I thought that the confluence of starting my fourth year writing in this space and the occasion of my 50th column would be a good time for some reflection about the past three years. But then I checked my Times of Israel blog page and discovered that my math was a bit off, and, oops, this is my 52nd column (which could have been meaningful if done over the course of one year. Three, not so much.)
So I ask each of you to disregard the two that you liked the least (or hated the most), so we can pretend this is my 50th. I, of course, will abide by your decisions since I love all my columns, like my children, equally.
But reflect on what? Major changes in my personal life like turning 70, retiring after 46 years of practicing law, or my youngest daughter — our mezhinka — getting married? Might have been a good idea if I hadn’t done so already. Perhaps significant issues in our society like the slow death of civil discourse, the Confederate statue brouhaha, Supreme Court nomination battles, or the #MeToo movement? Another good idea that might have worked, except been there, done that.
Then of course I could always reflect on the single most important global change in the past few years — the November 2016 election result, which has led to one of the most dispiriting times in American history, as awful as others in my lifetime such as the McCarthy era, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and 9/11. But, as I tried to explain earlier, I’ve decided not to write about such matters in depth. That’s a decision I reserve the right to change — but not just yet.
So rather than reflect on what has happened since I started writing here, let me ruminate a bit on the start. By January 2016, I had been writing articles for more than 40 years for various Jewish periodicals like Sh’ma magazine, the Baltimore Jewish Times, the New York Jewish Week, and the Edah Journal.
I wrote those articles sporadically, when the muse hit me, and submitted them to whichever publication I thought most appropriate. They weren’t always accepted, of course, and so I have a file — small but unfortunately not empty — of articles that found no home beyond mine.
It therefore wasn’t unusual that when Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, one of the leading Reform theologians of the 20th Century with whom I had a close relationship through Sh’ma magazine, died in late January 2016, I was moved to write some personal remembrances. My thought was that reminiscences by a member of the Modern Orthodox community about a towering Reform leader had a noteworthy slant that might be of interest.
The two nationally known Jewish publications to which I first tendered the article through people I knew well, however, gently but firmly declined my submission. Disappointed but not defeated, I thought local, and though I didn’t know anyone at the Jewish Standard, I sent it the article over the transom, with the hope the publication might appreciate what I thought was a different and curious angle.
It seemed to have struck a chord because the article was accepted the next morning in a 5:30 email from the editor (who likes walking her dogs at that time, as she explained when I noted the ungodly hour). She asked for a headshot and short bio by the close of the business day, so the article could appear in the next issue.
And so it did.
While I thought that was a satisfactory end to this episode, the editor apparently had other things in mind. I had emailed her a few quibbles over some of the editing of the piece as printed, and our email chat turned into a telephone one. We first agreed to disagree about my objections, and then, after playing a bit of Jewish geography, she asked if I’d like to write on a more regular basis.
Frankly, that was not something I had ever really thought about, and initially I was a bit thrown. The arrogant part of me thought that I wrote when I wanted, for whom I wanted, and about what I wanted. The more honest and frightened part doubted that I actually would have enough to write about regularly.
The calm voice of the editor intruded on these thoughts (some of which I may have actually uttered out loud) and said it could be every four or six weeks, whatever made me comfortable. And it could be about — and this was the scary clincher — whatever I liked.
I gulped, took the plunge, and said yes.
So here I am, three years and 52 columns later, thinking how different it all would have been had the Jewish Week done what it usually had done and printed my submission. I probably would have written a couple of articles over the past few years, when the spirit moved me. And that would have been that.
Thus, not only would I not have written about all the things I’ve written about, I most probably wouldn’t truly have thought about many of those things. Having this column meant I had to find topics to write about, and in doing so I’ve been forced to more carefully notice and seriously consider experiences I otherwise might have passed over without a second glance.
My family giving up break time on Yom Kippur to watch me get an aliyah at mincha; a well responded to erev Pesach post on TeaneckShuls; a rabbi’s impromptu comments on a lengthy Friday afternoon commute; a spur-of-the-moment stop at a childhood home; a yom tov visit with a friend of more than 65 years. Nothing really special at first blush. But writing a column requires second and third blushes, and seemingly mundane occurrences take on deeper and more lasting and significant meanings.
Writing this column has also given me pause to think about and appreciate the fact that disappointment sometimes truly can be a prelude to opportunity. You only have to be wise enough to spot and seize the opportunity despite the disappointment — or, as was I, lucky enough to have a wise friend offer the opportunity on a silver platter.
The last few years have been, for me, a time of change — mostly, though not exclusively, for the good. And having the opportunity to write this column, meet many new people, and make new friends through it while learning about myself and appreciating what is important to me, has been a major highlight of those years.
I’ve always had a passion for writing and a passion for learning. How wonderful for this column to unite the two.