Rabbi James Rosenberg

Rabbi James Rosenberg“Mother died today.  Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.  The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY.  Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

I was a senior at a prep school in New Jersey when I first met Meursault, the speaker of these words.  They open Albert Camus’ 1942 novel, “L’etranger” – translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert as “The Stranger” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), one of the most celebrated works of fiction in the 20th Century. 

Rabbi James RosenbergTa-Nehisi Coates’ recently published “Between the World and Me”  (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) is a cri de coeur, an outpouring of heart, an unburdening of soul.  Coates, a 40-year-old national correspondent for The Atlantic, has shaped his book as an extended intimate letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori – the only child of he and his wife. His theme is what it means to be black in America.

Coates grew up in West Baltimore, the very same neighborhood of mean streets and broken, dangerous schools that exploded yet again this past spring. He tells the reader, “When I was eleven (1986) my highest priority was the simple security of my body. My life was the immediate negotiation of violence – within my house and without.” He saw himself as an inhabitant of a world apart from “other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies.”

Rabbi James Rosenberg“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

So begins T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), not infrequently cited as the most influential English language poem of the 20th century. The poem is long – 434 lines plus additional pages of the author’s notes – difficult, confusing and filled with obscure references. Nevertheless, readers continue to be drawn to the compelling beauty of its language and imagery. Readers are struck as well by Eliot’s devastating critique of European culture in the wake of World War I – a culture then, as now, lost in a sterile wasteland of hollow men and women, forgetful of their past and staggering into a future of empty, ugly and soulless materialism.

Rabbi James RosenbergOn  June 9, the Israel Task Force of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island sponsored an interactive program titled “Can We Talk About Israel.”  According to promotional material, the purpose of the program was “to help strengthen our community ... by encouraging civil discourse, mutual respect and tolerance for our diverse points of view; to help ensure that our love for Israel unites us more than divides us; and to build more community participation on Israel-related issues.”

Almost every one of the 56 attendees – the goal had been 36 – would agree that the program achieved its goal.  Supporters of AIPAC, J Street, StandWithUs, and other national and local pro-Israel groups sat down to listen and to learn from each other.

Rabbi James RosenbergIf all goes well, next May I will be attending the 50th reunion of the Columbia College class of ’66: half a century since my graduation! In preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime event, I have recently reread the six diaries I kept during my undergraduate years – a process of self-examination which has continued on and off to this very day.

My first journal (Jan. 13-Sept. 16, 1963) covers about eight months: the second half of my freshman year and the summer that followed. As one might expect from an 18-year-old, my writing at that time gushed with adolescent narcissism, an obsessive preoccupation with the emotions and perceived needs of that unholy trinity of me, myself and I. Nor is it at all unusual that many pages were devoted to the chaos and confusion of my immature love life; I had developed an uncanny ability repeatedly to label an increasingly unhealthy relationship “healthy” – as if calling the relationship healthy made it so.