Columns - 1999

    How to Succeed...

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Shofar Columnist

    ... in teaching

    Last fall, I taught a high school course for a synagogue called "How To Succeed in Ethics Without Really Trying". (That was the name of the course, not the synagogue.) The course covered chapter two of Pirkei Avot, the Talmudic book of Jewish ethics, in the hope that the leaders of tomorrow wouldn't, in terms of Jewish ethics, find themselves in Chapter 11.

    Well, that class has come and gone, and I feel no small amount of satisfaction knowing that a few of my 20-odd students will be a little closer to succeeding in ethics, and the rest will succeed in not really trying.

    This term, I'm teaching a course that is an introduction to kaballah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Originally designed as a class to help my 11-very-odd students see past the common misconceptions about what kaballah is, I wanted to title the class "Shishkaballah". Unfortunately, after consultation with the kitchen committee, the principal decided it wasn't kosher enough.

    ... in kashrut

    Which raises an interesting question: How can something not be kosher enough? On the surface, it seems that degrees of kashrut are as likely as degrees of marriage. "That potato chip isn't kosher enough," being similar to "well, they're only sort of married."

    But if we read between the lines on the grocery labels, one can see there's plenty of space between the K's (for kosher), the O-U's (the Orthodox kosher symbol), the circle-C's (Conservative), and the circle-R's (Reform).

    Ever since someone pointed out the last two symbols, it became apparent there must be a wider interpretation of kashrut depending on the movement. Strangely enough, when I called several distinguished Reform and Conservative scholars to ask more about these symbols, none had any comment.

    ... in having a clear image

    Speaking of having no comment, I was reading the Birmingham Post-Herald on the Internet one day in late December, and noticed the headline "Muslims, Jews, ponder strikes on Iraq." Intrigued, since neither I nor my Islamic officemate had received memos about this from our respective peoples, I read the article. It quickly became apparent that the article was garnering local (Birmingham) opinions from the forementioned peoples regarding the at-that-point-in-time situation involving Iraq, or Clinton's approval ratings, depending on your party affiliation.

    I continued reading figuring it likely I'd see a potable quotable or two from an acquaintance or two from my less western days.

    For those of you who were finishing your Christmas shopping, I'll summarize the article's content. After several nice quotes from local Muslim leaders and others, the article said, "Members of the Muslim community are not alone in their desire for peace and an end to the airstrikes. Other religious leaders also are grappling with the air strikes."

    "Self," I said to myself, because that's what I call myself, "let's see which rabbi they found in his or her office first."

    The article goes on with "It's been our prayer that God will bring peace and protection to the citizens of Iraq". And I'm thinking we're getting a very good, caring quote from our clergy. Way to show membership in a world community!

    Then the quote is attributed to "a Messianic Jew who lives in Harpersville." (I leave out the name because this is not a personal thing. If this was a personal thing, it'd be in another part of the paper, and you'd be reading about my interests in football, swimming, and touring the wine country.)

    "Huh?", I said to myself. (That's all I said this time since I already knew who I was talking to and didn't have to get my own attention again.)

    Okay, I'm open-minded. I live in California, it's a requirement for citizenship. I think brussels sprouts are, too. (That is, I think eating brussels sprouts is also a requirement for California citizenship. I've met several brussels sprouts that were very stubborn.)

    Anyway, I said "Huh?", but kept reading, expecting the name of someone I knew. Reading on, the next sentence explained "Messianic Jews believe Jesus was the messiah. They observe both Jewish and Christian holidays." And there were no other quotes resembling anyone else purportedly Jewish to be found.

    Now, I know they have as much right to call themselves Jews as I do to call myself a columnist, actor, or cosmonaut. The First Amendment, the one that seemingly allows everything these days short of murder (the latter still being true at press time in at least 33 states and the Republic of Texas). I just have to wonder how such an article describes Judaism to the people out there like (true story:) those I encountered growing up who'd never seen a Jew before, or who would (also true:) visit a temple with a tour group and ask where the altar is where we do our sacrifices.

    No, the article was about Iraq, not Israel; and it was about politics, not religion. But it was distinctly not about Judaism. And there's a good number of people who won't realize that as their vague impressions of Jews are subtly turned by what was most likely an unintended ambiguity.

    Imagine if someone attempted to actively proselytize and misinform in this manner. In the words of one scholar, "It's easy if you try."

    I could go on, but won't. If you understand, you know what else I'd say. If you don't get it, you've already taken offense at the little I have said and nothing I could say will change that.

    ... in closing with a joke

    Two Jews walk into a bar. Exam.

    Doug Brook is a technical writer in Silicon Valley, where a Jew is a Jew, a Buddhist can be a Jew, and a Jew can be messianic... but everyone must be a Niners fan, or else.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.