FAKE NEWS – FACT OR FANTASY?

The terms ‘fake news’ and ‘fake news media’ have themselves been very in the news as of late.

A gamut of major media outlets have understandably taken uber-umbrage at these terms and all that they imply. Recently 100 or more of them coordinated an effort to editorialize, in the strongest terms, against what they see as a dangerous top-down trend toward censorship, suppression, and ultimately totalitarianism.

It’s a message that easily resonates. Haven’t we always been taught that a free press is the lynchpin of democracy?  That the people have the right to know?

The very term ‘fake news’ seems a bald and blatant untruth. Does the president really expect us to believe that when it is reported that he’s in London or Helsinki, he is actually not?

As I thought about this issue, though, it occurred to me that a large part of the problem – as it so often is – is a miscommunication, a definition of terms.

The term ‘news’, as I’ve always understood it, represents data, raw facts, unembellished with opinion or intent to influence the audience’s reaction to them.

To deem such a worthwhile and ‘pareve’ endeavor as ‘fake’ or somehow antagonist to the people’s best interest would be ludicrous.  What can possibly be wrong with laying out the facts of national and world events at people’s feet to allow them to craft the informed opinions necessary to be an effective part of the polis?

Therefore, I believe the president’s claim to actually be that a large percentage of reporting that bills itself as ‘news’ in the classical sense that I refer to above, is actually not. But rather it is in fact editorial.

While it may construct itself upon a foundation of objective facts, the way these are then interpreted, emphasized or de-emphasized shifts the report squarely into the realm of op-ed.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion, and using all the tools at your disposal to bring others to your way of thinking. And this is something that I’m am sure that our opinionated president also agrees.

However, to pass the above off as objective ‘news’ is indeed disingenuous, or less polysyllabically put – fake.

This, I believe is the president’s actual assertion, and one with which few honest minds could argue.

The Mystic’s Lament

…great truths do not interest the multitudes,
and now that the world
is in such confusion,
even though I know the Path,
how can I guide?
I know I cannot succeed
and that trying to force results
I shall merely add to the confusion.
Isn’t it better to give up and
stop striving?

But then, if I do not strive,
who will?

– Chuang-Tzu (medieval Chinese mystic)

Strangers in a Familiar Land

As the plane prepared to land, my sleep-starved mind was whirling.

Could it really be true?

After all the work, the endless questioning. Questioning doctors, questioning spiritual advisors, questioning each other. Questioning ourselves.

After all the plans made and cancelled so many times. Could it really be true? Could we really be moving to Israel – the holy land of the Jews?

As the plane touched down, my mind focused on one question alone. Would I feel it? Would I feel the difference?

I remembered the letdown I’d once felt upon returning to America from a trip here. I’d thought to myself, ‘This place is missing colors. It’s so washed out, so gray.’

Would the reverse be true? Would I perceive the anticipated uplift of returning to “Eretz ha-Kodesh”, the holy land?

The airport routine revealed no spiritual splendor. The hopeful search for baggage, which in our case came down mercifully soon.  Customs; filling out citizenship papers; schlepping. It was pretty peaceful at 5:55 in the morning, but it was still just an airport.

Then waiting for a van to bring me, my young wife, and our family of moving cartons to our pre-rented studio apartment in Jerusalem. Its arrival and its logic-defying ability to contain all our belongings in its small hull. The mysterious pull over to the side of the road a few minutes later and the surreal mid-highway transfer of ourselves and our belongings into a yet smaller, although more nicely appointed van.

My first impressions of this land? Madcap, surely; endearing, maybe, but holy?

Then it hit me. Squeezed into the back of our hired coach, the only other passenger, a friendly looking fellow I recognized from the flight. As the van driver wound us along the back roads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it all clicked in.

I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the land. The wise old olive trees, the dignified boulders. The simply content goats, happily roaming the hills like every day of their lives.

This was it. Now I remembered why I came. The beauty here wasn’t just the surface beauty of the eye, nor was it the sappy emotional beauty of the heart. Though I admit being susceptible to either of those, this was something different. A deep, spiritual beauty. An overwhelming feeling of reality with a capital ‘R’.

Often in America, I would get the sense that everything around me was a movie. That I was detached from it all. I could even choose to take part in the movie, to interact with the characters, etc. But it was all just acting and everyone knew it though none would admit it.

I couldn’t stand that feeling, but felt helpless to overcome it. But here, in this tiny bus coughing its way up winding hills…was Reality.

My new friend, sitting next to me expounded sweet words in the name of a great and saintly mystic of centuries past, how the Jew and the Land of Israel are made to be together, and now, how almost like molecular particles, we have been forced apart by external forces called exile. And while we can exist in this state of separation – us and the land – this is an unnatural existence at best, and we can never in that state feel at home…feel real.

As we reached Jerusalem, our suddenly graceful van became part of a well-choreographed traffic ballet, as the newly risen sun washed Jerusalem stone buildings bowed to welcome the new arrivals home.

 

 

LETTER TO A WRITERS’ GROUP – JULY 2018

Bs”d

I’ve been following this discussion (lamenting the lack of writing within the corpus of ‘frum’ literature on par with the upper echelon of its secular counterpart) with interest and there are some good points being made on both sides.

But I think there is something deeper being touched upon here. I’ve heard the idea that one of the essential components of the galus is the ‘pirud’ or existential gap between the physical and the spiritual. This means that it’s almost impossible for something to be ideal, or ‘beautiful’ both physically and spiritually at the same time.

To our point, this means that it’s no coincidence that top secular writing, while perhaps reaching the apex of aesthetics will virtually inevitably have spiritual flaws, and frum, spiritually flawless writing will generally fall short of aesthetic excellence.

Conversely, one of the aspects of geula is that the ‘beauty of Yafes will dwell in the tents of Shem’, meaning that this pirud will depart and the true ideal of seamless, simultaneous physical and spiritual beauty will come to be.

So what does this mean to us, in our pre-geula days? I think it means we are supposed to make a choice. I can’t have both, so what’s my priority, my body (including the genuine intellectual/emotional pleasure of a great piece of art or literature), or my soul – the spiritual wellbeing of avoiding the most subtle ‘sunburns of the soul’ that come with exposure to unsavory ideas or verbal imagery?

I’m not judging. Everybody’s answer will be different. For most, it will be a compromise between the two. I, like many of us, has a strong aesthetic longing, and I find my compromise by reading (and writing) out-of-the-box frum prose, while avoiding the over-the-line secular (and, frankly, much of the mainstream frum).

The point is that the situation as it stands is no mere result of sociological or cultural circumstances, but a deep existential reality; and our longing to bridge this gap, or even our painful acknowledgment of existence, means that we’re tuned in to how things should and will be in the (hopefully near) future.

Thank you,

NYS

WINGS, PRAYERS, AND THE COSMIC COMIC CONSPIRACY

Lately at home we’ve been invaded by wings. Chicken wings, that is.  It’s my fault. They’ve been on sale and I can’t resist a bargain. But beyond that, I just find them to be a good, easy-to-make food you can cook a million ways.

My wife is less enthralled with what we’ve come to call ‘wing season’ around here, and almost seemed relieved by our recent nine-day halachic hiatus.

There may well be a way to tell which wings in a given package are ‘right’ wings and which are ‘lefts’, but I have yet to discover it. Far easier is it to discern what qualifies as politically left or right wing—or so I thought until recently.

Certainly here in Israel it seems to revolve mostly around issues of security vis-à-vis the Arabs. Although once they get into power, the so-called ‘right wing’ politician and his ‘left wing’ counterpart, tend to behave essentially the same, the only difference being that which one does with a smile on his face, the other does with a frown.

In America, where there exists (at least the illusion of) more existential breathing room, the two ‘wings’ tend to spread out more and take on a broader ideological spectrum.

Simply put, if I had to pigeonhole (pun somewhat intended) I’d say that the right wing emphasizes values—or, what ‘should’ be, while the left wing stresses vision—or, what ‘could’ be.

Now we Jews are smart enough to know that a bird needs two healthy wings to fly, and the Torah is, in my opinion, unique in that it presents a way of life with both vision and values in abundance. The two not competing, but complementary, avoiding the inevitable imbalance of a secular approach, be it right leaning, or left.

But even this cursory distinction between the two wings shrinks when we step back and focus on how the non-Jewish socio-political left and right wings actually conspire to mislead people and prevent them from approaching and appreciating the truth of the Torah.

To illustrate, think of the classical comedy teams (Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, etc).  Generally these consist of a ‘straight man’ and a ‘fool’.

The straight man’s job is to serve as a set-up for the fool to bounce off of. This is often accomplished by the straight man portraying a caricature of accepted mores and values, emphasizing their weak points and hypocrisies, which the ‘fool’ wryly pounces upon, spoofs, or otherwise picks apart, rendering the previously respectable straight man foolish, and himself winkingly wise. (Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont, being a textbook example).

On the surface, the straight man and the fool seem to be at odds, antagonistic toward each other, but in fact, the two are in cahoots, reading out of the same script. They are both in fact letzim (mockers), simply pulling off their letzonus in different ways.

So how did we get from food, to politics, to comedy—you might well be asking? Let me explain.

The Torah presents a pure, clear, God given morality (or values, as we like to call it today). The political left (beginning from the so-called ‘enlightenment’) has been at war against these values and the curtailment of unrestrained selfish desire fulfillment they mandate.

But to mock and attack the truth directly would yield them little, so they teamed up with a ‘straight man’—the non-Jewish religious right. These latter present (or misrepresent) Torah-originated values and outlooks, distorting them based on their ancestors’ millennia-old distortions.

These simplistic distortions, coupled with the blatant hypocrisy of many of their high-profile practitioners, serve to create a perfect ‘foil’ for the left-wing ‘fools’ to mock. “See, there is your traditional values and religion!…How ridiculous!…(and it is, as the right-wing straight man/letz presents it)…So chuck it all and be free!”

This ‘Cosmic Comic Conspiracy’ really is a very slick and professional comedy team.  Only its results are a far from laughing matter, as it poisons and prejudices people’s minds and has practically closed the door to any of our attempts to fulfill our mission of relating the message that a life of true God given values, far from being silly, is sublime.

Is there any way out of this cynical cycle?

You tell me.

Just Saying…

If I weren’t afraid to say what I really wanted to say…

If I didn’t care what you’d think of me, or my message…

Do you know what I’d say?

If you do, you’re a step up on me, because I don’t.

I don’t even know if it’s a legitimate question.

Because so much of what I want to say has to do with your being able to hear it.

To grow from it.

To change from it.

So what good would it do to simply splatter you with my unbridled opinions?

To make me feel good?

To have some sort of orgiastic release?

No, thank you.

Still, there remains that nagging feeling.

It’s my very self-consciousness. Or, my consciousness of how I’ll be perceived, rather than what I want to say. That puts up a barrier of artifice that keep my words from penetrating your soul.

So, again, If I weren’t afraid to say what I really wanted to say…

If I didn’t care what you’d think of me, or my message…

I would tell you…that I am just as stuck as you are.

I’m just as held back from living life full out, following fiercely my fondest dreams.

From relating to each of you as a precious soul. From aiming every thought, word, action, and encounter to eternity.

If there is any difference between us, it’s only that I know it and maybe you don’t.

Or maybe you know it too.

But it doesn’t bother you as much as it does me.

Or maybe you think it’s a nice, but impractical or unrealistic dream.

I can’t get away with that.

I could back when things like ‘eternity’, ‘soul’, ‘deepest need’ were just poetic, theoretical terms. The stuff of predawn spacey speculations under the influence.

To be slept off and promptly set aside until the next party, or term paper in need of metaphysical filler.

But lately (and by lately I mean the last thirty years, or so), since these terms have become so well-defined; as much a part of my working conceptual lexicon as red, white, or peas.

I have to face them as not only real, but as realer than what’s before my eyes.

I have to face them, and I have to face myself in terms of them.

Or, as they like to say in these parts, ‘Where am I holding?’

It’s so easy to be caught up in the here and now quo here and now.

And not the here and now as moments to fix into eternity.

Just float away on a cloud of youth, a cloud of trends and currents, a cloud of daily grind, or a social (live or virtual) swirl.

Why do I even care?

What you do.

Or what you think?

I think that because not to would be the ultimate cruelty. The ultimate heartlessness.

Because – it’s coming to me finally – what I want to say is:

There’s a map.

There’s map that includes every single thing in the world, in the psyche, in the future, past, and present.

Everything in the macro, in the micro, in the heart, mind, and soul.

A map that defines every situation you’re in, or situation that’s in you.

That spells out your options, and tells you where they lead.

A paradigm I’ve been watching, testing, exploring, and alternatively embracing and fleeing (sometimes many times each in a day) for the last thirty years, or so.

And it plays out, way, way too often to be chance.

There is a map of reality.

That’s what I want you to know.

Because without it, even the best of navigators flies in circles, and is bound to crash and burn – usually without even knowing it. (Until they do.)

I want you to know about this map.

It’s my job to try to tell you about this map. That’s why I was created.

And it’s a hell of a hard sell.

You wouldn’t think so, but it is.

First of all, who says I’m telling the truth?

And if I’m not maliciously making it up, maybe I’m just deluded?

Another philosophy pusher.

And even, and even, if what I’m saying’s true.

People really don’t want there to be a map.

Because without a map, I can simply go wherever I feel like.

That seems much easier, much more fun.

It might be for that sweet spot of youth, say from 17 to 27 – give or take a few years.

For the extra rich, good-looking, or energetic, maybe a decade or so longer.

And then?

And this all assumes that fun and easy is the point of it all.

The main problem with a map is that it narrows one’s (perceived) options.

Until it showed me that Rome was to the west, I could imagine it to be north, east, or south. Up or down. Or maybe right…here.

And no one could blame me for setting out in any of those directions – even if I never got there.

After all, there’s no map.

But there IS a map.

There IS, there IS, there IS.

There’s a map and (even worse) there’s a destination.

This life is a leg of a journey.

A very important leg, and a very specific journey.

A treasure hunt, if you will.

A treasure map and a treasure hunt.

Or, better, a hunt for the tools and currency needed for the journey’s next leg.

To arrive there well equipped and with pockets full, is bliss.

To get there unprepared is…anti-bliss.

And there’s no ‘dealing with it when I get there’. There’s no making any deals at all.

After all, we had a map.

So, I said it.

Will you listen?

Will you care a whit about me or my message?

I don’t know.

But I’ve said it.

 

Tired Writing

Tired writing’s different. All the niceties and ‘rules’ disappear.

That being said, there’s something to be said for having something to say – tired or not. And I do, I think. It’s just that at the moment I haven’t the energy to say it with much structure or literary flair.

(I’m going to say it anyway, so those of you who appreciate presentation, please skip to the next post.)

So what do I have to say, already?

1) That whatever or whoever’s bothering you, ask yourself ‘Does he/she/it exist outside of Hashem or inside of Him?’

Since Hashem is the makom (location) of the world, and the world is not the makom of Hashem, obviously the ‘problem’ exists inside of Hashem and is contained by and within Him.

This means that he/she/it has no independent power to help or hurt me, rather it is actually H’ Who’s doing it.

That means there’s no sense buttering him/her/it up, as they have no control of the outcome (or even their decision whether to help you or not).

It also means there’s no sense coming on strong or getting angry at them – for the same reason just stated above.

Just patiently push through with an eye toward heaven for Divine guidance and help and appreciate the miracles inch by inch, as they happen.

2) Learn to look at the good and enjoyable things in life (there are a lot, even when it doesn’t seem like it).

Then try to feel that pleasure (even with just your mind) for 10 seconds or so and then label it in your mind as important. I didn’t think this up; I got it from a Torah sheet of Yoseph Farhi (who got it from another book).

But I’ve tried it today and it really seemed to lift the mood (and my moods lately seem to need a lot of lifting).

I find that just thinking of the good things in my life isn’t enough to shift my mood. (Joe and Charlie say in a 12-Step talk, ‘you can’t heal a sick mind with a sick mind’. Clancy I says that strong emotions will almost always trump (pardon the expression, if you feel a need to) logical thoughts to the contrary.

That is, if my emotions are down, no matter how well I can logically ‘shlug up’ the reasons behind it, no matter how many self-lectures I can give myself on the fundamentals of emuna, it’s not going to help.

It’s like “I know you’re 100% right and there’s no reason that I should feel like I do…but I do.”

The answer, the way to get out of the pit, is through prayer: “God, You and I both know that this is totally beyond me. I don’t have the tools to emerge from this pit – but You do, so PLEASE get me the heck outta here.” (I’m not the most decorous pray-er, but I’m sincere.)

That often works, though it can take a little while.

Maybe another way out is to try to feel the good and pleasures in your life; then label them as important and worth saving in the default memory bank (which is often jam-packed with negative thoughts and memories).

Moods by nature come and go. I think it’s like a cloudy day – the sunny blue sky is always there shining down on us, it’s just that the clouds roll in between that reality and our perceptions, and fool us into thinking the sun’s gone for good.

Actually clouds, and the rain they bring, is very positive and vital for growth. No rainàno wateràno plantsàno life. So too, maybe it’s life’s dark-cloud days and the teary rains they bring that gives new life to the soul and it the catalyst for real spiritual growth.

There’s an old saying: ‘You can’t sing the blues if you haven’t paid your dues.’ But say it differently: ‘You can’t grow as Jews if you haven’t paid your dues (and I don’t mean the synagogue pecuniary variety).

I mean, think about it. What’s the great thing anyway about being able to sing the blues?

That you can complain authentically? Aesthetically?

Seems like a dead end to me. Yet people like it, probably because they can identify. Misery loves company. But to identify with someone else’s problem is only valuable if it leads you to identify with his solution to the problem (assuming he’s found one).

Optimism is one of the main novelties of the Torah outlook. I remember in college, one of the guys was quizzing everyone in the dorm: “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” Of course, the politically/socially correct answer was to be a pessimist.

I suppose that without a loving and all-powerful God in the picture, what is there to be optimistic about?

So on this optimistic note, maybe it’s time for me to wrap up my ‘tired writing’ session. I can’t imagine any of you at this point begging for more.

Maybe I’ll just go get a coffee.

PRESENT TENSE – FUTURE PERFECT

“When I was a boy, I used to trudge three miles to school in a foot of snow…”

We’re all familiar with some version of the old saw with which our proverbial grandfathers would regale us (at least those of us who grew up in a part of the world where a foot of snow was an inconvenience, not a national emergency) when we balked at waiting outside for the school bus in the rain.

The point being, of course, that they had a resilience that we clearly lacked.

Snow or no snow, resilience seems to be on a slippery slope down which each successive generation skids.

While Granddad’s lament was the ebbing physical resilience, it’s emotional resilience, or that lack of it in one’s progeny that irks this generation’s parents. Things we’d have readily shrugged off as kids, send our offspring on a rebellious rampage or a swan dive to the therapist’s couch.

“My son,” a friend of mine told me, “commutes daily for over an hour to get to (his private) high school. He was ten minutes late one day last week and his principal gave him a frown and a couple of displeased words.

“I’m not saying the principal was right; he’s a nice guy and was probably having a bad day, but now my son’s ready to drop out, and at the very least wants nothing more to do with the principal – who for almost three years has been a caring confidante and a big part of his support system.

“If I had a dollar for every ‘talking to’ I got from a principal growing up I could retire,” my friend went on. “It wasn’t fun, but by recess it was out of mind as if it never happened.”

(And the truth is; many of us can relate to the boy’s angst. How many times have I gone to a wedding or some other social event where every encounter went smoothly – except one – when someone or other didn’t greet me with the warmth I’d anticipated, and sent me burrowing into a rabbit’s hole of recriminations aimed at both him and myself for somehow ‘deserving’ it.)

You can call today’s general lack of resilience self-obsession, you can call it perfectionism and I’ll say, at least in my case, ‘guilty as charged’. You can say we’re all becoming spoiled by technology’s ever more manifest promise of seamless comfort.

But I think there’s something deeper to it too.

It’s not by happenstance that each generation seems less resilient – less able to handle things not being perfect or working out their way – than its predecessor.

It’s a basic Jewish spiritual premise that history is progressing toward a goal. That goal, to which we’re drawing ever closer, is an age of spiritual and physical perfection.

Whereas until now every silver lining is surrounded by a cloud, in the coming age, everything is going to be (and rightly be perceived to be) absolutely perfect.

While this new age isn’t yet upon us, and in fact things can seem to be getting less perfect in many ways as the years go by (which is another Jewish spiritual premise of the darkness increasing before the dawn), nevertheless the scent, the whiff of that coming future is already in the air. This is sniffed most keenly by those born closest to the time of its imminent arrival; our youth.

They instinctively realize that resilience is a vestige of the age of imperfection (for when all is perfect, from what is there to resile?).

They want it. They want it right. And they want it right now.

Because they subconsciously know that’s the way things are ultimately supposed to be.

Of course, as we haven’t yet reached that age of perfection, we still have to keep practicing and teaching the tools that let us cope with and even thrive within difficulty and challenge. But we should also have compassion on our children (and ourselves) and know that they are not merely spoiled brats, but are harbingers of a time, in the not too distant future when we simply won’t be able to find anything to complain about – even if we try.

 

SPRINGFIELD TWILIGHT

Why’d you ever move me out of Springfield,
Relocate me to this awful state?
Life was easy for me back in Springfield,
While everything here is less than second rate.

In Springfield, I always knew where I was going,
In this state, all the road signs look alike.
When people talked in Springfield, you could hear them,
Here they speak so low they need a mike.

In Springfield when the bills came, I would pay them,
Here there’s so much mail it just piles up.
I could always find my glasses back in Springfield,
Here things disappear; hey where’s my cup?

If only I had stayed back home in Springfield,
Things were so much better there than here.
In this state, everything’s so darn confusing.
Is it true that I’ll be ninety in a year?

Oh, why’d you ever take me out of Springfield,
Relocate me to this awful state?
But soon enough I’ll be back home in Springfield
Can’t you see that sign just past the gate?