forget it. All that mattered was hard achievement and being a Jew - math, science, and religion. Everything else was a joke. There was lots of bullshit proclamations about Jewish values - and I'm here to tell you that not a single kid believed a single word of what they preached. Nevertheless, we just might have believed it if we saw that the adults practiced what they preached, decency might not have seemed like so much bullshit to us. If you show children by example that all that matters is achievement and not the bonds of family and friends and values, you shouldn't be surprised when your children leave you to achieve bigger things. Meanwhile, a kid like me who was born with three right sides of the brain but no left brain was screwed from the beginning. And now, I'm one of the only kids I know who remained in Baltimore.

I trust that the idea that the notion that Schechter and Beth Tfiloh didn't care about values would come as an overwhelming shock to some. But if you want evidence, just look around you. These schools, and no doubt many goyisher Baltimore schools so much like them, set about creating citizens of Baltimore that can fit the upstanding model of someone who gives back and perpetuates itself. But because they never aimed higher than self-perpetuation, they wrecked Baltimore's future. Baltimore is now a gutted-out city, and most of these schools' recent graduates have long since moved to Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other metropoles where their chances for prosperity are much better than they ever could be in Baltimore. Meanwhile, kids like me, who never got what we needed, are virtually the only young religious but non-Orthodox Jews still here - yet Pikesville continues its delicate dance upon the volcano, and pretends as though the easy money will continue forever.

Beth Tfiloh was built to be the exact center of Baltimore Judaism - physically, emotionally, ideologically, financially... Rabbi Wohlberg preached fire and brimstone, but was always careful to never take a stand too far to any side, and never stood on any principle that might be considered controversial to the mainstream of Baltimore Jews. To be a Jewish leader is to continually invite criticism and censure on yourself, but for nearly forty years, he has played the most delicate of dances. Dr Kaplan took every conceivable stand and alientated everyone in his path, but his conflicts created a dynamic, always shifting local religion. Rabbi Wohlberg took no stand. Kaplan, for all his difficulty, was difficult because he valued principle above all. But Wohlberg did not value principle as much as he did money or his ego, indeed, he probably sees all three concepts as one and the same. Consequently, the Jewish community of Baltimore may be living on borrowed time. In a hundred years, will it be anything more than a once again persecuted community of ultra-orthodox Jews?

To walk around Beth Tfiloh is to see the wonders of money. Beth Tfiloh, like Pikesville only moreso, is a place built on consensus, backroom deals, and lots and lots of money. Nearly every room in Beth Tfiloh has the name of a donor emblazoned upon it, every wall of the main building has a plaque commemorating dozens of donors. It is a monument to the wonders of modern fundraising and how a few smart hustlers can build an enormous organization as a kind of confidence game: put a charismatic leader at the center, an infallibly competent administrator to run the show, and suck up to every Jew in Baltimore who ever grew fat on easy money, and you can create the center of your community too. The doctors and scientists who did something valuable for society all went to Chizuk Amuno, but the leeches who profited from Baltimore's impoverishment all went to Beth Tfiloh. To look at a roster of their membership list is akin to looking at half the Sunpaper's roster of real estate developers who have developed Baltimore into its current mess.

I'm not so stupid as to name names or talk about the deals. They are deals that to at least a small extent, I profit from. I'm an "idiot son" who risks biting the hand that feeds me by saying even this much. I will not name names or say what the deals were, though you can read about so many of them in the Baltimore Sun. I should also add that, to my knowledge, no laws have ever been broken by any of these people. I'm sure they sleep soundly in their beds secure in the knowledge that they are law abiding citizens, and I'm sure many of them think that their vulture capitalism does a world of good for society. But like so much of finance in America, it is a scandal that what is legal is legal. Future generations will look back on us in shame.

Pikesville never worked less than hard for its money, but this community, like so many other white communities, didn't work hard enough to justify its remuneration. We grew rich at the expense of the working class, both black and white - and yes, there are even some Jews among that working class. Jews have contributed far too much to society worldwide for me to entertain the idea that I'm propagating Jewish stereotypes by saying all this. Would that the rest of the world paid as much attention to finance as we do - yes there are a disproportionate amount of Jews in finance, but wouldn't it then be the fault of other ethnic groups for not valuing security and practicality as much as we do?

Nevertheless, to walk around Pikesville is to see that easy money on display. None of the recent American Jewish stereotypes have more than a hint of truth to them - and if anything, such stereotypes are less true today than they've been since the mid-20th century thanks to assimilation on the one hand and the resurgence of ultra-orthodoxy on the other. But so many of those stereotypes hold absolutely true in Pikesville that it's as though we're asking for anti-semites to have proof of their allegations. Pikesville is a zoo of McMansion, Mercedes, and Malachite. Thankfully, the younger generation of women are largely at work. But so many of their mothers are bejeweled and 'fake'n bake' ladies of a certain age with manicured nails and the tackiest possible designer clothes who walk the luxury stores of Baltimore like lions stalking gazelles. They are an embarrassment to the Jewish community who advertise that we have nothing better to do with our families' wealth than to spend it on useless crap. Many of them sit on charity committees, to which they contribute just enough money to be hailed for their generosity and not a penny more, the change they claim to want to see is never effected, because praise for charity is more important than solving the problem which more money could endow.

Cross Northern Parkway from the greater Pikesville area to Pimlico and Lower Park Heights and you immediately enter the opposite world. Sixty years ago, Lower Park Heights was the Jewish lower-middle-class area. The neighborhood, like so many Jewish neighborhoods, was a testament to hard working people whom life never gave their proper due, but pushed onward with values of thrift, responsibility, family, community, and investment in the future. It is now a third-world slum, and has been so for as long as I've been alive. So many Jews worked so hard to get their children into the upper-middle-class, and once they succeeded, those children became rich by abetting in the grand conspiracy to shut the door so nobody after them could make it to a similar position. Poor people are zoned out of their communities, and the very presence of the poor in rich commercial areas is policed out of existence. Relatively wealthy people like me and whomever is reading this can walk around our areas of Baltimore with security that we will not be molested. Meanwhile, the murder and education rates in poor areas would not be out of place in a metropolis 800 years ago. Search for the owners who propagate many of Baltimore's ritziest gated communities and commercial developments, the lawyers who find the justifications to keep them that way, the middlemen who orchestrate the deals, and you'll find that many of them - hardly all but far too many - live in the 21208-09-10-117 zipcodes. Like an African banana republic, money is exchanged by a small community of rich people around Baltimore and never makes its way down to the people whose suffering can be alleviated by just a sliver of it.

But the lie that lets this happen is the ruse of liberalism that surrounds this. Marxists and socialists usually call this process 'neoliberalism.' I'm no Marxist, no socialist, or even a progressive, I am a liberal who idolizes all the liberals which most Jews still claim they idolize: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy - meanwhile doing their part dismantle everything they stood for. I don't want to destroy capitalism, I want to save it. I do not subscribe to the idea of neoliberalism or Late Capitalism, and find those views a bit scary, but to belong to Beth Tfiloh is to be an eyewitness to the best possible evidence for their views. I have a front-row seat to how the kosher sausage is made, and there are moments when I wonder if these trendy neo-Marxists who bite the hand that feeds them have a better point that I ever give them credit for. What they neglect to realize is that places like Pikesville are not capitalist in the slightest, the process that makes Pikesville is Marxian socialism for the rich, in which the rich gradually overthrow the poor's ability to make any money at all, and endanger all the prosperity which 20th century American capitalism made possible.

It is this ruse that allows a place like Beth Tfiloh, a place like Pikesville, to claim itself as standing for the best American values, meanwhile doing their part to dismantle the values they claim to cherish: claiming to value the developments in America of sixty years ago, while practicing the values of a hundred-twenty years ago; a ruse that allows us all to sit through sermons where a Rabbi bloviates week after week about politics in a manner that continually skirts the line between taking a moral stand and illegal clergical pronouncements, and gets away with it because he's a business player just like anyone else in the community; a ruse that lets the Rabbi and his congregants stand for values of a more decent American past, meanwhile being the generation who turned those values to rubble; a ruse that lets them pretend that the reason their pews are emptied of the next generation is that kids like us failed them. Meanwhile, there are so many examples of how they failed the next generation.

 Children who grow up surrounded by dishonesty can't help but parrot what they learn. Just as the inner Baltimore has to take some responsibility for yielding to temptations that circumstances conspired to make more tempting, so do we on the wealthier side of that divide. Within my community of origin is a deep-seated lie that venerates a certain kind of achievement that has nothing to do with moral character. Indeed, many of the worst bullies at both Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh schools were the golden children of the schools that got Straight A's and eventually went to Ivy League Schools. These schools and synagogues can claim to speak for Jewish concepts like Derekh Eretz and Menschlekhkeit and Mishpat and Tzedakah and Khesed and Rakhamim, but what substantiates their claims? Is it the businessmen that don't pay their workers a living wage? Is it the idle Ladies who Lunch that spend their money on empty luxury? Is it the straight A students who bully other kids unmercifully? Is it the real estate developers whose dealings perpetuate and worsen the black ghettoes of Baltimore? Is it the doctors and scientists of Baltimore who valued achievement more than community and allowed their promising children move away to chase achievement at the expense of family and community cohesion without a word of protest? Is it the Rabbis who built massive edifices not to comfort the afflicted but as monuments to their egos? Or is it the hundreds of shady backroom deals that allows for all this politicking to be legal, and for its practitioners to operate under a ruse of ethics?

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 5

When I came to Beth Tfiloh, I was in the throes of a new terrible problem. When I first enrolled there, I realized that if life was ever to be different I had to be a completely different person. As so many millions of High School kids have done over the years, I did my best to affect a completely altered persona from the one I truly was. Nobody could know I listened to Beethoven and Verdi in my spare time, nobody could know that I was a social nothing at Krieger Schechter, nobody could know that I by and large spent the last few years in a state of inner horror.

I was already turning into something of a pathological liar before BT, and it would be a habit I took to stratospheric levels once I got to Hyde. The anxiety of telling the whole truth in so many of my life situations was too great. But if there was any theme that defined those two years at Beth Tfiloh, it was deceit - deceit for something resembling a decent reason, but deceit nonetheless, and deceit that might have made my adolescent dreck sandwich a hundred times worse.

It was a high school class of roughly 40 kids, can you believe that a school could ever thrive so so few students? Most years, BT gets an influx of Schechter kids, but there were only two new kids from Schechter in my year, and we had to fit in with a class as established into a pecking order as anything at our old school. There was another kid from my Schechter years, the autistic kid whom I was friends with when I was little. His parents, thankfully, pulled him out of Schechter a year before so that he would not be subjected to the horrific bullying which others were. The other Schechter kid who came over to BT when I did, the Russian kid from last post who was shamefully bullied, became my one close friend at Beth Tfiloh - not that I've spoken to him in twenty years, but he was a truly brilliant kid, and had life been fairer to kids like us, I don't doubt he and I would have been very firm friends for many years both before and after. 

Surprisingly to me, considering how good a performer I am, I was terrible at it. In the long run, nobody can possibly keep so many lies up, and I doubt too many people bought too many of my lies for more than a few minutes at a time. Unless the pathological liar is a psychopath who's an expert of manipulation, the lies are usually so easy to spot that there is no way of talking yourself out of the lie without a humiliating confession of what you've done. But so desperate was I for something resembling a social life and romantic life that I thought the best way to get it was to affect having a completely fulfilling social and romantic life outside of Beth Tfiloh to BT kids, and affect having a completely fulfilling social and romantic life inside of Beth Tfiloh to Schechter grads. Both were done in the hope that the other kids would think enough of my social moxy to bring me into their own social lives and not write me off as the social loser I no doubt was. Such is the logic of a socially dumb adolescent. In my first year at BT, I was valued as the class clown, but I was not valued enough to have any place to go on weekends. I doubt kids at Beth Tfiloh did much on weekends anyway, but it would still have been helpful to know that you had real friends. Ultimately, I doubt anybody believed anything I said for long, but what could I do? Admit to the lies? That was the most terrifying prospect of all.

By the second year, even the clowning was not enough keep me from getting bullied. The bullying was not as serious as at Schechter thank God, perhaps nowhere near as serious, but I was already so fragile from everything that there was no keeping me together. And even had my social life gotten better, there was still my academic life, and the terrors that awaited me as always from certain teachers who either didn't or refused to understand. I'd sold down the river whatever integrity a severely depressed adolescent was capable of having, and it didn't save me from the shit bill of goods I'd have gotten anyway. Some days I was so depressed that I simply begged my parents not to make me go to school. There was resistance of course, once or twice they even got me to go when I'd at first refused, but were they really going to say no? Who knows what trouble I might have gotten into had I gone to school in such a state? Sometimes I would ditch whole weeks of school because I simply couldn't face the idea of walking into another buzzsaw. Even when I went to school, I was sometimes too terrified to go to class, and would ditch the places I was supposed to be for hours at a time, hiding in bathrooms or unoccupied classrooms - often in the throes of a hyperventilating panic attack.

The last straw was one Sunday night in the early spring, when I finally sat down to do homework, no doubt after being nagged by Dad all weekend about when I was going to start doing it. When I began, I found the same thing happened that sometimes caused me more stress than anything else - I'd forgotten to bring a book home. So often over the years, I was yelled at and made fun of by friends, teachers, parents of friends, even family members, for having lost things that everybody else can keep track of with no problem at all. It's a habit that even now seems impossible to break, and even at 33 it only occurs to me that I've done or haven't done certain things days after it's too late to do anything about it. Even Schmuck and Kol Rinah were subject to and often undone by this problem's vicissitudes; and it's probably the reason, or at least the most prominent reason, that my last relationship came undone so poisonously. Many people tell me that there are preventative steps to keep track of such things, I inevitably tell them the truth: I've tried those things, but Mother Nature always finds a way. They rarely if ever believe me or accept the answer, what can I do?...

Anyway, my father drove me back to Beth Tfiloh, and I went to my locker. I opened it to find that the entirety of my locker was smeared with green paint. Everything in it was slathered in it, and I'd be walking around the school for the rest of the year with some ugly prank of an unnamed piece of shit tattooed to every school book I had. The Bible that was in my locker that year still sits on my shelf with the reminder that it really happened. What followed was the worst panic attack I'd ever had in my life to that date. I thought I could never show my face in this place ever again. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, I later discovered that my father thought I had dumped the paint in myself.

It was clear that I could not stay at Beth Tfiloh any longer. I'm not totally sure I was present at half my classes for the last two months of that year. But, being the psychotically angry megalomaniac I was, I was not going to leave without some kind of vengeance.

The night before my last day at Beth Tfiloh, I walked from my parents house to Beth Tfiloh and back. In the mailboxes of every person in my grade, I deposited a note that listed precisely what I thought of them in no uncertain terms. As shocking as some of the things I said in that letter was, I would not have felt so ashamed of what I did if I had actually said what I thought instead of using it as an opportunity to settle scores. To the girl who would make fun of me while I was in earshot because I was clearly attracted to her, I wrote "I never wanted to fuck you, and I can't imagine why anybody would because you resemble a D-Cupped African Warthog." To one of the class bullies, frankly one of the lesser ones, I told him that he was going to get raped in prison, but probably said that because I was jealous that he supplanted me as the class clown. Worst of all perhaps, to the shy perhaps autistic kid who was once my friend - when it came time to say what I thought of him, I simply wrote ___________________________________. When my Mother saw that, it truly broke her heart.  To the end, even in this letter, I pretended as though I had some kind of amazing social and sex life outside of BT. How pathetic can lies get?

I came to school the next day, ostensibly to take a Hebrew exam, but I didn't need to take a Hebrew exam when I was going to a secular school the next year. I suppose the real reason was to simply watch my high school burn down to the ground like Regina George in Mean Girls. I should have, of course, stayed home. Instead, my mother had to pick me up, because when the teachers saw that I had the temerity to show up, I was immediately suspended on my last day of school.  My mother was notified to pick me up, and she refused to speak to me in the car. When we got home, she simply sat in the car, motionless and saying nothing for what felt like ten minutes thereafter. What was there to say?

I don't want to exonerate myself for any of this. It was a shitty thing to do by a shitty kid who had done many shitty things over the years - some still worse than that. Hopefully, this shitty kid has turned into a slightly less shitty adult. But no matter how shitty or unshitty a person I am, I do think I have a right to ask: How did a community so ostensibly committed to excellence, to generosity and integrity, to Jewish values, allow one of their own slip through the cracks so entirely? Even after I'd long since fallen from grace, people regularly told me that I was some kind of 'brilliant,' a compliment that was usually followed by "How did you screw up so badly?" or "Why can't you just pick your life up?" Even if I wasn't or am not particularly brilliant, I was a smart kid who wanted to do well by people, and I certainly did not start out my life wanting to hurt or even exploit anyone.

It is rather narcissistic and infantile to talk at all about childhood pain - let alone devote a series of blogposts to them. But nevertheless, I feel the need to ask this: There was a time in my childhood, truly there was, when I wished best for everyone - as a small child at least, I was rather saintly. To the best of my recollection, I did none harm, I said none harm, I thought none harm. But that saintliness was thoroughly broken. When I first arrived at Schechter, it was genuinely a shock to me that people could ever be mean to each other. As I got older, perhaps I deluded myself into thinking that I was simply retaliating in self-defense, but that was nevertheless how I justified it to myself. How could the little angel I once was become so definitively a devil?

...this was a very painful post to write.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh - Part 4

I don't seem to remember anything like this happening when I was at Beth Tfiloh High School, but one of the most indicative stories I'd ever heard was from my mother, who was told by teachers to come to an award ceremony at Beth Tfiloh because Ethan was getting an award. When she arrived, she waited more than two hours, because in the meantime, every other student got an award as well.

This was Beth Tfiloh's ethos. They didn't give everybody awards because they cared about people's self-esteem (after all, any Jew with any self-respect is self-loathing), they gave everybody awards because they wanted the awards on students' transcripts. The more puffed up their transcripts seemed, the easier it would be to get the kid into a good school.

To the end of time, Beth Tfiloh's lower and middle school will still be known as the definition of mediocre. But on the high school level, they appear to the wider Jewish community to get it absolutely right. It was precisely the sort of great high school on paper that Krieger Schechter was. Neither place was ever designed to give students a decent education (though, honestly, what school is?...), it was designed as a training school so that straight and narrow kids could get the education they need to become a doctor or lawyer, send their children to the same school, and give enough money to get a classroom named after them. 

On the high school level, and I suspect this is true for Jewish High Schools throughout the country, if you were a Jewish Day School kid who excelled in math or science, you were treated practically like an illui (a Talmudic prodigy). If you excelled in literature or history, you were looked at a bit suspect, as though something in the programming had gone wrong, but you were still feted as an academic star. If you excelled in sports, the adults would kneel down in thanks and praise to Hashem that at least one Jew out there was born with hand-eye coordination, and even if you were a bit dense in the classroom, they would make allowances for you to make sure you got what you needed for a bright future. But if you excelled in art, or music, or theater, or dance... what the hell were you doing at a Jewish Day School?

After all these years, there is one thing which I'm positive would have saved me and given me a completely different youth. A Jewish Day School which took the arts seriously, but you can search far and wide and you'll never ever find it. A few years after I left, Beth Tfiloh got itself an amazingly plush school theater. I sometimes wonder if Zippy Schor, the smartest person in any room, didn't read the Ballad of Evan Tucker and decide that the next time some smarkatiner yingle dangerous enough to be 'artistic' comes through Beth Tfiloh's doors, we'll be ready for him so he doesn't completely wreck the Beth Tfiloh show again. I know that BT graduated at least one actor from Ethan's class who seems to be doing very well in New York. Progress is progress, and they're to be congratulated for it, but it came much too late to do anything for me. 

Schechter's arts came much too late for me too. Somehow, I've gone more than four years on this blog and never truly told the story of West Side Story. It wasn't much of a story: I was fourteen years old, nearly psychotic by then, and impossible to teach, let alone manage in a stage show... Schechter's new sensation was to take Broadway Musicals and mount a Hebrew version. The year before me they'd done Fiddler on the Roof, the year before they'd done Oliver. One of the Hebrew teachers was an extremely talented and struggling actress, and whether the struggle made her volatile or whether her volatility made her career a struggle, nobody will know, but either way she was an extremely talented artist of the theater, and due to the inevitable unfairness of life, stuck teaching Hebrew and Spanish at Krieger Schechter when she should have been playing Hedda Gabbler at the Public Theater in New York. 

Insofar as anybody gave it any thought, it was generally assumed I'd get the male lead. We all talked about it quite a bit, because it was a month of our lives in which we didn't have to go to class. But ultimately, the only person to whom it really mattered was me, because it was my final shot to show the people I'd grown up with that I was not a complete screwup and could do something that I was not a complete washout. But there lay the Catch-22 - if you're the level of screwup which I seemed to be at that point in my life, you'd never be entrusted with such a level of responsibility. I'd routinely sit in class silently, having never completed the homework assignments, while the class went on its merry way discussing whatever our extremely bejeweled and spray-tanned teachers decided we should be learning that day. How was I ever going to be entrusted with memorizing a script? Perhaps more pertinently, how was a kid known for screaming at the top of his lungs and throwing heavy objects across the room going to be entrusted to work extensively with the most volatile teacher at Krieger Schechter?

There were no words for how devastated I was when I realized that I was not only not going to be Tony, not only not going to be Riff or Bernardo, but Doc - the adult who's not even onstage when most of the other cast is doing everything. It was as though every fear about how life was punishing me endlessly was finally confirmed, and the final chance my childhood would get for a happy ending was snapped shut. But, in retrospect, even if I'm still mad at having to spend so long in place so horribly suited for people like me, I have to admire the artfulness of our director/teacher's eventual solution. Of course, prematurely aged, depressed kid who's faced more demons than any fourteen year old ever should should be the one to play Doc, because who's going to believe that he's just another teenager? Granted, the douchebag who got Tony (at least he was a d-bag when he was 14... I've barely seen him since) could barely carry a tune, and I could. But she not only made me Doc, but Glad Hand (the guy who supervises the Dance at the Gym), and at the end of the show, it was I, not Maria, who led the cast in Somewhere. I still can't forget the deafening applause I got at the end, which felt at least somewhat vindicating against so many things which had gone wrong before. It was the best ending to that which I could have hoped for in the circumstances. But sadly, there was nothing better coming up in the near future either. 

Except for my violin teacher, her husband, and a very few people I met at Summer Camp, there was not a single non-Jew whom I knew in any meaningful way until I was in boarding school. Jewish people were my whole childhood, Judaism in its various shapes and sizes my whole life. 

I was a little kid with an overwhelming interest in music and the arts. I knew, all too well, how ridiculous I must have seemed to other kids. But I also knew that so many Jews had done exactly what I wanted to do without much problem. I memorized their names and tried to learn as much about them as I ever could. People like Leonard Bernstein and Mel Brooks were heroes to me who showed that if poor Jewish kids from families just off the boat could make it, then how much easier should it then be for spoiled suburb kids like us? We were right to dream of trading our extremely affluent shuls for extremely affluent concert halls. But even not counting the fact that I'm from Baltimore, the city where all hope comes to naught, there were a few small details which I only realized when I was older and not in a position to do anything about it. 

1. Assimilation, perhaps even assimilation that begins in childhood, is the ante you have to pay to even consider going into the arts in America. While their achievements were celebrated by Jews, virtually all these great musicians and artists and writers and directors had families who'd moved into mixed neighborhoods and gave their children a chance to indulge in everything American without feeling as though you've turned your back on anything - many of them didn't even grow up with any Jewish observance at all. 
2. Nobody has more reason to assimilate faster from a provincial environment than someone with talent in the arts. Within the very definition of provincialism is an intolerance for anyone so louche and cosmopolitan as an 'artist.'
3. Assimilation was an incredible brain drain on the Jewish community. Creative types had no reason to stay within the Ten Commandments' nine dots. The only people left were left-brain Type-A's who not only had no understanding of creative people, but saw within the creative types all the choices made by the family members who rejected everything for which they stood and sacrificed.
4. If you're not from an artistic family, you'd better damn well be a hundred times better organized and better with people than I ever was so you can navigate the ropes yourself because you're not going to get proper guidance from anybody in a position to make your path easier.

I suppose it's worth pausing a moment to make a definition for anybody who's confused as to what 'assimilation is' in this peculiarly Jewish context. To anyone who didn't grow up in a segregatedly Jewish environment all this talk about assimilation runs the danger of seeming like jargon. Assimilation in the Jewish context is not unlike the general context of immigrants around America. But it has a special ring among Jews because of its additional religious connotation.

When you're Jewish, it's generally to be assumed that your family history involves a great deal of upward mobility. In higher demographics, assimilation means that you can culturally hold onto your Jewish label without needing to rely on your religious worship as a source of strength, purpose, and social life because you have the leisure, comfort, and means to derive such strength from less demanding places. Judaism becomes a social club membership to be tossed aside and reclaimed at will. If it's inconvenient to hold onto the Jewish label as often when you fall in love with a non-Jewish person, it can be tossed aside forever if you like, and your children will grow up with very little contact within the Jewish world.

This is the entropy which all committed Jews fear like death itself, because for their Jewish identities, it might as well be death. My family, conservative as they can sometimes be on foreign policy and economic matters, is unassailably liberal on most social issues. But when it came to the social issue of intermarriage, they turn into fascists. Were I or some other young family member to marry a non-Jew, I sometimes honestly wonder if the my family's older members would turn their backs on us. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur: Beth Tfiloh Part 3

My brothers and I have often observed the odd fact that the Tucker family is one of the only families in Pikesville who exist in a parallel Jewish universe. In our family, being descended from Holocaust survivors on one side, and conservative Yiddish revivalists on the other, the clock has turned back two generations. Everybody in Pikesville we've ever met is either more Jewish than secular, or more secular than Jewish. It often seems as though the Tucker residence of 1505 Woodholme Avenue is the only place in America where people can be Jewish and American in as precisely balanced a way as they were in 1954.

The families of most American Jews were here by 1922, but the Tuckers only came to America in 1947 as part of a miniscule band of Yiddish greenhorns who didn't know anything about America and were among the few survivors the most apocalyptic tragedy in the Earth's recorded history. Everything that was true for previous Jewish immigrants was compounded exponentially for them. If previous Jewish immigrants had memories of traumatic days when Pogroms killed a few friends, then they had memories of traumatic years in which Nazis and Communists liquidated their families and anyone they ever knew. Unlike the Jewish immigrants of a generation or two before, was no large community of European-born Jews from which to draw solidarity. There were only a couple hundred traumatized Yiddish-speaking families who could never understand what it meant to be American and erase the crippling anxiety that what happened there could happen here at the drop of a hat.

Previous generations of Jews had long since come upon the choice which every Jew eventually makes: Assimilation or Segregation? Be American or Be Jewish? In the Tucker family, we've tried to capture that abandoned goal that eluded everybody else: the third option - not assimilation, not segregation, but association: Be completely of the secular world, but be a Jew within it. There is no God, and He gave us the Torah and Mount Sinai. Hold Judaism and Americanism in complete equilibrium.

It's obviously a losing battle, and there are no words in the English language to describe the sheer delicacy of the dance that requires of a Holocaust family: how do you appease traumatized parents who insist on talking to you multiple times a day and knowing your every action lest they think the unthinkable has happened again? How do you negotiate an American world of privilege that knows nothing about the fortitude it takes to survive the obliteration of your entire culture? How do you explain to those who chose assimilation that when the next Hitler comes, he'll come for you too? How do you explain to those who chose segregation that when the next Stalin comes, their ostentatious pride will make our persecution all the easier?

But what other option was open? We were a family with flashes of brilliance and instability in roughly equal measure, who had no guidance for how to negotiate the transition from Jew to American with any kind of soft landing. Assimilation was a huge brain drain on Jews - today's Jews are clearly not as intelligent as they were fifty years ago. The most gifted Jews saw how much better their lives would be if they fully gave themselves over to American life, and the alleged choice between Judaism and America was no choice at all. Most of the ones left over were the mediocrities, the smart but not too smart people who could make a good living and provide for their children, but most of the extraordinary have long since left the Jewish gene pool for a greener, more shiksadik gene pool.

Had Jack Tucker been born in 1916 rather than 1946 and grown up in New York or Chicago rather than Baltimore, he could have been anything at all: a businessman of great repute and renown, a player in Broadway or Hollywood, an intellectual at the Partisan Review or Commentary, an eminent doctor or scientist with an academic post. All that would have been required of him was to become more American than Jewish.

But the tide that carried Jews to the peak of American achievement had already started to ebb in his generation and has only continued to ebb ever since; and even at its strongest undertow, the tide rarely if ever reached Baltimore. For Jews as anyone else, Baltimore was the town of the underdog. In New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, you could go about your life with flash and panache, but even in its best years, that was never Baltimore's way. Our way has always been to keep buggering on in spite of it all - quietly see to our responsibilities knowing that greatest rewards are always to be found in more prosperous places than here.

The only true option left to Dad was to pick up where American Jews of the previous generation left off. His younger brother, born in Baltimore rather than Bialystok, was smart but not quite brilliant like him. But he was also a more balanced, happier type of person, who always radiated well-being. He located the slightly more modest storehouse prizes that my father never quite did by becoming one of Baltimore's best private practice doctors and putting an emphasis on American rather than the Jew.

But the storehouse prizes which should have been Dad's were things he would never quite find. He got a PhD at the University of Chicago at a time when the professors included Saul Bellow, Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Bruno Bettleheim, but Dad looked those gifthorses in the mouth and decided they were almost complete bullshit. He was there for the '68 Chicago riots and could have fallen in with the residue of the UChicago crowd that was still there from the era of Bernie Sanders, but all he saw was Hippie Conformity. He went to study in Romania in 1969, right at the ascension of Caucescu and right after the Prague Spring - a period when only the greatest students in America could get into Eastern Europe. While there, he never met Bill Clinton, but he associated with a number of people from the same circles Bill Clinton associated with during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford - but he thought they were all unbearable social climbers. He often dreamed of going out with a good college friend to Hollywood and trying to become a screenwriter or producer, but the dream was never to be.

When you grow up in a Holocaust family, you are in a family whose situation is so unique that you cannot possibly give yourself over to any crowd, and clique, any party. When you see the party going on, all you can see is the conformity, all the loss of critical faculty, all the surrender of will, that leads to fascism. When everything can become a potential weakness in dark times, you become the worst possible critic of your own situation.

Given the circumstances, he emerged with the best option available: Put slightly more emphasis on the Jew than the American. Teach your children Hebrew and Yiddish, marry into a neoconservative Likudnik (Herutnik?) family, provide for the family as Zaydie did - just enough money for untrammellable security, and leave it to another generation to hopefully claim the prizes that were never yours.

By all evidence, he had won the genetic lottery and birthed a still more brilliant son than he. But whom could they possibly entrust with the onerous responsibility of educating this obnoxiously precocious little shit?

My parents were extremely unimpressed with Beth Tfiloh Community School. During my years at Schechter, they often told me the story of why they picked Schechter over Beth Tfiloh, where my family had been members since the mid-60's. When they saw Beth Tfiloh, the kids seemed like ignoramii. The elementary school kids could not answer the most basic questions about Judaism, but at Schechter, the kids were speaking full sentences in Hebrew. It was quickly decided that Schechter, allegedly the school for the overachieving Jewish kids, was the place for me. Perhaps they told me this story with a bit of regret, but that regret would be quickly dispelled a few years later when i ended up at Beth Tfiloh.

Orwell was right, nobody can look back on their childhood and say that it was completely unhappy - but even so, mine should never have been as close to that as it was. I came into Schechter with the interviewer telling my parents that I might be the most gifted kid they ever came across, I graduated nine years later with the principal making a big deal to the entire crowd about how my journey through Schechter was such a struggle. Which is exactly what every fourteen year old wants to hear said about him in front of an audience of hundreds. 

Schechter was not a great school, but it took great pains to act like one. The hallways of the school were inevitably lined with the dioramas and creative projects of its students - many of which were clearly so beyond an eight-year-old's capability that they were clearly done by the parents. Schechter loved such displays, because they could sell prospective parents on the idea that to be accepted at Krieger Schechter would be like conferring a benediction of your child being a prodigy. 

Schechter would delight in assigning projects that clearly could never have been done by any student - there were many examples of this, but I'll simply pick the most notorious that every Schechter student of my era remembers all too well: the War Report, which every seventh grade student viewed as just a piece of hazing that they had to get through. Every student had to pick a twentieth century American war and answer eighteen questions about it: What were its causes? Who were its principal actors? How could it have been avoided? What was the Jewish involvement in the war? etc. etc. etc. - any one of which could have been done as a Doctoral Thesis.

I, of course, never finished the War Report. I barely remember starting it... The point of these projects was never to teach Schechter students anything - a quarter-century later I still doubt many teachers at Schechter could have taught their way out of a paper box. The point was to build the school's formidable reputation up to the larger community. Perhaps, I suppose they reasoned, one day their reputation would be good enough that they could attract the donors and faculty they needed to truly create the great school Schechter pretended to be. 

In two subjects, Schechter was truly as good as its claims - Math and Hebrew. These were the two important subjects at Schechter - Schechter had the correct priority in this way: What would distinguish them from Beth Tfiloh was the quality of its Hebrew learning, what distinguished them from every other school was the quality of its math and science achievements. No matter what background they hail from, a community that prizes achievement will always drive its children to achieve in math and science before any other subject - because these are the subjects in which achievement can be truly quantified. For Math and Hebrew, they didn't just hire the Jappy wives of doctors who needed something to fill their days, they procured people with real knowledge of the subjects - they tried to do the same in Science, but they almost inevitably fell short, and my years at Schechter had a revolving door of eccentric science teachers that made Hogwarts' problem with constantly changing Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers extremely familiar. 

As a 'precocious' five-year-old autodidact whom it became quite clear was nearly impossible to teach as the years went on, I began Schechter knowing nearly as much about Math or Hebrew as I did when I left. The truth is, I was an autodidact from the earliest age, and after nine years there, I learned very little at all. I don't quite know why I stayed, because it's not like Schechter caused me much but social misery either. Some of the kids at Schechter were not unintelligent, and I'm still somewhat friendly with some of them, but I've long since ceased to be good friends with any of them except my best friend from those years, who moved away when we were only 11. Even so, these kids were a lot like me in one crucial way: almost all of us were spoiled upper-middle-class twits who had no real feeling for how much other people had to sacrifice to give us our comforts. 

Their parents were relatively smart people in white collar jobs who found parroting the facts they read fairly easy, so their children in turn found such assignments just as easy. Schechter students were so uniform in their background that in childhood, many of them had almost indistinguishable personalities from one another. In such a uniform place, the natural urge of kids to draw blood from a kid who draws outside the nine dots becomes that much more pronounced.

I was only beaten up a very few times thank God, and to my astonishment (and shame) there were a number of kids who got picked on even worse than I. One kid, the son of Soviet immigrants, had it so bad that for a while it became a daily recess activity for every boy in my grade to dogpile on him - there weren't more than ten of us, but that was still more than a thousand pounds of weight.. I would flatter myself and say that I was nicer and smarter by waiting until the top of the dogpile, and then as a joke I'd briefly jump on and then get off after two seconds. But who was I kidding?... If memory serves, he later told me that the activity only ended by his hiding out on his own in the woods adjacent to the playgrounds.

In retrospect, another boy in my grade clearly had some form of Autism, and the kids in the grade gave him true hell. As small children, we were close friends, but as it became clear how dangerous it was to be around him, I dropped him like a hot potato. The girls were scarcely better to one another, one friend of mine broke down in tears because the other girls in the grade started calling her a slut without even knowing what the word meant. But I don't think I kid myself in saying that among the guys it was particularly worse in our grade, because the lead bully was the nephew of the Middle School principal. I have no way of knowing for sure, but in retrospect, I think it's entirely likely that that kid came from a physically abusive household. And even if the rest of them did not, I do wonder if some of the behavior which every kid and parent noticed in their families might have constituted a consistent diet of verbal abuse in one case, or perhaps abuse through neglect in the case of another. But what it ultimately meant is that the ringleader, at least in the minds of his peers, could go to town on all of us with near-absolute impunity, and we had to follow along or else risk worse things.

Years later, when we were all in college, I got to know that bully again - he still had a horrible temper, but even so he was clearly a reformed character by that point, and we became friends of a type. In a weird way, we got on very well, and in retrospect I think it was because we both felt that life had passed us by while blessing so many of our peers. All the peers we kept in touch with were overachievers thriving at Ivy League or equivalent schools with seemingly unlimited futures. Meanwhile, he was a stoner hippy at a State School, and I was an underachiever who had to start college a year late because I was held back at a disciplinary boarding school. 

Nevertheless, as those years went on at Schechter, I found the situation more and more unbearable, and my mental health was clearly deteriorating. My best friend had to move away, the girl I'd had a crush on since being a little boy (and from what I can recall, a mutual crush) was similarly miserable to me and transferred out before serious damage was done to her. The kids left over by the last few years were people to whom I might as well have spoken in piglatin for all the good it did me to be friends with them. Some were even nice to me - sometimes at least..., and counted me their good friends, but much good it was to do me or I them... In my last two years at Schechter, it was a Wonder of the Age that I was not hospitalized. 

The security of a life where everybody's the same is always helpful for those for whom it holds true, but for those whom it isn't, it's a bit like hell on earth. I had arrived at Kreiger Schechter at the age of five, being told virtually every day of my life by people who were not my parents that I was the most gifted child they'd ever met. By the time I left Schechter at 14, I'd learned that I was so stupid that I could not even complete the most basic assignments that perfectly normal kids, or perhaps slightly dense ones, kids could complete with aplomb.

I've talked on this blog many times about how bizarre it was to be diagnosed with a learning disability when just a few months previously you were still feted like a child prodigy. Things that happen so early in life can never be made sense of. What I do know, and what I blame, is the culture of the community in which I was raised. If you exhibited talent, you would be praised to the skies and spoiled horribly so that you could earn your Jewish community all the prizes in the storehouse. But if there was anything about you that might be considered challenging or compromising the achievements of the overachievers, you were cast aside like gum on the sole of a shoe. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh High School were Potemkin Villages, too small to know how to accommodate anybody but the kid guaranteed to bring honor to the organizations that taught them. If you were a straight-A student piled with extra-cirricular activities, Schechter and BT would do everything within their power to assure that you had it made for life. If you were anything less than that, these institutions didn't care a figleaf about you. According to too many to keep my young ego in check, I was poised to become their leading light - and by the time I left, I was their not so secret shame.

I suppose it's worth asking, why did it take my parents so long to get me out of these schools? Well... I suppose they didn't think they had any better options. They may well have been right - public school might have let me branch out in ways that Schechter and BT never did, it might have set me free and let me indulge my interests in a way that such a tight cirriculaa as Jewish Day Schools had never could. But then again, who knows how many ways I could have fallen through the cracks to a place much more ignominious than any I'm currently in. By the time there was trouble, it would have been a burdensome task, perhaps an impossible one, to get me into another private school, and every year thereafter made that goal still more impossible. By the time I was of age to look at magnate schools, I was probably too anxiety-ridden to withstand the pressure of an audition, and had I been rejected I might have utterly collapsed. By the time it was clear I needed to leave, the only options available were schools for troubled teens.

Predictable people flourish in predictable environments - my brothers both loved Schechter, and the vast majority of their closest friends are still the ones they made in their childhoods, which might have been idyllic but for having to live under the same roof as their extremely disturbed older brother. But while there is only a chance that an unpredictable person will succeed in an unpredictable environment, there is pretty much a guarantee that in a predictable environment, an unpredictable person will wilt and burn out.

And so, in those last two years at Schechter, I became nothing short of psychotically violent in ways of which the memories will continue to haunt me every day of my life. Every day, I remember my horrible sins from those years, and I tremble, my face twitches in every direction, I sometimes hyperventilate, and my chest freezes with terror at the monster I was and worry could be again. Occasionally I feel as though I might be able to vomit the horror out of my stomach, and yet I know it will never be purged. I try to calm myself by chanting over and over again “I deserve happiness, and I will be happy.” If it works at all, I generally have to chant it eighty times in a row. But a large part of me believes, or perhaps knows, that neither half of that mantra is true.

Until that age, I was utter bully fodder - trapped in a small school with angry students and angry teachers who saw fit to punish me for the fact that I couldn't sit still and do what I was told because I was too busy thinking thoughts no nine-year-old was mature enough to think. The more I was told to stay on task, the more anxiety ridden my young self became, and the still harder it became to concentrate or get anything done. The learning difficulties alone were surmountable, so were the anxieties, but the two of them together in a heinous cocktail were lethal to any forward progress in my life - and I often wonder if they still are.

But my early puberty endowed me with muscle mass of a college student when I was barely Bar Mitzvah age, and did I ever use it. I fought back with all the rage that built up in me over that long, excruciatingly long, childhood. It doesn’t matter whether or not I did unto others what was done to me. No matter how many years go by, I am still a perpetrator of acts of violence. And nothing will ever make that not so.

It is one of the unfortunate ironies of mental illness that everything about it seems like manipulation. The brain of a mentally unwell person possesses an extra dimension unknown to the mentally sound mind. The very fabric of reality has torn so that there is no self of which one can speak, only many selves locked in the same body. A mentally ill person can say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I might kill myself or hurt someone else” and mean it entirely as a warning for pity, and yet at the same time, coerce the person he tells this to to accede to his often irrational demands. Such is the ultimate tragedy of mental illness. It can lead people to horrific acts for which there is no possible forgiveness, and yet the sane part of the brain, all the more sane and self-aware for keeping watch over the illness, can’t help but be horrified by what the sickness has wrought. I don’t know how many violent people are eaten alive by memories of their crimes. All I know is that I am devoured by a remorse I can never quench.

Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 13, I picked up a series of 8 year old children by the neck. Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 14, I helped to hound the girl at summer camp who might have become my first love into something resembling a nervous breakdown, for which she had to be sent home, because I couldn’t get along with her best friend, and my interactions with this friend occasionally turned violent. Until this year, I never saw or heard from that girl again. Nothing will undo the fact that I used to get violent with the girls in my classes as often as the boys - enough times that I’m sure I can’t recall them all. Nothing will undo the fact that I once held a butcher knife up to my father, or pulled my mother’s hair, and nothing will undo the fact that I took so much of that rage out on my younger brother. The fact that he is now one of my closest friends makes it all the more horrific to recall, and recall it I do every day of my life. These, and so many others, are the scenes which my mind has endlessly relived. No matter what the circumstances that led to such actions and made me feel justified at the time, there is no forgiveness for them, even for someone so young as I was. Bad things happened to me, and I transferred those bad things and quite a bit more to others. One day, the dirty laundry from those years may be aired, and I will have no right to do anything but accept whatever blame comes my way. When I’m sixty-four, I will still be the assaulter I was when I was fourteen. Knowing what I’m capable of, how can I, how can anyone, have a normal job, a normal relationship, a normal family? How can I, knowing the monster I was, ever call myself a decent human being? How can I ever be sure that what I believe is morally right, knowing that I’ve acted as I have? The solid footing of knowing my reality has long since turned to ash, and all my dreams often turn into nightmares of the public reminders I might encounter should they ever come true.  

Is there not enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash my hands as white as snow? Is there no acceptance, no peace, no transcendence, no joy, no love, possible for a man who acted as I have? However different I think I am today from the terror I once was, the question is always present: can I ever be that monster again? And what right have I to act as though I have any more moral authority than the monster I once was?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 2

When Beth Tfiloh began its move to Pikesville in 1962, it was the last of the 'megashuls' to begin a move out of Baltimore City. The other shuls, sensing which way the wind was blowing, began pitching a tent in the county, buying farm property on the cheap and creating second campuses just in case more Jews moved to the suburbs. From the 1920's onwards, Pikesville was the location of Baltimore's two Jewish country clubs - the Suburban Club, for Baltimore understatedly WASPish rich German Jews, and the Woodholme Club, for Baltimore's flashier and nouveau riche Russian Jews. Many rich Jews already therefore had summer homes quite near to their clubs. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Middle Class Jews followed suit. For synagogues like Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom, situated as they were in Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill, such moves made sense as the wealthiest Jews were the earliest to move out to Baltimore County to avoid urban blight and exploit the automobile's easy transport over long distances. Beth El, a Synagogue only founded after World War II, made a long-term investment in Pikesville that paid off spectacularly. Meanwhile, Beth Jacob, which served lower class Jews in Pimlico and Lower Park Heights, was only a stone's throw away from Pikesville already. But for Beth Tfiloh, situated in the supremely middle class West Baltimore area of Forrest Park, the made much less sense. Baltimore's middle class would not move neighborhoods unless the need proved dire - indeed, my mother's family didn't move out of Forrest Park until 1970. But the urban riots which began in 1965 proved that Beth Tfiloh got out in the nick of time.

Beth Tfiloh was an important congregation, certainly the largest Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, but no one would have called it the center of Jewish life for the city. If anything, it was the 'intellectual' synagogue - a label that it could hardly have affixed itself to BT in later generations. Its Rabbi, Samuel Rosenblatt, was the son of Yossele Rosenblatt, the most legendary cantor of all-time. Chazzan Rosenblatt might have been a performer from the Ukraine, but Rabbi Rosenblatt was first and foremost a scholar who earned a PhD from Columbia at a time when Jews were barely accepted at Ivy League schools. His sermons were apparently of the old school - learned and pompous, and he spoke English with an upper-class, almost WASPish, accent. The cantor, Max Kotlowitz, had a son who was a managing editor at Harper's and PBS TV executive, and a grandson who is now one of the most frequently published and cited journalists in the United States. The real money and power of the community was clearly with Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom.

Beth Tfiloh probably would have been just another reasonably large synagogue in Baltimore but for a cosmic event in 1978 that no one could fail to miss, when a force of nature blew through this city and left nothing unchanged forever thereafter.

I have heard two transcendent orators in my lifetime: Barack Obama and Mitchell Wohlberg. Of the two, Rabbi Wohlberg was easily the greater. I have watched packed houses on Yom Kippur double over with laughter, only to emit the sounds of sobbing ten minutes later. Not a single one of the 90,000 Jews in Baltimore is immune from his orbit. The entire Baltimore Jewish Community is, in one way or another, an organization that literally revolves around the power of his personality. If America were run by a Jewish conspiracy, they could have done no better than to make Mitchell Wohlberg this country's president. He is the perfect politician, both for large groups and one on one, for a time and place that needed a politician to hold the community together.

My life has been defined, as so many other Jews have, by the tension between what are, or at least were until recently, the two most powerful synagogues in contemporary Baltimore.

At roughly the same time that Rabbi Wohlberg came to Beth Tfiloh, Rabbi Zaiman came to Chizuk Amuno. Rabbi Zaiman, if anything, was the true successor to Rabbi Rosenblatt. Both Zaiman and Rosenblatt earned their ordinations from the Jewish Theological Seminary and were exemplars par excellence of what JTS encourages its students to be - intellectual, dry, extremely erudite, and aloof. Zaiman was a tall and strikingly handsome man from Chicago who bore a passing resemblance to Woodrow Wilson - not only in his looks but also in his stern demeanor. But Zaiman, for all his airs and difficulty with people, was exactly as smart as he looked.

Within a year of coming to Chizuk Amuno, Zaiman sprearheaded an initiative to create a Jewish Day School. From World War II until 1980, the only true Jewish Day School in Baltimore was Beth Tfiloh's, and so far as I know, the school at Beth Tfiloh was always known as a bit mediocre. Zaiman, rather, wanted to create a Conservative Jewish Day School for Baltimore, a Schechter school, that rivaled the best schools in Baltimore - or as he once put it, 'A Jewish Gilman.'

It was a fantastic idea - we Jews are known for our intelligence, and though we're probably just as dumb as everybody else, we seem as though we we're smarter to many because we value education so highly. Is there any more worthy goal for a Synagogue than to train the best and the brightest among your children for the unlimited futures which a good education would promise us?

In the late 20th century, if you were a truly committed Jew who lived in Baltimore but did not want to be Orthodox, there were only two serious options for which synagogue to belong. One was Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative shul that leaned Orthodox, the other was Beth Tfiloh, an Orthodox shul that leaned Conservative.

The intellectual set all went to Chizuk Amuno - every Jewish doctor, every Jewish scientist, every Jewish engineer, seemingly the entire medical staff of Hopkins Hospital, every professor at Hopkins University. They belonged not because they found Zaiman inspiring - how could they?... - but because Chizuk Amuno's Schechter school provided them an opportunity for the children to receive an excellent Jewish education in addition to a a great secular one - or at least it was that way in theory...

The business set all went to Beth Tfiloh - every entrepreneur, every realtor, every speculator, every broker, every corporate executive, every corporate lawyer. They belonged not because they thought the school would was particularly excellent, though many sent their children to it, but because Rabbi Wohlberg knew that in order to create a shul vast enough to house his gifts, he needed money. So he set about charming the richest Jews in Baltimore - when the richest Jews in Baltimore came to Beth Tfiloh, so did all the people who wanted to do business with the richest Jews in Baltimore.

Smart as Rabbi Zaiman was, Rabbi Wohlberg was smarter, and without Zaiman's need to parade it.

Rabbi Wohlberg was the son of a Rabbi and younger brother to two others who grew up in working class Brooklyn - a diminutive dynamo who radiated showmanship and made a complete hash of the idea that Rabbis could not understand modern life. In his early years in Baltimore, Wohlberg was a fat guy with a reputation off the pulpit of cursing like a sailor and smoking like a chimney. His voice sounded like a high-pitched squeaky toy with a Brooklyn accent, but he was such a good politician and showman that he knew exactly how to use his ethnically and Rabbinically stereotypical qualities to his advantage.

Zaiman probably never got a 'B' in his life, but Wohlberg was always peppering his sermons with stories of his youthful indiscretions and under-achievements. To beef up the school, he hired a still more intelligent administrator than he, an Orthodox woman educator named Zipporah Schor whose demeanor and management style bore a more than passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Had she not been frum, who knows how far she might have risen in life?

It wasn't too long before Beth Tfiloh won the battle handily and sealed Chizuk Amuno's decline, decades before the decline was visible. Solomon Schechter's early years were easy enough, with the necessary money being bankrolled by elderly wealthy gentlemen from the 'old' Chizuk Amuno: Zanvyl Krieger, Jerry Hoffberger, Jerome Cardin, and most importantly: Harry Weinberg. Even after all the wining and dining, Beth Tfiloh has never had a member nearly so rich as Harry Weinberg.

But five years after Schechter began and was in its first flush of success, Wohlberg bandied together three donors whom he showered with praise as though they were among the righteous of Israel. None of the three were so rich that their holdings were truly renowned internationally like Harry Weinberg, but between the three of them: Haron Dahan, Howard Brown, and Morty Macks - Wohlberg put the funding together to found a high school. Until then, Beth Tfiloh's school was only K through 8, and it was not clear yet that Solomon Schechter would even get that far. But the masterstroke was the brillian decision to build this high school on precisely Krieger Schechter's model. Beth Tfiloh would be a place where Jewish students would excel in the most difficult programs and give incredible naches to the shul that graduated them. It was founded with a mission to be a light unto high schools.

Twenty years before it was truly visible, Beth Tfiloh had checkmated Chizuk Amuno. There was enough room for two or three Jewish Day Schools in Baltimore for the not-truly-Orthodox. But in the rat race that is Jewish Upper Middle Class college acceptance, is only room enough for one Hebrew High School. Once one high school builds a reputation for getting kids into good colleges, it will be the sole school in demand. Solomon Schechter, soon thereafter Krieger Schechter after a $2 million donation from Zanvyl Krieger (he got it cheap in my opinion...), would never be able to get a high school off the ground in competition. There is a second, conservative, Jewish high school in Baltimore, Shoshanna Cardin High School (named after Jerome's wife), but it has never earned Beth Tfiloh's sterling (and not quite deserved) reputation, with extremely small classes and written off euphemistically as a school for 'non-traditional' students.

Every synagogue without an Orthodox membership base is in bad shape right now. But while Beth Tfiloh faces its future with coffers well-stocked from its principle donors, Chizuk Amuno has no such luck. Zaiman's been gone for more than ten years, and his synagogue is by every measurement in severe decline - in membership, in finances, in influence, in morale. The students Schechter graduated are every bit as successful as Zaiman had hoped, so successful that most of them decided to leave Baltimore to pursue better opportunities. In today's non-Orthodox world that makes such a priority of Tikkun Olam (Healing the World) and Social Justice, it is Beth El that is the rising congregation. Beth Tfiloh is not quite the monolith it once was either, but it can survive at least a while longer coasting on Wohlberg's achievements - and no doubt that's what Wohlberg means for it to do...

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 1

I know that everybody who's ever read a poem knows this one, but I think this is the proper place to begin so please humor me for quoting The Second Coming in full:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We'll get to why this is all important in a few thousand words... But in the meantime, let me talk about my Zaydie Tucker.


When my father took a close college friend of his out to Stevenson to visit his parents for the first time, they sang the theme to Lawrence of Arabia in the car - because Stevenson and Pikesville were as unfamiliar and exotic as the Desert itself. It was ten minutes outside Baltimore city, but in the mid-60's, hardly anyone but some a few Jews would ever think to live there.

Earlier in the century, Stevenson, the back woods of Pikesville, was a place of massive, and massively rich, farmland. Celebrities who owned houses in Stevenson included General MacArthur, Wallis Simpson the Duchess of Windsor, and the greatest of all American operatic divas: Rosa Ponselle. With such magnificent estates existing in the midst of its back woods, there can be no doubt that it was once a place built for plantations.

It is difficult to imagine what Stevenson must have looked like when my Zaydie moved his family to it in the summer of 1964, right after my uncle Harold graduated from high school at City College. Nevertheless, I would have to figure that after seventeen years toiling in the city, Stevenson must have seemed like paradise itself - redolent to them of the open fields and farms of Northeastern Poland where he and Bubbie grew up. At the time, there was barely anything in the 21208 zipcode but farmland and a newly-built Baltimore Beltway that nobody thought would ever be used...

When they first arrived, they had to live in a tiny walkup apartment with their friend from the Old Country and fellow Holocaust Survivor, Jack Rubin, and his insane wife Cheved. The four of them owned a tiny corner store downstairs. My grandparents were not easy people at the best of times, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live with Cheved. My Bubbie, like so many Yiddish Bubbies, was a truly transcendent cook hobbled only by the fact that she could only make four dishes. She always made an amazing chicken soup with noodles, or Matzoh Balls, or Kreplach, and If Jack would compliment my Bubbie's soup, Cheved would pour out the entire salt shaker into the soup when nobody was looking so that my Zaydie would yell at her for putting too much salt in the soup. The four of them lived with my Dad, Jack Tucker, and my Uncle Harold in a tiny walkup apartment in Lower Park Heights and managed a no larger corner store downstairs. Eventually, my explosively tempered Zaydie and Jack Rubin couldn't stand working with each other anymore, and Jack went into the garment (schmateh) business. By some point in the mid-to-late 50's, my wealthy great-uncle Chaim had enough faith in my Zaydie's business sense to make him a business partner, and Zaydie managed the supermarket they co-owned: the E-ZEE Market in Hampden - the same building which all upper-class Baltimore residents now venerate and worship as The Wine Source. But there was very little upper-class about that building, or Hampden, at the time.

These were heady times in Hampden - a working class white neighborhood where lots of Appalachian Whites moved only a decade earlier to procure factory jobs after World War II. As such, this already high crime area was crawling with Klansmen - Klansmen who would occasionally hold demonstrations. To be a Jewish business owner with the heaviest imaginable Yiddish accent, let alone one who was barely five feet tall, was an extremely high risk scenario. But my Zaydie, ever resourceful in terms of business, solved the problem with an enormous sign out in front of the store: COPS GET A FREE CORNED BEEF SANDWICH!

Temperamentally speaking, my Zaydie was my father to the n'th power. A highly intelligent, highly practical, messianically controlling man who believed that every problem in the world could be solved if people simply followed his instructions. I remember reading Philip Roth's American Pastoral and thinking that this quote was the perfect description of him:

“a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.” 

This could nearly as easily double as a description of his oldest son, or perhaps even of his oldest son's oldest son. But none could possibly resemble this description to anywhere near the extent of this alpha dog Jewish petty tyrant extraordinaire: Maishl Ticoczki, who spent the second half of his life living under the name Morris Tucker. I only knew him as an old man, a highly affectionate but obstreperously demanding person for whom even as a kid it was impossible to not to feel a mixture of great love and exasperated contempt. Much of my first ten years was spent babysat by my grandparents, and it was a Yiddish version of the Costanza household. I'm almost positive that a man as morally obsessed as Zaydie would never ever strike my Bubbie (I feel ashamed that I even mention a small sliver of the possibility), but I do remember hiding in the next room while huge screaming matches would take place in the midst of something clearly being struck loudly - it was probably one of them banging on the kitchen table.... Hotheadedness was the way of the Old Country, and  among European peasants, blowing your gasket was a respectable form of communication.

But as a young man, Zaydie was apparently rather familiar figure in the annals of Tucker-lore - presenting a lethal and extraverted wit to the world, but whose bonhomie was a disguise for an introverted determination and fanatical seriousness of conviction. Anybody who knows me or my Dad, or Ethan, fairly well will recognize that archetype instantly. Tuckers are generally very good performers, but it's all performance art to disguise an intensity that consistently threatens to tear one another to shreds.

My grandparents lived in the most unassumingly middle class suburban rancher you can possibly envision: three small bedrooms, a reasonably large living room separated from the dining room only by a large fireplace, on the side of the two was a den, a kitchen, and a waiting room. Almost all the books in the house were my father's from his final two years at Johns Hopkins, and I'm fairly sure that my father had chosen most of the artwork too.

The only extraordinary thing about the house was the enormity of the land upon which it sat - a full two acres if memory serves me correctly. My Zaydie honestly bought it with the idea that his children would build houses adjacent to his and their families live at his beckon call on the same plot. On the one hand, such situations are not all that abnormal outside of America, and it was the ultimate middle class insurance policy - if times ever became as bad as they were in the Europe of Zaydie's youth, and if my Dad or Uncle ever became destitute, they and their children could simply come live with their patriarch, and Zaydie would build them houses with the money that he guarded and controlled as fiercely as he did his children. On the other, holy crap that's really fucked up!...

Money was Zaydie's pathological obsession. He certainly took a great thrill in making it - my father would relate to me how he would occasionally drive my Zaydie as an old man to the Signet Bank on Old Court Road just so Zaydie could go into the vault and count his silver coins. But if money truly gave Zaydie pleasure, he could have made a lot more of it than he ever did. He loathed the stock market and real estate speculation as idle gambling - he only wanted money which he knew he earned. What he truly loved was the security which money brought. Apparently, one of his most time-honored sayings to guilt my father was 'Alz Ikh hob Ikh hob far eich' - All I have I have for you.

So paranoid was he about money that he would bury cash in his lawn in case of an emergency - cash which my Dad and Uncle never found before they sold the house. Eventually, the paranoia devolved to outright insanity, and in his final years when he suffered from dementia, Zaydie would regularly badger my Dad to drive him to the banks, whereupon he would promptly accuse the tellers and managers of stealing from him. Once, when he caught my Dad motioning to the bankers to humor him, Zaydie accused my Dad of stealing too - one day I'll tell that story here.

Zaydie's one vanity was suits, and he only wore suits because he thought it was a responsibility of a respectable businessman to look the part. To the end of his life, he refused to leave his house in anything but a suit, and would even wear them to my parents' cookouts. He insisted that my father do the same, and one day when my father visited him but forgot to wear a watch, Zaydie started to cry.

When Zaydie first bought a house in Stevenson, it must have seemed like paradise itself. He had finally made it in a world that continually conspired to kill him off. All the worries of his life: World War I, the Russian Civil War, Weimar Hyperinflation, The Great Depression, the Stalinist Invasion, the Nazi Invasion, the Holocaust, the Postwar Bloodlands, refugee status in Frankfurt, being a poor immigrant in Baltimore, being at the mercy of the Klan... and after fifty years of constant worry, he'd finally made it back into the Middle Class into which he was born and then some. A long, leisurely retirement was finally in sight, but when he'd finally come through a half-century of bloody history to the other side, it was almost too late to enjoy it. In 1969 he had misdiagnosed subdural hematoma, and after a series of botched operations, he spent the final three decades of his life in varying states of aphasia. Many times thereafter, he would say that it would have been better for him to die then than to await death for so many decades longer.

If only the strong survive, then Zaydie was an Olympian. He was tested throughout his life with misfortunes that killed nearly everyone who underwent just one of the many tests he thrived upon. He was not merely a member of the Jewish Middle Class, he WAS the Jewish Middle Class. His business sense preserved him through The Great Depression, and the loyalty and resourcefulness he engendered among his employees saved him through the years of Stalin and Hitler. He arrived in America, like so many millions of others, with nothing, and he was the last generation for whom the idea of this country as the Land of Opportunity held no irony at all.

In his final years, it's amazing to think now of how his fate aligned with the unravelling of The American Dream. When the stability of the American Middle Class began to come undon in the late 60's and early 70's, Zaydie became partially incapacitated. When the country started spending well beyond its means in the 80's and 90's, Zaydie began to go senile. In 1998, the year before Glass-Steagal began to truly kill the American Middle Class, Zaydie died while sipping a cup of tea.

We were in Chicago visiting relatives when it happened. But I will never forget coming home and hearing the frantic message of my grandparents' Yiddish-speaking caretaker on the phone to my parents' answering machine: 'JECKIE! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT!'

Were Zaydie alive today and in good health, maybe we could know what he'd think of the world of Baltimore Jewry as it now is. I would imagine him seeing contemporary Pikesville and Stevenson, with all its prosperity and success and well-being..., and to be honest, I'm sure he would fly into another of his trademark rages - fulminating until he exhausted himself at his neighbors' ostentation, their luxury, their lack of seriousness, their materialism, their laziness, their moral abdication to the people they provide for. And no doubt, there's no one at whom he'd have lost it more often than me... In one of my Dad's... well... more tactful moments... he said to me "Oy Evan. If your grandfather were alive to see you now, he'd take a long look and just say: Ochen Vey! What a disappointment!"


Sunday, September 27, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 2 - Beth Am

I walked this afternoon through the unimaginable wealth that is Guilford and Tuscany-Canturbury. I only say unimaginable because this is Baltimore; by the august standards of Georgetown and Bethesda and Potomac, the houses on display there were relatively modest. To be sure, there is true wealth in the Roland Park districts, but I doubt there's anyone who lives around there worth more than $100 million, which, let's face it, is by the standards of our current banana republic a relatively paltry sum among the greedy class.

Were Baltimore a functional city, the center of our wealth would be not Roland Park, but Reservoir Hill. Reservoir Hill is easily the most beautiful neighborhood in Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park in all of its verdant magnificence, with hundred year old housing stock that would be a prize beauty for any city in the world.

Once upon a time, Reservoir Hill was, of course, the wealthy Jewish area - Look ye mighty and despair! We are the German Jews who came over in the 19th century and ran the department stores that catered to the every need and whim of all you lazy Goyim: Hutzler's, Hochschild, Kohn, and Hecht's. Just the names alone tell you exactly what kind of person owned them - and German though Baltimore has always been, I guarantee that none of them were ever owned by a Lutheran from Cologne or a Catholic from Munich. My father's always joked that had the Tucker family came over in the 19th century like so many German Jews did, we'd own IBM by now.

I don't know how to explain the disproportionate success of Jews in America (or anywhere else) except through stereotypes. We've always valued industry and learning, and put those traits to good use. Perhaps gentiles don't value those traits as much, but I'm not in a position to know. What I do know is that the unique social position of Jews in the United States - neither longstanding members of the white overclass or the white working class or the colored (please forgive me, I lack a better term...) working and underclass - were free to make their own identities in America as no other group of American immigrants ever was. After twenty-five-hundred years of systemic discrimination by Europeans against Jews, the was not enough time for Americans to embed systemic discrimination against us to let their discriminations have much effect. Reservoir Hill is a monument to the explosion of Jewish opportunity that lay in (department) store for us from the moment we arrived in America. Our drive to achieve in America wasn't just for our own gain or to make our parents and grandparents proud, but a residual triumph to take hold of the opportunities that with very few exceptions were denied Jews for millennia.

The monument to the prosperity that was once Reservoir Hill is Beth Am Congregation - built in 1922 to house the very same Chizuk Amuno that built the Temple in which B'nei Yisra'el worships a half-century earlier. The German Jews of Lloyd and Lombard Streets grew too wealthy for downtown living. Directly to the West of them were Baltimore's Italians in Little Italy, and to the East were Baltimore's Poles and Ukranians in Fells Point and Canton. The German Jews needed breathing room, and moved across from Druid Hill Park, where the most threatening presence at the time was the trees obstructing the sunlight. that it would then be the Russian Jews at the mercy of the gentiles.

But fifty years later, Druid Hill Park, like West Baltimore itself, became ridden with crime, drugs, poverty, and hopelessness. It was a place where the wealthy dare not show their faces, and so the wealthy of Reservoir Hill retreated from their opulent beachhead to where all wealthy Jews eventually moved: around Stevenson Road, and it was on Stevenson Road that they built the new Chizuk Amuno - an edifice that dwarves even Beth Am's mighty stature.

When Chizuk Amuno left, Beth Am immediately moved in - a monument not only to the Jewish community that was, but to the dream of community engagement. Chizuk Amuno might isolate itself in the County, but Beth Am would would be a shul for Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park where so many Civil Rights protests happened and so many Jews walked arm-in-arm with Blacks, Beth Am was established to continue the dream of a place that engages with the wider community - Jewish and Gentile, it was always meant to be the Jewish ministry to the tired, the poor, the needy, the sick, and a direct rebuke to all those Jewish congregations who retreated into Pikesville and acted so strenuously as though Baltimore no longer existed. But going there on Kol Nidrei night, I saw nothing but affluence.

Rebuke was the particular specialty of its irascible founding Rabbi: Dr. Louis Kaplan. Irascible was literally how he was described in his Baltimore Sun obituary. Dr. Kaplan hated Orthodox Judaism for its exclusion and having nothing valuable to say about modern life, he hated Reform Judaism for its insistence on assimilation to the customs of the rest of the world, and he didn't care much for Conservative Judaism either. Before he was the Rabbi for Beth Am, he was the President of Baltimore Hebrew College for forty years. Yes, forty years; after which he became the Acting Chancellor of UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County). During all that time, he founded no less than three synagogues: Beth El - a splinter synagogue from Beth Tfiloh, Beth Jacob - now merged with Beth Tfiloh, and Beth Am - a splinter synagogue from Chizuk Amuno. What the hell did he storm away from that founding three separate synagogues was necessary?

Baltimore Hebrew College was mostly a college in the way that City College was a college - it was truly a high school where Jews of particularly high intelligence could complete their Jewish education. But it was also fully accredited as a college, so that when my parents and uncles finished high school, they'd already earned a Bachelor's Degree in Jewish Studies.

Dr. Kaplan was a particularly legendary name in my family, not only because he presided over a College that issued them degrees when they were sixteen, but also because he married my parents, as he no doubt did so many other young Jewish couples of the Baby Boomer Generation who grew up with Dr. Kaplan as their guiding light. His Shabbos table was open to all his students every week, which numbered practically the whole of Jewish Baltimore from my parents and uncles to Ira Glass. My parents remember him as an authoritative lecturer with a booming voice who would pronounce judgement on any and all issues with extreme moral imperiousness - never giving the benefit of the doubt to those thinkers and students who disagreed with him, and telling his students exactly why all those who disagreed with him were wrong and stupid.

Just as Rabbi Wohlberg was the preeminent Jewish voice of my youth, Dr. Kaplan was the voice of my parents' youth, and perhaps my mother's parents as well. But how different Dr. Kaplan's vision for Jewish Baltimore was from Rabbi Wohlberg's. Rabbi Wohlberg, Baltimore's pre-eminent Rabbi for the last thirty-something years, is a moderate consensus builder who since 1978 presides over a synagogue that every year performs another act in a delicate dance on the ledge between orthodoxy and non-observance in an age when non-observant Judaism is disappearing. Whereas Rabbi Wohlberg spent nearly forty years working to never be pinned down on taking a stand on any given issue except the State of Israel, Dr. Kaplan, the liberal authoritarian, never met a stand he didn't take. He created Baltimore's Jewish landscape, he founded synagogue after synagogue, and presided over nearly half of Baltimore Hebrew College's duration. One personified the explosive dynamism it takes to create a community. The other personifies the careful politicking it takes to preserve such a community. Rabbis like Wohlberg exist not to create new things but to keep old things in place. Preservation is always necessary, but as this institutions ossify, they become relics that make a mockery of what used to be.

By the time I took classes at Baltimore Hebrew University around 2007, it was an organization in tragic death throes. There were barely five people in any class, and the few students who went there as undergraduates were clearly there because they were chronic underachievers who would not graduate from any more serious environment. It was a sad place, and two years after I left the building was gutted and bulldozed, and the institution itself melted into a Jewish Studies wing of Towson University.

This was what Dr. Kaplan's dream amounted to - Baltimore's Jews achieved such privilege that they had to move to the County to find a place to properly house their affluence, and so their even more privileged children had to leave this dying metro area to find jobs in accordance with their exalted station in life. By its end, Baltimore Hebrew, once a Hebrew School for the creme-de-la-creme among Jewish students, was a babysitting school for Jewish slackers like me trying to get a back door master's degree from Johns Hopkins. It is now just a small cog within a factory university that churns out more than 5,000 graduates a year.

Dr. Kaplan came to Baltimore to take over BHC in 1930, before he was thirty himself. He lived long enough to see Baltimore into the next millenium. He was a fixture of my youth, active and relatively fit until his very last years. My parents would introduce him to me at least once a year, and he would never remember who I was. When my Dad asked him to come to my Bar-Mitzvah, Dr. Kaplan, already in his nineties and with age having made him no less gruff, asked where I was being Bar-Mitzvahed, when Dad told him, he harumphed "I don't go to Beth Tfiloh!"


I had not been inside Beth Am for a good twenty years when I went last night. Everything I'd ever heard about the impressiveness of their synagogue was absolutely true. Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno might seem like Cathedrals due to their size, but their wall-to-wall carpeting precludes any such pretension. Beth Am, on the other hand, is truly breathtaking - a cross between a Cathedral and a Concert Hall with a live acoustic that reverbs for days and self-amplifies. In the twenties, it was a statement of Jewish prosperity: 'We've made it!' In the twenty-tens, it is a statement of Jewish defiance: 'We're still here!'

I knew what I was in for the moment I parked. I had to park four blocks away from the synagogue, with the rear of my car jutting slightly into the street. Directly in front of me was a car with a bumper sticker that spelled out "Obama" in Hebrew letters. The neighborhood was deathly quiet, and in a neighborhood so poor and black, I expected far more presence on the street. The hush surrounding me on my walk to the synagogue was as quiet as silence itself - I was either completely safe, or about to get mugged.

I quickly realized why nobody was on the streets that night. The police were out in force - at least ten surrounding the congregation, all of whom were extremely solicitous and friendly to me, though I wonder to whom they might have been less friendly in the hours leading up...

Like nearly everything west of Howard Street, Reservoir Hill long since declined into poverty. So long has the ark of decline been that it's swung around a bit, and beautiful townhouses in pristine condition stand next to boarded up shanties. The March of Gentrification in Baltimore is always more of a crawl, and when prosperity crawls from one end of Reservoir Hill to the other, Baltimore knows that its future is finally secure. It would spread next to West Baltimore, and when West Baltimore improves, the Messiah has truly come.

But how did things ever get so bad that gentrification is necessary? Every good time is paid for by somebody, and even now that wealth is gradually moving back in, 7 in 8 residents in Reservoir Hill are black. The prosperity of the neighborhood will be paid for in the forced relocation of people who will be thrown out of homes they've probably lived in since the early 70's. Fifty years ago, we left this city. Do we really have the right to claim it back?

When I arrived at the front, there was a ticket-taker. Non-Jews are always non-plussed by the idea that people have to buy tickets to go to the High Holidays, but the truth remains that few synagogues operate at sufficient capacity these days that they could ever turn down a potential member. The idea of selling tickets goes back to the days when the High Holidays was something of a performance, with an operatic-style cantor and trained chorus for whom you were mostly supposed to sit in awed appreciation of their beauty. It is a custom that clearly operates with a shelf life.

I asked the ticket taker if I could just walk in - prepared to pay at least a small nominal fee if I had to, subtly at least since Jews aren't supposed to handle money on Shabbat or Yom Tov (the Torah mandated Holidays). She replied "I don't know why you'd want to, they're almost done." To a lifelong Beth Tfiloh attendee who feels lucky when Kol Nidrei services end at 10, this was a bit of a shock. I know that other synagogues get out earlier, but it was only a bit after 8 o'clock at this point.

When I entered, I realized that the crowd was at least larger than it was at B'nei Yisra'el. Beth Am could easily hold a thousand people in its pews, and capacity seemed to be at roughly 40%. The crowd was obviously affluent, but I was truly amazed at how few people I recognized. My mother tells me that Beth Am gets a steady stream of members from people who get pissed off at Chizuk Amuno - Beth Am seems a hell of a distance to drive, but a person who quit a job at Chizuk Amuno in a huff has to be able to spot more former Chizuk members than this.

Like all non-Orthodox shuls, the membership is as old as the day is long, and as unenthusiastic as you'd expect from an older crowd. I felt strongly out of place when I allowed my semi-operatic voice to sing out at one-third capacity, as though somebody was going to turn around and shush me. All the moreso because all I got to hear was the last few prayers - if the congregation is not going to sing along to the Aleinu ("On Us", the Rosh Hashana prayer about standing before God in Heaven that became so beloved that it's now part of the everyday liturgy), God knows what it's like earlier in the service when they chanted special prayers which Jews don't sing every day.

I can't say I loved the atmosphere at Beth Am, but I was immediately much more comfortable than I was at B'nei Yisra'el. The reason was obvious, Rabbi Burg, who was everything this other Rabbi was not - funny, personable, an actual human being. He was good enough that when he advertised that they were beginning a Sunday minyan, I briefly considered going - particularly when the last words of his salespitch rang out to laughter around the synagogue: "You might even meet your Bashert."

This was a very sore spot for me. Bashert is Hebrew for 'Pre-destined', and in biblical 'slang' it means the spouse that was predestined for you. There was a short period when I thought that I perhaps had found my Bashert earlier this year. It was, definitely, oh so definitely, not to be. Hopefully we can remain friends, but it's going to be hard going for a while...

Not that that bothers me as much as it should. I seem to fall, usually silently, into unrequited 'like' with a different friend of mine every month. Some unrequisitions are worse than others, but unrequited love is always a bore, and over the years, I've had it bad.

I don't know what it's like to be among the unrequited middle age would-be-Don Juans, and I shudder to think that the time is soon coming that I'll find out. But I would imagine such irredeemable states are due in large part to the hormones of youth. I eagerly await the moment these engines cool. It can't be too far away can it?

No one still in the flush of youth can truly imagine what generations before them sacrificed for their benefit, because no youth yet knows the magnitude of what those sacrifices entail. All they see is the wears and tyranny of their elders, and not having any experience of what it means to be in the driver's seat of life, we youths always imagine we can do better. Perhaps we can, perhaps we can't, but until we overthrow the old generation and sit atop their thrones, we will never understand their view.

I'm now closer to my thirty-fourth birthday than my thirty-third. My much younger brother (and still the older of two) is now married, and my prospects to join him in the next phase of life don't look so great at the moment. Whether or not I've meant to, I've prematurely aged, and will probably not have the consolations of middle age that others have until I am so far into middle age that I'll be a relatively elderly newlywed and father - if I achieve either at all.

But this retarded adulthood does let you perceive some details among the passing of time that elude others. You see what youth desires, and as you are in the same life-circumstances as the young even when you're middle aged, you see just how worthless its desires are.

What are the young - or in the case of Baltimore the thirtysomethings who pretend to remain young - truly fighting for? Superficially, they proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that American Militarism has ruined our inner cities and reputation abroad, that America is a country of conservative puritans palpitating with contempt for blacks, women, and gays. The louder they get, the more of us they implicate. It is no longer the conservatives who are the primary villains, but the liberals themselves who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.'

Try as I might, I can't ascribe anything at all but cynical motivations to them. Our grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest conditions the world has ever seen, and as they pass from this world, the world revolts against everything they stood for for a second time. Yes, unimaginable poverty is everywhere, but for the first time in human history, there would be a fair fight to eradicate poverty if ever the forces to the left-of-center united with one another instead of silencing heretics who say 'Maybe we can't do it all at once...' Such people once perverted the Civil Rights Movement into the '68 protests, the urban riots, and stomped out Civil Rights' gains in their infancy, meanwhile saying nothing about the real protests being silenced across the Iron Curtain in Prague and issuing no warning about what inevitably lay in store from Mao's Great Leap Forward. Their spiritual children have now perverted the gains of Obama into Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders candidacy, calls for slavery reparations when the government is already $20 trillion in debt, and calls for internet censorship against politically incorrect statements when we just spent fifty years overturning just such censorship with regard to religiously incorrect statements.

Here in Baltimore, rioters are excused because white and affluent residents allegedly have no right to criticize those in poverty, never mind that thousands of black lives were ruined and thousands of jobs which poor black people would have gained will never now move to the city. The goal of such people is not to improve the city - because nothing gradual is fast enough for the instant gratification they seek. Whether or not they realize it, the goal they seek is to blow the city up and rebuild it from scratch, because surely a faint nub of a slummed out crater like 1945 Warsaw or Tokyo is better than a city teetering on the edge of gentrification. Once again, liberal gains are perverted into a Marxist framework, and what people do is judged by who they are, rather than who people are being judged by what they do.

The irony is that these people who call for the end of capitalism and militarism are completely addicted to its benefits. It was not socialism that made the clothes with which they wear their political statements and the technology they passionately use to denounce capitalism, it was not anarchism that created the corporate music they listen to and the special-effects laden movies they watch. It was not the Soviet Union that allowed them the freedom to protest, almost always without assault or retribution against them. It is Capitalism which does all that for them and more, but they hate Capitalism because Capitalism demands nothing of them and gives them a secure bed and desk around which they can think for themselves (badly). It is a religion they seek: a religion without God. Their God is not Christ or Allah or Yahweh, their God is Sex.

Sex is inevitably the end goal of such movements - Marxism crossed with a pagan-like devotion to earthy pursuits and physical sensation. Their social cliques are virtual hookup webs, creating nothing less than a circle of sexual trust. Half a millenium ago, various types of Protestants created the first financial credit networks because a fellow believer was someone who feared sin. Contemporary anarchists and Marxists created the first sexual credit networks, because a fellow believer fears sins of a completely different type. In these networks, one temporary spouse is often exchanged for another on near-whim, all of whom whose personality, beliefs, clothing, hair, voice, and body type, might as well be interchangeable - so much for diversity. And for those whom serial monogamy does not meet the particular need, there is always non-monogamy; and even non-monogamy doesn't mean what it used to - the one-night stand is now passe because we are now in the Age of the Open Relationship - in which people delude themselves into thinking that they can tame the infinite beast that is sexual desire into a domesticated pet that can always work through jealousy and always properly interpret consent and refusal.

Personally, I love sex as much as the next person, but I'm looking at the vast sexual desert that likely lies before me and am, I think, understandably bitter. Sex is at the dead center of our society - the only thing which left and right can agree is absolutely sacred. We debate issues of sex as though they are the only thing in life which matters - abortion, homosexuality, the nature of pornography, revealing clothing, the themes of song lyrics, the implications of movie images - ad nauseum to the end of space and time. I sometimes go for five years at a time without sexual activity, trying my best when I can to store up satiation like a camel does water in its... oy... 'hump.' In a technical sense, perhaps sex really is the only thing that matters in life, but if it truly is, then how bleak our lives must be.

Well before 9 o'clock, the service ends. Oh my god, I can still catch the last hour of Beth Tfiloh's service... and maybe I will go to that Beth Am Sunday minyan...