Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Musings on Jewish Identity at Christmastime

So, I wrote another op-ed for the Jewish Standard, which was published this past Friday, December 18th. It's timely, as you might gather from the title, Musings on Jewish Identity at Christmastime, and that link goes to the post on my Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog, but of course you can just read here, below, starting now...

Adam Sandler performed an update of his “Chanukah Song” last month at the New York Comedy Festival, with a second performance in San Diego available on YouTube. The new rendition is the fourth version of the song he debuted in 1994 on Saturday Night Live, a song that is as much about Jewish identity as it is about the holiday.

Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” is not without its critics, however. In an editorial published in the New Jersey Jewish News last month, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll of Teaneck, expresses much ambivalence about Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities. He worries that while it reflects a sense that it is cool to be Jewish, that coolness is a shallow expression of ethnic pride, lacking the depth of religious commitment.

In my view, Silow-Carroll sells Sandler short.

But first let me note that I agree with the general argument that Jewish identity ought to be based on something more than ethnic pride. If Jewish identity is reduced to ethnicity alone, it eventually will be lost within the great American melting pot. Think of how many Americans today claim to have a Native American great grandparent. But the key to understanding “The Chanukah Song” is not in the list of Jewish celebrities, even though that constitutes the main part of the song.

Steve Allen once observed that the comedian is usually a person with a grievance, and Sandler explained the grievance behind “The Chanukah Song” when he first introduced it on December 3, 1994. “When I was a kid, this time of year always made me feel a little left out, because in school there were so many Christmas songs, and all us Jewish kids had was the song, ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,’” he said then. And while Sandler goes on to say that he “wrote a brand new Chanukah song for you Jewish kids to sing,” in actuality the song actually has very little to do with the holiday.

Sandler does begin with a reference to religious tradition, as the first line of the song tells us to “put on your yarmulke,” and goes on to identify the holiday as the festival of lights. But for the most part, the connection to Chanukah is tangential, a list of famous people who are more or less Jewish, motivated by the mostly unstated implication that they also celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas. In other words, the song is not about Chanukah itself, but rather about not celebrating Christmas, about feeling like “the only kid in town without a Christmas tree.” About feeling left out.

Certainly, the song’s appeal to ethnic pride is an effort to compensate for that sense of alienation, and there is something very Jewish about taking note when a prominent person is a member of the tribe. Indeed, doing so constitutes a link to our tribal roots, an expression of a group-centered communal sensibility, one that stands in marked contrast to the extreme individualism of American society. Moreover, it can serve not only as an expression of shared pride, but also of collective shame. For example, in the new version of the song Sandler expresses his disapproval of former Subway spokesperson and convicted sex offender Jared Fogle, and his disappointment that Fogle is Jewish.

To understand the peculiarity of American-Jewish life over the past century or more, it is helpful to consider how the equivalent of “The Chanukah Song” would work for other groups. A song pointing out the identity of African-Americans or Asian-Americans, for example, would seem pointless; it simply would state what is obvious to all. The same would be true, to a large extent, for a song about Italian-Americans naming Pacino, DeNiro, Stallone, DiCaprio, etc.; or for Hispanics naming Lopez, Garcia, Longoria, Montalban, etc. And yes, we have our Levines, Shapiros, and Cohens, but then there are also names like Gyllenhaal, Johansson, and LaBeouf, all named in Sandler’s recent update.

That Jewish identity is often not immediately apparent goes hand-in-hand with the fact that for most of the time, Jewish-Americans are privileged to feel and function as if we are part of mainstream American society. Even when we take off for Jewish holidays, fast on Yom Kippur, and avoid chametz on Passover, we may be diverging from the mainstream, but we do so by taking an alternate path, a detour, rather than running counter to its current. It is only at Christmastime that we find ourselves at odds with the vast majority of Americans and can feel like strangers in our native land.

And let’s be honest, generic phrases like “holiday season” and “season’s greetings” are essentially euphemisms for Christmas. The attempt to acknowledge that there is more than one holiday at this time of year essentially translates to “Christmas and others,” or more accurately “Christmases and others,” by which I mean not only the Orthodox Church’s Christmas that falls during the first week of January, but more importantly the distinction between the religious observance of the Christian holy day and what has become, for many, a secularized American holiday.

It is pointless to deny the power of secularized Christmas, whose elements include Christmas trees, magic snowmen and reindeer, elves, and of course Santa Claus as a figure akin to the tooth fairy. And Sandler doesn’t mention the fact that in an effort to avoid feeling left out, some Jews actually do celebrate some form of secularized Christmas.

While I don’t believe that Santa Claus ever can be fully separated from his origins as the Christian Saint Nicholas, or that Christmas ever can be the kind of pluralistic national holiday that Thanksgiving is, my point is not to criticize attempts to create a kosher Christmas. Rather, what I want to emphasize is that if it is possible for us to celebrate some form of secularized Christmas, then the decision not to celebrate Christmas becomes a conscious choice that we have to make, an act of resistance to the dominant culture, an affirmation of our group identity as a people, and most importantly, an affirmation of our faith.

The decision not to celebrate Christmas is much more than a matter of ethnic pride. It must be based on religion, and this is the underlying assumption of Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” and the point that Silow-Carroll misses. We are defined by what we are not, as well as by what we are. Admittedly, it is not enough to define ourselves against others. We also have to define ourselves positively, by our beliefs and practices. But we should understand the hidden ground of faith behind Sandler’s humor.

We should also understand the grievance behind the song, stemming from a sense of isolation that may be felt only or much more acutely at this time of year. Sandler’s song counters isolation through the creation of a sense of connection, achieved by naming others who are “just like you and me.” What he gives us is an imaginary community of people who are known to us, but who do not know us in return. In doing so, he points the way to the real solution, which is to seek out a real sense of community, something we can only find through our Jewish congregations, synagogues, and community centers.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fatal Amusements

So, back to Villanova again, this time to note that one of my obligations as this year's Harron Family Endowed Chair was to deliver a public lecture. Of course, you knew that from my previous post, Fatal Amusements Talk, where I shared the advance publicity for the address, which I delivered on November 3rd.

The full title of the talk was "Fatal Amusements: Contemplating the Tempest of Contemporary Media and American Culture," and it was based, in large part, on my book, published by Peter Lang last year, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And it's never a bad idea to order a copy if you don't have one, or even if you do...


But aside from making a plug, I would like to note that this was the first time I gave a talk based on the book, as the opportunity has not come up before. The one exception, one that's not really an exception actually, is the talk I gave at Medaille College in Buffalo, a lecture that preceded the writing or even the conception of the book by a number of years. The title of that address was "Amazing Ourselves to Death," and it was delivered almost exactly eight years before "Fatal Amusements" to the day, on November 6th, 2007. You can read about it and see and hear a recording of that talk on my previous post, An Amazing Lecture.

And in case you're thinking, I've already read Amazing Ourselves to Death, so I don't need to see this lecture, do let me note that my "Fatal Amusements" talk contains some new material, based on what's been going on since it's publication, including some references to the current primary campaigns, i.e., Donald Trump. 

I had fun with this lecture, so I hope you like it, and please let me know if you do (and yeah, please don't if you don't...).

The video recording was made by Villanova, and this YouTube video was uploaded to the Villanova Channel, so you can also take a look at it there, just click on the old link, Fatal Amusements: Contemplating the Tempest of Contemporary Media and American Culture, they have comments disabled, but considering that it's over an hour, it's nice to see that the video has gotten a few views online. I suppose the talk itself might be considered a bit amusing, but hopefully not too fatal, or too fatalistic.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Interfacing With the Cosmos

So, with the new Star Wars movie premiering in just a few short hours (and I'll be going to see it in IMAX 3D today), it seems like a good time to share this video.

But first, let me provide some context. Last year, my friend and Fordham University colleague Paul Levinson invited me to contribute to an anthology he was co-editing, entitled Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion. You can read all about the plans for the book on a post on his blog. So, I was very happy to agree, and also arranged for Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey (where I'm currently serving as president), to provide one of his sermons, since Rabbi Schwartz is a strong supporter of our space program.

Some of the other contributors include the Director of the Vatican Observatory, the science fiction author and public intellectual David Brin, science fiction author Gregory Benford, and several former NASA officials, not to mention an interview with John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the planet.

And as you may have guessed, I did provide a chapter as well, and I am very pleased to be in such august company. But regarding my contribution, tempting as it was, being a longtime fan of science fiction, to write something in a positive vein, I warned Paul that I would be contrarian, in conjunction with Lewis Mumford's pointed criticism of the space race back in the sixties. Paul, never one to shy away from opposing points of view, had no problem with that.

As a play on the title of the book, I called my essay, "The Touching Interface of the Cosmos," and I made it somewhat poetic in style, my intent was to be reflective and suggestive, rather than academic (the book is intended for a general audience). 

So anyway, as a member of the board of trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, I decided that the  symposium following the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture this fall would be a good venue to give a talk based on my book chapter, and a good opportnuity for Paul to give a talk about the book as well. And that's what happened, with the two of us being grouped together with another paper presented by my old friend and classmate, Paul Lippert. This took place on October 3rd.

 Now, if you want to see the playlist for 2015 AKML & General Semantics Symposium just click on the old link there.

And if you'd like to check out Paul Levinson's talk about the book, Religion as a Necessary Engine of Space Travel, you can click on that old link, and I should note that what he has to say does provide some context to my talk.

But you can also enjoy (presumptuous of me, I know) The Touching Interface of the Cosmos (my talk, not the chapter, the talk being excerpted from the longer essay) on its own, and do so again by clicking on that link. Or by clicking the play button below:

As for the book, here's a look at its very cool cover:

Speaking of the book, it just came out  in an ebook edition for the Kindle, and will be published in print this spring from Fordham University Press. Amazon already has the cloth and softcover editions available for pre-order!


So, while you are waiting, I hope the video provides you with a taste of things to come, and until then, keep watching the skies!

And that's the story!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

VCAN Connected

In my previous post, Villanova Grad School Interview, I shared the interview I gave for the blog run by the graduate program of Villanova's Communication Department. This time around, I want to add the article that appeared in VCAN CONNECT (read it as vee(we) can connect), The Newsletter of the Villanova Communication Alumni Network. It's the Fall 2015 edition, which just recently was distributed. So here we go:

Although my time here at Villanova is drawing to a close, it is nice to see this, after all. It certainly has been a great experience, and this won't be the last time I post about it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Villanova Grad School Interview

As the 2015 Harron Family Endowed Chair in Communication at Villanova University, I was interviewed for the department's graduate program blog by one of our MA students, Mirna Momcicevic. The interview was posted on October 28, under the title of Interview with Dr. Lance Strate, our 2015 Harron Chair.

So click on the link if you want to see and maybe read it on their blog, or read it right here and now, below:

  1. Dr. Strate, as the primary editor of two editions of Communication and Cyberspace and Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, can you discuss today’s state of social interaction in general, and social interaction via social media? What kind of approach to social interaction, both general and that on social media, should our graduate students take?
Social interaction has been affected by the electronic media in general, especially by television, and even more so by new media and social media. One of the changes has been towards increasingly more informal forms of interaction. While informality can come across as more personal, genuine, and inviting, it also means that there are few if any rules or structure to guide us, to let us know what to expect from others and how to respond. E-mail and other forms of messaging, for example, is often approached as a form of casual conversation, and I am my colleagues may react to a message that starts off with something like, “Hi, Prof, how ya doin?” with some mixture of bemusement or irritation, what happens when your boss sends you a message that is entirely informal and friendly? How do you respond, given the power differential? This also speaks to the blurring that occurs between different roles, and the boundaries between public and private. If you write a letter, the old fashioned kind with ink and paper, there are rules we follow, with the placement of your address and the recipient’s address, opening with “Dear…” and closing with “Sincerely,” and all that helps us to stick to a more formal mode of address in our communication. And all that is absent when we communicate electronically, so it is essential to be very careful about the messages we send, to think about what kind of relationship we have with the person we are communicating with, and what kind of situation we are dealing with. What is the appropriate mode of address? That is a key question.
There has been a great deal of concern expressed about mobile media in particular, and how that affects face-to-face interaction. Being constantly distracted is obviously a major problem. Eye contact is one of the most important form of nonverbal communication for regulating interaction, and obviously that becomes problematic when our attention is always called away to our devices. Being mindful of the ways in which we use technology, and understanding that we do not have to be online and available and instantly receive and respond to messages and alerts 24/7 is essential. Many of the new media mavens who promoted the internet back in the 90s are now advocating for taking breaks and turning devices off, and there are movements like that for having a Technology Shabbat or Sabbath. It is certainly worth considering.

At the same time, new media have extended our ability to connect with one another, and organize ourselves socially, and that has been enormously empowering. For example, my wife used email discussion lists (e.g., Google groups) to connect and organize parents of children with autism in the northern New Jersey area. Before this kind of connection was possible, parents in that situation were simply too overwhelmed and lacking in time and energy to meet face-to-face, and are often lacking in basic information on services and how to deal with schools and boards of education to receive what they are entitled to. Electronically-mediated social interaction has been a great boon for individuals who would otherwise be isolated.
  1. Dr. Strate, after so many years of being an expert, and with so much experience in the communication field, what are some of the most important advice you could offer to our graduate students? How should they approach the “real world” that comes after education?
Being an “expert” in communication is quite challenging, because the state of communication is always changing. Back in the early 90s, there were many predictions, some relatively accurate, about the future of communication, regarding the internet, virtual reality, increased access to information, and the like, but almost no one predicted the mobile revolution, the almost complete disappearance of telephone booths, or texting. So our job is harder than folks in many other fields, because we have so much to keep up with. The most important advice that I can offer, though, is never to forget that communication is fundamental to the human condition, that what counts are human beings and human relationships, and what Martin Buber termed the I-You relationship, treating others as persons, not as objects.
  1. How do you feel at Villanova? How is Villanova similar/different to other universities?
Villanova has proven to be a very convivial, congenial, and collegial environment, and I have very much enjoyed my time here with the communication faculty. I am very impressed with the quality of students at Villanova, and especially the graduate students. Coming from Fordham University, there is a great deal of common ground, although the Jesuits have their differences from the Augustinians. Fordham is more of an urban university, which has its advantages, but I very much like the Villanova area, the relaxed atmosphere, and of course all of the interesting historical and cultural attractions of the Philadelphia area. Villanova is also smaller that Fordham, and Fordham is much smaller than other universities like New York University, where I did my doctoral work, so Villanova has a very intimate feel.
  1. How would you describe our Department of Communication here at Villanova? What are some of our strengths, and how could we, in your opinion, improve ourwork?
You have a great department here, and I especially like the fact that it is so well grounded in the discipline of communication. I find that very refreshing, since that it my background, and it’s something missing from my department at Fordham. At the same time, I would certainly urge the faculty to take advantage of the interdisciplinarity of our field, which is in many ways our strength. Reaching out to and communicating with the general public is also very important. And I would certainly stress the need to have faculty with a background in media ecology, that is very important in my view, really essential, but of course I’m biased in that regard.
  1. Why is graduate school is important? Can you tell us how did graduate education impact your personality and life? What would you advice to our perspective students who have hard time deciding whether or not start graduate school?
I know some of my colleagues decided as undergraduates that they wanted to go to graduate school, maybe even were interested in academia that early, but that wasn’t the way it worked for me. Simply put, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a senior undergraduate at Cornell University, so I wound up going on for my MA at Queens College of the City University of New York, where I met some doctoral students working in the Multimedia Lab there, Ed Wachtel, who I later became colleagues with at Fordham, and Joshua Meyrowitz,  and when they heard that I was interested in the work of scholars like Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Ellul, urged me to apply for Neil Postman’s doctoral program in media ecology. So I did, was accepted, and again, having nothing better to do, started my studies there, but was not convinced that I wanted to be an academic until many years later. Somehow, it turned out to be the right thing to do, and I wound up being fairly good at it. So as far as I’m concerned, this path found me, I didn’t find it. And I remember Neil Postman saying that he decided to become a professor because it was in the classroom and with students and colleagues that he found a universe of discourse that he felt comfortable with, felt good about, and I guess that’s the same for me. It just fits. And when I was unsure, he said to me that nobody is getting rich these days, so you might as well do something that you love, that makes you find meaningful and fulfilling. He also suggested that if I didn’t, many years later I would realize my mistake, regret it, try to come back, and things would never be the same—this was said in a joking manner, he had a great sense of humor.

But apart from all that, being able to go to graduate school is a great privilege, it’s when you really know how to learn, what you want to learn, and can really appreciate the opportunity to do so. There are so many things in life that can interfere and interrupt the chance to pursue graduate education that you really ought to go for it if you can. And while it’s never too late, it certainly is easier when you’re younger, before life gets increasingly more complicated. And learning about communication gives you an edge in anything you might pursue in life. It’s practical in so many ways, but it also goes to the heart of what makes us human, and helps us in our efforts to retain our humanity in a technological age.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Jewish Trinity

So, I had another op-ed published in the Jewish Standard back on October 30th, this one gets a little theological, specific to Judaism, a bit of a departure from my more typical broad cultural commentary, but also informed by the study of communication and rhetoric. The title of the piece is The Jewish Trinity, and here it is:

This past Rosh Hashanah, as I was sitting in the sanctuary at Congregation Adas Emuno, listening to the Torah portion known as the Akedah or, the binding of Isaac, my thoughts turned to the Avot prayer, and the phrase God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.

It occurred to me that the patriarchs constitute a trinity, but we never call them that. We shy away from that word, trinity, no doubt because it is so strongly associated with Christian Trinitarianism, which posits one God taking the form of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Christians do not have a monopoly on divine trinities, however. The Hindu religion also includes a doctrine of three-in-one, in which the divine Godhead is composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. And then there is the Triple Goddess, a New Age notion based on ancient polytheistic beliefs, in which the three manifestations of the Goddess are referred to as the Virgin or Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone or Wise Woman, corresponding to three main stages of life.

Apart from religion, we encounter countless other trinities in many different realms, from Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; from Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers to the three little pigs of fairytale fame; from Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici, to the French Revolution’s liberté, egalité, fraternité; from Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, for the people, to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies’ Snap! Crackle! Pop! Lists of three are psychologically satisfying, conveying a sense of completion. They are especially quotable and easy to remember: blood, sweat, and tears; sex, lies, and videotape; and stop, look and listen.

The Jewish trinity, especially as expressed as God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, is certainly memorable in being a list of three, and even more so through the poetic technique of rhythmic repetition. Also, from an anthropological perspective, our trinity uses the motif of family to represent relationships between peoples, so that the Children of Israel share a degree of kinship with the other descendants of Abraham via Ishmael, and the other descendants of Isaac via Esau.

Of course, there is another trinity, of Noah, who, like Abraham, hears God’s voice and follows his commands, along with Shem, one of the three sons of Noah and the ancestor of the Semitic peoples, and Arpachshad, the father of the founders of the city of Ur and the ancestor of Abraham. But we don’t invoke that list of three in our prayers.

From a theological perspective, the parallel structure of God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob is interpreted to mean that each of the patriarchs had to form his own individual relationship with God. So, from a purely subjective standpoint, the God of Abraham is not the same God as the God of Isaac, and both are distinct again from the God of Jacob (referring to each person’s own personal conception or perception of the Divine).

So what are the differences? Abraham, who hears God’s voice commanding him to leave home and go forth to a foreign land, is a model of obedience. That is never more true than when he demonstrates his willingness to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac. A religion that follows Abraham alone would be one of submission. Submission alone, obedience to a higher authority, may include license to kill, without question, in God’s name. That is why a religion of Abraham is incomplete.

Isaac also submits to God’s will, but does so by playing the part of the martyr. The religion of Isaac therefore is one of sacrifice as well as submission. Certainly, Abraham also demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice by offering up his own son, but there is a world of difference between being the one who wields the knife and the one who is the sacrificial lamb.

Sacrifice alone threatens to privilege death over life, and rituals of sacrifice suggest that the appetite for such forms of submission may never be satiated or appeased. That is why a religion of Isaac also is incomplete.

Jacob does not reject submission and sacrifice, but adds the all-important element of struggle. His religion is one that is not only about a voice that commands, but also about a vision that inspires, of a stairway to heaven that suggests the possibility of reaching for a higher state of being. His story is one of laboring for love—he worked for 14 years to earn the right to marry Rachel. And as the patriarch who wrestles with God, he is renamed Israel, becoming the eponymous ancestor of the Israelites, the Jewish people.

Jacob adds the vital third element of struggle, not blind obedience, but questioning, grappling, reasoning, a raising of awareness, of consciousness, and that is what makes the religion of Jacob complete.

The Jewish trinity is an altogether human one, consisting of three different and distinct individuals, not in any way consubstantial, not a three-in-one, but rather three patriarchs who simply are related to one another by direct line of descent. And yet they point to what might be considered a divine trinity in Judaism, what might be thought of as three faces or aspects of God, but more appropriately as three relationships to God: submission to God in the religion of Abraham, sacrifice for God in the religion of Isaac, and struggle with God in the religion of Jacob.

Perhaps, then, there is a message of caution against the varieties of religious experience that include submission and/or sacrifice alone? Without the third person of Jacob, without the struggle, there is no Israel, and Judaism as a religion would not be complete.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Fatal Amusements Talk

So, yeah, I've been a bit busy, and haven't posted for a while. But for what it's worth, here's my next big thing, coming up in a few days:

If you're in the Philadelphia area, and have nothing better to do, please feel free to come check it out. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Defending Uncertainty

So, I had another op-ed in the Jewish Standard on September 4th, subsequently posted on my Jewish Standard Times of Israel blog, entitled In Defense of Uncertainty (and of course you can click on the link and read it over there, but I'll paste it in here, or else I wouldn't have much of a post, now would I?).

I'd also like to acknowledge the fact that the inspiration for this piece came from a discussion we had at Congregation Adas Emuno one Friday night this summer, led by Rabbi Barry Schwartz, on the subject of the Iran deal. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides, but a few of us also admitted that we were unsure of which side of the issue is right (and that's assuming there only are two sides, which is not necessarily the case, and that any side is right or wrong).

So anyway, here is the op-ed, with a coda to follow:

If you are expecting yet another op-ed piece arguing for or against President Obama’s Iran deal, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

It’s no secret that the Jewish community has been divided regarding the Iran deal, and the opinions on both sides of the issue by all accounts are strongly held. But there is another great divide regarding this issue, and I believe it is a more significant one: The split between those who have a strong opinion on the issue one way or another, and those who don’t. We often jokingly invoke the equation that two Jews equals three opinions, and in this instance, having no opinion is in fact a third opinion.

At this point you might be expecting me to condemn or criticize those of us who are neither for nor against the Iran deal, or at least urge them to take a stand. If so, I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not my intention.

I know this is an issue that many feel passionately about, and I respect those people who have taken a stand as a matter of conscience. But in all honesty, I’m not one of them. Let me be clear that it’s not that I don’t care. Far from it. I care deeply. I worry about the future, and I wish I had the certainty about this issue that others seem to possess. But I don’t. And I find myself recalling the words of Pliny the Elder: “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Artist’s Imaginative Rendition of Pliny the Elder

My aim, then, is to defend those of us who are unsure of what the right course of action might be. We may constitute only a small minority of the Jewish community, or maybe we’re a silent majority. Either way, it isn’t easy to break that silence and simply say, “I just don’t know.”

In any heated controversy, the undecideds are subject to a great deal of pressure to get off the fence. After all, neither side is going to persuade the other to give up on the views they so hold fervently, so when they put forth their arguments, who else are they trying to influence? The undecideds are their target. The goals of their persuasive campaigns are twofold: first, to convince us that it’s vital to make up our minds and form an opinion, and second, that we adopt their position rather than the opposing side’s, and take action by communicating that view to our elected officials.

Guilt is a powerful weapon in the war against the undecideds, and it’s not just Jewish guilt at work here. As citizens in a democracy, we are taught that we have a duty to take part in political deliberations, which in turn requires us to be informed about the issues of the day, and to take a position on them.

And if we don’t? Then we have failed to carry out our obligation to participate in the democratic process and are guilty of being bad citizens. The problem is that so many of the issues that we are asked to take a stand on are so complex and so distant from our everyday lives that we have no real basis to form an opinion one way or another. We have access to more information than ever before, but we lack the means to evaluate, filter, and synthesize all that information, so we just wind up with information overload. And however much information we are privy too, there always is more that has been withheld from us, or that has been overlooked.

Feeling compelled to form an opinion as an obligation of citizenship, and unable to do so on our own, we turn to others for guidance. And those others may be sources that reach us through the media. Or they may be people that we know and respect, who themselves have formed their opinions via those same media outlets.

The paradox of needing to have an opinion and having no solid basis for forming one is what makes citizens open and vulnerable to propaganda. And I’m not saying that all propaganda is evil or ill intentioned. After all, the American Revolution was fueled by propaganda, we just substitute the term pamphlets because the term propaganda has a negative connotation for us. It’s just that today, when it is all but impossible to make informed decisions about so many of the issues that we face, propaganda rushes in to fill the void and relieve us of the discomfort of uncertainty.

Some find a sense of certainty by looking to the past. That’s understandable — the past is fixed while the future is always unknown. But I find myself unconvinced by historical comparisons between the Iran deal with the policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany before the Second World War, to America’s Cold War interactions with the Soviet Union, to the embargo of Cuba, to negotiations with North Korea, and so on. While I certainly would agree with the importance of studying and learning from history, simplistic analogies can be terribly misleading. First, whether a particular kind of policy failed or succeeded in the past, there is no way to run a what-if scenario and determine whether another policy would have resulted in a better or worse outcome. But more importantly, the situation today cannot be equated with events from the past. It is unique and has to be evaluated on its own terms.

Some find certainty in fundamental values—peace on the one hand, safety on the other. Values are not the issue, however. The specifics of the settlement are. Does the deal promote peace or increase the possibilities for violence? Does the deal enhance everyone’s safety and security or decrease it? Arguments from both sides appeal to the same values, so the values themselves provide no real basis for taking a stand.

Some find certainty by putting their trust in leaders, whether it’s Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of who they distrust more? But whether one or the other has earned or squandered our trust, ethos alone is not a sufficient basis for evaluating a proposal. Nor is the question of whether we can trust the Iranian leadership, since much of the controversy revolves around our ability to verify their compliance with the conditions of the deal, to enforce restrictions and punish violations.

And so I return to the point that under these circumstances, it’s okay to acknowledge our uncertainty. I want to stress that I am not defending apathy, although I would acknowledge that a sense of numbness is an entirely understandable response to situations that are perceived to be overwhelming. But apathy is simply another form of certainty, the certainty that comes with ignoring or forgetting our concerns.

Living with uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s something that the Jewish people are accustomed to. Hence the Yiddish saying, “man plans and God laughs.” Sometimes the only certainty is that nothing is certain, and sometimes all that we can do is wait. And hope. And pray.

Now, I am gratified to be able to say that I did get some positive responses to my piece, and that includes a letter to the editor published in the following week's edition, on September 11th. Here's a link to it online, the editor gave it a title of Strate is Certainly Sane, and here's an image of it as it appeared in the paper:

So, my thanks go out to Professor Weidhorn for certifying that I am not insane, to borrow a catchphrase from Firesign Theatre. 

And speaking of humor, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, the humorist, author, and TV critic Marvin Kitman attended services at Adas Emuno (I go way back with Kitman, as he is someone who wrote about Marshall McLuhan, reviewed The Medium is the Massage for the New York Times Book Review, participated in the 1998 McLuhan Symposium I organized at Fordham University, contributed to my co-edited anthology, The Legacy of McLuhan, and also knew Neil Postman), and he told me that he read my op-ed, and wanted to comment on it. But he was uncertain as to how he felt about it...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Villanova Adventure

As I write this post, I am sitting in my new office at Villanova University, which is located in the town of Villanova, a suburb of Philadelphia.

And no, this isn't a permanent move, I'm still a full professor with tenure at Fordham University. But this semester I am on fellowship there, which is the equivalent of sabbatical, except unlike a sabbatical, a fellowship is not automatic every seven years or so. Instead, you have to apply for it, it's competitive based on your proposal for how you're going to spend your release time, and it's subject to peer evaluation and approval by the administration. My proposal was to follow up on my research regarding time and technology, but that's besides the point of this particular post.

The point of this particular post is that, being free this semester, I was available to accept a visiting appointment at Villanova. Specifically, I have been appointed Villanova University's 2015-2016 Margaret E. and Paul F. Harron  Endowed Chair in Communication, aka the Harron Family Chair.

Here's a link to the webpage listing, but since it will change next year, I'll provide some screen captures for your convenience:


As I mentioned, I'm only in residence at Villanova for the fall semester, the Harron Chair is a one semester appointment, but since there's only one Harron Chair appointed each school year, I guess the title sticks with me until the summer.

I know that bottom bit about Villanova was cut off in the screen grab, so if you're curious about the school apart from its famous sports programs, here's what it says:

Villanova University was founded in 1842 by the Order of St. Augustine. To this day, Villanova’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition is the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University’s six colleges.
In this sense, it is not all that different from Fordham, as a Catholic institution, although Fordham's Jesuit tradition is certainly distinctive. And I would say that my time spent at Fordham, over a quarter of a century, has been good preparation for this new adventure in an Augustinian environment.

The campus is quite lovely, with an impressive church dominating the main entrance. Here are some images:

That's just a sampling. And most importantly, the department here is altogether convivial, the students are bright and eager, and everything is going quite well so far, now that I am in the second week of the semester.

So my Villanova adventure is off to a good start! More on this, as it develops...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Purim Spiel

So, in case you're not familiar with it, Purim is a minor Jewish holiday based on the biblical Book of Esther. It's sometimes compared to Halloween, because one of the traditions is that kids (of any age) dress up in costume for it. Nowadays they dress up in any kind of costume, but originally it was only as characters from the Book of Esther, i.e., Ahashverosh, the king of Persia and Medea, living in the citadel of Shushan; Vashti, his disobedient queen who he banishes; Haman, the villain of the story who, as the king's prime minister, plots to kill all the Jews; Mordecai, the Jewish hero of the story, and cousin or uncle (the original is unclear) of Esther; and Esther, the heroine who becomes the new queen and risks her life to save her people.

Rather than Halloween, however, Purim is best understood as a Jewish Mardi Gras, falling during that same time of year, early spring or the end of winter, and involving rites of reversal (and for adults, depending on the context, getting drunk as well). As for the historical accuracy of the Book of Esther, well, it comes across as a bit of a joke or satire, and some point to the fact that the name Esther appears to be derived from Ishtar, and Mordecai from Marduk, two Babylonian deities, while Haman is the name of a Babylonian demon.

Be that as it may, the tradition is that on Purim, the Book of Esther is read in its original Hebrew, from a scroll:

By the way, the reason why the books of the bible are called books and not chapters is for this very reason. Originally, they were all separate scrolls, the first type of book, and they retained that designation even after they were bound together to form a single volume (the same is true of the ancient Greek and Roman texts).

The Book of Esther is also known as the Megillah, a term that can also be applied to the books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. But most only associate it with the Book of Esther. And because it is read out loud on Purim, and because it takes a long time to read the whole thing, megillah also became a Yiddish word for any kind of story or speech that seems to go on forever, for anything that goes on for too long, or otherwise is perceived as boring.

There's also the expression, the whole megillah, which has the connotation of too much, too much. And who can forget the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character from the 60s?

Of course, Magilla Gorilla had nothing to do with the Megillah, the story of Esther, or the holiday of Purim, and there wasn't even any reference to the Yiddish usage in the children's TV program, but there was no question as to the origin of the character's name. And the silliness of the cartoon was very much in keeping with the topsy-turvy theme of the holiday itself.

During the reading of the Megillah, the tradition is that whenever the name of the evil villain Haman is mentioned, the kids (of all ages) shake noisemakers, called groggers, maybe also stomp their feet, and yell "boo!" loudly, the idea being to drown out his name. Sometimes, the names of Mordecai and Esther are greeted with cheers as well.

There's also a tradition going back some centuries of putting on some kind of play or show during Purim, the Yiddish name for it being a Purim spiel, or alternately a Purimshpil (Yiddish is a German dialect, but is written with Hebrew letters, hence the alternative transliterations). It could be a puppet show or a dramatization of the Book of Esther, but in contemporary times it tends to be some kind of comedy, satire or parody, reinterpreting the story of the Purim in different ways, especially in ways that modern audiences can appreciate. And this often includes song parodies as well.

So, all this is background to the main reason for my blog post. You see, the synagogue that I belong to, and serve as president of, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia (Bergen County), New Jersey, puts on a Purim spiel every year. And for as long as I can remember, this involves purchasing a script from someone (the purchase price going towards some charity). And I have to say that I was not terribly impressed with the quality of what we had been getting, and for a long time have been saying to myself, I can do better than that.

So last year, I sat down and wrote a Purim spiel, which I called, The Schnook of Esther, and it was performed this past March in celebration of the holiday of Purim. In fact, it was performed twice, on Sunday morning March 1st, for our religious school, and then on Wednesday evening, March 4th. And I also played a couple of minor roles in it.

So let's be clear, this isn't Shakespeare. It isn't Seinfeld. It's not Monty Python or Firesign Theatre. It's just a bit of fun. And I did try my hand at writing some comedy skits back in the 80s, although nothing ever came of it. Oh, and I do have one very small TV screenplay credit, an episode of the animated science fiction series, Galaxy Rangers (episode 8, "Ghost Station"). So I'm not entirely a novice at this sort of thing. Just saying.

Anyway, in this post I want to share the first performance of "The Schnook of Esther" on March 1st (its world premiere, ha ha), as it was recorded for posterity. Some notes first, so please bear with me. 

First, there isn't much of a stage to work with, and not much time to rehearse, so you'll see that everyone's reading, script in hand. The songs are mostly done karaoke style, and some of them get messed up a little bit. Not that I'm complaining, just that it isn't always exactly what I wrote. There was also an attempt to get the religious school choir kids involved, which didn't work out so well, and wasn't repeated in the second performance. And as for my theatrical performance, well, I look pretty silly in this, almost embarrassed to show it to you, but then again, that is the spirit of the spiel. And the musical performances of a couple of our congregation's teenagers are absolutely wonderful, and worth the price of admission (the admission that I can't act or sing very well myself, that is).

Anyway, you can watch The Schnook of Esther (A Purim Spiel) Adas Emuno March 1, 2015 over on the Adas Emuno YouTube channel if you like, or catch it right now over here:

Now, if you belong to a congregation that puts on an annual Purim spiel, and you are interested in doing "The Schnook of Esther" next year, just let me know or email adasemuno at gmail.com, and we can provide you with a copy of the script in exchange for a donation for the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed the show, for what it's worth, and I'll share a recording of the second performance another time. And maybe even a new spiel next year...

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Firesign's Electrician

So, it's time to get back to Firesign Theatre, and their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, released in 1968. As I noted in my previous posts (Waiting for the Firesigns, Sending Up the 60s, and The Enola McLuhan), side 1 of the album consisted of 3 separate, short (in comparison to most of their releases) pieces. Side 2, on the other hand, is made up of one extended radioplay, the title track, "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him," clocked in at 17 minutes and 48 seconds. 

This piece is more like the surrealistic journeys that characterize the albums that follow, although it lacks the same amount of textured sound and sense of soundscape as can be found on their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All (see my previous posts, A Nick in Time for Firesign and Of Flip Sides and Firesigns).

"Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" is framed by a play on instructional record albums, specifically language learning records, a wonderful bit of self-reflexive satire. That the language is Turkish, which then places the subsequent action in Turkey, retrieves the old, radio days/mid-20th century sense of the former center of the Ottoman Empire as an exotic and dangerous place, as well as a crossroads of the world. References to narratives based on the old British Empire and more contemporary (circa 1968) Cold War espionage are also present.

There's also a bit of play with radio eyewitness reporting. And the game show parody, Beat The Reaper, is one of their most memorable segments, generally considered among their best work. But it fits together as part of a larger whole, as you can see, er, hear, here:

The Wikipedia entry on this album refers to this piece as "a Kafkaesque fantasy of paranoia" and there clearly is an influence from The Castle and The Trial in this recording. But I would also point to Hitchcock movies in which an innocent becomes accidentally sucked into a world of intrigue and conflict, such as North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps
"Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" employs an acoustic and dramatic variation of stream of consciousness, and an almost Freudian form of free association in humorous form, a real dive into a collectivist unconscious. Following the topsy-turvy logic that their comedy is based on, I guess you could say that their first album was worth the wait.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Close to the Edge, Squire

Yes, it's the next entry in my series on the late Chris Squire and his remarkable run with the progressive rock band, Yes. And so far I've done posts on songs written or co-written by Squire that highlight his talent and innovation on the bass guitar, but now it's time for something a little different.

As I've previously mentioned, the group's three best albums all were produced in a relatively short period of time, between 1971 and 1972, with The Yes Album and Fragile both coming out in 1971, and Close to the Edge the next year.

Close to the Edge featured the same line-up as Fragile, Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Bill Bruford on percussion, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and Squire on bass, of course. What made the album remarkable was the fact that the title track, "Close to the Edge," took up an entire side of the album, clocking in at 18 minutes and 43 seconds on side 1. This was not unprecedented, certainly not for a live recording from a jam band like the Grateful Dead, but this was a studio recording. And of course The Beatles included a 16 minute medley on side 2 of Abbey Road, released in 1969, but that was clearly a medley of different songs. The Who's Tommy, also released in 1969, was a double album billed as a rock opera, and while the songs on the album all were more or less connected to the narrative, they were all separate songs, none of them all that long or complex. Of course another progressive rock group, Jethro Tull, released Thick as a Brick, also in 1972, with the entire album taken up by a single song, but it was a really a blending of a number of separate songs as well. There are other examples as well, but none of them can really be compare to what Yes accomplished on their 5th album.

 What made "Close to the Edge" special was the fact that it was an integral, well-orchestrated piece, one that demonstrated that progressive rock musicians could aspire to something more than making a bunch of pop songs or jamming away in the tradition of jazz, that they could aspire to something that approached, however distantly, the quality of classical music compositions. At a time when rock was still struggling for respectability, when the music that baby boomers embraced was denigrated by their parents, what Yes was doing was in effect saying roll over Beethoven in a whole new way.

Within the progressive rock movement, Yes was categorized as symphonic rock, in that they had experimented with including an orchestra on their second 2nd album, Time and a Word, and had utilized synthesizers such as the Moog to incorporate a symphonic sound on their 4th album, Fragile. With "Close to the Edge," Yes also incorporated symphonic elements, this time not just in the sound but also in the structure of the composition. This meant going beyond the surface and into the depth of symphonic sound.

The music of Yes was also labeled as classical rock, in that they drew on classical music. And while some others listed in this category were content to transform classical pieces into rock songs, with "Close to the Edge" Yes brought some of the structure of classical music into the rock idiom. This meant not just playing classical music in a rock context, but creating something akin to classical music.

The song, which is divided into 4 movements, is credited to Anderson and Howe, which means that Squire didn't write it. No doubt that's why the bass is never at the forefront of this song, although it drives the rhythm and progression of the music all the way through, with the exception of the spacey third movement. And it's hard to believe that Anderson and Howe actually wrote the bass line that Squire plays here, which is perhaps why on later albums, many of their more elaborate pieces are simply credited to Yes, meaning  all of the members of the band playing on that particular album.

Listening to "Close to the Edge" what stands out are Anderson's vocals and cryptic lyrics, Howe's lead guitar, which carries the main melodies through most of the movements, and Wakeman's keyboards, which open with the sounds of a natural soundscape, of birds and waters, proceed to give the song structure throughout, take the lead in the 3rd movement, are also featured in the 4th, and close with a return to the sounds of nature. That's what I remember best from all the times I've listened to it. 

But "Close to the Edge" also provides an opportunity to hear what Squire does with a song that is not his own. Listening to the bass guitar line, he certainly does more than keep the beat, and it actually gets increasingly more complex and creative as the song progresses from the 1st to the 2nd movement, and starts to take on an organic quality, one that strikes me as sounding like something alive, perhaps primordial, a voice from the depths. That sound returns in the 4th movement. 

Moreover, Squire is the primary backing vocalist behind Anderson throughout the song, and his singing takes the initial lead on the 3rd movement, and continues in counterpoint to Anderson afterwards.

So, enough chit chat, let's enjoy this classic Yessong, with the very cool video utilizing Roger Dean album cover art, once again produced by vzqk50HD Productions:

And now for those lyrics:

I. The Solid Time Of Change

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar
And taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour
And assessing points to nowhere, leading every single one
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun
And take away the plain in which we move
And choose the course you're running

Down at the end, round by the corner
Not right away, not right away
Close to the edge, down by a river
Not right away, not right away

Crossed the line around the changes of the summer
Reaching out to call the color of the sky
Passed around a moment clothed in mornings faster than we see
Getting over all the time I had to worry
Leaving all the changes far from far behind
We relieve the tension only to find out the master's name

Down at the end, round by the corner
Close to the edge, just by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down
Now that it's all over and done
Now that you find, now that you're whole

II. Total Mass Retain

My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above
I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand
There's you, the time, the logic, or the reasons we don't understand

Sad courage claimed the victims standing still for all to see
As armoured movers took approached to overlook the sea
There since the cord, the license, or the reasons we understood will be

Down at the edge, close by a river
Close to the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by the corner
Down at the edge, round by the river

Sudden cause shouldn't take away the startled memory
All in all, the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you've ever seen and known
Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain

Down at the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down

III. I Get Up, I Get Down

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking
Saying that she'd take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

Two million people barely satisfy
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late
The eyes of honesty can achieve
(She would gladly say it amazement of her story)
How many millions do we deceive each day?
(Asking only interest could be layed upon the children of her domain)

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

In charge of who is there in charge of me
(She could clearly see the lady sadly looking)
Do I look on blindly and say I see the way?
(Saying that she'd take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain)
The truth is written all along the page
(She would gladly say it amazement of her story)
How old will I be before I come of age for you?
(Asking only interest could be layed upon the children of her domain)

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

IV. Seasons Of Man

The time between the notes relates the color to the scenes
A constant vogue of triumphs dislocate man, so it seems
And space between the focus shape ascend knowledge of love
As song and chance develop time, lost social temp'rance rules above
Ah, ah

Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place
On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark

Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
Now that it's all over and done
Called to the seed, right to the sun
Now that you find, now that you're whole
Seasons will pass you by

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down


The lyrics are influenced by symbolist poetry, with a strong current of eastern mysticism running through them, and the sense of spirituality born out of the New Age movement is clearly present. There is an additional strong influence from Herman Hesse's Siddhartha narrative in the lyrics and music, the sound of the river especially.



But overall, it is the interplay of everything, lyrics and vocals and instrumental music of this quintet that make "Close to the Edge" one of the best songs ever written and recorded by Yes, truly an ecological and media ecological work in my view, and one of the most memorable performances by Chris Squire.