October 05, 2020

 Bima Envy

Every retired preacher I know suffers from a tad or more of “Bima (Pulpit) Envy,” the obsession to again mount the pulpit and take just one more shot at it.  My mentor Rabbi Shusterman, mused wistfully that “The only honorable way for most of us to leave the pulpit is in a plain pine box.”

For those of us who have left our pulpit so morbidly, as I did from raging bouts of bipolarity, it is especially ignominious.  Once I loudly cursed the beloved Jewish mayor of Greenville, a Holocaust survivor, as he gently tried to calm me from my rage.  I summarily fired our Hebrew school principal before I even interviewed her.  I routinely launched into relentless diatribes from the pulpit, thinking that they were masterpieces, when they were, in fact, just paranoid ravings.

Finally, I became so bipolar that I quit the pulpit in a huff, blasting away that I could no longer stand the abuse to which I imagined the leadership had subjected me.  It was, of course, all a figment of my unhinged psyche.  Sure, I figured, I am still a hotshot.  I blustered even to Linda that I could easily in a month find a $100,000+ job in another vocation.  Now, eleven years later I am still unemployed, potchkeying with my circuitous writing and a weekly Bible class.

 I was so sick that even Linda could do nothing but watch me decompose.  How she begged me to get help, but each time I would scream at her for abandoning me.  She knew that I was a timebomb that had already exploded.  Finally, when I cursed out her entirely undeserving parents, she gave me her ultimatum.  I capitulated to psychiatric treatment, pill and talk therapy, which I am not ashamed to say I continue to this day.

Few cases of bima envy are as grave as mine.  More often than not, it runs along the lines of,  “I can deliver a better eulogy than he,” or “I was better at conducting a wedding, a bris, a bar/bat mitzvah, delivering a sermon, a sisterhood book review, starring in the schule Purim schpiel, leading a Shabbat dinner singalong, entertaining the kiddies at a Tot Shabbat . . . you name it, and just call.  “If they would just give me one more chance, I know I could do it better.”

 Bima envy is a cruel master.  No more tries for one who bears the stigma of the loose cannon.  No more chances for one who has cruelly alienated unforgiving parishioners, no matter how many apologies or boxes of Godiva’s you send with notes begging forgiveness.  Oh yes, some of them have, baruch HaShem, graciously forgiven me, but not sufficiently to turn me loose on their bima.

Yet, the neurosis (or shall I say “psychosis”?) has gradually abated.  After apologies and confessions, the surest elixir for bima envy is joy, even if it is still sometimes tinged with a drop of the bitter.  Over the Holy Days, I was privileged to hear the teaching of three extraordinary rabbis.  Rabbi Mathew, Adam, and Eric is each a brilliant preacher and pastor.  Each one has deeply touched my spirit.  They sense how to “comfort the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.”


Deep down I know that I could still preach it better!  But finally, I know that I will never fully recover from the terror of bima envy.  No, I will forever struggle with recovery, and still occasionally surrender to its ravages no matter how denatured they may be.

You see, when that glory-day comes, I know that as they lower my plain pine box into the ground, you will hear a rapping from down below and a voice bellowing, “A good eulogy, huh??  I could do it better!”

MARC WILSON is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC.

December 28, 2018



There can be no doubt that we are ruled by a sociopath, a lethal megalomaniac. 

The air is full of condemnation.  Yet, how much serious contemplation and calling are there for the angry populace to cry out "Enough tyranny talk!  What can we do to nullify this toxicity before it destroys us?  How do we muster the will to rise up in righteous indignation and stop this evil in its tracks?"

We have in US overthrown the evil designs of evil people by the rising up of indignant masses, not by physical violence, but by passion so strong that it cannot be ignored.  In the last decades we have sparked the rise of civil rights to defeat racist bigots and misanthropes in our Homeland and called the halt to a vicious war in Far East Asia.  Just a couple of examples of the wonders that can be achieved by masses of right-minded people.

The quest must start by identifying a visionary, articulate voice that calls charismatically to decency and honor, framed by motivation of the hoi polloi.  Where is that visionary, charismatic leader to muster us to action? 

Now, get off your behinds and take action, whatever it might be, to defeat the maniacs who forcefully mislead us!  Protest!   Write letters to the decision-makers!  Beat on the doors of legislature!  March on Washington and Mar-a-Lago!   Shout so loud that the media, local and national, cannot ignore us. 

I for one have featured myself as having talent at mustering the muster-able.  The record will show that I have had considerable success at that calling.  But, I still live with no delusion that so, so much work still must be done. Each to his/her own special gift and strength:  Habitat for Humanity.  American Red Cross.  Children's Cancer Society.  Everything that leaves a taste of altruism in the conscience.

So where is the next MLK?  The next JFK?  The next McCain? The next Rustin or Marshall?  The next Churchill? Surely our generation can put forth just one compelling individual to galvanize the energy of the masses to take action.

Detractors will likely call me just an aged-out hippie casting a longing eye back.to the sixties.  They will try to outshout with "Your vision is no better than ours!  Your pining for an outlived reality is un-reality!"

No!  Do not let them discourage or detract you!  Action, my friends!  Now, who among us will muster the masses to an uprising of positive initiative, through leadership of irresistible, charismatic cry? 

Will we then defeat the megalomaniacs and their minions from their terror and free us to resume building the Land of the Free?

RABBI MARC H. WILSON has returned from four months of illness.  He again writes from Greenville, SC.

January 29, 2014

Yeah . . . THAT Altruistic Greenville

Year of Altruism is already officially half over. Yet, we still sit in my office (IHOP on Wade Hampton) and contend with the challenge of conveying our vision to the community.

It should be straightforward: Altruism is doing the right thing and not expecting anything back for it. So, it's fairly easy to explain YOA as the movement to get the all of us involved in altruistic projects – plant a garden, build a Habitat house, visit the sick and homebound, work in soup kitchen or shelter, collect clothing and other basic necessities. Do it because it's right, not for payback.

In Greenville, plenty of churches and organizations already do those kinds of altruistic things. Our mission is to encourage greater participation, expand programs, create partnerships, and plant seeds to address unmet needs.

How do we motivate a congregation or organization to build an altruistic agenda? How do teachers, for example, infuse altruism in the classroom without banging kids over the head with it? How do you shape the community to respond altruistically to the homeless as no longer just an “issue,” but a bonafide crisis?

YOA, frequently partnering with churches and organizations, sees its higher calling as a catalyst for action on these issues. Thus, we recently convened a seminar for teachers and youth leaders on infusing altruistic values into their curricula, programming, and activities. Fifty educators benefited from the program.

How do we motivate congregations to bolster their sense of social responsibility? YOA and a consortium of churches recently called a workshop on “Building a Socially Engaged Congregation,” facilitated by JustFaith founder Jack Jezreel. Results: 300+ people from all walks of life participated, and many congregations associated themselves with JustFaith.

And, what of the dire issue of homelessness in our community? Again, YOA, in partnership with United Housing Connections, is convening a community-wide forum on all aspects of issues of homelessness. We hope that the gathering will generate an action agenda, and not just talk.

The one element of YOA's vision that is most challenging to explain is, “Why does your project have to spend so much on sponsoring concerts, theater, lectures, visual arts, and . . . ? Shouldn't a project dedicated to altruism focus exclusively on community service?”

Excellent questions.

Let's answer the question with another question: How do we create a fertile base for growing the seeds of altruism that YOA is planting? The answer: Inundate the community with an atmosphere that encourages higher vision. When a community is uplifted – intellectually, culturally, spiritually, creatively – the soul of the community become more receptive to growing the seeds of altruism. Each of our “fertilizing events” rings of some altruistic vision, be it the Symphony commemorating Kristallnacht, the Warehouse production of “Angels in America,” Arlo Guthrie's “Bring on the Kids!” concert, wrapped around altruistic activities, or the symposium on Medical Altruism convened by YOA, GHS, and Medical School.

All said, YOA aspires to prepare the ground of Greenville to grow more altruism.

We are blessed to live in Greenville. Altruism is not a foreign concept to our tremendously compassionate, charitable, visionary hometown. Greenville makes altruism fairly easy to grow. I cannot always say the same for other communities that have approached us with hope of cloning YOA. Impossible? No, just immeasurably harder.

What happens after YOA is “officially” over? Believe me, we dither a lot about that question. Yes, you will see artwork, maybe a street mural, to commemorate YOA. You will see an “Educators Altruism Resource Center”

But, above all else, you will see us still planting seeds of altruism wherever the needs are greatest. We may call for citizens to come forth on a particular issue. If they do, we will help organize them, get them off the ground, and ascertain whether there is enough mojo to keep the ball spinning. YOA will not “own” the project, but will be the catalyst for its genesis.

Does YOA aspire to “go national”? All we can say is that we have had numerous requests. They hear about us, and – what's most important – they hear about our consistent message: “Yeah – We are THAT Greenville.” We are a great place to move, build businesses, raise kids, worship, eat, become culturally absorbed, and now to be assured that we lead with our altruism.

So, answer the question! Do you plan to “go national.” You know, we can't even think about that now. We're too preoccupied with making sure that Arlo stays away from Alice's Restaurant.

July 23, 2013

Interfaith-Interracial-Class-Gender “At-One-Ness”

Interfaith-Interracial-Class-Gender “At-One-Ness”

Is Benchmark of Year of Altruism's Success

How do you ever really know when “good” is “good”? Was the movie “good”? The pizza? The sermon? We hopefully grow up to realize that – beyond genocide and the Lord's Prayer – the criteria for “good” are largely subjective. I can't get dogmatic about pineapple on pizza if you don't like it. I can't credibly tell you that a preacher is good, if I can't really put my finger on what I like about him.

Here in Greenville, we are readying for a “Year of Altruism.” August 19 marks its first event, and it will continue through May of next year. The objective of our programs is our desire to foster idealism, compassion, altruism. Events will range from community service projects, to interfaith worship, to family programs, to learning opportunities, to theater, to an evening with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, to a concert by our Symphony that celebrates altruism.

But, how will we really measure whether YOA has been “good”?

We would certainly declare success if Greenville embraced a pervasive sense of uplift and higher purpose, walking away with new resolve and head held high. No question about that, even if we couldn't measure it.

But, there is also nothing wrong with setting specific benchmarks by which we can measure the success of YOA. Financial solvency may be one. I can already tell you that by that criterion, we will have failed. Our financing is built on faith as much as on contributions. A full house for Professor Wiesel, symphony, and interfaith service, would certainly be a legitimate measure of success. The altruistic projects we leave behind definitely meet the criteria.

Now, let me tell you my own:

I will know that we have succeeded when YOA becomes the catalyst to unite this richly diverse community in “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding.” (Sorry, I am still stuck on the lyrics of “Hair.”).

Celebrating diversity has become a basic criterion for YOA's success. But, another measure outweighs it: Unity. Bridge-building. At-one-ness. Mutual appreciation. Commitment to the values that unite us. YOA will bring plenty of opportunities to ponder, discuss, exhort, about the ideals of unity, and how to prevent them from breaking down. But, more importantly, YOA will provide opportunities to unpretentiously be at one with each other, at the same places, at the same times – talking, enjoying, appreciating, learning, celebrating, even grieving. It will happen only if we will put away preconceptions and contrived boundaries, and delight in the essential universality of the human spirit.

When Congressman Jim Clyburn delivers his keynote on August 19, should we regard it as an “African American” event? Isn't Jim Clyburn a ranking member of the House, where he speaks for all of us and to all of us?

What about our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's “Dream” speech on August 28? Do we dare call that an “African American” program, particularly in light of events of the past weeks?

Is a symphony that celebrates altruism a “white” event?

Who comes to a family concert? Only middle class kids, or disadvantaged and homeless ones, too?

When we observe the Holocaust memorial in March, is that a “Jewish” event?

Is the Warehouse production of “Angels in America” reserved for the GLBT community?

When we observe the National Day of Prayer, will it be a service for liberal Christians, Jews, and other “religious exotics”? Or will brother and sister Evangelicals raise their voices with ours?

YOA is paying heavily to market programs that attract the broadest base of our community. I already hear myself repeating, “This is an interfaith-interracial event,” regardless of the group with which I am speaking.

But, good PR can do only so much. Building bridges of at-one-ness must come from a soulful resolve that is at the essence of YOA: Put down pretensions and nudge yourself outside the box, because that's where all the best stuff is. A white kid must also celebrate Dr. King's Dream. Straight folks must gain empathy for issues of being gay as they watch “Angels in America.” Ultimately, it must come from within.

So, will YOA be “good”? May it be its lasting legacy. But, there is a special yardstick that will measure its success. It is the extent to which we achieve at-one-ness, not by analysis, but by simply, universally, being people with people.  You, all of you, are cordially invited . . .

June 26, 2013


I was born from a womb of confusion.

An American Jew. A Jewish American? I can never get it straight.

We were poor Jews.

Five people in two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, and a living room.

I slept with my apnea-snoring grandmother until I went off to college.

A Beatles-crazed only child of an off-the-boat family.

I was born into English at school, Yiddish at home.

Hebrew National hotdogs.

Never Oscar Mayer.

Talmud by day. Chaucer by night.

Holy days surrounded by thick-accented relatives, who pinched cheeks and adulated me as the first fruit of Columbus's paradise.

They wept over family that was marched off to gas chambers and crematoria.

Shuddering with guilt over what more they might have done to save them.

My grandfather spent every penny ransoming relatives from Hitler's grasp.

He was a well-dressed, shiny-shoed womanizer.

My Uncle Joe. He married frigid Aunt Rhoda.

My Uncle Joe. The only one who ever took me to a ballgame.

(The Sox, remember, won the pennant in '59.)

My Uncle Joe. He traveled from Gary just to entertain me, until the day he embezzled too much from the IRS.

My Aunt Minnie. Succeeded in the diamond trade, but never was lucky in love.

My Aunt Minnie. Family whispered that she never got over losing my dad to my mom, so she played Scrabble with him, instead.

My Aunt Minnie. I suspected her of being a lesbian.

My Aunt Minnie. She hated dogs.

My Aunt Minnie. We named our puppy in her memory, Minnie.

I was fathered by a flag-flying army colonel.

Everything by the numbers, everything empirical, everything perfect.

My father, the seat of intellect.

He won first prizes for me by doing my science projects and essays.

Once, he even wrote me a great paper on Silas Marner.

Daddy, what if someone found out?”

Nonsense,” he would answer.

My father, the arbiter of culture.

He impassively changed the channel just as the Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan.

We watched Lawrence Welk.

I was born to a Jewish mother.

Smothered me with love, then threatened to withdraw it every time I stepped out of her line.

Forbade me from making friends with kids she thought were dangerous.

Later on, she did it with girls, too.

I dated clandestinely.

I lost my virginity on my wedding night.

I spent a lot of time alone and lonely.

I was born to a mother who spoke in euphemisms.

Women were never “homely.” They were “handsome.”

Women were not “lesbians.” They were “special friends.”

And masturbation, if it ever came up, was delicately called “relieving yourself.”

I was a castrado.

Every day mother was tormented by my live-in grandmother.

Mother once beat me for saying that I didn't love the mean old lady.

But, mother smiled, spoke sweetly, and took it for thirty years, then exploded in wrath the day after the old lady died.

I was born to a mother who defended the faith.

Despite eight years in seminary, I don't claim to do it any better.

Her kitchen was the bastion of faith, where food was a final defense against assimilation.

Beware of the things that goyim eat,” she would say. They are all “spoiled.”

Fried chicken – spoiled.

Wonder Bread – spoiled.

Cream gravy – spoiled

Rare steak – spoiled.

Grits – spoiled.

Barbecued anything – spoiled.

Chinese – OK. It's a Jewish thing.

My mother suffered from Xenofoodia.

It was her legacy to me.

Finally unfettered, I cook and eat as I please.

But, if you find me OD'ed on rare roast beef, don't blame it on my mother.

She paid her dues.

She defended the faith.

Now I am suddenly an old man, more decades behind me than in front, and I have yet to figure out the oxymorons and confusions of a muddled and befuddled coming-of-age.

O, could I only be 14 again, eat something that wasn't spoiled, listen unimpeded to the Beatles, and contemplate my imminent redemption.

April 03, 2013


After Newtown, most of us have gone back to “business as usual.” Thus, most of us beheld with half-horror, half-complacency, a teenager in Brunswick, Georgia, indiscriminately blowing away a one-year-old in his stroller. It's just become so much “business as usual.”

What do we cry out? That another weapon has fallen into the hands of a beast? That it's the product of a culture bred of anger, violence, and devalued life? That it's just more evidence that evil is a real presence, which we too easily doff off as insanity or culturally-driven malevolence?

Our understandable instinct begs to punish the predator. Hang him. Poison him. Gas him. Fry him. Even those folks who oppose capital punishment start equivocating. I asked Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel about this, and his seemingly not-too-philosophical answer was, “Sometimes it's just different.”

But, immeasurably more elusive are the questions of faith, ones that cannot be whitewashed through sociology and psychology. They are not theological abstractions; they shake even people of belief to the core: Where was God? How does a benevolent God let such bestiality exist? Why a precious, pristine baby? Why?

Are there really answers? After all has been spoken, even a thousand philosophers or theologians cannot explain away the death of one innocent child. The belief that this child now rests peacefully at the throne of the Divine can bring only the vaguest comfort to a grieving mother. Do you mean God is so selfish that He would rather have a blameless baby with Him than with his loving mama?

No satisfactory answers. A test of faith? Possibly the hardest. Yet, most of us do somehow continue to believe, and our faith remains to sustain and comfort us. As Wiesel's rabbi told him after the death camps, “The question is not how I can believe, but how can I not believe.” Faith may be preposterous, but the specter of living without faith allows nothing to make sense. My mother would say more succinctly, “God is a big boy. He knows how to fend for Himself.”

So God is a big boy. In the long run, I don't fear for His derision anywhere nearly so much as I fear losing our own basic faith in humanity – man's capacity to be more than a beast. We face so much damning evidence that believing in the human capacity to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” (the prophet Micah's admonition) becomes all but impossible. We need not look back to the Holocaust to witness humanity gone malignant. Holocausts still rage. The conscienceless murder of even one blameless baby is no less than a holocaust in microcosm.

Is there an antidote that we can muster against inhumanity? Yes, there is so much we can still do. And let it be said, not gratuitously, that our own community has a gracious head start, because we are already so distinguished by our compassion, idealism, and generosity.

The answer is not merely an op-ed or “teaching” about altruism. It lies in making compassion and idealism all-pervasive forces that seep out of the pores of a community's life, forces from which you may be able to run, but not hide. Let those forces be made manifest through our faith communities and secularists, our schools, the corporate and non-profit worlds, civic organizations, government, arts, theater, music, and any other vehicles through which people of goodwill unite. Work individually. Form partnerships. Let there be major cross-community programs and projects, really outstanding ones, to celebrate the vision of altruism. Let there be thinkers and resource pools to percolate new, out-of the-box ideas. Let there be massive marketing and PR campaigns – all to cast an omnipresent aura of compassion over our community. The final objective? As my colleague puts it: The power to create. The will to perfect. The ability to dream. The capacity to love.

Would a community buy into such a cockamamie scheme? Would ours? Might we here declare a Year of Altruism?

Keep the name and idea in mind. You will be hearing more.

February 07, 2013


Mahat bi-tahat – “a needle in the behind.” In Hebrew, that's what we called Mayor Ed Koch. He could be charming and witty. But when he got a mahat bi-tahat, he could turn around and ruthlessly inflict it upon anyone who was deserving.

I once had an encounter with Ed Koch in which he played the mahat bi-tahat. It was Thanksgiving week, 1983, about the time that homelessness became an emergent issue. Even “nice people” who lost their jobs or were a paycheck from poverty, were going homeless. Cities and welfare organizations hurriedly arranged shelters, and churches opened their doors.

Speaking early that week, Mayor Koch praised the churches that had stepped up to address the issue. Not one to keep the mahat in his tahat, though, the Jewish Koch then leveled a broadside at the Jewish community. He gruffly announced that he had not heard of a synagogue anywhere that was taking in the homeless.

The Jews were incensed. How dare Koch criticize? How dare he hang out dirty laundry? No one, we said, needed to defend the record of Jewish compassion and benevolence. The Jewish world sliced Koch to shreds.

The issue did not escape us in Atlanta. I knew that by the next Sabbath I would have to say something from the pulpit. But when Sabbath came, I chickened out. Instead of raining down hellfire, I avoided the topic and delivered a lame sermon on an unmemorable topic. Then I sat down.

The end, I thought. But, no.

Later in the service, I ascended the pulpit to deliver the weekly announcements. On pure impulse, not really knowing what I was doing, I said something like this:

After the dust settles and people calm down, we will realize that Mayor Koch was right. We Jews are to be the most merciful of people, and we have fallen short. Now, anyone who is interested in starting a shelter, please talk to me during the reception.

To my utter amazement, as I walked down the aisle I was bombarded by parishioners who did not wait for the reception to engage me: “I'll help organize the shelter!” “I'll volunteer!” “I have blankets I can donate!” “I know someone who can give us a washer and dryer!” “I'll talk to the youth group!”

That was the Saturday of Thanksgiving, 1983. By January 10, we opened a shelter for 20 homeless women. We served supper and breakfast seven days a week, provided showers and a washer-dryer, a lounge, clean beds and linens, and friendship. Everything was done by volunteers. The nearby churches worked alongside us. We asked for no outside funding, but the Salvation Army presented us with $10,000.

Interesting. The next year, another synagogue started a shelter. As time passed, other synagogues around the country opened their doors. I don't know how many there are now, but I do know that our wacky congregation had the distinction of being the first.

I moved on to Charlotte in 1985, and we organized a shelter there. Meanwhile, 30 years later, the shelter in Atlanta still serves the sadly burgeoning homeless population. Now they also have a social worker, medical and dental care, job placement and literacy programs.

What a-ha's can we learn? First, the commitment to compassion is not absent, but simply a sleeping giant, in most congregations. Once awoken, the potentialities are limitless. Second, when a congregation serves an ideal, the whole congregation gets healthier. When we started sheltering the homeless, everything began to thrive. Attendance at services, participation in classes and events, membership, all shot up. Third, working compassionately restores ideals to people who think their ideals have been lost. More than once I heard someone say, “I feel the same idealism I used to feel back in the '60s, that I never imagined would return.” Fourth, and most importantly, it affirms to a cynical world that altruism is still alive. It reigns.

This is not about what a “visionary” Marc Wilson was. I was no more than an alarm clock. The altruism was asleep, not dead. Ed Koch deserves all the credit. He may not have been a visionary either, but he was a superior mahat bi-tahat, just where and when it was needed. My tahat still smarts, but at least he and I did a little good. God bless his memory.

October 12, 2012



Open for me the gates of righteousness;

I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord,

Through which the righteous may enter.  (Psalm 118)

By nature, I’m not a crier.  That doesn’t mean that I am bereft of deep emotions, or at least I do not think so.  It’s just that my tears, of joy or of sadness, do not flow forth with ease.

Then why did I well up with tears when we chanted those verses in synagogue on the recent festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles)?  As meaningful as the Psalm is, I realize that it was the plaintive melody, even more than the words that tugged at my heart so compellingly.  The particular melody that Rabbi Julie sang, you see, is invested with bittersweet sentiments and memories that transport me back nearly a half-century to San Francisco, the Summer of Love, 1967, and a commune at the edge of Haight-Ashbury called The House of Love and Prayer.

That summer, home from Yeshiva, I was an on-and-off resident of The House of Love and Prayer.  In fact, they ordained me “Assistant Resident Messianic Prophet in Training.”  (For a yuk, check out the abbreviation!) 

The resident guru of the House was one Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  At that time there were other gurus in the world of New Age Judaism, but none had the renown of Sholmo.  He composed and sang beautifully exuberant and doleful melodies in hip coffee houses, folk festivals, and the like.  And he regaled his devotees and hangers-on with wonder-tales and parables from the mouths of saintly Chasidic Masters.  (For more, Google him or listen to his melodies on You Tube.)

The first time I heard Shlomo sing his melody for Psalm 118 was on a Saturday night after we bid the Sabbath farewell.  Fifty-or-so of us crowded into the living room of the House, sitting on the floor, singing, clapping, swaying, holding on to each other shoulder-to-shoulder, embracing Shlomo’s songs and stories.

I remember it well.  I recall most being surrounded by a feeling of all-wellness, wrapped in peace, welling up with love.  Vietnam, draft cards, and political intrigue would have to wait.  If only we could envelop the world in such a joyous, healing sensation.  For me, it was a coming of age, truly a Summer of Love.  And today, it is the taproot from which my bittersweet tears flow whenever we chant those holy words to Shlomo’s mystical melody.  I am back in San Francisco, the House, 1967, sweet and innocent times, a wisp of memory, a wistfulness born of yearning.

I cried once more on the holy days.  How ironic to be overwhelmed with tears on the very last day of the season, the day dedicated to rejoicing with the Torah.  I spent the holiday in Atlanta with my kids and grandchildren, worshiping at an orthodox synagogue overflowing with young families.  Men and women, most of them half my age, circled the Torah scrolls, dancing and whirling while they raised their voices in Hebrew songs that celebrated God and His Word.

As the dancing subsided, the little children, at least a hundred of them, crowded the pulpit to receive their special blessing, as is the custom.  They all huddled under a huge prayer shawl and we joyfully pronounced, “May the angel who redeemed me from all evil now bless these children!”  As I watched my grown children dancing and singing, and my grandchildren being led to the pulpit by their parents for their blessing, I could no longer restrain my tears.

Almost half a century has passed since the summer of Shlomo and the House.  What has happened to me, to us, during the intervening years is almost too much to fathom – birth and death, youth and old age, joy and regret, achievement and failure.  And so we shed a tear for what once was and another for the promise of what may yet be.  We take the bitter with the sweet, wonder how life has flown by, yearn for bygone days, marvel at our children having grown to adulthood, as their own children now huddle under the magical prayer shawl to receive their blessing.

How could one not look longingly back and hopefully forward without welling up with tears of the bitter and the sweet?

July 26, 2012

I know I’m getting on in years . . . You just don’t have to remind me.  Society tells us that we are growing older more graciously.  Yet, those of us who are over 60 are bombarded by the inescapable truth that life is significantly more than half-over, and that now is time to start planning . . . before it is too late.  By 60, the appellation “senior” has become an indelible badge. 
Tell me that youth is a function of attitude.  One’s senior years can, with deference to Browning, be “the last of life for which the first was made.”  Many folks with 20, even 30, years seniority on me live vibrantly, productively.  And God knows the social resources are there to do it.  So call it my problem.  Despite any number of physical infirmities, I am simply not ready to be called a senior yet, not so soon.  My prime seems to have flashed by in a wink, and rather than philosophically acquiesce, I am hanging on for dear life.
The one glitch:  What to do about the ever present, ever welcome, senior discount?
I, like you, am most regularly confronted by my senior-dom in the checkout line.  I do not resist the idea of receiving a “senior discount” at the cash register, but I chafe when the clerk simply assumes that I am a senior and credits my tab accordingly.  Occasionally I will ask if I really look like I’m 60.   The most tactful among them will answer that they are giving me the benefit of the doubt.  The majority of them give you that “nobody’s home” look that has “a-duh” written all over it.
Nope, I won’t forego my five-percent discount.  But, I’d just appreciate a more subtle, discreet way to break it to me that I have crossed the threshold to old age.  How about “maturity discount,” or “hard knocks discount”?
I also won’t balk at taking advantage of the considerable pre-6:00 senior discount at the movies.  Regardless, they still cost way too much.  And what is the subtle message about grouping us with children in the sign about the reduced rate for tickets?  I tell you, when I was a kid, a quarter got you into the Northtown theater for an entire Saturday-afternoon of entertainment – two sci-fi flicks, a Little Rascal’s short, a pair of Roadrunner cartoons, and Mister McGoo!  [OK, OK, so I am showing my age.]
The early-bird discount at restaurants is another peeve.  It announces to the world that those of us over 60 would be best to eat our dinner before nightfall to (1) avoid driving after dark (2) digest our dinner before the onset of bedtime GERD (3) catch Wheel of Fortune at 7:00.
So here I am in the classical ambivalent position, grateful to reap every possible benefit from the so-called “senior” discount, just not carry the baggage that goes along with it.  How would it hurt, as I say, to call it a “maturity” discount, so that cranks like me can split the imaginary hair between being vitally mature and over-the-hill senior.
I probably would not have been moved to write any of this had it not been for a recent episode in the Greenville airport.  I was being transported to the elevator in a wheelchair, having a few weeks earlier fractured four vertebrae, now ready to board our flight.  The scene was sufficiently pathetic, when just to make sure, the desk clerk announced over her walkie-talkie to her downstairs counterpart, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Be ready by the elevator.  I’m sending down an old couple to you!”
Old??  Old?!
I may be a senior.  In someone’s mind I might even be old.  It’s just that I don’t plan to answer to either of them for the foreseeable future. 
So rev up my walker, Honey.  We can still catch the early show.  Better still, let’s head over to Publix.  It’s Wednesday, and we’ll get our . . er . . . maturity discount.  After all, every rule has its exceptions.

June 11, 2012



Good morning, class. Our Yiddish words for today are “schlemiel” and “schlemazal.” The schlemiel and schlemazal are tragedo-comic characters who are perennially down on their luck.

Are the schlemiel and schlemazal synonymous? Ask any Yiddish aficionado, and he will resort to a word-picture to drive home the distinction: The schlemiel is constantly spilling his bowl of hot soup. The schlemazal is the one who is always getting the soup spilled in his lap. Many of us have our own stories to be told. Take this personal example, a cautionary tale of my own, starring me in both roles of schlemiel and schlimazel:

I am taking Minnie the Dog for her morning constitutional on a particular dank and rainy day. I feel particularly virtuous, because Linda usually does the morning run. This morning I play daddy, so Linda can get to a meeting on time.

The steps down to the backyard are made of railroad ties, the kind that get mercilessly slippery in the rain. There had been plans to install railings along the stairway, but as you would expect, the project dropped to the bottom of a lengthy to-do list.

So, I take two steps, and a moment later, I become the prototype schlemazal. My feet fly out from under me, and I land flat on my back, like in a Road Runner cartoon.

You want to know about pain? Oy! Such a schlemazal! Details are irrelevant. After two sets of x-rays and a CAT scan, we determine that I have fractured four vertebrae.

“It could always be worse,” my Uncle Izzy would say. Broken vertebrae aside, it could always be worse. The spine, they reassured me, was stable, so l could resume activities and watchfully wait for two month for another series of x-rays and CAT scans. And new railings have already been installed.

What kind of transcendent lessons can be learned from a schlimazel who slips and breaks his back on the proverbial banana peel? I need not reach too far:

First, be careful! Mother and father usually knew best when they cautioned and re-cautioned us about the perils we might confront when we’re out on our own.

Second, cherish the moment. The scant moment when I was transformed from schlemiel to schlimazel, I did see my life pass before my eyes. For whatever reasons, my first response was to try to wiggle my toes. Upon succeeding, I knew by instinct that everything would be fine.

God looked down on me with undeserved providence. But how many of our brothers and sisters do not share the privilege of cherishing the moment when they knew all would work out? Then think of starvation, of disease, of torture and genocide, and their victims who are belittled into hopelessness. What might we do?

Finally, but foremost: Ordinary people doing ordinary things bring extraordinary gifts. People in the hospital – techs, cleaning staff, transporters, nurses – people who work at their jobs and collect their pay, leave behind a smile, a laugh, a sensitivity, a concern, a wish and a prayer. And, I discovered the same in airports that are notorious for indifference. They now seemed only too quick to accommodate with a wheelchair, and to assist getting over a step, and helping navigate the concourses. Just everyday people who will help bear a load that might be too much for you to maintain.

I know what you’re saying cynically: Sure, that’s the treatment you get when you are a well-dressed guy, gray hair, the other side of sixty, in a wheelchair. To this I have no refutation. But I have intuition. My intuition tells me that, over all, people are getting nicer, and if we push a little harder we might actually foment a revolution for niceness. It’s almost as if we could see the brokenness of a person and be led to basic niceness. Then we would recognize that every one of us carries his/her own bag of sadness, and fear, and insecurities. We all need a gift of compassion, understanding, of basic niceness. And then dare we dream that kindness will explode and rain its beloved fallout over all the earth?

Schlemiel, schlimazel . . . there’s a role for each of us to play. Think about it, train your sights on it, do not despair, be known by your niceness. Most of all, be careful. The path can be slippery, and you might take a fall now and again, but if you are careful, you will make it. What a reward awaits.

March 15, 2012


Ian came home for break, halfway through his first year of college. He had been my student, pensive, serious, inquisitive. His questions were deep, and our discussions were lively. They would often overflow class time and continue at the local IHOP.

What a pleasant surprise, then, that Ian wanted to visit with me during his brief visit home. Looking across the table at him at IHOP, I noticed something peeking out from below the left sleeve of his tee-shirt.

“Did you get a tattoo?” I asked him. At the still-tender age of 18, that in itself was disconcerting . . . and, conditioned by my mother’s pronouncements in my youth . . . very goyische, a Torah violation that many pious people consider with special gravitas, a mutilation of the body and the stuff from which idolatry is spawned.

OK, but it was Ian, serious, pensive Ian, so I conveyed a look of grief and consternation, and was ready for the heavier conversation to ensue.

“At least let me see it,” I requested.

“Er . . . you don’t want to see it.”

“If you don’t want to show it to me, that is all right. But little in this world still shocks me.”

Wrong. He tugged at his sleeve and sheepishly displayed an elaborate three-inch Gothic-style cross. Emblazoned in the middle was the word “Shema” in bold Hebrew letters.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I hissed out the words. “How could you have done that? Have you renounced Judaism at the tender age of 18? Do you know enough to know what you’re renouncing?”

No, he said. He hadn’t renounced Judaism; he was still proud to be Jewish.

“And do you believe that you have been saved?” I asked him.

“Saved is too strong a word. Let’s just say that I feel more comfortable.”

“Comfortable.” Not too Jewish an aspiration, especially when the prophets and teachers of old maintained that the role of faith was to afflict the comfortable even more than it is to comfort the afflicted.

“Do you go to church?”

“No, it’s all in my heart.”

We sparred a little more, and then I reminded him that a tattoo is indelible, that he will have to go through his life with a graphic symbol of an indiscretion he committed at the tender age of 18. Would teshuvah remain a possibility? How will it feel one day to wrap his tefillin over that garish cross? I reminded him, too, that tattoos on the arms of Holocaust victims were the embodiment of immeasurable tears and grief and suffering.

As Ian departed, I did the “Jewish” thing: self-recrimination. What had I done wrong? What had we collectively done wrong, so as to sustain the oxymoron of Ian’s Jewish pride at the same time as his Christian comfort? The answer might be “nothing.”

Even so, Ian’s story, like too many others, should be a cautionary note as to what we are, and are not, doing to strengthen Jewish ties – Sustain our day schools and religious schools, provide substantive youth activities and Jewish camping through high school and beyond. Foster the vibrancy of community centers, adult education and Israel opportunities. Encourage the outreach work of Chabad and Kollel.

In schules, let Shabbat services enlighten and stimulate the spirit through robust participation. In homes, a real Jewish feel and substance: everyone together for Shabbat dinner, kiddush, motzi, birkat ha-mazon, no bolting from the table, leave the TV off.

Ian did not have many of these opportunities in “little Greenville.” But he could have had more and better than he got. Stories like his should be a wake-up call to strengthen Yiddishkeit, not a denial that “Sometimes things like that just happen.”

Would all things working for the best prevent stories like Ian’s from happening? Not entirely. But, a Judaism that assertively touches the mind, heart, and muscle – in family and community – would minimize the opportunities. For Ian, I will klop an Al Chet for not reaching out sufficiently, for not being a sufficient role model and teacher. It awakens me to give my students more and better. If Ian’s story means anything to you, let it shake you, too, and give you the impetus to cherish each Jewish soul and somehow be the guarantor of its safety.

February 19, 2012


I don't like going bald. In fact, good genes have given me bragging rights to not losing much hair whatsoever. In my sixties, I still have a full head of salt-and-pepper and a full ("too full," Linda would say) beard that is still tinged with the cayenne color of younger days.

So, the choice to voluntarily go bald and beardless is daunting to my vanity. Likewise is the thought of having a head that most closely resembles an oversized honeydew for the four or so months it takes my hair to grow back to fashionable length.

Why, then, tempt fate? The answer is empathy, solidarity. I look at a kid suffering from cancer, and I realize that his or her baldness is not some vain option. It is a price paid in tender years to be spared from a most sinister disease. Dare we even use the word "cured"? With the help of the Almighty and gifted, committed researchers and clinicians, cure is now a daily reality, not an elusive riddle.

I shave my head in unity with those kids for whom a head of hair is a deferred luxury. I shave my head as a conversation piece anytime a person asks a fool such as I why I have made myself look even more foolish. I shave my head because it is precious little I can do to draw complacent people not to avert their eyes, but to look with an open heart upon that suffering little kid.

But, I shave most of all to make money - lots of it. Along with 150+ other Greenvilleans, we will shave ourselves silly, because we find sponsors among benevolent people who know that our baldness is a trigger, a symbol, of deepest compassion for children who have already suffered too much.

We coalesce under the banner of "St. Baldrick's Day," part of an international effort which has raised more than $150 million in the last eleven years, including close to $250,000 right here in the Upstate in the last four. This year we will celebrate St. Baldrick's Day on Sunday, March 18, 1:00-4:00 PM, Downtown next to Larkin's on the River, part of the Peace Center complex. It will truly be a celebration, too. Activities for the kids, shock jocks to keep the party moving, food courtesy of Larkin's. And, of course, six barber chairs to accommodate the 150+ shavees, 15-20% of whom, by the way, are women!

How do you become involved? Become a shavee, of course. Assemble a team. Volunteer. Hold a fundraiser. Sponsor shavees. Don't give until it hurts; give until it feels good! You'll find all the information at
www.stbaldricks.org or by calling 864-271-3715.

Shaving my head and beard does a trip on my vanity, I confess. But the price is negligible or less, compared to those precious little kids who lose their hair as the price of their cure. Join me, please, in balding-out for an honorable cause, or generously supporting someone who is.

February 11, 2012


Elsie, Linda's mother, has just died. She had been under hospice care in a nursing home. We knew that the chemo and radiation had lost their efficacy, and that her comfort, "palliation" they call it, was our only priority until death had its way. Her mind had been sharp until the very last, recognizing people, saying "Hi!" and even laughing at an occasional joke. The last days of her life were tragic for the onlookers, but for Elsie they were relatively free of pain, even comforting, surrounded by the ones she loved most.

But, it is not so for everyone in the nursing home. The Alzheimer's unit faces Elsie's corridor. Day after day, the people most severely stricken by the disease are wheeled into the commons area in front of the nurses station. A majority of them stare vacantly into the ether. In a way, they are better off than those who scream or babble or wriggle to get out of their chairs -- still contending with the struggle between wholeness and vacuousness, or so it seems. Every once in a while, a devoted child or spouse comes by to visit a loved one. Most of them speak toward their mom or dad about "normal" everyday things, hoping against hope for a sign of recognition, looking for some awareness in the eyes of their beloved.

A "survivor's disease." That's what they call Alzheimer's. The victim is seemingly impervious, while those nearest and dearest suffer the grief brought about by memories of more vital days -- Dad as Dad. Mom as Mom. This is how we suffered for four years with my father, once upon a time an army colonel, a forensic scientist, a man of letters, relegated to diapers and spoon-feeding by my mother or me. How could a decent man be dealt such injustice?? How could such a devoted wife be put to suffering so much grief?? If any theologian proposes a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions, run in the opposite direction. The ways of God may be inscrutable, but sometimes they are just downright cruel.

Call me narcissistic, but having passed midlife, I do not so much think instinctively of the grief I might suffer at the illness of others. Instead, I have found myself increasingly contemplating how my own possible appointment with Alzheimer's might look. After all, my father and two grandfathers were senile by age 70, just a scant eight years away. I fear my lapses of memory, my inability to find the right word in conversation, the foolish gaffes I commit in doing some trivial task.

I look into their vacant stare and wonder whether that will be my fate a decade from now, their contorted posture in their wheelchairs, their incapacity to recall their children's names, or worse, not even recognize their progeny. I look at them, and I see myself in however many years from now, sapped of my vitality and purported wit, relegated to my own wheelchair and bib at mealtime.

I know what you will tell me: Cherish my days and use them wisely, you would admonish me. Show love and share wisdom before it is too late. Try not to contemplate eventualities over which you have no control. Look positively toward the future. And, of course, you would be right. And, of course, I will do my best. But, none of that diminishes the disquieting feeling that when I behold a person numbed by Alzheimer's, I am looking into a mirror of my own soul.

If there is any escape from that soul-shaking image, it must be in my determination to make today all-meaningful, living honorably, as if there were no more tomorrows to achieve a decent life. So begged the Psalmist, "O Lord, teach us to number our days that we might attain a heart of wisdom." That alone, I am sure, enables us to transcend the fear of senility or of death, itself.

December 13, 2011


Max Karelitz just celebrated his 101st birthday. He is quite a character, still extremely sharp, glib, and articulate. Until a couple of years ago he lived on his own and now resides in an assisted-living facility, requiring amazingly little assistance. He is beyond computer literate, and his emails are always masterpieces.

He is a wellspring of memories, growing up as part of the only Jewish family in Fountain Inn. He regales you with stories of the end of WWI, when the teacher sent all the kids home to get spoons and pans to bang as they marched down Main Street in a triumphal procession.

Then he tells you of his years as the only Jewish student at Clemson, when it was a bona fide military academy, drilling with rifles six days a week in the blazing sun. He recounts with relish the details of his army career as a colonel in WWII, the highlight of which was presiding over the surrender of a Japanese battalion at the War’s end.

He boasts about his children, all of whom are older than I, and talks about the good years in the little town of Fountain Inn, where the Karelitz’s were respected merchants and civic leaders, and where they experienced no anti-Semitism whatsoever. The Jewish life of his childhood was pretty much confined to the tutelage of his mother and attending synagogue in Greenville on holy days and other special occasions.

That’s just the slightest nibble at the rich century that Max has spent brightening the world. I know so many of the stories by dint of conversations that we’ve had over the last 13 years. Then it dawned on me that the children of the community knew little of Max and his fabulous stories. What to do?

I ventured to ask Max if he’d be receptive to being interviewed by my Sunday school teenagers. He was delighted. The kids and I outlined the questions and arranged for a volunteer videographer to film and edit the interview. Need I tell you that the experience was outstanding? The kids soaked up the information and stories, and asked more impromptu questions than were outlined on the script. They were at first astonished, then absorbed, by Max’s elaborate answers. Max, for his part, laughed with them and couldn’t wait for more.

I asked the class what changed and what stayed the same over a century’s time. They agreed that things on the surface had changed, but human nature and values pretty much remained constant. Interesting. They now await the opportunity to screen the interview for the adults and other kids in the congregation. Perhaps others outside Beth Israel would like to view it. Perhaps it can be archived in the History Museum or one of the universities. Clemson? (By the way, Max is on his third Clemson class ring!)

How much more could they and we learn from our elders? How much, indeed?

There are a number of oral-history projects with community seniors in process in the Upstate. I don’t know how many are conducted by young people in their formative years. My guess is that there are relatively few. I’m no curriculum “maven,” but let me recommend that faith communities, regardless of denomination or size, put their kids to the delightful, rewarding task of interviewing their elders. Then let them show the interviews to their congregations and beyond.

The symbiosis, you’ll excuse the cliché, is win-win: Elders being dignified by contributing their insights and wisdom, which we too often deem irrelevant, if only by omission. Kids being enriched and prodded to maturity by the sharing of ideals and values. Adults being engaged in affirming that generations either side of their own have their irreplaceable worth. Generations of a community being united by visions of tomorrow built on the enlightenment of yesterday.

Then, if it isn’t too optimistic, let’s share those interviews with each other, as integral to building what Dr. King referred to as the “Beloved Community.” I want to know the reality of what it was like growing up African American in the Upstate, or for that matter Indian, Catholic, Baptist, or Baha’i. I don’t need to hear only the stories of “great” people, but people who are made great by our simply paying attention to their unique histories and visions.

If there are similar projects going on out there, please let me know about them. If you aren’t making a record of your elders, what are you waiting for? Literally, what are you waiting for? Too much to lose, so much to gain.

October 21, 2011


On the eve of my 62nd birthday, I have attained another rite of passage into senior-hood. Wednesday, I’ll go into St. Francis to go under the scalpel – actually the laser – to have my prostate reshaped so that nature might more easily take its course.

I don’t fear the transitory pain or the possible aftereffects as much as the symbolism of being just one more once-upon-a-time hippie who now intrepidly clings to the liberalism of his youth. Now, watching a new generation of protestors march for social and economic justice – just as I did decades ago to protest inequality and an unjust war – makes the serendipity all the more ironic.

We are no surer of the purpose and motivations of today’s protestors than our parents’ generation thought of us. But, unlike so many Middle Americans of four-plus decades ago, I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. This, I believe, is the perspective that only an aging-out unrepentant liberal can provide.

Yes, we were naïve back then, too, easily co-opted by the shenanigans of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and largely incapable of perceiving the myriad shades of gray in a world that we insisted was stark black-and-white. And sometimes we were downright stupid.
Time has made us less naive. Experience has made us less gullible. Our own need to be understood has made us more understanding. And even our stupidity seems to be abating. However, I am not so much struck by the changes as I am by the ideals and impulses that time and experience have not changed. I think to myself, maybe just a little too smugly, that beyond my shiny new car and a couple of pinstripe suits, there is a lot about 41 years ago for which I do not feel a particular urge to repent. I pray that it will be the same for our kids.
We have, many of us 60’s liberals, turned our bleeding-heart inclinations toward feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and defending victims of racism and homophobia. We are the ones who are still committed to building bridges between black and white, Jew and Christian, Israeli and Arab, powerful and powerless. We are the ones who still wonder aloud whether it is better for Nazis and Klansmen to march in the open or to be shoved underground. We are the ones who still wonder aloud whether putting even the most hardened criminal to death has any redemptive value, and whether the reality of poverty at our doorstep is any less “real” than the “reality” of “reality TV.”
We are the ones who still have a healthy skepticism of authority and institutions and power and bureaucracy and political manipulation. We are the ones who are sometimes confused and frustrated by our children’s wavy ideals and quizzical causes. Yet, we, unlike our own parents, we are not so abhorring and judgmental of our children’s music, clothing, antics, and vague glimmers of individualism . . . memories of my Dad, who got up and summarily changed channels three notes into the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan.
For however stupid we might have been, I still believe that the world is better off for the presence of unrepentant liberals on their collision course with senior citizenship. And so, for the first time in the longest time I cue up my “Sergeant Pepper” album into the player. “I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade . . . “
Maybe and maybe not.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
I think: I am a whole helluva lot closer to 64 than I am to those heady, deliciously naive days of 1970. I live vicariously through images of young protestors whom I watch on the news. Then, I review my pre-op instructions and pop a Flomax, just a bit more sure of all that has changed and all that must somehow, some way, endure.