You know, it’s a funny thing being a rabbi. You’re usually young when you become one, and so you expect to change the world. Or, save the Jews. Or, at least be involved in serious matters. Soon enough, though, you learn that’s what’s on your mind isn’t necessarily what others may have on theirs.
I thought about this recently while getting a haircut. A place on Eglinton I’ve gone to for a good while. As I sit down in the chair, the woman who has cut my hair for years now greets me with a big smile. “I hear you have a new book being published!”
Believe it or not, I like being under the radar screen. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve sat next to on airplanes who’ve left the plane thinking they’d just met a guy who writes technical economic reports in obscure political journals…. (Trust me, being a rabbi is not something to readily reveal on a long plane ride.) I never identify myself as a rabbi outside the synagogue. So while I haven’t pretended otherwise all these years at the same hair salon, neither have I said one word about what I do. But people know — they just do.
Anyhow, I look up a little sheepishly, and I await what’s coming next. You can always tell when there’s a next line coming, and often you know exactly what it is. Sure enough: “Yes, I heard about your book from a client of mine, a man whose wife knows that I cut your hair also. She told her husband he must ask me, “The rabbi colours his hair — doesn’t he?”
The very line I knew was coming. For the record….well, maybe for another day.
Anyway, we tend to watch one another closely, don’t we? It’s just in the nature of being human. But, it’s no less our shared way to pay attention to serious matters, as well. That, too, is who we are.
Which brings me to “Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi”.
About a year and a half ago I was writing a different book. One on my time as a young radical in Los Angeles. Writing about those California days, I couldn’t help but think of my years in Canada — especially how my views changed significantly over the twenty five years while at Holy Blossom. Hence, my digression to do this book first.
When I arrived in Toronto, so serious a leftist was I, that I thought the NDP and Ed Broadbent retrograde. The same year that Broadbent was running against Mulroney and Turner — 1988 — south of the border, I was a Jesse Jackson supporter. I’d always been on the left and assumed I’d always be. By the mid-Nineties, I no longer was. I’d undergone an intellectual and political evolution. I was now politically homeless.
This book tells, sometimes directly, sometimes more implicitly, what brought about the change. It does so through what I wrote over the years — sermons and articles and more from then, along with linking and retrospective pieces written earlier this year. I asked myself one basic question: What was it that pressed so hard that a longtime left liberal, not much different from friends and colleagues, would stay from the comforts of a fixed political address? Comforts, by the way, I still miss.
What changed largely, though by no means entirely, was how I understood Israel and her predicaments. I won’t rehearse things here, except to recall just this: when Jerusalem was bloodied by the bus bombings in the mid-Nineties — at the behest of Yasser Arafat, ostensibly their partner for peace — I felt compelled to look closely, differently you might say, at the chasm between what I hoped for and what actually was. That’s when I read, often for the first time, people whose views I’d previously shunned.
My evolution has been more than about Israel. What has likewise preoccupied me so, has also spurred my intellectual growth: the vexing matter of what becomes of us when Jewish tradition’s hold vanishes from before our eyes. I still don’t have an adequate response — at least in part because the gap, alas, once again, between my hopes and the discernible reality is often an unbridgeable divide.
There’s a good deal more here, much of it personal. The book is, in effect, a small meditation on how we change, knowingly or not, from one way of perceiving the world to another. It ranges from Jerusalem to East Africa, the two places I think of as Home in the deepest ways I can imagine. Which, by the way, returns me in my writing now to my California days, a young man of twenty when everything appeared so different, and I had no idea any of this was ahead of me.
Finally, I’m most grateful for your presence tonight. I appreciate your warmth and good wishes. I’m especially grateful to those who supported the publication of “Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi”, many of whom are here tonight. As I say in the book, and I’d like to say so now, too, these are people who’ve made signal contributions to Canadian and Jewish life in recent decades, and have done so with modesty and imagination. And, to my dear friends who’ve said most kind things in the book, as well as on this evening, and no less to many others of you — your love and loyalty is unforgettable.
A special thanks to two people, if I may. To Yossi Klein Halevi, as good a friend as he is an astute analyst and defender of Israel; and, likewise, to my senator friend, to you Linda, you who are true blue whenever your friends need, and even when we don’t.
And I’m grateful to Holy Blossom for wishing to host this book launch. Permit me to warmly thank the people who made the evening possible: Rabbi Yael Splansky, Joan Garson, Russ Joseph, Jim Westcott, Shelly Berenbaum, Mari Lynn Rusak, Judy Nyman, Harvey Schipper, Robert Carnevale; and, most of all, the straw that stirs the drink around here, she who I’ve been lucky to work with for years now, Hayley McAdam.
One last matter. To the question I get asked most often these days, the answer is: I’m writing this next book, I’m rabbi emeritus here at Holy Blossom, and I’m quite happy doing both!