Monthly Archives: June 2014

More Nostalgia from an almost 60 year old

I promised another in my endless series of nostalgic ramblings and here it is- another tribute to a lost art form, lost in the new and better technology.

This past week, we learned of the death of Casey Kasem, radio personality best known for his “American Top 40” weekly radio show. Each week, Kasem would run down the top 40 songs from the Billboard Magazine charts and make comments or tell stories about the artists who performed them. I read this past week that he really didn’t like the style of music he was popularizing and I always suspected that as he always seemed just a bit detached from the songs he was playing. But, one way or the other, it was fun to listen to that show. I associate it with Sunday mornings during my summer vacation in 1974 when I worked in a delicatessen washing dishes and doing other related work by myself in the kitchen with only my radio to keep me company. Thanks for the memories, Casey and especially thanks for the original theme song to American Top 40 which I can never get out of my mind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WAgZKHJtjg

But, the art form I want to reminisce about is not American Top 40, per se. Rather I want to reminisce about  the entire phenomenon of Top 40 radio on a local AM station. Who even listens to AM radio anymore for music (or maybe for anything)? But, when we were growing up in the 60s and early 70s, that is what you did. You listened to the local AM top 40 music station.

In Boston, there were two – or perhaps more- but the one that I and most of my friends listened to during those first years of music awareness was WRKO 680 or as it was called in the endless jingles you heard at least 20 times an hour: 68 RKO, Boston (you can find the melody such as it was on the Internet).  The station was my constant companion when at home in the morning or after doing homework (or during) or on weekends or whenever we needed to hear what the latest song to hit the charts was. And we really cared. We cared what the #1 song was. We cared about the latest hit from Three Dog Night or Creedence Clearwater Revival or any of the other favorites. We cared when a song we liked was suddenly dropped from the play list because it wasn’t selling. We cared when a song with suggestive lyrics would suddenly show up and we would all laugh at school the next day: “Have you heard…”?

I know young people still listen to music today and that’s great. And, I know there are still some FM stations which you can get around the country on Satellite Radio or on the Internet and they influence the music industry and inspire loyalty. But, it’s not quite like it was then when you just wouldn’t listen to another station or care about anything else on the radio (except of course Red Sox baseball) and you knew the DJs- or “personalities”- by their distinctive style and the inside jokes.

I miss those days and often go back to websites which contain “airchecks”- brief recordings of WRKO and other stations. But, they don’t satisfy my urge for nostalgia, especially since I recorded many hours of WRKO on our reel to reel tape recorder when I was a teenager. However, I threw  out the tapes when our tape recorder broke and we switched to cassettes. It never occurred to me that I might be able some day to transfer them to another medium. What a loss.  I can’t blame my mother for throwing them out like she threw out my baseball cards. This one was my fault. I wish I had them back.

I’d be glad if anyone with similar memories would respond to this posting with your own memories of the Top 40 station from your city. It’s part of my youth and I know it’s a part I share with many others. It’s all different today and that’s OK. I like being able to have my own playlist on my iPhone which connects to the bluetooth in my car and insures that I don’t have to listen to something I don’t like. But, that was part of the charm of Top 40 radio. You didn’t like everything you heard but it didn’t matter. It was what you were supposed to be doing.

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Sadness

I have an idea for another in my continuing series of “nostalgia” pieces for this blog. I plan to post it by the end of the week. But, now is not the time for light, humorous writing.

The  kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in what by all accounts is  an act of terror is on all of our minds and legitimately pushes away any attempt at humor. It is a despicable act and our anger and disgust at those who performed the act and those, including leaders of Hamas, who have defended it or glorified it are legitimate and appropriate.

I pray for the safe return of these three students and for comfort for their families and communities. I can not imagine the pain that these families must endure and I hope that the government of Israel will be able to find them, return them safely to their homes and that those who perpetrated the act are brought to justice.

It is a time for anger, tears and for sadness.

But, as much as we legitimately focus our sadness and our tears on these young men and their families, we need to remember as well that so many other families on both sides of the conflict have suffered so deeply over the years. Deaths in war, terrorism, the persecution that comes from occupation, kidnapping, arrests, home demolitions.. the list can go on and on. And, while I will say again that at this moment, our anger and our pain is focused on this act, our tradition and our humanity calls on us to see the big picture as well and realize that suffering is found in so many, many places in Israel and the Occupied territories (and yes, I do use the word “occupation” as do so many in Israel and throughout the world). These three young men are uppermost in our minds right now but there are countless other people of all ages who have suffered so deeply from the conflict and lack of progress in peace negotiations.

There are those who will argue that a two state solution would result in increased acts of this kind and that Israel would be foolish to ever agree to a Palestinian state. There are those who will take the position, as I have done, that an end to the occupation and self-determination for the Palestinians is not only right morally but pragmatically as well.

We can leave all of those discussions for another time. That is not important today. What is important is the return of these young men and the ability for all  Israelis and Palestinians,  to feel safe in their homes with the dignity, human rights and security that all deserve.

May Eyal Yifrah,Gil-Ad Shaer,  and Naftali Frenkel return home safely and may the families of all of those who suffer from violence, persecution and terror find comfort in a dedication of leaders, against all of the roadblocks that exist, to find a way to live peacefully with each other.

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I’ll Be Right Here

32 years ago this month, the movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial premiered in movie theaters across the country. I knew that fact without looking it up because I know that  I saw E.T.  just before moving to Lansdale, PA for my first job as a Rabbi.

I was absolutely mesmerized by E.T. While I’m not sure  it has stood the test of time as well as some other classic  movies I love, I remember being absolutely enthralled with the story- so much so that I made E.T. the subject of my first Rosh Hashana sermon as a Rabbi.

I don’t think I gave very much thought to how risky that might have been. A first High Holy Day sermon can leave a permanent impression on a congregation. I didn’t consider that. I just came up with the idea and ran with it. Thankfully, the congregation responded very positively.

As an aside, I should mention that the congregation’s positive response to the sermon encouraged me to continue to write sermons which were midrashim on aspects of popular culture: movies, tv, music etc. This approach has been a staple of much of my Rabbinic writing over the years. I shudder to think what I would have been writing about all of these years had the folks in Lansdale reacted differently to my sermon on E.T.

So, what did I write about this movie? I wrote about the last line (or at least the last line of importance) in the film. As E.T. is saying goodbye to his friend Elliott, he looks at him and points to the boy’s head and says: “I’ll be right here”.

I was fascinated by that line. What E.T.  was telling Elliott was that the memory of his visit on earth would always be with him and that what he taught him about friendship, loyalty and the importance of “home” would always remain.

I compared this to the giving of the Torah.

God comes down to earth at Sinai and leaves us with rules to live by and values to embrace and God tells us: “Study and follow my Torah and I’ll be right here”.

I’ve learned a lot about writing and delivering sermons over the past 32 years and probably would write the sermon differently today. But I still embrace the basic point: that the Torah is our connection with that moment in the past which we need to bring into our lives today. “I’ll be right here” says God.

When we seek the presence of God, we can find that presence in many places: in the beauty of the world, in the eyes of someone we love, in the hope that persists even in the darkest of times and in the wisdom of our tradition. That last source of God’s presence is sometimes overlooked and that is unfortunate but if we seek God’s presence in our lives, one of the simplest places to look is right in the Torah itself.

I’ll be right here says God. Right here in our hearts and our heads. Always.

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Some Good, Warm (and Filling) Memories

Each Wednesday, I look forward to the Food Section of the New York Times. I love to read the restaurant reviews even if I can’t or shouldn’t eat the vast majority of the foods that are described. I love to read the descriptions of contemporary cuisine specialties even though I probably wouldn’t eat them even if I could. Still, the descriptions of the elaborate entrees, appetizers and desserts are fascinating to me.

Occasionally, one of the other articles in the section will also interest me. I remember, particularly, an article a few years back which talked about some “comfort foods” unique to various parts of the country. One that was mentioned was a “pie shake” which was a local delicacy in, I believe, Iowa. You make a regular milk shake but before mixing it up, you  add big chunks of fruit pie, crust and all of course, into the blender. It sounded great and we did make a few using Entenmann’s fruit pies. They were pretty good although I’m sure the Iowans did it better.

But, this week there was an article which appeared in the Food Section which really caught my attention. It was called “Everything New is Old Again” and described the reawakening of interest in traditional Eastern European Jewish “deli” cuisine. The article documented the new twists that are taking traditional foods to a new, exciting, contemporary level.

You can read the article and decide for yourself whether these new creations sound good to you but I’m going to use the opportunity of the article to pay tribute to the old style of Jewish deli food. I happen to be an expert in such things as I was a  waiter in a kosher delicatessen for a few years during high school and college.

Now, right here, I have to remind you that I grew up in Boston and even though there were a couple of what might pass for “New York delis” in our area (does anyone remember Jack and Marion’s?), most Boston delis were not quite up to the standards set by the Big Apple. In addition, the kosher delis didn’t sell the New York brands of deli meats  but mostly sold Morrison and Schiff, the local Boston Kosher purveyor of kosher meats. They were certainly very  good although when I moved to New York for Rabbinical School, I discovered how bland our local brand was in comparison.

But, still, deli is deli and my years working in a kosher deli were unforgettable.

While I don’t think that I could write a book called: “Everything I Learned about Being a Rabbi, I learned in the Deli” (that distinction would more properly be attributed to what I learned working as staff at Camp Ramah), but I learned a lot of skills that I remember to this day.

More about that later. First, the food.

The memories came back to me as I read the article and thought about the menu. Is there really such a thing as “lean corned beef” and if there is does anyone really want to eat it? What is really the difference between corned beef, pastrami and what used to be called rolled beef?  Does anyone eat p’tcha any more (look that one up if you have to)? And, finally, does anyone make real kishka anymore or is all artificial?

But, the major attraction of the deli I worked in was the food that came out of the kitchen. The owner’s sister, a woman in her 70’s, cooked meals every day and I can still taste them as I think about them. But, they all carried with them a story.

For example, the deli offered a “Hot Meat Ball” Sandwich. That was a potted meat ball squashed between what Bostonians called a “vienna roll”, a crusty bakery roll. The meatball was incredibly moist and spiced just right. But, imagine the surprise a customer would receive if they came in and ordered expecting an Italian meatball sub smothered in tomato sauce. I didn’t want to apologize to one who ordered the sandwich before bringing it to them but felt the need to do so if I wanted to ward off any complaints. Occasionally, I would forget and I can still see the face of the customer who got something entirely different than they expected.

Then, there was the Stuffed Cabbage. When my Grandmother made stuffed cabbage, she would not put any sauce on it, just the cabbage stuffed with meat (and her special touch: ground up ginger snaps). I rarely ate it when she made it. It tasted OK but I kept thinking something was missing.

Then when I started at the Deli. I saw that the cook made stuffed cabbage with a sweet and sour tomato sauce and I thought it was great. When I told my grandmother about it, she said; “I never heard of such a thing” and stormed away.

One night, our family came to eat at the deli (the only time I remember serving them) and I brought out a piece of stuffed cabbage just so my grandmother would taste it. She took one bite and started yelling  my mother: “I told you, Gertrude, this is the way you make stuffed cabbage and all these years you’ve been telling me to make it without any sauce”. My mother didn’t argue. But, from that moment on, stuffed cabbage in our house came with tomato sauce

But, my favorite moment at the deli, the one I remember most dearly came one night when there was only one vegetable in the kitchen. So, the line on the menu which read: “choice of vegetable” did not apply.

When one regular customer came in and asked what the choice of vegetable was, I said: “Peas and Carrots”.

He said: “Peas or Carrots?’

I said: “No, peas and carrots” referring of course to the legendary canned mixture of peas with cubes of carrots.

The customer said: “So what’s the choice?”

And I, knowing he was a steady customer who didn’t mind being kidded, said: “You want ’em or you don’t want ’em”. He thought it was funny. thank God.

But I use that line often to this day. Sometimes someone will ask me about a particular point in Jewish law and say to me: “But, isn’t there a choice?”

It is then that I tell them the story of the deli. Sure there’s a choice: “You follow the law or you don’t follow it”.

Actually, that is a bit unfair since change is built into Jewish law but sometimes that is the only answer that one can give when confronted with a person who doesn’t like a position of Jewish law. I want people to observe Jewish law as it is but obviously, in the end, if the law can’t be changed, it is up to the individual to decide.

That is one of the lessons I learned about being a Rabbi from working in the deli. There were many others, the most important being that each customer needed to be treated with respect and patience. That may be the most important lesson of all.

I would come home smelling like pickles, would wake up in the middle of the night after a busy day and find myself still taking orders in my dreams and I really never quite had the same taste for deli after serving it for so long. But, the article reminded me of how much emotion and memory is wrapped up in the foods we love.

Gotta go, it’s time for lunch.

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