Letters To A Young Muslim

 

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There have been many books written over the past decade or two dispensing advice to youth from wizened mentors, many of them titled “Letters To A Young …..” and you can fill in the blank.  For example, Letters To A Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson.  A welcome addition to this genre is Letters To A Young Muslim, authored by Omar Saif Ghobash, in the form of messages to his 16 year old son, Saif.  Mr. Ghobash’s voice is a breath of fresh air in calling for moderation and balance among young Muslims, and he is mindful that he is sticking his neck out in his role as Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia.  Aside from moderate religious and political views, there are some nifty insights he offers about his love of books.

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The Wacky World of Mr. Whammy

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Mr. Whammy, also known as Bruce Reznick, must be in seventh heaven.  Being featured in the Canarsie Courier as the Brooklyn Nets #1 fan is one thing.  But making it to the sports pages of the New York Times?  Oy, his mother must be knelling in heaven, as her 80 year-old retired dentist son has become an icon.  All right, so maybe he’s not a retired dentist like the Times wrote but rather, a retired attorney.  At least he’s a professional, right?  And even though the Nets are uch un vey in last place behind the Sixers, mine Vameleh has sponsorship from JetBlue for his signature hex!

whammy-signature-hex One of the geriatric fan set who never got over the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, Reznick adopted the Nets while they were playing in New Jersey.  To say he’s exuberant is an understatement – one could say that he’s even a bit of a basket case as he waves he delivers his hex in the opposing players’ line of sight enticing them to clank foul shots off the rim.  Gerald Henderson told a Philly Comcast broadcaster that he wished he had as much energy as the 80 year-old uber fan.

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Whammy really seems to be enjoying the spotlight, and even his less-than-exuberant wife, Mrs. Whammy (aka Judy) has learned to bask in his notoriety.  He has a YouTube presence, and a cult fan following.  His son counts his “mentions” in the media, and frankly it’s a great escape from some of the serious problems on the world scene.

Not that I want to stir up any legal controversy over a retired attorney’s antics, but after watching Whammy’s signature hex I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be some copycat infringement on the Phillies Phanatic’s move from the dugout roof to psych out opposing pitchers.  I’ll let you be the judge …

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The Sound of a Slender Silence

When I was a child coming of age, I participated in choral singing in our synagogue, which provided much pleasure and a sense of accomplishment that no doubt aided my development in ways that cognitive neuroscience is just beginning to fully appreciate.

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I can still picture walking up the block from 10th & Louden to 10th & Rockland to the side door of the converted church-to-synagogue building (long since converted back to a church – fittingly “Shalom” Baptist), and heading up the stairs to the main classroom on the left for rehearsal during the summer days that preceded the Fall’s high holiday services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Around the table we arranged ourselves into the same array as we would assemble around the bimah.  Flanking our leader Chazan (Cantor) Unger:  On his left, Sol (the baritone) Rosenthal; to his right, Bernie (the tenor) Lipton.  And ringing he rest of the horseshoe on the perimeter were the alto voices in alphabetical order: Maury Bach, Arthur Berger, Yours Truly, and George Sokolowski.  Rosenthal and Lipton were hired vocal guns, but the rest of us were members of the  synagogue.

Cantor Unger was originally from Vienna, and he insisted on practicing until we attained impeccable pitch, harmony, timing, rhythm, and cadence.  Most of the compositions were imported by the Cantor, a mix from prior travels and of his own compositions.  We had sheet music as supplementation, and he would ping the tuning fork prior to beginning as a cross-check, but we mostly perfected our craft by ear and all had good pitch to begin with. As much as we enjoyed group harmony, the highlight was when one of us would be selected do a duet with the Cantor, or be called upon to do a solo.

We were a cappella of course, no musical instruments being allowed in the orthodox synagogue on Holy Days – High or otherwise.  Given that one never knew the condition of what one’s voice would be in at the moment, practice was just as much about the ability of the Cantor to swap out one voice for another if he felt that someone could not perform.  There was no music to carry us, nor a microphone to boost a weak voice.  Essentially these summer evening sessions were, for the Alto Boys, like Broadway rehearsals where we were standbys for one another’s parts.

My favorite solo to listen to was the one done by our tall, slim baritone with the rich, deep voice.  He set the tone for the most solemn part of the service in the Musaf prayer, Unesaneh Tokef.  It called for a signifiant range akin to the Star Spangled Banner that none of us could approach until at least a year or two after puberty.

It begins: U’v’shofar gadol yitakah, which means: A great shofar blast is sounded.  But the choral begins on the deep “U” and as quickly as one ascends the vocal stairs to the “g” sound of gadol, back down the stairs by the end of the word, then a quick pause and up the ladder to yitakah with a lyrical and floating V’kol dimamah dakah yishama, which means: And a slender (or whispering) silence is heard – with the phrase V’kol dimamah dakah repeated twice while one goes back down the ladder and then drops to the bottom at the end of yishama, descending into silence on the exact note of which the solo began.

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Although coming from a  Jewish background, Paul Simon does not describe himself as a religious person.  Nevertheless he has been quoted as saying that “Spiritual things are part of my thoughts on a fairly regular basis. I think of it more as spiritual feeling. It’s something I recognize in myself and that I enjoy, and I don’t quite understand it.”  He expressed gratification that his music has had a spiritual impact, even if it mystified him, adding: “Quite often, people read or hear things in my songs that I think are more true than what I wrote,” he told me. “I feel I’m like a vessel, and it passed through me, and I’m glad.”

Owing to Dr. Jerome Groopman’s book review in the January 9 issue of The New Yorker of The Voices Within, I conscripted the translation of V’kol dimamah dakah yishama as The Slender Sounds of Silence.  Perhaps it is less than a coincidence that, at age 23, the song that put Paul on the map as a lyricist concluded with the evocative words of V’kol dimamah dakah yishama, pouring forth like a vessel.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming
And the signs said,
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

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The Endearing of Enlightenment

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An oversized feather now adorns John Brockman’s cap for grabbing the front page of this weekend’s Review section in the Wall Street Journal.  Brockman’s Edge poses a question for deep thinkers like Steven Pinker to ponder each year.  Pinker in fact gets first billing among the six short vignettes that the Journal has chosen to showcase the 203 responses.  Brockman prefaces the compendium with a brief commentary about science which includes the following passage:

“Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.”

The Edge Question assembled for 2017 is:  “What scientific terms or concept ought to be more widely known?”

And the weighty answers can be found here.

 

 

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The Need To Read

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Have you ever stashed away a newspaper article promising yourself that you’ll savor it again another day?  I did this with The Need to Read by Will Schwalbe in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal over the Thanksgiving weekend, and came across it again like a pleasant surprise this morning. The subtitle of the essay announces its intent: “Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person and understand life’s questions, big and small.”

Schwalbe offers many powerful lines as proof of an instinct, a way to coat ourselves with words that insulate without forcing us into a solitary confinement.  While we may read in solitude, multiple voices interact through the cascade of saccades across the page.  Excerpts from the essay  support our need to read, and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions.

Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

So I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

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The Ball’s Path is Circular

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The book is intellectual eye candy spanning 1161 pages that would be diminished in a Kindle, particularly if one believes that appearances matter.  It’s not the largest book that the reading areas of my brain have absorbed, a distinction still held by Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory that spanned 1464 pages, but there isn’t a morning in Starbucks during the past month when a patron’s gaze hasn’t been drawn to Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.  It’s author, Anthony T. Kronman, served as dean of Yale Law School for ten years, and the book might have as well been titled “Born-Again Spinozism” though no doubt the marketing people at Yale University Press would have nixed that.  It is essentially Kronman’s spin on Spinoza sprinkled with Aristotelian spice.

Ex-Dean Kronman is to be commended for his honesty when he notes in his epilogue that he has taxed the reader’s patience with a long and abstract book. If this were a philosophical Shark Tank instead of a Think Tank, readers would have declared “And for that reason I’m out” long before having reached his apologia.  But for those who survive the incessant looping back through the Spinozan/Aristotelian filters, Kronman offers ample redemption.

There is no doubt that our experiences inform, color and re-shape our philosophies and outlooks.  On a personal level this past year it was the circumstances of  my father’s death followed not long after by my life’s extension.   For Kronman while writing his magum opus it was something uttered by his 96 year-old mother before her death: “The world comes back”.   It was the last intelligible thing she uttered before she took her last breath one week later.  He speculates that perhaps she meant this: We have all found ourselves reflecting on the incomprehensible fact that our lives are bounded on both sides by nonexistence, at least in a material form with which our sense are familiar.  If the mortality that allows us the meaning of everything we do and experience were somehow erased, the meaning of human life would vanish.  In other words, without the finitude of death, the sensations of life would be diminished.  The world which is circular comes back to re-claim us.

The Paganism that Kronberg embraces leaves room for either sufficient self-reflection and satisfaction at the end of life, or letting go when pain makes holding on unbearable, without necessarily believing in any after-life that we can grasp.  This does not negate the anticipation that one may have of cashing in on the dividends of a a diversified spiritual portfolio loaded with good deeds at the end of this life, should his calculus be wrong and there is some sort of after-life.  Kronman acknowledges that our assumptions and speculations are ultimately unknowable, but posing the questions remains important in seeking understanding even if cannot derive definitive proof of the answers.

Fittingly for this time of year, Kronman uses the metaphor of a ball dropping from a tower to qualify our observations: “Because I see those things from a particular perspective, my understanding of what is happening when the ball drops is always liable to error and distortion, and since the ball and tower must be present for me to have any experience of them at all, whatever knowledge I derive from the experience is hostage to their presence.”

In this day and age, since the “dropping of the ball in Times Square” is mechanized, why don’t the powers-that-be reverse the symbolism and have the ball rising instead of falling?

As you may know, I embrace game theory as a metaphor for life, in particular baseball (with all due respect to Spinoza).  Why baseball?  It is the only game in which  time is relative.  Its inception is identifiable but it’s end relies on the contingencies of events, not absolute time.  It is the only game during which teams never changes sides of the field or court or arena at pre-determined intervals.  Let the reasons for that soak in while I wish you a particularly pleasing 2017.

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A Merry Mocchiata for Moishe

Happy Holidays to all!  So pleased that our local Starbucks in Sea Girt was opened at 5:30 AM today for business.  Nothing better than an early morning dose of half-decaf while the night’s moon is fading.img_9956

The greetings in Sea Girt are all “Merry Christmas”.  Overt Jersey Shore Yiddin mostly frequent the Lakewood location, which I tend to favor but which opened at 7AM and absent Barnes & Noble whose doors are locked today as is the case for virtually every non-food establishment, and therefore held no special attraction.

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So does this fellow get a “Happy Holidays” or a “Merry Christmas” greeting?  (Not the kind of “profiling” discussion one usually sees.)   It’s inconsequential when you’re celebrating being alive.

I don’t know the exact date when Steve Baker turned himself in to the medical authorities,  trusting his instincts and listening to his body.  I do know that it is my one year anniversary of having done the same, listening to my body well enough on December 21, 2016 to still be here a year later and hopefully for many more.  So in that artery (LAD), I’m particularly pleased to wish you all a blessed Holiday Season.

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