When I was a young boy growing up in Brooklyn there was no cable television, just the seven or so commercial television stations. They featured light-hearted black-and-white situation comedies like Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet and my all-time favorite, Car 54, Where Are You? (The Honeymooners was a close second.) No cursing, no themes of disrespecting parents and authority, no vulgarity and coarseness. And there were the dramas, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke. I particularly liked the episode of Gunsmoke when an Irish-Scottish snot on a skateboard, Robbie O’Rourke of Texas, tried to take away Matt Dillon’s guns. That was the first time I ever saw how Swiss cheese is produced.
There was no 24/7 news coverage back then because, with fewer channels, no station would devote itself exclusively to news. Perhaps that made America a better place, a much better place. When you cover news all day and all night, there just is not enough news to fill the time, so — to generate advertising dollars by maintaining high viewership — you eventually have to make things up. In other words, you create Fake News. Need a two-year TV soap opera, with a never-ending cast of characters? Well, then: Howzabout “Trump Colluded with Putin”? Or just need an eight- or 12-episode miniseries during the off season? OK, let’s do one on some clean-cut religious kids from a Catholic school in northeast Kentucky who travel to Washington, D.C., to pick on Indians who beat drums in their faces. All lies and jest; still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Against that backdrop of limited but adequate TV choices, every so often a famous person would die, and all the TV stations — literally, all of them — would cancel their regular programming late at night, around 11:30 p.m. or so, right after the nightly local news, to telecast a 30-minute remembrance, a kind of televised obituary about the person. I particularly remember the one when Jackie Robinson died. When watching those remembrances, I often would think: “Geesh, what a shame that they showed that thing after the guy died because, y’know, he would have liked watching it, too!” Like, really. If someone lived that great and interesting a life, and the television stations all were going to air such a documentary for the entire nation to watch, wouldn’t the deceased have liked watching it also? So why do they show it only after the guy dies?
I guess I feel the same when they name an airport or a highway after someone. Wouldn’t Ronald Reagan have thought, “It is so cool departing from Ronald Reagan Airport to fly to Los Angeles, where I then can drive through Northridge and Granada Hills on the Ronald Reagan Freeway”? Or Franklin Roosevelt calling his friends from his car’s Bluetooth to say, “Hey, I hope to be there in half an hour, just as soon as traffic lets up, if ever, because I am on the FDR right now.” For that matter, I imagine that Mr. and Ms. 405 would have enjoyed knowing that California had immortalized their memories by naming a freeway for them, too.
I guess that is the best thing about my two or three times annually when I disappear from these columns for a fortnight (or even a fortday) or two. Somewhere around the 10th day of my disappearance, amid missing “Eggos,” the letters begin. Some are addressed to my publisher and editor: “What happened to Dov?” Others come into my own inbox: “What happened to you? I miss you. Answer me!” People really care, and I appreciate it so much that I get to read them in my own lifetime: “I miss Dov. Is Dov still writing? Where did he go?” And the tone is so sweetly different from the reactions of my political adversaries and former in-laws. How fortunate indeed that I get to read that stuff while I still am in physical circulation. The only thing missing is the 30-minute televised contemplation at 11:30 p.m.
So what happened to the missing me, and why does it happen two or three times a year?
My résumé includes professional writing, teaching law school at two fine institutions, and ministering to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue congregation. Somewhere around late August every year, two cataclysmic events coincide like, say, Hurricane Dorian happening at the same exact moment that Joe Biden suddenly becomes aware of his bearings. In my case, late August means the resumption of law school. I suddenly have to drop everything to recalibrate my weekly calendar for my students. They will study with me for 13 weeks, and I have to give them my best. As it happens, some of my classes typically get over-subscribed, and my inbox fills up with pleas from students who registered too late (like four hours into the first day of registration) and were closed out of my section and assigned to a waiting list. Their pleas are sincere and moving, and I feel compelled to mediate between their needs and the registration realities. Meanwhile, I have updated my course, begun the regimen of teaching again, getting to know a hundred new faces, a hundred new names, a hundred new stories.
No sooner do I have that mastered than the autumnal Jewish Holy Season looms. The Bible-created Jewish calendar is based on the moon, not the sun. Thus, it is called a “lunar calendar”; hence, the word “month” comes from “moon.” Our regular American schedule is known as the “solar calendar” because it is based on the sun, not because Obama created it at Solyndra as an energy-saving alternative to coal. Our solar calendar has 365-plus days a year, while the Bible’s lunar calendar runs 354 days. Think about that: the lunar calendar “loses” 11-plus days every year. That is why Muslim holidays like Ramadan, which also work off a lunar calendar, eventually fall in different seasons in different years: after falling in autumn for a few years, Ramadan suddenly is in the winter or spring or summer. By contrast, the Jewish lunar calendar must be season-consistent because the Bible explicitly says that Passover falls in the “month of spring” (Deuteronomy 16:1). Therefore, despite “losing” 11 days annually, the lunar calendar has to be kept synchronized with the solar calendar’s seasons. To do this, the rabbis ordained that an extra month of 30 days — a leap month for a leap year — is added seven times every 19 years. Do the math: 11 “lost days” times 19 years equals 209, and seven months times 30 days equals 210. It all works out.
That is why Chanukah sometimes comes out the same time as Christmas but other times comes out early December. Once, a few years ago, it fell on Thanksgiving, which was really weird. It is why Passover usually comes out mid-April but sometimes late March or late April — and that, in turn, is why the date of Easter Sunday “floats” while Christmas is locked in at December 25. And in the same way, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, comes out somewhere between Labor Day and the beginning of October — although always on the lunar First of Tishrei, the Biblical “seventh month.” Now one begins to see what consumes a rabbi/law professor’s time as late August 2019 rolls into September during a year when Rosh Hashanah falls from September 29 through October 1.
During this month, Jewish congregations engage in their annual membership-recruitment campaigns. Rather than passing around a hat at services, Orthodox synagogues and non-Orthodox “temples” are supported primarily by a combination of annual membership dues, tuition for Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah classes, and extra donations through the year from kind benefactors. To induce people to join as members, the congregations know that vast numbers will not affiliate except to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, much as many less-devout Christians show up in church only at Christmas and Easter time. As a result, a custom somehow evolved in America, evolved from the trial-and-error experience that people who come only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hop in and skip out without financially contributing their fair share to the congregation’s upkeep unless they are required to buy tickets to attend those services. And they first need to buy memberships to be eligible to purchase the tickets. Larry David picked up on the absurdity of the system here. I hate that system so much that I always have made it a requirement of my congregations that we allow anyone to enter and worship with us, regardless of whether they contribute. But that also explains, in part, why I supplement my income by teaching law and writing professionally.
So I have been away from the keyboard, immersed in gathering my thoughts for High Holiday sermons, recruiting membership renewals to my congregation, arranging details of our shul’s unique program that offers people the opportunity to spend Rosh Hashanah at a hotel with us and to join for seven meals over two days in a sort of “spiritual retreat” atmosphere. Part of my time is focused also on annually refreshing my forgotten skills in blowing a shofar (ram’s horn) at designated portions throughout the Rosh Hashanah prayers. The shofar ram’s horn reminds us of the Biblical account that describes Abraham bringing his son, Yitzchak (Isaac), to Mount Moriah, the locus that G-d would set as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As an angel from G-d instructs him not to offer a human sacrifice, Abraham sees a ram caught in a nearby thicket and gratefully offers that animal as a gift offering to G-d (Genesis 22:13). The sounding of the ram’s horn thus reminds us of life’s exigencies and that every moment counts because life can change in a moment. The sounding also adds that spiritual dimension of sound: an emotional pleading that expands the dimensions of our prayers beyond the spoken word. And it is no simple thing to blow a shofar correctly. When it is done right, the sound can be powerful and inspiring. By contrast, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried it the other day, well they may as well have closed down Parliament. (Joe Biden presumably listens to it on a record player.)
One more thing: I mentioned that Rosh Hashanah falls on the Biblical seventh month (Numbers 29:1). You may wonder: If it marks the New Year, should that not be on the first month? Interestingly, the Bible establishes the first month of the year around April, the month when G-d ended the Jewish people’s slavery to Pharaoh and took us out of Egypt and into freedom with signs and wonders. By contrast, in Jewish tradition the seventh month marks the “birth day of the entire world,” of all humanity. So we look upon that day not only as our New Year but as everyone’s new year, when G-d judges all of humanity, as a shepherd numbers his flock, one by one. Symbolizing our hope for a sweet judgment, we dip apples in honey at our two nights of Rosh Hashanah dinners.
So thank you all for asking about what happened to the Jewish guy. And may G-d bless you all with a sweet and wonderful year.