Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Get a Hundred

I always liked the idea that on their 100th birthday, centenarians in England receive birthday greetings from the queen. In the United States, they come from the president. The signatures may be facsimiles, but the idea is touching.

No, I won’t be receiving one any time soon; the birthday I celebrated just last week leaves me with 26 years to go. But I was thinking about this in the context of a similar event I’m celebrating today – the publication of my 100th “I’ve Been Thinking” column.

How should I take note of this occasion? My go to text for ideas about anniversaries of events ending in a zeroPirkei Avot 5:21 – wasn’t much help. Unlike other years that connote attributes like vigor, understanding, and wisdom, “at one hundred, it’s as if one has died and departed from the world.” So I think I’ll pass on that one.

Perhaps, I thought, I could review some of the important personal changes that occurred over the course of this column’s life. Yet, though during these few years I turned 70, retired after 46 years of practicing law, took a lengthy trip to Israel, celebrated my youngest daughter’s marriage, and became a grandfather again, I’ve already written columns about these meaningful life events.

My next thought was to go a bit broader and focus on significant events and issues affecting the Jewish and American communities during my tenure as a columnist. But there too, many – including the character of the 45th president and the Jewish community’s relationship with him; the meaning of history and the removal of confederate statues; safe spaces and offensive speech; the ever-increasing use of technology; the #MeToo era; Supreme Court battles and recent church-state decisions; the impact of increasing Alzheimer and dementia cases; the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; STEM and liberal arts education; the latest Siyum HaShas; RCA and OU statements; the importance of and battles over voting; avoiding politics (sometimes); the January 6th insurrection; the death penalty; Modern Orthodoxy and feminism (e.g., women’s religious leadership roles, JOFA, women reciting kaddish, and coed Torah learning); immigrant children in cages; the 2020 election; tensions in American society and the breakdown of civil discourse; the U.S. healthcare system; and the RCBC’s cutting edge pandemic leadership – have been analyzed and discussed, some more than once, in this space.

And speaking of the pandemic, been there, done that. And again and again and again and again and again. And yet once more.

The same is true for other serious matters. Thus, I’ve discussed issues of Jewish theology including theodicy; the importance of decision making; tolerating intolerance; Modern Orthodoxy’s meaning; the tuition crisis; the (only sometimes) one Jewish People; twice confronting my 20-year old self; and asking questions about the past before it’s too late. Briefly releasing the frustrated rabbi inside me, I rewrote sermons into only slightly disguised columns, discussed halachic issues, and stressed the importance of day school education, the power of speech, and Torah learning. I fulminated over the cowardice of anonymous letters, the sadness of excluding women from Torah learning, and problems with the ways Jews argue.

But as I continued to contemplate how to commemorate this personal landmark, it became clear that it wasn’t only the major stories, the big events, the most significant happenings, that lay at the heart at what I’ve been doing for the past five plus years. There’s much more to the hundreds of hours I’ve spent thinking what to write about and then drafting, writing, editing, tightening, polishing, and then polishing a bit more (retired, yes, but I’m still a lawyer at heart), before finally sending it off to Joanne, my ever-patient and generous editor, who always manages to find space for me.

Rather, it’s really the smaller stories that are more telling than the breaking news. It’s stories about important people who touched my life like Rabbis Emanuel Rackman, Leonard Rosenfeld, Saul Berman, Ralph Pelcovitz, Norman Lamm, Shlomo Riskin, Murry Penkower, Yosef Adler, and Herschel Schacter, the Rav, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, and some special teachers; or even more significantly, stories about my parents and grandparents, and the wisdom they imparted over the years, some of which I still hear. It’s the story, told over several columns, of my short but deeply meaningful student-friend relationship with a Modern Orthodox leader, Rabbi Ozer (Tony) Glickman, starting with our first meeting shortly after I began writing until his too early passing just a few years later. And it’s the stories about meeting and courting my wife (and one story about not meeting her), and, of course, those about my children and grandchildren and the wisdom they often demonstrate (the former) and the immense joy they bring me (the latter – and the former as well).

Added to these small stories – and the storytelling – are others: my musings on kindness (much more than once), friendship, my oh-so-very-special HILI elementary school class, responsibility, apologies, lying, letter writing, obituaries, rabbis’ sermons, and life and change; on my undiminished love for folk music (especially Peter, Paul & Mary), musicals, Debbie Friedman, baseball, (lots of baseball), reading (which has morphed into audiobook listening), and favorite authors; on Facebook friends, carpools and Davar, OTOH, the butterfly effect, disposable dishes, retronyms, and oxymorons, the differences between turning 40 and turning 73, and heroes I’ve known (including my Uncles Chaim and Moshe) and some I didn’t; on reading Rabbis Lamm and Sacks in shul; and on my relationship with Sh’ma magazine and its editor R. Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz. (My article about this relationship, written just after his death and submitted over the transom, was my first appearance as a Jewish Standard columnist, though I didn’t know it at the time.)

All these stories strike at the heart of what I’ve tried to do over a hundred weeks of columns and what I am commemorating in the hundredth one: remind myself of those issues, ideas, people, and events that I’m passionate about and animate me, and allow me to share my views about them with my readers.

I’ve told the beginning of this saga more than once; how after publishing my article about R. Borowitz, Joanne suggested that I might like to write for the Standard more frequently. And when I asked her what she wanted me to write about and she answered “whatever you like,” I found that freedom both intriguing and intimidating. How can an opinionated guy like me, who loves to write, not be intrigued by having a public tabula rasa to fill up a couple of times a month? Finding, however, enough topics to write about on a regular basis that interest me – and, hopefully, readers? Intimidating.

But it was too delicious an opportunity to pass up so I took the leap, and now, looking back, I’m still intrigued but no longer intimidated – at least not on a regular basis. Every once in a while, though, after I hit send on my email to Joanne attaching the final copy of a column – as I’m about to do in just a few moments with this one – I get a twinge of angst and ask myself, what now? What’s left to say that I haven’t already said? But my computer (and editor) beckon, so I begin thinking about what “I’ve Been Thinking.” And then, after some thought and a few deep breaths, I sit down and begin to type.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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