Category Archives: Life and Philosophy

What’s in a Name?: Ezra Wasserman Mitchell

After almost two decades of indecision, I today emerged from the New York City Civil Courthouse as Ezra Wasserman Mitchell.  For the two or three of you who are interested, I shall explain.

First, Mr. Shakespeare (or rather Juliet) was wrong, at least to a Jew.  But Shakespeare displayed all he knew about Judaism in The Merchant of Venice, so he’s unreliable to begin with.

There are many cultures in which names and naming are vitally important.  Judaism is one of them.  In fact naming is so bound up with Jewish theology that we understand that Ha’Shem created the world through words, through naming.  And Adam triumphed over the other creatures by naming them all.  Abraham and Sarah and Jacob, among others, were renamed. Kabbalistic mysticism is significantly about words and names.

The name one is given at birth is important.  Ideally it reflects much thought by your parents about who you are, or will be, or who’s memory you carry.  But birth doesn’t mean that much from a spiritual perspective.  In Judaism, we don’t treat birthdays as all that important.  The telling example is that we don’t remember our loved ones on their birthdays.  We remember them on the anniversaries of their deaths — their yahrzeits.  On the day of your birth, you are a mewling infant.  We have no idea who you are (no matter how aspirational our naming might be).  But on the day of your death, we know exactly who you are.  We know what you have accomplished.  We know your character.  We know the many missions you have fulfilled.  The way you have touched the lives of others, for better or for worse.  Moses Maimonides is a good example.  We don’t know his birthdate — there are at least several different candidates.  But we know to the minute when he died.  At birth, he was Moshe ben Maimon.  At death, he was RaMBaM.

So, in the course of one’s life, or at least mine, one may (or at least I did) find that your (my) birth-given name just doesn’t fit.  Fortunately, I could do something about it, if later than I would have liked.

My name doesn’t fit for several reasons.  Most basic — and least spiritual – is aesthetic.  I have known several fine Lawrences and Larrys in my life.  But I personally don’t like the way either name sounds.  The first is a bit difficult for me to pronounce clearly (it starts in a kind of mushy sonoric ambiguity), and it lacks musicality and a clear rhythm.  It is a supposedly strong name that, to my ear, sounds weak and flabby.  As to Larry — well, perhaps it’s enough to celebrate that I will never be called “La” again.

But there is more.  The name means nothing to me.  Now my Hebrew name — Eliezer Ezra ben Shlomo (or really the Yiddish-Hebrew Lazar Ezra ben Shlomo ) — does mean something to me.  Of Ezra Ha’Sofer — the prophet who returned the people to Jerusalem and the Torah to the people following the Babylonian exile — it is said that if Moses had not received the Torah from Ha’Shem, Ezra would have been qualified to have done so.  (Please remember that I said this was aspirational, not by any means reflective of anything I’ve achieved or am likely to.)  And I choose to use it rather than include the Eliezer because integrity would have demanded that I use the Yiddish Lazar and, while I like it better than “La,”  it lacks the easy gentle buzz of Ezra. Ezra, to me, is softly melodic, while at the same time quite strong.

But Yiddishists fear not.  I may have skipped out on Lazar (which remains part of my Hebrew name), but I have included Wasserman as part of my name.  (וואסערמאנ in Yiddish.) Whence the Wasserman?  Here I present myself as a Jewish Kunte Kinte.  You see, I have always been unhappy that my surname is anything but identifiably Jewish. (My dear friend and mentor describes it as “androgynous.”)  For all of my Cantor, Reisner, and Bernstein forebears, the name of my paternal line is distinctly English in character.  Now, unlike Lawrence, Mitchell does mean something to me.  It is the name of my father and my grandfather and his father before him.  My great-great grandfather chose the name (or perhaps it was chosen for him at some English Ellis Island) after emigrating from Poland to London, leaving the ur-name (or at least as “ur” as it gets for an Eastern European Jew) with his father and his past.  So I decided to retain it.

But it has always bothered me.  I have no idea why my great-great grandfather changed his name, nor even whether he did so voluntarily.  He seems to have been quite a good man.  Family lore has it that he was a Chasid.  Most impressive, he left England to fight in a New York regiment in the Civil War – and then returned home.  Why he did this I can only guess, but it at least suggests to me a man of conviction and principle. I make no judgment whatsoever about his name change.

But I don’t like it.  I’ve never liked the idea of changing one’s name (or anything else) to fit in.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t.  And I don’t want to, but my name achieves a bit of that purpose. And it at least superficially subjugates my very strong Jewish identity.  The translation “Waterman” means nothing at all to me.  But Wasserman is irrevocably, identifiably Jewish at first blush.  It ties me undeniably to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.

That is who I am.  It is who I always was.  It is who I always shall be.

So I have reached the point where I’m not worried about losing my scholarly or poetic reputations, at least after a couple of publications with the customary “formerly known as.”  And my son, who objected at 13, is now an enthusiastic supporter.

If not now, when?

I’m Ezra Wasserman Mitchell.  Happy to meet you.

In Praise of Footsteps

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OK.  So.  There are some things you’re not going to see from your car.  Or the bus.  Or the train, etc. , etc, and so forth.  There are some things you are only going to see while on your feet.  And, pretty or not (and I wouldn’t call Ben Gurion pretty),  you’ll be glad you did.

Praise Ha’Shem who has prepared the footsteps of a man.

It is one of of the morning prayers.  And like all of them, it forces us to think about that which we take for granted.  Now I’m not going to be overly theological here — maybe not even theological at all.  But there are things worth remembering.

Most of us are lucky enough to be blessed to be able to walk.  Some are not.  I have a beautiful twenty year old niece who has never walked.  While she seems to live a happy life, knowing her keeps me always in mind of the blessing of footsteps.  They are nothing to take for granted.

I also write as a former runner — injured in my 40s and thereafter years in the gym.  I never enjoyed the gym.  Footsteps — yes, of a sort.  But not the kind of footsteps that acquaint you with the world.

I have always been a walker.  But in the past year I have taken myself out of the gym and onto the streets.  It has been a wonderful blending of revelation and exercise.

Now I’m a bit excessive.  Well, about almost everything.  So why should walking be different?  At home I average eight to ten miles a day. In a new city that can easily grow to fifteen or even sometimes twenty.  The last two days in Tel Aviv have seen me cover 35 miles.

Why?  Well, yes, there is the exercise. But there is so much more than that. If you are really afraid of missing out, think of all you miss by using transportation.  I know.  Sometimes you have to.  And I understand that recently I have been blessed with the luxury of time that permits excess.  But even if you wander around for half an hour a day, it will make a difference.

How else would I have come across young girls in several neighborhoods  in Tel Aviv — no older than eight or nine in groups of two or three — out wandering with their friends, not only fearless but apparently unaware that there might be anything to fear.  From this I learned a lesson about Israel — everybody takes care of the children, so really there is nothing to fear.  (Random terrorism aside.)  Or wandered into a children’s park in Shanghai, hidden among enormous towers and buildings, to see the escape hatches that Chinese kids wear on their pants pre-toilet training?  How to have wandered over to the far end of Grand Street in New York, a little bit of Lower East Side preserved in 1950s-era apartments and public housing.  Or seen the pre-adolescent Hasidic boy , tzitzis and peyes flying behind him as he was running home alone between the Chinese fishmongers?

Photographers know these things.  But why leave all the fun to them?  Walking brings you down to the ground.  It inserts you right into the middle of places you’ve never known and places you’ve been a dozen times that maybe are just a bit different today from yesterday.  Walking forces you to confront people face to face, even if you shyly avert your eyes, not to mention if you smile and try to engage even if only in passing, if only for a moment.  Walking takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to see the abject poverty of a Beijing neighborhood hard against a prosperous middle class development and, more to the point, forces you actually to look at people, to see people,  who might make you sad or uncomfortable.  You can’t escape.  You are there, and so are they. Walking places you in the middle of life.  It keeps you from just passing through.  It gives you understanding.  It forces you to confront the world that is.

There will come a day when I cannot walk.  Perhaps I will be instantly deprived.  Perhaps it will go slowly, so that I must go slowly, and perhaps less far, and perhaps less often.  When that day comes, I will be sad (except if I go instantly, of course).  But I will remember the world I have engaged by wandering around on my feet.  I will have some memory of life as it is.

We can read the prayer as one of direction — Ha’Shem determines the footsteps of man — and that is a common reading.  As for me, I prefer to understand it as acknowledging that Ha’Shem determines that we do in fact have footsteps.  We take them, and the result is imprinted on our minds and our souls.

What a terrible thing to waste.  Get out and walk. You’ll be a better person.

The Diplomacy of Real Estate

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I believe I have found the explanation for a problem that has bedeviled Israel and  the so-called United Nations.

The problem — the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The solution. Real Estate!

It has nothing to do with all the bubbamayses about occupation, conquer, territory, whatever.  Any serious thinker knows that those arguments are non-starters.

It has nothing to do with the protection of Islam’s holy sites. I mean, the best argument the rest of the world has is that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site. i mean really?  My third best friend doesn’t even talk to me.  I’ve got two who are better.

I haven’t even heard of hundreds of people being crushed to death on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So how cool can it be?

It is Israel’s holiest site.  Doesn’t that count for something?  Maybe not if you hate Jews.  But at least note that  the Israeli government has a perfect record of protecting the Dome of the Rock. Those who call it holy?  A storehouse for Molotov Cocktails.

And I’m not going to get into war, conquest, and all of the other issues that world government’s throws up.

So I don’t have to.

The answer is simple.

It’s all about the real estate.

Let’s take a hypothetical.  Let’s say your job requires that you live in, oh, I don’t know, maybe Malibu. It’s only a short drive to your office in Santa Monica and, anyway, you don’t have to do the driving.  And so your employer insists on giving you an all-expense paid beachfront mansion in Malibu so you can be close to but not quite on top of the office.  All expenses.  Mansion.  Beachfront. Barbra’s your neighbor.

Really?

Sweet.

And let’s assume you come from kind of a lame country. Let’s call it Sweden.  Yeah, you’re rich, you’re European which makes you somehow superior to the rest of the world (except it doesn’t and you’re going bankrupt so you try to chase out the Jews whose fault it is) , blah blah blah.  It’s ok with you that nobody actually cares about you. But you spend half your time in darkness and cold.  And you have voting power at the UN. And now you get to a place where your shattered dark Strindbergian soul – the soul that hates Jews even though you don’t really have any — is in MALIBU!  Sunshine.  Light. Warmth. Turquoise seas.

Awesome hummus.

Barbra.

Yay!

Now let’s say you have to move your office to Palm Springs. That will add a few hours to your commute, assuming traffic is light (which it never is).  Now don’t get me wrong.  Palm Springs is lovely. And it might even be fun because maybe you’re cool enough (in an irrelevant second-rate European sort of way) to join the Norwegian Rat Pack.

Frank SinABBA?

But . . . Palm Springs is in the desert.  Sure, there are people who like desert more.  But who doesn’t love the beach? Especially a perfect, turquoise water white sand Mediterranean beach, where you have an actual mansion?

And awesome hummus.

And Barbra.

And now your employer is telling you that maybe you should move closer to the office and give up that beautiful beachfront mansion and live in a kind of cool but smallish faux-Neutra three bedroom near the swinging lights of the desert.

How would you feel?  Right. You don’t want to move.  Now how would you feel if you come from some loser developing country that could never even imagine a place like this and hates Jews even more than you do even though they don’t have any either because they’ve killed them all or chased them out or are so lame that even desperate refugees wouldn’t live there?

Right. You’re not moving, no matter how unfair or irrational your position on the capital is.

Location, location, location.  (By the way, I am very proud as a citizen of the populist republic of the United States to note that our ambassador’s mansion is waaaaay shabbier than others, at least as far as you can from the street behind the walls.   And if you take a look at India’s, you might have some idea why they are so friendly with Israel.  Just sayin’.)

So you demand that Tel Aviv be the recognized Israeli capital rather than Jerusalem.  It’s a short commute.  You can justify the mansion.  You can stay in Malibu  . . .um . . .Herzliya.  Same thing.

The solution to the problem is easy.  Any New Yorker could figure it out.

Let the ambassadors keep their real estate.  The commute to Jerusalem isn’t that bad.

Home

Well, it’s been  . . .um . . . a long time since I’ve last written.  Fortunately I know that none of my readers are sitting on the edge of their respective seats waiting for my next installment.

That said, and by way of explanation, not excuse, a lot of stuff has been happening in my world. Some of it I’ll mention — I finished writing my first novel and am looking for representation; more poems are being published; a few family things that have joyfully resolved — and some of it I’m not yet ready to talk about.  I will soon enough, from a venue perhaps unexpected.

But I feel compelled to write because I am, once again, in the only place that makes me happier than New York.  As readers do not have to guess, I am in Israel.

I might have written earlier — I arrived late Sunday — but for some reason I had a case of the kind of jet lag I haven’t had in years. (Note to self– never arrogantly believe that you have defeated jet lag — it doesn’t happen.)  And I had to teach on Monday.  And Tuesday. And tomorrow.  And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .

My reason for being here is very different than last summer when I was a Hebrew student.  This time I am the teacher, teaching a course at IDC Herzliya on The Pathologies of American Corporate Capitalism, based largely on my work. There are many differences this time, but one constant:  This remains the place I belong.  Project Aliyah has not ended.

And . . . this is the really exciting thing.  I have spoken English only to teach (and in a few more complicated situations).  I have otherwise negotiated everything — cabs, restaurants, shops, hotels, conversations with new people, etc — almost entirely in Hebrew.  Bravo to the teachers at Hebrew U Ulpan and to Haggai at JTS.  Even though it’s been some months since I engaged with the language, whatever they did managed to sink in.  And it is wonderful.  It’s to the point where my eyes first go to the Hebrew, not the English, on all of the signs, and I always use the Hebrew menu (and haven’t yet been shocked at the result).

But this trip is particularly special because it has put me in a very different context.  Last summer I was a student, with other foreign students.  Our teachers were Israeli, we encountered Israelis in Jerusalem, but it was relatively limited.  This time, I am engaging with 65 Israeli students, not to mention the 25 or so who attended my “Master Class on Legal Theory” on Monday.  I am talking with Israeli professors (including, delightfully, a couple of old friends) and staff — insisting on Hebrew until I think I’m going to get into real trouble — and of course the students.  In fact I spent the first five minutes or so of my introduction to the course speaking to them in Hebrew.  And nobody laughed.

So I don’t quite understand why everybody starts speaking English to me BEFORE I open my mouth.  Whereupon I insist on Hebrew and they are happy to oblige.

To engage with Israeli students is a revelation.  They are older.  All have served, or are serving, in the army.  They exude a confidence I generally don’t see in American students, which leads them actually to talk in class as if we were having a conversation.  Yes, by this I mean they interrupt, they don’t raise their hands, they are highly opinionated,yada yada yada.  I’m going to insist that part of this is ethno-cultural — it is quite familiar to this New York Jew — and part of it is as a result of the aforementioned.

They have shown themselves to be friendly and warm — no matter how rude I perceive their sidebar conversations in class to be (see above). They have shown themselves to be engaged with important world issues.  And they have been very sweet to me. Obviously not all of them — there hasn’t been time.  But enough to make me so proud that they are the future of my people, and so humble to know that they already have done more for the Jews than I will in my life.

Herzliya is not Jerusalem.  I am staying in the Industrial District of Herzliya Pituach, a collection of old factories and spanking new high-tech companies (the Apple building across the way from my hotel is an engineering marvel).  The temple here is dedicated to technology, innovation, and commerce.  The restaurants are almost as trendy — seriously –as any you’re likely to find in New York, although far cheaper and with beautiful food (I’ve eaten more vegetables in three days than I have eaten in three years).  And the beach is just a mile down the road, where resort Herzliya presents itself.  This is a town of the Israeli one percent, of beautiful houses behind protective walls and gates, of luxury beach hotels (I was fortunate to stay at the Dan Accadia the last time I was here), a town of trendy shops and fashionable bars. In these dimensions, of course, it is vital to the future of Start-Up Nation, vital to the normalcy of an almost-developed country, and vitally preserves the beauty of neighborhood hummus joints fast against restaurants that require reservations long in advance.

So, in a word, I’m home.  Having finally slept for more than an hour or two, I’m up for some significant exploration and, as is my nature, reflection.  I understand that this entry is a bit disjointed, perhaps not as elegant or thematic as I’d like. But I will continue to report as I observe.   Reveling in the joy of a land of milk and honey.

My Dybbuk and Me

I have a dybbuk. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I hope those of you inclined to make fun of me will bear with me while I explain.

But first. For any of you who might actually care.   I apologize. I disappeared a few months ago after my summer in Jerusalem. What I disappeared into is the life of a graduate student.   I’ve never been one before. I now understand the immense gap between law school and real graduate school.  What I understand about graduate school – for me the Jewish Studies program at Jewish Theological Seminary – is reading.  Reading more than I have ever read in my life.  Reading from well before dawn to well after dusk, reading while waiting for the bus or train (ok, I walk, I don’t take the bus or train, but it’s a nice trope), reading while eating, reading while washing, reading while everything, from when I lieth down until I riseth up, and then all the hours between riseth and lieth and then back again. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It has kept me from writing (except in Hebrew). But I feel compelled to write. Because you might one day have a dybbuk too. And you should know how to deal with it. I didn’t.

OK. Back to the dybbuk. Here’s the story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair – reading, if you haven’t yet figured that out – and using my highlighter and my favorite pen to make notes to myself. Absent-mindedly, I put the pen on the ottoman.   I went to pick it up a few minutes later. It was gone.

Stop thinking what you’re thinking. I didn’t misplace it. My tuchus never left the chair. But, after ten minutes or so of funfering around reaching for it, I slid to my knees and started searching the floor, under and around the few pieces of furniture in the corner where I sit. It’s a small apartment. I branched out. No pen.

Now I know a thing or two about dybbuks.  And I know a thing or two about pens.  And I know that a pen simply doesn’t go walking off without a dybbuk to accompany it.

I also know a thing or two about my own absent-mindedness and a thing or two about the memory of a man who is within sight of saying  adieu to middle age (according to the Federal government, but who cares about those apikorim.) I also know that I am sufficiently careful to put things where they belong, at least things I care about. I considered the possibility that I might have misplaced the pen. But after some serious thought, I realized it had to be a dybbuk. Perhaps it was the faint odor of herring in the air – I haven’t eaten herring in months. Perhaps it was the strange nusach that went through my head. Who knows? All I know is that I was pretty sure it was a dybbuk. I mean, everyone knows that the Upper West Side is full of them. It’s just that most people don’t have the guts to admit it for fear of angering their dybbukim.  I’m fearless.  And penless.

Anyway, a pen is a pen and a dybbuk is a dybbuk. Who had time to worry about either of them? I had reading to do. I could find another pen, and it is clear from that herring smell that the dybbuk had what to eat so it shouldn’t be hungry. (Don’t ask about how cranky dybbuks get when they’re hungry.) A reader without a pen is still a reader, and a dybbuk full of herring is still a dybbuk. What was I to do about it?

So there matters lay. A few more weeks passed. I half expected the dybbuk to return my pen, but it didn’t. For all I know it needed the pen to write essays on Mishna, and I probably could afford a new pen better than the dybbuk. (which I needed because I had to write essays on Mishna). I am a charitable man. Let the dybbuk have the pen.

But everybody knows that the thing about dybbuks is, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.   I should have known somewhere between Rambam and Ramban that there would be more tsooris.

There was.  I remember it well – it was a Wednesday evening. I returned home from school at around 7, my normal time. Always I’m a mess when I walk in – hat on hatstand, scarf on scarfstand, coat on coatstand, tefillin bag on – well, you get the point. I went to my room to daven Mincha (it was before daylight savings time ended which I have to make a point of saying in case my rabbi should read this) and then put on my gatkes. I came out of my room. First I put my cellphone on the ottoman – yes, that ottoman. Then I put my headphones beside it.   I can see the picture even now. Order. Ready for anything. A German Jew would be proud.

I returned to my room for a moment. Really. A moment.

When I came back to my chair, I realized something. The headphones were gone!  From that same ottoman. In that very same place. I looked beneath it, beneath the chair, beneath the furniture, in the corner. I pulled up the rug. No headphones.

Now I was angry. Those headphones were expensive. I had to think in the store, what? – ten minutes maybe – to allow myself to spring for them in the first place. Headphones like that you don’t buy everyday, at least if you’re not Schiff. These headphones were special. I always knew where they were. I always put them carefully in their case. (And talmudically kept touching them to be sure they were there.) But not tonight. One night I forget. And they’re gone.

What could I have done with them? Suddenly, I remembered. The Dybbuk! It had been quiet for a couple of weeks. I learned to like my new pen. I forgot.

I should have known. I know enough about dybbuks that I should have known that the little mamzer wouldn’t be content only with a miserable pen. Now it went for my expensive headphones. Forget Rambam. And Ramban. And Buber. And Bubbie. My headphones were gone. And I didn’t even know the dybbuk’s name. I didn’t know if it was a he or a she. The thing had never been polite enough to introduce itself. But it had no problem taking my stuff.

I called to it. I pled with it. I begged it. I reasoned with it.

What a waste. Everybody knows that there is no reasoning with a dybbuk. So I tried to be nice. I ordered three pounds of kishkas from Fine and Schapiro. (I don’t care what its practices are – it’s not going to eat trayf in my house.) It gobbled it all up before I could even tip the delivery guy. And I was hoping maybe for a bite or two. Now the apartment smelled like schmaltz. And what did I have to show for it? Naked ears.

I needed headphones. Hebrew class required them. But who had the money to replace such nice headphones that you had to take at least ten minutes in the store to decide to buy? The next day I bought a (relatively) cheap pair. I didn’t open the box for a while because I was hoping that when I walked through the door with new headphones the dybbuk would have had it’s laugh and would return mine. No such luck. (Did I say that my dybbuk was a bit of a mamzer?) So I opened them and sacrificed the possible return of thirty bucks.

By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that the dybbuk was here to stay. I don’t know much about the care and feeding of a dybbuk except to realize that this one had more than a healthy appetite – and a bit of a gas problem. I wanted to name it, but without knowing its gender that was hard (and a little embarrassing when I went to the shower). I tried to come up with a gender neutral name, although I kept coming back for some reason to Moishele – which should have told me something to begin with.

And so it was. I had a new roommate. Who, by the way, was not only stealing things but not paying its share of the rent. Other people have their tsooris. This was mine.

Yesterday I decided to clean my apartment. I hate to admit it, but it was filthy. That’s what happens when your nose is buried in the wit and wisdom of the Vilna Gaon.   I mean, I didn’t mind it so much, and I was pretty sure that the dybbuk hadn’t exactly come from a palace, but what did I know? I was cleaning the bedroom. My sweatshirt was on the floor. I picked it up.

My headphones fell from the pocket.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the memory of an alter kokher led me to put it in the pocket, imagine that I had put it on the ottoman, and that was that. Not true. First, I’m not that alter of a kokher. Second, my memory is pretty good. Third. I am positive – I swear by the name of You Know Hu – that I heard gigging coming from the general direction of the ottoman.

But I am a rational man. Perhaps it is possible that I was forgetful and put the headphones in the pocket myself? Perhaps.

But what about the pen?

I’m hoping my dybbuk will introduce itself. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. Perhaps I can drag it to minyan.

Rules

So, I arrived home yesterday morning. I have always been thrilled to return to New York. This time, not so much.

I miss Jerusalem. Terribly. The Hebrew word “norah” seems uniquely equipped to describe the depth of my longing.

Rabbi Lipskier (who I was delighted to see and who kindly gave me an Aliyah so I could say Gomel this morning) offered to pack my bags. I think he just wants my apartment. I may let him get his wish.

This week’s parsha is Re’eh. As regular readers may know, I’ve become increasingly inclined to dismiss coincidence merely as coincidence, at least insofar as matters Judaic are concerned. This week is another coincidence.

You see, Re’eh is all about the (unnamed) Jerusalem, what will happen when we arrive there, and what we are to do there (and not to do elsewhere). While the parsha is unusually wide-ranging (reminding us that the goyim sacrifice their own children, that we can eat giraffe but not hyrax, etc., etc.) Jerusalem is one of its central themes. I feel like it is calling me back, and I was especially pleased to have an Aliyah for this parsha (although my pesukim were all about permitted and prohibited food. Mmmmmmm. Giraffe. Tastes like chicken).

Coincidence aside, I have been fixated on one sentence. While I have read at least four different translations of it, here is my own: “You are not to do all that we do here today each man that is straight before his eyes.” When are we not to do these things? When we arrive in Jerusalem (and, a bit more broadly although I’m not absolutely sure of this, the Promised Land). What are we not to do? We are not do whatever we feel like doing. While my literal translation is a bit stilted (others speak of not doing whatever we desire, etc.), I like mine because it reminds me of what my grandmother used to say when we were eating and I was serving myself any and everything that looked good: you have big eyes. It is an expression that in my experience generally is used by parents to children to caution them to reign in their appetites, so it seems entirely fitting to me that this is how Ha’ Shem would address us.

(I also like the literal dimension of being told not to do “what is straight before your eyes.” What a wonderful way of describing the immediacy of impulse. For what is impulse but an immediate reaction to ‘what is straight before your eyes?’ Considered behavior is quite the opposite.)

What are we to do? Well, the parsha tells us. It begins with “Re’eh” “See.” “See I gave before you blessing and curse.” What is the blessing and what is the curse? Well (anticipating my favorite passage in Nitsavim – my bar mitzvah parsha which we read in a few weeks), the blessing is to follow Ha’Shem’s commandments. The curse is to disobey them. “Choose life for the sake that you and your seed will live.” (Netsavim).

And this got me thinking. It was only this summer that I finally began to appreciate the extraordinary and unique gift of Shabbat that Ha’ Shem gave us and that we gave to the world. (I’m not alone. Just yesterday, in The New York Times, Oliver Sacks, who episodically has been chronicling his final illness, wrote of discovering the beauty of Shabbat, something that he, too, came to appreciate only later.)

But there is another gift we have given to the world, a gift that is at least as important as Shabbat and (if I may verge on heresy here a bit) perhaps even more important (because without ithuman Shabbat would be impossible). That is the gift of knowing how to live in community with others, in peace with others, and with respect for others.

For while this passage in Re’eh may appear to be focused on matters like sacrifice and ritual, it is written far more broadly. ‘You are not to act simply as you want,’ it tells us. And it makes perfect sense that we receive this instruction just before entering the Land, and doing so without Moshe Rabbenu. In the desert, we had Moses to guide us, Moses to intervene for us, Moses to speak directly with Ha’ Shem for instruction and clarification and, if necessary – and it was necessary – Moses to plead with Ha’Shem to spare our miserable lives. But after Moses was gone, the direct line was going to be cut off. What we had was the word. We were left on our own with the guidebook, the instruction manual, of how we could survive and thrive and, conversely, how we would fail to do so if we didn’t follow the rules.

And there it is: a simple statement about survival in the absence of divine intervention. If you hope to survive in community with others (and who can survive if not in community with others?), then you’re going to have to curb your impulses and desires and channel them through the rules of life you are being handed. If everybody did whatever they felt like – if they did ‘what it was straight before their eyes’ to do – survival would be impossible. To my knowledge, never before in the history of mankind has such a statement been made in the context of free will.

And so it is our gift, given to us by Ha’Shem and transmitted by us to the rest of the world for the first time in the history of the world. It is a lesson on how to live together. It is, in short, the gift of survival. It is a lesson that teaches freedom is lovely (and necessary) up to a point, but life together would be impossible if everybody did whatever he or she felt like doing. Freedom you have, including the freedom to choose whether you thrive or die. But know that if you disregard the rules, your big eyes will lead you to real unpleasantness, even death. With apologies to Cole Porter, not “anything goes.” The gift we received is the gift of knowing what does and what does not go.

This is a lesson that seems completely lost in modern America. It is really worth thinking abou

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Fear, Loathing . . . and Perspective

This has been a bad week in Israel. Just as I have been relating all the glories of this nation, so do I feel I must address its mistakes.

But first. Another Shabbat. My friends had departed and I made no plans so, after a day of studying, I decided to return to the Machlis’s one last time.   I was running a bit late but, as I approached the gate that leads from the Student Village to the street, I heard a man call “Adoni.” Sir. Leave aside the fact that at my age I find “sir” an insult, I know it was well-intended. I turned to see a Chasid walking quickly toward me across the plaza. I walked in his direction.

“Hebrew or English?”

“Hebrew please.”

“We need a 10th for a minyan.

“Where?”

“Sham.” He pointed. After almost seven weeks you would think I’d know that a Kabbalat Shabbat minyan gathers in the corner of the Student Village. Nope.

I was late. It was getting dark. What choice did I have?

And although the room quickly grew to 11 to 12 to 15, the nusach and service were so beautiful that I hung out perilously late. But I left.

It was dark. The shortcut to Maalot Dafna runs through an Arab neighborhood. I was wearing my kippah. The news around here might dictate the common sense that I risk being late by taking the long way or at least take my kippah off. No. These were neighbors. And as I, and all Israel, mourn the tragedy on the West Bank, I wanted to take my small opportunity to demonstrate some solidarity.

I arrived about on time. The Machlis’s Shabbat dinner was fun (and filled with an awful lot of Christians giving testimony although – for the most part – they considerately avoided mentioning a well-known Jewish carpenter). But I have written about the Machlis’s.

To the tragedies. First, a lunatic who should never have been let out of prison unrestricted attacked celebrants at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade. Second, an animal or animals apparently claiming to be Jewish burned a home on the West Bank and killed a baby.

So much to discuss. Where to start?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe opened his heart to all Jews. I’m going to have to talk with Rabbi Lipskier when I return because I – and apparently almost every other Jew in Israel – fail to recognize this behavior as Jewish. So what does it mean to be a Jew?

I like to add value here, and there is nothing I can say about these tragedies that hasn’t already been said by others. What I would like to do is offer some perspective. Because hard on the heels of each of these tragedies has come world condemnation of Israel, including loud condemnation from American Jews. This has been almost as painful to watch as the realization – again – that Jews are humans and are capable of the same kind of behavior other humans are.

There is no excuse for the behavior. And the Israeli government clearly failed in properly controlling Yishai Shlissel and has failed even more in controlling the behavior of some of the settlers.

Israel has taken responsibility. Almost every citizen is appalled. Almost every leading public figure has spoken out in anger, sorrow, and pain. They have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. They have vowed to do better.  (And, as I just learned, anti-violence protests are planned for tonight in  the three major cities, with leading public officials addressing each).

Yet the world condemnation is loud and cynical. The Palestinian Authority – which celebrates its terrorists and acts of terror – has announced its intention to take Israel to court for war crimes – again. Hamas is pleased that it has an opportunity to retaliate and escalate. The anti-Semitic world again denounces Israel. And American Jews loudly join the chorus.

Full stop. Who has taken the United States to court for the extraordinary violence perpetrated on people of color, not by terrorists but by its official state actors – the police? Who blames the US government when – as so frequently happens – some nut allowed to carry a gun walks into a public place and wipes out dozens of people –babies and children included – without discrimination? Where is the liberal American outcry at the violence and violations of civil rights committed hourly in the rest of the Middle East and Asia, including our new ally, Iran and – yes – the Palestinian territories?   And, by the way, none of these countries – not even the US – express the outrage and pain of the Israeli government. None act so swiftly to do justice. And few – including the US – ever actually achieve it.

What is going on here? Israel is a liberal democracy with deeply humanistic values and lives by the Torah’s commandment that you are to treat the stranger among you as yourselves (for you were strangers in the land of Egypt). And it is a very diverse society. I see this every day. Israel recently ranked #7 in the world for hospitality and acceptance of gay people. Israel’s courts – again following religious commandment – rarely ever impose the death penalty. Israel has universal sufferage, with Arabs serving in the Knesset, the courts, and even the Supreme Courts. (Count the Jews even left in the Arab world, much less those treated with anything approaching equality.) In many respects, Israel is what the US claims it aspires to be.

(I have a little theory. Liberal critics of Israel but not the Arab states simply are racist.  They don’t expect non-Western, non -white people, to behave with the same standards as white people (although I actually don’t think Jews are white.)  Just a theory.)

The blindness of the world is understandable. Cynicism, cupidity, and anti-Semitism are, and always have been, rampant. The blindness of American Jews is terrifying and is bound to lead to tragedy.

Here is an example. Yesterday, in another forum, I commented on the tragic stories and pointed out a bit of what I have seen here. I got a response from a thoughtful, intelligent, and obviously quite sensitive New Yorker who noted appreciation of my defense and wrote (I paraphrase because I haven’t asked permission to quote) that watching the conflict over here is like watching one’s children fighting.

That an intelligent, sensitive New Yorker – and a Jew – could say this is appalling. Children? Whose child is Israel? Even a casual reading of history shows that Israel is about as self-made as a nation can be. Yes, there has been much American aid and money from American Jews. But Israel largely has stood alone in every war (including its war for independence) against tremendous odds. Israel has built an education, economic, technological, and scientific infrastructure that should be the envy of everybody. It has made enormous contributions to the welfare, well-being happiness, and comfort of hundreds of millions of people around the world – from this nation of seven million.

Of course none of this excuses these tragedies, or the other mistakes Israel makes. Your child? While American children are participating, often ill-informed, in political debates and protests on their college campuses, Israeli children are defending their country against the many nations that have declared their desires to destroy it (and those that would happily look on). They serve in the only army I know of where it is the right of every soldier to disobey an order on moral grounds without negative consequences. (Consider how My Lai and Iraqi torture might have gone were the US Army to have that rule.) They have been schooled in liberal human values and deeply human Jewish values. They are taught to put themselves in harms’ way in order to avoid damage or casualties to civilians. And they do. I see these “children” every day on the street. They are sweet, and young, and innocent. Yet each one of them could die today under the right circumstances. Some of them (well, young police), risked their lives just last week to allow me to pray safely at the Kotel. The risk of injury or death is far less likely for your kids on leafy college campuses (unless they die from alcohol abuse).

Your child? These children – and this government – defends the only state in the world where Jews are guaranteed a life free of persecution –as is every other citizen here. The history of the world should suggest that, no matter how comfortable American Jews have become, nothing is forever for a Jew. History shows us that German Jews were every bit as comfortable, every bit as confident in their security. These children ensure that if the worst happens, this nation will be here for us. Certainly the European Jews I’ve met here who recently have made Aliyah are glad it is.

Excuses? No. Excusable? No. Never again should be the motto, and the Israeli government and people must do everything to prevent such future tragedies.

But, as for you critics: Read a little history. Go beyond The New York Times , random headlines, and Facebook posts from people you really don’t know and whose opinions you have no reason to respect. Read for yourself. Think for yourself. Question whatever left-progressive priors might tell you about the picture of oppression (which is a useful exercise in any event).

And above all: Have a little perspective.

 

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: The 9th of Av

“Oh why did she go and fall in love, I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av. My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor.” Alan Sherman

I love Alan Sherman but he more or less ruined the possibility of Tisha B’Av for me. Until now.

It is early Saturday evening, a couple of hours before sundown. I had confirmed that the hotel restaurant was open since it was both Shabbat and Erev Tisha B’Av. It was empty as I approached. The drapes were drawn as the sun formed seams around the edges. I stepped out onto the terrace for an end of Shabbat l’Chaim. The bar was empty.

I returned inside. The hostess explained that while in fact the restaurant was open (and it was perfectly legal for it to have been so), it could not be seen to be open as Tisha B’Av approached.   Understood. Although my meal was halachachly correct as I understood it, I felt guilty for eating.

I was joined by the Swedes for dinner before observance began. I returned upstairs, my leather shoes came off, and my first Tisha B’Av in Israel commenced in Tel Aviv.

I awoke early for the trip to Jerusalem. While I have enjoyed my break, I could not even begin to imagine observing Tisha B’Av anyplace else. But getting there had a hiccup. I have long prided myself on my facility with public transportation around the world. It appears that, in Israel, I am transportationally challenged. I took a cab to the Central Bus Station. The bus lot was blocked by a police car and tape. Bomb scare. This is a country in which these things are taken with the utmost seriousness.   For reasons that should be obvious. I took a cab, the driver of which had the decency to quote a non-rapacious price.

It was hot and damp as it has been. On the ride back, I read a Jerusalem Post alert that this morning police had quelled a riot on the Temple Mount – dozens of policemen had to control people stockpiled with with kerosene, bottles, and rocks, planning, as I later learned from a more in-depth article, to attack those of us who would be praying at the Kotel. Good to know, as I had every intention of being there this afternoon for Minchah. Nothing would change my plans. As long as Jews were mourning the Temple at its mount, I would be there too.

The sky was summer white. It remained that way from Tel Aviv until we began to climb the hills into Jerusalem. As we did, the air began to clear and the sky regained its characteristic clear blue. By the time I got out on French Hill, the air was, to quote Naomi Shemer, clear as wine. The air was hot and dry, and a cooling desert breeze was blowing.

I don’t make this up.   This is Jerusalem.

If the Romans (and Babylonians) really did have to destroy our Temples, they picked a fine time of year to do it. Jerusalem at 90 degrees is considerably better than Tel Aviv at 85, but hot is hot. I arrived at the Kotel around 12:30, because I wanted to be there for early Minchah. The Kotel doesn’t get a whole lot of shade in the first place. Just after high noon in late July, well. And it is blazing white as is the entire plaza in front of it. And a wool tallis. You get the picture.

I had arrived a bit too early, so sat in the shade of an arch just past the plaza. I won’t say anything about the German tourists who decided to honor this public fast day by spreading out their picnic under the arch, other than to observe that in almost any other place in the world, and certainly any other place in the Middle East (including the place just above us on the Temple Mount), such cultural insensitivity would have been met with some kind of reaction, if not violence. Yet the small brigade of heavily armed, very young police officers resting and joking beside them after their morning’s work protecting us continued their rest. This is, after all, a nation dedicated to tolerance and equality. It behooves the world to remember this.

I removed my sweat-stained tefillin. I suppose I could try to write about what it felt like to daven against the Kotel on Tisha B’Av but you can probably imagine and I don’t have a whole lot of words properly to express it.

So I won’t try. Upon arriving back at my apartment, I watched some excellent lectures directed toward the meaning of the day. None was better than this fantastic talk by Rabbi Abraham Twersky. http://http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/1763754/jewish/A-Jewish-Response-to-Suffering.htmI hope all of you will watch it. All of it. While the Jewish attitude toward suffering is clear, I doubt it has ever been better expressed.

Night is falling. Only about half an hour until the fast ends. As befits one who claims Yom Kippur as his favorite holiday, I find fasting wonderfully cathartic.

May all suffering end. And, as long as it doesn’t, may we see the good in it and be grateful for that good.

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We arrived yesterday midday in Tel Aviv. Anybody who wants to argue about the differences (or lack thereof) between dry heat and humid heat is more than welcome to spend a few hot days in Jerusalem and then come to Tel Aviv. On the hottest days so far, Jerusalem has been comfortable in the shade and cool to chilly at night. Tel Aviv is rather a different story. Even with the breezes coming off the improbably intensely and multivariantly colored Mediterranean, this feels more like the Washington of the Middle East.   And yet this city was built by people who didn’t have the option of coming out of the heat into the air conditioning. Kol Ha’ Kavod!

So yesterday afternoon we swam through the air to look at Tel Aviv’s world-leading collection of magnificent Bauhaus buildings. ATA observed that this most European of architectural styles looked surprisingly at home here. It occurred to me to think that in fact is perfectly situated in Tel Aviv. The land is flat. The brilliant sun bathes the air. The buildings – with their simple white concrete and sensuous contours or sharp angles – add all of the texture that in other climes would be provided by hills and valleys, trees and winding streets. European and American contours are horizontal. Tel Aviv contours are vertical. Bauhaus perfectly suits.

This morning was special. I had never been to Beit Haazmaut – Independence Hall. I have rarely felt so much Jewish pride. And it’s all internal. Independence Hall –despite the grandeur of its name (and the grandeur of associations an American naturally has) is rather an unprepossessing structure, a three story Bauhaus wannabe that previously housed the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and, before that (and prior to its expansion), the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meier Dizengoff, and his family. The lobby is a bit run down and overly crowded. The small room where a film on the creation of Tel Aviv and the State is shown is as resolutely unattractively institutional as it could possibly be. And yet there is an aura.

That aura explodes into brilliance when you walk down a few steps and into the main hall. Main hall is a bit of an aggrandizement – it is at best the size of a small lecture room at a poorly endowed college. But, at the front, is a bima, arranged exactly as it was on May 14, 1948, with name plates for each of the signatories, including the overflow chairs in front of the bima (yes, that’s where Golda (then still Golda Myerson) sat, right in front of Ben Gurion). The flags flanking the about-to be Prime Minister, the microphone – and then – the recording of the conclusion of Ben Gurion’s 17 minute address announcing the creation of the state against all odds, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon’s recitation of the Shechiyanu, and it was done. We all rose for the historical recording of Hatikvah. I was trembling but, even so, I found myself standing ever taller as the final verse repeated. And then, on that Shabbat in May 1948, Ben Gurion returned to direct the State as the combined armies of Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (whose King Abdullah had first promised Golda not to attack Israel but later broke his promise) attempted to drive the Jews into the sea.

They failed. They continued to fail. They will always fail.

And they should. Consider this paragraph from the Declaration of Independence:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Few countries in the world — and I suspect no country in Asia – contains such a statement. And, despite its imperfections, Israel lives it.

All of this got me thinking (as if I ever stop thinking) about the irrational rise in anti-Israeli sentiment (leaving aside the rise in anti-Semitism). And I’ve decided not to write anything remotely defensive. Israel makes mistakes, as does every nation. (The US is far from exempt in this respect.) But few other nations on earth uphold the standards of justice, equality, respect for human dignity, and just plain decency as does this one. If the world is having trouble seeing this, that is the world’s problem.   If the world chooses to ignore history, so be it. If the world wants to forget (or choose not to learn of) the wasteland this country had been turned into before massive Jewish immigration restored it to vibrantly productive land, so be it. If the world wants to pick on the 15 million of us who are Jews out of the almost 8 billion people in the world, we who preserve the values of law, justice, and compassion given to us at Sinai, we who have transmitted and continue to transmit those values to the rest of the world —  let them pick on us.

Say what you will of Bibi Netanyahu – one of my proudest moments as a Jew was during his speech before the Joint Session of Congress where he told the world that if nobody else would stand with us, we would stand alone. It was, for the first time in perhaps 2000 years, a credible abandonment of abuse and victimhood, a credible assertion of the power of our ideals and our faith, a proud declaration to the world that we will no longer be abused. Our lesson from Jacob’s abuse at the hands of Laban is not to take it, not to outsmart the abuser, but simply to stop the abuse. That is where we are historically.  It is where we should be.

So did we stand alone on that May Erev Shabbat in May 1948. The founders of the state had no expectation of support from anybody else. And yet the nation they created survived the repeated attempts to exterminate it to become an intellectual, technological, scientific,  and economic powerhouse that has given and continues to give the world tremendous value. It does so in a liberal democracy with largely liberal social values. It does so surrounded by enemies who still will its extinction. It does so in the face of a world whose ingratitude for what Israel and the Jewish people have done is matched only by the cupidity and sanctimonious hypocrisy of so much of that world. Too bad.

Am Israel Chai.

 

 

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Things

ATA, after only a month of Hebrew, is translating chapters of B’reisheit (Genesis). Shabbat dinner, he presented his translation of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. It was a simple, literal translation, quite direct as Hebrew is. And it was the deepest and most beautiful translation I have heard, better even than the excellent Everett Fox translation (which is an attempt to do the Martin Buber/ Franz Rosenzweig German translation in English, which is a fascination of ATA’s).

In any event, one begins to understand the remarkable depth, beauty, and interconnectedness of the Hebrew language. For all we Jews like to talk, it turns out that you don’t have to say many words to say many things. Theodore Dreiser wrote, in Sister Carrie when Drouet is chatting up Carrie on the train: “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.” Perhaps in English (the utter simplicity of which I have come to realize). In Hebrew, it is words that contain the volumes, and so much depends upon context, interpretation, and the many connections each word has with many others.

So, I have admitted several times that I am hardly original in my thoughts, and I am quite sure that millions of people have observed this over time. That said, I’m the one who’s writing. So here goes. ATA’s translation got me thinking, and this morning while praying I focused on the word “d’var” or “d’bar.” It appears an awful lot in the Torah, especially when Ha’Shem is talking to Moshe Rabbenu. I guess I started thinking about this really on Shabbat as we finished B’Midbar (Numbers) and prepared to start what in English is known as Deuteronomy, but in Hebrew is D’varim. Words.

And things. D’varim means both – words and things. I think the connection would be interesting in any event, but it is especially so because Jewish theology – and especially the teachings of Kabbalah, focus so heavily on words as things. Even the way we refer to G-d – Ha’Shem—literally the name (and Kabbalah is fascinated by the name and the spoken word) connects the word with the object (if I may use such a word in this context). Words simply are things, and things would not be things without words. I know I’m being simplistic (after all, I’m not writing a treatise here), but appreciating this connection opens up so many paths for understanding.

From the sublime to . . . (But not unrelated.) Leonard Bernstein (with whom I come close to sharing a birthday) famously had no music instruction until he was about 11. When his father was later asked why he didn’t give Lenny music lessons earlier, he replied: “Who knew he was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”

Funny of course because in one sense his dad had no idea he would become a great musician. But funny as well because of course his dad knew he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.

What’s in a name? It’s something I’ve thought about my entire adult life because I don’t particularly like my name. (Sorry Mom and Dad. It’s not your fault. Really). There are several things I don’t like about it (besides that fact that “Larry” makes me sound like a used car salesman in a checkered jacket and the only time I have ever been called “Lawrence” was in my own private Egypt and that’s not going to happen again). But let’s start with my surname.

“Mitchell.” My dear friend and former uber-boss at GW once described my name as “androgynous.” I thought that was hilarious. But it does get to my point. (It also brings to mind a time when – at the White Shoe Wall Street Law Firm at which I improvidently began my career – a senior partner took me aside and said: “Mitchell, you have to be Irish. You can’t be Jewish because I like you.” Oops. Resume out on the street in two days.

But that simply highlighted an issue I have had since I was young. I never liked that my surname was not only androgynous (thank you, Steve) but, more importantly, not Jewish. (My other family names – Cantor and Reisner and Bernstein – are most decidedly Jewish.) But I was never sure what our name had been. Family legend had identified a name, but there was no confirmation. Yet many years ago I discussed changing it, even after I had developed a significant scholarly reputation. But Alex was upset so I dropped it.

Recently, my dad received research that a European distant relative had compiled. It confirmed that indeed our name was Wasserman, and traced my grandfather’s family back to Nathan Wasserman in Galician Poland at the end of the 18th century. (I cling to my maternal grandfather’s Vilna roots because, well, Vilna was the intellectual capital of European Judaism and I’m not relinquishing the bragging rights.) Nathan’s son, Morris (which I assume had to have been changed from Moshe) was found in England in the 1850s as Morris Mitchell. Soon thereafter, he emigrated to the United States, apparently fought in a New York regiment in the Civil War, and returned to England where my great-grandfather, Abraham Mitchell was born.

Enough of the family tree. The point is that I now have confirmation of the Jewish name that was taken from me by assimilationist desires. I blame nobody. We believe Morris to have been a Chasid, and I have no idea what I would have done were I in his position. But I know what I would like to do. So, I have seriously been considering restoring the name Wasserman, especially in this time of rising anti-Semitism.

What’s in a name? I leave for another day my given name – Lawrence. My Hebrew name is Ezra (preceded by the Yiddish Lazar). Given the path of my career, Ezra is a good name. So perhaps Ezra Mitchell Wasserman? Perhaps. I haven’t spoken with Alex yet (nor with mom and dad), but I’m kinda serious.

Things.