R.I.P. Rom

Rom Rosenblum was my dear friend Howie Katz’s best friend. Howie, a man with an irrepressible sense of humor, was never known to have said a bad word about anyone. Howie died the gentle, early death of a person beloved of God, he was stopped at a red light, his foot on the brake, and his life winked out like a candle flame extinguished by a whisper, his passenger unaware until the light changed and he said “Howie, Howie…”

Rom went to the airport to pick up Howie’s daughter for the funeral. “I’m the adult,” he told me, “her father’s best friend, who held her as a baby, I’m like her uncle, I’m supposed to be comforting her, but as soon as I saw her I just started crying, and she’s trying to comfort me. I couldn’t stop crying.” They both no doubt bawled together on that ride back to the city.

Rom was a beautiful soul, kind, funny, a great musician. I used the past tense because I got a text, out of the blue, that Rom died of pancreatitis a few days ago. I wish I’d known he was sick, I certainly would have called him. We might even have had a laugh. No matter how dark the situation, I think Rom could find a way to laugh about it.

Rom was about five years older than me. We met when I was seven or eight. Rather, he performed for my little sister and me when I was that age. It’s a story I can now never confirm with anyone, my father, who knew Rom well, was an appreciator of Rom’s quick, irreverent wit, and who Rom thought highly of, is gone. Now Rom is gone too. My first encounter with him was at a weekend convention of teenagers my father was supervising, held at a big hotel in Hampton Bays, Long Island, either November 1963, starting the day JFK was murdered, or perhaps the following fall. My father, a high school social studies teacher, had a second job as the director of the Nassau-Suffolk region of a Zionist youth movement for teenagers called Young Judaea. If my math is right, Rom was probably about the youngest of the high school-aged Young Judaeans at that convention.

He was walking with a cane, having injured himself, I always assumed, playing ice hockey, a game he loved. To my sister and me he looked a bit like a young John Lennon, which puts this convention the year after the JFK assassination, since no American kids our age had ever yet heard of John, let alone knew what looked like in November 1963. I recall the tall, skinny kid with the glasses and the attitude, slouching on a couch outside the dining room, where everybody else was still occupied. When he saw my younger sister (she was five or six) and me he went into a performance, pretending he was drunk (or maybe not pretending? he kept slurring the ad line “sure didn’t taste like tomato juice…”) and using the cane as a hockey stick to reenact the action on the ice, as he called out the exciting play by play of a sport I never understood “Giacomin with the save, wait, slap shot, SCORE!” and so forth. Eddie Giacomin, I confirmed years later, was a goaltender for the NY Rangers, the only NYC hockey team at the time.

My sister and I found the young Rom delightful, entertaining, as clever and hilarious as Peter Sellers, who he also slightly resembled. Here’s what he looked like in more recent years:

Our paths crossed over the years, as my father continued his involvement with the youth group and eventually became director of their summer camp in Barryville, NY. It was at this camp. in the summer of 1969, that I ran into Bruce Rosenblum, the guy who’d entertained my younger sister and me with his madcap improvisations years earlier. By then he was going by the name of Peanuts — on his way to Rom. His was riding in the back of a small, open, flatbed truck with a large group of other high school seniors at the camp, the overloaded truck negotiating a twisting road, when the truck flipped over, flinging its occupants, causing numerous injuries. Peanuts spent some time in the hosptial, I recall and came back from the hospital on crutches. He was no less stylish and cool, clomping around the camp on crutches than he had been with his cane.

A few years later he was in Israel, a new immigrant, serving time in the Israeli army with his buddy Howie Katz. Howie was part of a tank crew that wound up in a firefight in the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur War. I believe Rom was in the same crew. So was Don Tocker, the guy who’d go on to be the first director of the new kibbutz they were all founding members of. Suddenly, seeing something, Don yelled “jump!” and they all leapt off the tank. The tank blew up after a direct hit from an Egyptian artillery shell. The entire crew miraculously escaped unharmed. I met Howie shortly afterwards on that brand new kibbutz in the Aravah desert, in the valley across from the mountains of Jordan. Howie was my kibbutz father, and nobody ever had a better father than Howie. We became lifelong friends.

Howie eventually became disillusioned with life on the kibbutz, a small town where people gave him a hard time, among other things, for walking around everywhere naked. I don’t know much about Rom’s reasons, but after a year, or maybe more, he too left the kibbutz, and eventually returned to the US. They both settled in the Bay Area, Howie in San Francisco (where he and his wife raised two children in the heart of the Castro, the gay district of SF, during the AIDS epidemic, a time of great human rights battles over the “right to be gay”) and Rom settled across the bay, in East Bay, near Berkeley.

Over the years I maintained some contact with Rom. Any time I was in California I made a point of getting together with him. We played music together a few times, the first being at a Halloween party where, as part of an impromptu band, all in costume, Rom (a brilliant keyboard player) played an excellent harmonica and sang, and I played a borrowed electric guitar behind him. I can’t overstate what a great musician he was. He was also a recording engineer. I visited him in East Bay once, we played a bit, and then Howie came by in his truck to take me back to San Francisco. Howie requested “All Along the Watchtower” and Rom, in about a minute, put together a great loop of that simple vamp. We played variations on the theme for a couple of minutes, Howie beaming at us the whole time.

After Howie died suddenly, Rom, who was in agony, comforted me on the phone when I called to express anguish about inadverently alerting a difficult former friend of Howie’s who’d angrily written Howie off, who was now heading to Howie’s funeral and might upset Howie’s widow. I asked Rom for his help. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t be a problem. It’s not your fault you that talked to his mother, it will be fine,” said Rom, “There’s nothing you did, or can do, nothing I need to do, everything will be fine. Don’t worry, we’re all adults, it will be fine.” And it was.

A couple of years later Howie’s daughter asked a friend and me to do the music for her wedding. We were honored, it was a thrill, and very hard work leading up to the wedding, particularly for me, the entire rhythm section, in real-time, on one guitar. The guy I played with was very nervous, unsure if I was up to the task he’d set of me holding down the entire accompaniment for him. I had to arrange and learn each tune perfectly, the bass, embellishments, each chord, perfectly in time and at the right place. Otherwise we’d be embarrassed as his melodies crashed over an unsteady one man backing band.

I was not worried, but I knew I had to keep working my ass off to get ready. A few days before the wedding I spoke to Rom, who was officiating at the wedding with his wife Debby, both of them duly empowered by the State of California. As always, Rom urged me not to worry. He’d bring his keyboard and back us up, he would need no rehearsal could easily play off the cuff whatever we’d taken days to learn. It was a great relief that he’d round out the band, it instantly took a lot of weight off my shoulders. The plan was quickly nixed, it was deemed improper for the rabbi to be in the band. Taking Rom’s lead, I did not protest. I played 8-10 hours a day in the days before the wedding and mastered playing all the parts. The music came off without a hitch.

Rom and Debby performed a beautiful wedding ceremony. There was something otherwordly, and at the same time so fundamentally sane and perfect, in two great humanists, a married couple, ushering a young couple into marriage. Very joyous. Rom’s face, as he lovingly hugged everybody at the wedding, stays in my memory. It was the second to last time I ever saw him.

In this troubled world, people who seem slightly above it, more sensitive, more aware, gentler, more generous, more understanding and amused, readier to amuse, than most people, give the rest of us hope. The human is capable of this, and we have examples living among us. They inspire us to be better. Rom was one of the best of us.

Remember to be thankful today

It’s easy to forget, living in the overblown shit show we all have front row seats for, that we have a lot to be grateful for. A short anecdote for Thanksgiving and we’re off to spend the day with cousins.

I was working as a bicycle messenger, fighting New York City traffic and the me-decade of the 1980s, angry all the time. I had big dreams for my life, and being a cog in a corporate wealth machine was not part of those dreams. I found myself wasting time waiting for a slow elevator in a small building where some successful person had an important business that needed an important package immediately delivered to another office, it was a super rush. Time was literally money for me too, I didn’t get paid to wait around, I made money by being fast (which also allowed me to work as few hours as possible).

When the elevator finally arrived I got in and there was an older Black woman (probably younger than I am today) already in it, she had been delivered to the lobby for no reason. We watched the doors slowly close and the elevator began to lurch slowly upwards, then stop, then lurch a bit more. I muttered that it was not my day.

“Never say it’s not my day!” the older woman said, “if you’re alive, it’s your day!”

I nodded, attempting a smile that was probably more like a Clint Eastwood grimace. The old lady was 100% right though, and I salute her now, many decades later. It is good to take a moment to remember to be thankful sometimes, for something as elemental, and irreplaceable, as simply waking up alive in this precious life.

Meditation on 5782

Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.

Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.

My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.

Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.

Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.

It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.

I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.

No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.

So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.

For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.

I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.

These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.

Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.

So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.

We were slaves

In a couple of hours Sekhnet and I will join a Zoom seder for passover. Passover is the holiday when we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, about three thousand years ago, and vow to be vigilant in fighting slavery and injustice everywhere. It is called Passover because, the night before Pharaoh finally let his Jewish slaves flee, all-merciful God Himself, and not the Angel of Death who usually does such things, entered every Egyptian home and executed the first born male child, even if it was a baby; He passed over each Jewish (in those days Hebrew) home and spared Jewish babies — hence “Passover”.

God knew which homes were Jewish homes not by His innate, all-knowing genius or the poverty of the slave quarters (apparently Hebrew slaves in Egypt did not live in glaring, barnyard poverty like our chattel slaves here in the US did) but by the mark over the doorway, painted in lamb’s blood, that told the Holy One that this was a house where the babies should not be murdered.

I have more than one problem with this story. Not the part about identifying with the oppressed, it would be a far better world if everyone cared about and worked to protect the powerless, the weak, the despised. It’s the rest of the story, it’s religion, it’s the maddening righteous double-talk and suspension of critical thought often needed to sustain faith in the infinite mercy of powerful forces we cannot understand. It’s the quiet bigotry that is almost impossible to resist when you believe God loves you more than he loves people with different beliefs. And, of course, there’s God “Himself”, the all-merciful Creator who shows his infinite kindness by killing babies to convince a stubborn king to change his mind, when it comes right down to it.

For purposes of discussing religion and ethics I always yield on the point of God, if it is raised. Sure, there’s a God, fine with me. It doesn’t really change the discussion much, from my point of view. The only way to defend a God who allows continual brutal suffering, atrocity and mass-murder is to devise a Rube Goldberg device that blames humans, we who abuse the free will generously bestowed by the infinitely loving God, to do bad things, things that break God’s heart. A pogrom? Lynching? Insistence that a violent riot to overturn democracy that injured hundreds and killed several was a totally “harmless” love-fest? Nothing to do with God. No, God clearly hates that kind of thing. It’s humans, filthy, sinful, stupid, vain, angry, blaming others, trying to blame God!

I may feel the same way about many humans. Surely a group who breaks down the door of a jail and drags a man out to torture him and kill him– fuck them. Pour out thy wrath upon them, O Lord, as we ceremonially ask God to do, at one point during the seder (the telling of the Passover story and the meal). But no wrath is poured out on them, it’s poured out on the guy whose burnt body is swinging from a tree and on the people who loved him.

We were slaves, subject to hard labor for the eternal glory of rulers who fancied themselves gods in human form. In later generations we were dragged out of our hiding places, tortured, burnt, anti-semites loved doing this on Passover, when groups of Jews singing were easy to find. Hard to remember and identify with these painful things, in your soul, when you live in comfort and safety.

I’m not sure that reminding ourselves every Passover of our duty to see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from bondage really does the trick of changing our behavior very much. It is certainly a good practice to always remember that it is only a roll of the cosmic dice that decides whether we sit in comfortable homes celebrating together or run for our lives to a crowded, disease-ridden refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.

I know this — it is much easier to not have to flee for your life, or go to bed hungry every night, without shelter. It is a better life when you do not have to face the harsh realities that billions on the planet are up against. We should be grateful to live in comfort, free from hunger, violence and random acts of viciousness, the things that break all-merciful God’s heart.

These terrible things should also break our hearts, but our hearts are not big enough to be continually broken by these things, we could not live with the despair it would produce. We’d never stop crying, looking around at the way things are for so many here in the richest country in human history, in other places were billions suffer such unimaginably awful fates.

So, understandably, we take comfort in our comfort, our ability to look away from all this human pain we never have to directly encounter. It’s understandable, after all, God Himself is able to look away, always has, always will. It’s not His fault, it’s ours. There is no God but the God in each of us. But it is a lot to expect that God to be more godly than the God we praise, over and over and over, in the face of all this human weakness and misery.

Happy Passover, y’all.