Honoring Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Today is the secular anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent theologian of the 20th century (his yahrzeit on the 18th of Tevet is next week). Many of my teachers at The Jewish Theological Seminary were students of Heschel’s and were highly influenced by his thinking and writing.

In Heschel’s memory I share my favorite story of Heschel as retold to me recently by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of his students: Heschel was sent by the Seminary to a Conservative synagogue to give a speech at a fundraising event. He went on and on for over an hour about his theology of humanity’s desire to conquer both Space and Time. It was highly intellectual and far over the heads of many in the audience who quickly lost focus. When Heschel was finally finished with his teaching, the president of the congregation got up and simply said: “You heard the rabbi, the Seminary needs more Space and there isn’t much Time!”

While Heschel died before I was born, his writings have had a significant impact on my own Jewish theology. In college I read Heschel’s The Sabbath which I have re-read several times since. My library has a dedicated shelf of Heschel’s works, many of which were inherited by me from my late Papa, David Gudes. My copies of Man in Search of God and The Prophets still have the dogeared pages that my Papa left.

In high school, as a member of USY’s AJ Heschel Society, I would stay up late at night learning about Heschel’s theology. I recall studying God in Search of Man with USY’s International Director Jules Gutin at International Convention in Los Angeles in 1993.

Over the years I have taught Heschel’s The Sabbath to adults and teens. The first time I taught that book to teens was as a college student at Camp CRUSY. It was after Shabbat dinner on a Friday night and somehow all twenty or so teens gave me their full attention. That was one of the pivotal moments in my decision to become a rabbi.

I also remember the first time I taught about Heschel’s theology of Shabbat to adults. It was during a Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation B’nai Israel. Sitting next to the synagogue’s rabbi, Leonardo Bitran, I discussed how I fully embrace all the technological advances we have at the end of the 20th century and how my love of technology, electronics and automation often comes into conflict with Heschel’s Shabbat theology, which calls for a break from technological automation that makes our lives easier. Heschel believed that we humans use space to try and control time. I asked “Is Heschel’s notion of Shabbat a possibility? Can we, as humans in the 21st century, ever just allow ourselves to sanctify time without trying to conquer space and time in a tech-centered world?”

As society becomes even more dependent on technology in the 21st century, Heschel’s theology seems to gain importance. Heschel’s legacy is two-fold. He was a Jewish pioneer in the call for civil rights in our country and he pushed us to think intelligently about God’s role in our lives. Heschel’s ability to write poetically, if cryptically, about modern man’s challenge of letting time dictate our lives if only for a day has been a gift for generations and will be a gift for generations to come. May the righteous memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continue to be for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Jewish Education of Eddie Vedder

Today begins Lollapalooza, the weekend-long music festival. I won’t be attending and I’ve never attended a Lollapalooza festival. However, just hearing the name “Lollapalooza” brings back memories from twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1992, I was a 16-year-old on a Jewish teen trip called USY on Wheels. We were halfway into the trip when we arrived in Palo Alto, California. Our bus of 42 teens and four counselors pulled into the parking lot of our hotel and we immediately realized that we weren’t the only tour bus in the parking lot. There were rows upon rows of fancy luxury tour buses with beautiful designs covering their entire exterior. It was only when we entered the hotel to check in to our rooms that we learned that all of the performers of Lollapalooza were guests of the same hotel.

Waiting for the elevator I encountered Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I talked to him for a few minutes in front of the hotel elevator, until he explained that he was losing his voice from all of these back-to-back shows and needed to get some hot tea and go to bed. I remember laughing at the fact that this hard rocker with a reputation for partying was going to call it a night around 11:30 pm.

One of the other members of the Chili Peppers turned to our group and told us not to do anything stupid at the hotel. Not thirty seconds later did we attempt to pack as many of us as possible into one elevator only to find ourselves stuck between floors. Fortunately for us, our bus driver’s husband was a firefighter and managed to save us before the local fire department arrived.

That Saturday morning following our Shabbat services, a number of teens from our group met Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder by the hotel pool. Pearl Jam would soon become my favorite rock band (which it is to this day), but back in the summer of 1992 I hadn’t even heard of them.

Some of the teens in our group from New York had already become devoted fans of Pearl Jam and immediately recognized Eddie Vedder. Vedder and his girlfriend at the time, who had purple hair, were on their way to the tennis courts to hit some balls. While it was a USY policy not to use cameras on Shabbat, some of the teens in our group took pictures with Eddie Vedder. Some even had him autograph their paperback prayer books.

When one of our counselors saw what was transpiring, things got interesting. The counselors explained to Eddie Vedder that we were a Jewish teenage group that was not supposed to be taking photographs on the Jewish Sabbath. Vedder pointed to his girlfriend and told the group that she was partially Jewish and that he respected our religious observance.

One of the counselors told him that he and his girlfriend were invited to join us for our afternoon study session. (It is a tradition in the summer time to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, on Shabbat afternoon.) The teens who had their prayer books autographed were reprimanded and then Eddie Vedder went on his way.

If the story ended there, it would have made for a great anecdote of my summer experience. But twenty minutes into our study session in walked Eddie Vedder with his girlfriend. The teenagers began whispering and pointing to the back of the room at the surprise guest. What was usually a boring study session would became memorable.

Vedder and his girlfriend sat in the back of the room listening as we discussed Jewish values and theology. About thirty minutes went by and they decided they wanted to leave so Eddie Vedder raised his hand and said something bizarre about the existence of cows. We all sat there bewildered. (In fairness, it might have been an intelligent observation but it was lost on us teens.)

We left the hotel on Sunday and said our goodbyes to our new friends, which included rock stars, roadies and groupies. As our tour bus pulled away from the hotel parking lot we snapped our final photos of the tour buses.

At the first highway rest stop I got off the bus, walked inside the store and purchased Pearl Jam’s “Ten” on CD. I would listen to that album thousands of times over the next decade. And I would come back to it many times in the decade that followed. Eddie Vedder’s music spoke to me during the rest of my teen years and into college.

Last year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of “Ten,” Cameron Crowe produced a documentary called “Pearl Jam Twenty.” Watching the DVD at home late one night recently, I thought back to the memorable and life changing summer I spent on a tour bus out West twenty years ago. While I didn’t even know who Eddie Vedder was as he sat in the back of the room at our Shabbat afternoon study session, just knowing that I had learned Torah with Eddie Vedder brought chills to my spine. I don’t know if he ever studied Torah again after that one afternoon, but I sure feel blessed and honored to have witnessed the Jewish education of Eddie Vedder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Red Hot Chili Peppers and Claire Danes Dig Tel Aviv

Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption might have taken a hit following its ill conceived PR campaign to get Israeli expats to return to Israel, but Tel Aviv is doing great right now in the PR department.

Tel Aviv was on everyone’s mind yesterday as news circulated about a planned Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in Tel Aviv next fall and a ringing endorsement about Tel Aviv’s rockin’ party atmosphere from Claire Danes.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers recently signed a deal to perform in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park in September to promote their tenth album. The concert will take place 11 years after the Chili Peppers canceled a performance in Tel Aviv at the last minute in September 2001. The band’s first guitarist, Hillel Slovak, was an Israeli who moved to the United States as a child. Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988 before the band became famous.

I had a chance to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Palo Alto, California in July 1992 while I was a participant on the USY on Wheels summer youth tour and the Chili Peppers were performing in Lollapalooza.  It so happened that my group was staying in the same hotel as all of the Lollapalooza bands including Pearl Jam. I spent a few minutes talking with Anthony Kiedis of the Chili Peppers while we were waiting for an elevator. Like Pearl Jam, the band has had a very successful run over the past two decades and I’m sure they won’t have a hard time selling out their Tel Aviv show.

While the Chili Peppers were signing their names to their Tel Aviv concert agreement, actress Claire Danes was singing Tel Aviv’s praises to Conan O’Brien. Talking to the late night host on “Conan,” Claire Danes remarked that Tel Aviv (where she filmed part of Showtime’s “Homeland”) is the most intense party town she’s ever been to. She theorized that the reason for this was that it’s a very stressful environment and its citizens need to blow off steam.

Most people took Claire Dane’s observations about Tel Aviv as a ringing endorsement, but David Abitbol, the founder of Jewlicious, called her theory of Tel Aviv being so stressful into question:

That’s a great observation Claire. It is indeed very stressful in Tel Aviv! Folks stress out over things on a daily basis like “should I get an Americano or a Capuccino?” or “When is that last bus to Holon!?” or “How will I convince the IDF draft office that I am a religious girl now that all those intense party photos of me are on Facebook?” Oh the humanity.

Personally, I think it was great to hear a celebrity saying positive things about Israel on late night TV. Maybe Claire Danes will return to Tel Aviv in September 2012 for the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert? I’m sure she’d have fun at the after parties.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller