Strange-ers On A Plane

It is late at night. I am on my second consecutive flight after a long day of work. Exhaustion seeps into every fiber of my frame. All I want to do is close my eyes and let the 2 hour flight take me home.

Having done this a thousand times I know that at this hour 90% – 100% of the other inhabitants of this flying metal tube want the same peace that I seek. Unfortunately on this night it is only 90% and I sit within 5 feet of the other 10%… with no possibility of escape.

My frequent flier status allows me to be one of the first on the plane. I settled in, put on my noise reducing headphones and waited for the plane to fill. Everything was great for the first 10 minutes. Then he boarded and sat in the same row just across the aisle. He was wired. From drugs? Adrenaline? Who knows.

He started telling the story of his day and then his life to the guy in the next seat (I think his name was Job). He started before he even sat down and seemingly did not inhale for an hour. No, it was not that it seemed like an hour. I timed it. An hour. It seemed like days. The constancy and length of the monologue were painful enough, but that VOICE.  His loud, deep, gravely voice is seared into my synapses.

I think he was in sales. I think he had some great opportunity that was as of yet unclosed. I got the impression that this man lives in a world of the “almost got it, will get the next one”. Each new opportunity brings excitement. He is not deterred by past experience.  I know this much because it was impossible not to catch some of what he said. I was in the window seat and therefore as far across the aisle as could be. My seatmates in the row started whispering about him but no one, myself included had the guts to ask him to tone it down or better yet to end our misery. But finally it did end, though like one of those car alarms on the street that makes an awful sound and then stops for a minute or two only to start anew, I remained on edge fearing that he would restart. But no, it was over. For him.

Shortly after he concluded the only other person who was not asleep on this flight began telling her story. At least this one had modest entertainment value. Entertainment value in the sense of one of those odd movies that you watch late at night filled with oddball “characters” from the sticks.

This woman was a grandmother from a small town in North Carolina. How small?   As she put it, “…most excitement in town see the dead bodies pile up at funeral home next door “.  She was traveling to the big city of Chicago for the first time to bring her granddaughter to meet the girl’s mother for the first time since she was born. The girl was one of nine grandkids. She had no credit cards, just cash so someone from the 20th century (not even the 21st) had to buy her granddaughter a snack. (No you cannot make this kind of stuff up). She spoke in a drawl that could only be described as small town NC hick. No insult intended [don’t you hate when people say things like no ___intended when that is exactly what they intended].

She went on and on until after the flight had landed. There went my last hope of rest. I staggered to the parking lot, found my car and an hour later crawled into bed. Now I know why rich people like their private planes.

Minor Characters

You know how sometimes in a play or movie there are these characters with minor roles that greatly enhance the show?

On a recent business trip to NY I encountered three people who struck me in an odd way.  I was overcome with this sense that in the movie of my life, or more appropriately the movie that is my life, in a two-day period I happened upon three people who would have made the final credits though towards the bottom of the list.  More than  extras but less than leading or supporting roles.  They all had small speaking parts in scenes that helped the audience, if there had been one, understand me as a person and added more than mere plot.  Let me present them in order of appearance.

The first is “Elevator Man”. As the scene opens I am in my hotel room dressing for dinner with clients at a nice restaurants. Though I am a blue jeans and T Shirt kind of guy I need to be in a suit for this event.  As I wait for the elevator i lament that I need to be dressed in more than business casual attire.  As the elevator door opens I smile and shake my head. The only other passenger is a guy in his 50s (I am guessing) medium height, thinning dark hair, with the air of an executive but the clothes a casual m. He was in a V neck sweatshirt with a deep V and no shirt underneath, a running jacket and blue jeans  (OK the jeans were designer and probably cost more than several pairs of my Levis). I had to say something. “That is how I wish I was dressed.” He glanced over at me and said, “I was dressed like you all day. You must still be on the job. ”  “Yeah. Business dinner.” As the elevator reached the lobby we exchanged, have a good nights and he headed to the door. I met my client in the lobby. The screen goes dark.

Next meet, Young Italian Lawyer.   In order to get into the place we wanted to have dinner that night we needed clout. Clout came in the form of the law firm that hosted my client’s meeting those two days. Three of us walked out of our hotel and headed to the law offices in order to meet Joseph, the young lawyer who was low enough on the totem pole that he got assigned to walk the clients to the restaurant , flash the firm’s special membership card and then leave. We joked that this would be the easiest chargeable hour he had in a long time.

To our pleasant surprise “Joe”, not Joseph, was personable and interesting. He shared stories of how his firm was representing NBA players in the lockout and that in his prior job he had assisted in negotiating the contract of some famous NY Jets player. He was tall, slender, good-looking and dressed like a fashionable young lawyer. He was not the least bit down at having this menial late night task. We had a modestly long walk together and he both entertained and listened.  We offered to at least share a drink if not dinner but he politely excused himself.  His job was done and he would not intrude.  The restaurant was fun, the food good and the wine excellent. Yet Joe was the hit of the night.

On the plane ride home the odds rolled in my favor. Not only did i get on an earlier flight but so did my client and by the longest of odds we found ourselves seated next to each other on the plane. At this point I need to mention that she is one of my favorite clients. Both good at what she does and fun to be with. We were in the window and center seats which left the aisle seat to be filled. Let me introduce Aisle Guy.

This client and I regularly joke back and forth. Aisle guy jumped right in as if we had known him for years. If this had been a serious private conversation that might have been annoying and a bit rude. I suspect Aisle Guy only took the initiative because the conversation was light and barbs were being tossed right and left.  By the end of the flight we knew that he was in sales, the company he worked for, what part of NY he lived in and lots about his twin girls. Pictures were shared.

Over the years i have interacted with hundreds if not thousands of these minor characters. I am not sure why these three brought this theme to my mind. All I can say is that they made the movie better.

Do You Know The People You Know?

Dave died in our office this week. A heart attack as far as we know. No one knows why him, why now. He was only 50.

I knew Dave for a long time, over 20 years but casually. My relationship with him was indirect, through other people.

Here is what I thought I knew about Dave. Nice guy. By all accounts 10 out of 10 on the nice scale. Generally quiet but not totally introverted by any stretch. Worked hard. Was in process of taking a half step back in his career to retool. A good consultant (that is the business we are in). Analytical and math oriented, he trained as an actuary though that is not the work he was doing at his death.

Other than that I knew a few facts. His wife is great. (She is the younger sister of a friend of mine I have known since grade school. I have known her since she was ten. Growing up their homes was one of my secondary homes. I have always liked her a lot.) They have three kids, two boys and a girl. Their eldest will be going to college next year. They live in a north Chicago suburb, a nice middle class neighborhood.

Not much else. He joined the company I work for about nine months ago. So Instead of seeing him at my friend’s house maybe once a year I now ran into him a few times a month. He was domiciled  in a different office but sometimes I would work in his and sometimes he in mine. We do similar things but have not worked on anything together. When I saw him we would chat for a few minutes about work and home life. Usual office conversation.

So for a normal casual relationship I guess I knew the basics plus a little. Didn’t really know what made him tick or what he did outside the office other than be a husband and father.

Words of warning. You may want to go deeper. There may be some gems hidden below the surface. Don’t wait for a funeral to find out.

Here are some things I found out about Dave:

  • he was a leader in his synagogue. He was to be appointed President of the congregation four days after he died
  • he was passionate about being Jewish
  • he found time not only to be involved in the synagogue but volunteered and in some cases led other worthy causes
  • he loved music and played several instruments
  • he touched many lives (there were several hundred people at his funeral service)
  • he had a dry and sometimes dark sense of humor
  • he worked tirelessly both in support of these causes but also to be with and help his family
  • his children loved and admired him (his eldest gave a phenomenal speech about his dad)

There was more. Much more. If I had not met Dave but only heard the words spoken about him I would have thought here is a man to be admired, an inspiration, someone I need to get to know. The worst part is that I had the opportunity to get to know this man. I mean really get to know him since I kind of knew him — or so I thought.

How many people around me would enrich my life if I got to know them better? Everyone. No. But what if the number is 5 or 10.  Another several good friends, interesting people who would make my life more interesting. Wow.

Now I am somewhat shy by nature. That is part of the reason I do not go deeper. However I also am very quick to make judgements about people. I decide within moments if I think they worth my precious time.

Maybe I need to not be so quick to judge. Maybe I should check below the surface for that gem.

Maybe you should too.

Reconnecting With My Kids

I should not refer to Kyle and Amanda as kids. They are well in to their twenties. Yet I have known both of them since they were born and so to me they will forever be kids just as if they were my own.

Amanda was my first. Paul, one of my closest friends — we have known each other since college– and his lovely wife Maureen — they lived across the hall from each other when Paul was in his first apartment, were among the first to marry — I was the best man. They had Amanda not all that much later so she was the first child of one of my friends.

Taking care of Amanda as one of her first baby sitters continues to be one of my favorite memories. We played together on the floor, I got to carry her in my arms and put her in her crib for a nap. One of the best days ever.  She was my first little girl.

All through my single years, which lasted a long time, I became an unofficial uncle to some of my friends kids . More so with Kyle and Amanda than most. (Kyle referred to me as his fake uncle the other day. Kyle, there was nothing fake about it. Blood or no blood. For a number of years I was around much more than your “real ” uncles. Anyways I am officially your godfather.)

For Kyle and Amanda I attended birthday parties, Halloween trick or treat raids in the neighborhood, attended soccer games, plays (though I missed one of their last Shakespeare performances), Irish dancing and brought presents at Christmas. I believe that I am personally responsible for the vast majority of ice skates they received growing up.

Of course that was when they were young. Once college started I was not as good at keeping in touch. Then Amanda moved to Boston and Kyle to L.A. Sure I am aware of phones, email and snail mail. I just became a bad uncle for a while.

Fortunately they were both in town for the holidays and they made time to see me. I was able to spend three hours with these great kids. They are both interesting, articulate, athletic and attractive people. Kyle is in design. He has been on TV and just signed a book deal. Amanda is in process of figuring out the next stage of her life after 5 years in a PR firm. It was great fun to get to know them again and find out a little of what I have been missing for the past few years.

I intend to become a “good” uncle again. I am connected to both on Facebook. I will try to see Amanda since she is now local. I will miss no more birthdays. We will share in each others lives.

I will re-earn the title of Uncle Rick.

Sights Worth Seeing

My wife is traveling through some of the most beautiful parts of Italy this week. i am city and suburb bound. Still there is much to see if you choose to look.

Walking in the park on a sunny day. Coming towards us are two woman. The first is very tall, slim and quite elderly, at least in her late 70s more likely 80s. She is dressed in that “I don’t care how I look and I certainly don’t care about what you think about how I dress” manner that only the elderly can pull off well. She has on a lime green hat with an extra wide brim that is pushing skyward as she walks into the wind. She holds one had to her head to keep the hat from flying away. The other hand holds the hand of her friend. A short, hunched-over woman who looks as old as one can be. She shuffles more than walks. the tall one supporting her companion. As they pass they show the manners that seem to be lost in more recent generations. They smile and greet us warmly as we pass by.

In the locker room at my gym there is a father with his six-year-old son. They are dressing to go swimming. As the boy pulls his suit on he must have scratched himself and he begins to softly cry. Many dads at this point would have told there sons to be tough and not give in to the hurt. This dad bent over, said something softly into the ear of his son, so softly that though I was less than a foot away I could not hear his words. He gave his son a kiss on the cheek. This tenderness, now passed down into the next generation, calmed the boy and his crying ceased.

I landed just outside a small town in Tennessee. After being picked up at the airport by a client that had become a friend over the past years we headed for lunch. Time was short so the options were limited. McDs, Wendy’s or the little place we had eaten at once before. I opted for the latter. A place that still sold Moon pies. It was small but the food was good and fresh. The owner took orders at a counter. you sat at wood tables, not plastic, and they brought the food to you when it was ready. I observed a customer chatting up the owner for quite a while and a few families enjoying a summertime meal together. It seemed like small town country. Better than McDonald’s? silly question.

At the place where you get your driver’s license a newly minted driver was handed his first ever license. He asked the woman if he needed his permit back. No, the woman replied, now you have a license. Oh, was the response. Now I’m scared, said the woman.

Tonight I got off the commuter train. It was 8:30 PM and I was just getting home. I was drooping. Barely able to move. Getting off at the same stop was a woman in her sixties. She was all light and lightness. A big smile on her face and a light step as she bounded past me and headed down the stairs. She was long and slender and had on a pretty summer dress. Far more youthful than I.

So much to see worth seeing.

Say It Again Sam

Real things said by real people and too good not to share.

  1. If today was tomorrow we would be good to go.
  2. I am all about Jack The Ripper
  3. I think people who love each other have to have fights sometimes otherwise they don’t understand each other very well
  4. I have a fat man living inside of me
  5. As long as there is a cold one and a TV out there
  6. Puting on latex gloves and sticking your finger up your ass twice a day is not as much fun as it sounds
  7. Hello, I must be going

I wanted you to first read them straight. Here is where they came from.

  1. If today was tomorrow we would be good to go. I love the pseudo-zen sound of this one. It almost makes enormous sense, sort of.  It was spoken by a male flight attendant. There was a two-thirds full regional plane waiting to go from Charlotte to Tri-Cities in TN. (the tri being  Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol of course). The passengers were wondering why the plane was waiting for people coming from another flight rather than leaving them behind as has become the norm. The FA explained that on Mondays and Tuesdays this was now the last plane to the TriCities for the day. Tomorrow, Wednesday there would be a later flight and this one would have taken off rather than waited. Therefore, …
  2. I am all about Jack The Ripper. A friend and her husband had just spent 5 days in London. In addition to the excitement of seeing Verne Troyer (MiniMe) and damaging their rented Jaguar after driving all the way to Dover and back and being within blocks of their hotel, they did a walking tour of Jack The Ripper sites. When asked why, the response was …
  3. I think people who love each other have to have fights sometimes otherwise they don’t understand each other very well. An 11 year old was being interviewed by her father for a piece that eventually made it to NPR. It was clear from the story that while the father and mother loved each other there were many things that got in the way, finances– or lack there of– being one. I can only imagine an 11-year-old trying to sort things out in her mind. This 11-year-old was very wise. If all couples thought this way then the pain of fights would be less and last not as long.
  4. I have a fat man living inside of me. Click on the link to read the story by the original author. In short, this was spoken by a 16-year-old man-child who had just turned down a second portion of main course for more salad.
  5. As long as there is a cold one and a TV out there. A friend from the west suburbs of Chicago told me that he is traveling to s small town in TN for Thanksgiving. His wife has family in the area. One sibling has a house on many acres in this somewhat remote area.  After he told me how nice it was there I said that I did not see him as such a country boy. His response was…
  6. Puting on latex gloves and sticking your finger up your ass twice a day is not as much fun as it sounds. This one has not actually yet been said out loud. It has been in my head for a couple of months. I have a literal pain in the ass and the choices were surgery or applying an ointment two times a day. I chose the latter and have been waiting for the right time and audience to use the line. Still waiting.
  7. Hello, I must be going. This was not actually said by a real person but by a character played originally by Groucho Marx in the play, and then the movie, Animal Crackers. The Goodman Theatre staged an extremely enjoyable version which we watched a few weeks ago.  The actors playing the roles originated by the Marx brothers were all very good with Joey Slotnick, who played Captain Spalding/Groucho being outstanding. And now, I must be going.

Good Friends Are Forever

This week I had the opportunity and the joy of reuniting with former long-term colleagues. I was in NY Monday night for a meeting the next day. Two of these former colleagues were  to be in the same meeting. They and four others just left their long time employer and started up a new company.  I had not seen any of them for close to 5 years which is when I had left the same long time employer but I had known some of them for over 20 years. In many ways we grew up together professionally. So I invited as many as could come to drinks and dinner.

Three came. Peter T showed up first. Peter is one of the top in his field. Most top people in this field have egos the size of football stadiums. Not Peter T. He is a great guy. Passionate about providing excellence to his clients. Has that classy-guy-on-the-street personality.  Great to be with. Hard to get his time or attention if you are not a client or working with him on a client. We have known each other for 29 years but until a few weeks ago when we spoke about our mutual client I had not heard from him in almost 5 years.

For me, once you are “family” you stay that way. I have several friends that I no longer get to see with any kind of regularity. But if we share some History and we were close, we remain close as far as I am concerned.

When Peter T arrived, he was friendly. We shook hands. We had about 30 minutes together before others showed. It was good to have his undivided attention. He continually asked what was going on with me as I probed for information regarding his separation from our former firm. (I actually was hoping for detail and dirt but unfortunately Peter T is too classy to go down that road.) It took awhile for us to get to that ” it was like I had just seen you yesterday” feeling but we got there.

We were eventually joined by Rosie and Dan. Rosie and I also go back over 25 years and we had spoken several times since I left the old firm. Rosie is my favorite New Yorker. First, she sounds exactly like a New Yorker is expected to sound. She can be brash and tough but has a heart of gold and is one of the warmest people I know.

Dan is younger.  I met him maybe two years before I left the old firm. He and I had the chance to bond on a couple of internal projects. He is bright and full of that youthful enthusiasm that is but a dim memory for me. The best thing about Dan, OK not the best but I am excited, is that he recently grew a beard. There are very few people with beards in our profession. It may only be Dan and me for all I know.  We deal with heads of corporations and boards of directors. They tend towards the conservative. I grew mine in the late 1980s when business people wore suits and ties every day. I have been waiting for 25 years for someone to follow my lead. Thanks Dan.

Over a beers and cheeseburgers we caught up on current life and shared memories of old times and people we knew. It was great. It was one of those nights that makes one remember why you liked these people so much in the first place.  I believe they felt that way about me as well.

At the end of the night I got a big hug instead of a handshake from Peter T. Hugs all around.

As an added bonus Peter and Dan were part of my meeting with the client the next morning. Seemed just like old times.

Take A Chance

I was at a party last Thursday. A celebration. Celebrating the latest big step in the life of someone who takes chances. She is now the VP Human Resources of a major corporation. Pretty cool.

The people invited to this celebration were the extremely bright and chance taking people she knows. Many of these people she hired at one place or another. They made her look good. In return she made them better. They are off doing  great things. Some running their own business and others with much bigger jobs than before.

I have one foot in this group. I am fairly bright and while maybe not the highest IQ of the bunch, I can hold my own. Risk taking however is not what I do. Not the big ones anyway. At least not often.

I get inspired by my friend, what she has achieved and by this group of people. They are special.

But taking a change is not only about making the Big Bet. It is also about the little ones. The ones where you could call it a night but you take one more little chance. The ones that lead to pleasant surprises. That lead to smiles.

The topper on this night of great conversation with amazing people happened at the end. Many had left the bar where we were celebrating but a small intrepid band was not done for the night. I let my self be cajoled into checking out the band upstairs.

There I discovered the Neverly Bros. Band. Three 40 something guys, rhythm guitar, stand up bass and stand up drummer. They played early rock and roll and British Invasion music. For just the three of them the sound was rich and full. This was fun. I do not get enough fun.

So I took a small chance and won. Thanks Sarah and Agent 94.

Between being inspired by these people and some changes at work, I am seriously considering taking a big chance. New job maybe. Maybe. I know that I should. I should take a chance.

Yom Kippur At JRC: Part Two

A few weeks ago I began to share with you the uncommon experience that is JRC on the high holidays. My intention was to share the stories but I got wrapped up in setting the stage. Now it is time for the stories.

The first is technically from Rosh Hashanah. Howard, our cantor, shared his experiences from his extended time off earlier in the year. Howard chose to visit services from the vast variety of Jewish, Christian and Muslim services in the Chicago area. One of his main themes was despite the great differences in the services in form, substance and god across religions and even within the different sects of Judaism, he was consistently welcomed  warmly by both clergy and congregation wherever he went. His stories were often hilarious and I can not do them justice attempting to repeat them here. The telling of the stories lent two impressions. First that of the personal warmth and humanness of the storyteller. Second,common are our bonds as people no matter the specifics of what we believe and how we choose to seek an understanding of our universe.

There were two deeply moving stories. First, a man shared his experiences from within the walls of Folsom Prison. Yes the same prison made famous by Johnny Cash. Today it houses men convicted of the worst of the possible violent crimes. This man was not a prisoner but part of an annual program in which men from all walks of life share three days with 30 hardened criminals discussing their lives. Not just the lives of the prisoners but all the participants.

The first amazing part of this amazing story is that agreeing to do this was not enough to get you in. This man needed to be accepted by convicted killers and rapists. All would be sharing their darkest fears and secrets during the three days. Acceptance required standing up in front of 30 prisoners and being asked why they should trust you. At one point a prisoner got directly into his face. He spoke of weeping openly as he thought about his life and the mistakes his regrets. He was accepted.

The second amazing part is what he learned about the prisoners as men. That even those who had committed horrible crimes still had bits of humanity. One man spoke of his sadness that he would not be there for his young son and that he was afraid that his son would end up following a similar path to his. Even more interesting was what the JRC congregant discovered about himself. He discovered that he had built his own prison. One made of fears that kept him from becoming the man he wanted to become and from doing things he wanted to do. He had turned down for several years the opportunity to participate in this program. The thought of three days in the heat and discomfort of Folsom being with hardened criminals did not seem appealing. Yet in the end it is what set him free.

I was in tears listening to this story. I know that I have let the enormous pool of fears that engulfs me keep me from doing and being more. I could definitely relate. This was not the type of experience I would have had in the synagogue I grew up in. Yet it was extreme but not out of the  ordinary for JRC.

While I like to tell stories. I am not a professional. At JRC there are several people who make their living as storytellers. Who even knew this was profession? On each day of the High Holidays one of our storytellers shares a story, typically a one of Jewish tradition with a meaning relevant to the holiday. I don’t particularly care for professionally told stories. I prefer ones that come from the heart told in less than perfect manner by a person. The sing-song cadence of the professional storyteller tends to  bore me rather than pull me into the tale.

One exception was the story told on Rosh Hashanah about becoming a grandfather for the first time. This story was well constructed as one would expect from a professional but this was indeed from the heart. It sang with honest emotion. Contrast that with the storyteller on Yom Kippur. I had heard her many times before and as I said I tend not to enjoy a story told professionally. Yet on this day she seemed off her game. The sometimes faulty delivery actually brought me more into what she was saying than if she had been “perfect” as defined by the union of professional storytellers. 

During the Torah reading portions, there will be three different readers. On Yom Kippur one of the readers was an elderly lady who actually read from a card rather than the Torah scrolls. The rabbi made a point of commenting that an exception was being made for Shirley. Shirley mad one small error during her reading but was generally great. I turned to my wife to ask how old she thought Shirley was. I had thought late seventies. My wife suggested eighties. More on Shirley later.

After the morning services, JRC has a long-standing tradition of having an “open mike” session. Anyone who signs up gets three minutes to talk about anything. We had never stayed for open mile. In the past our son would be anxious to leave. However, being empty nesters does provide extra freedom. So we stayed.

 The talks covered a variety of subjects. Several people discussed the recent loss of loved ones and often spoke of the assistance and kindness provided by members of the congregation that helped them through. One poor man lost four close relatives in the past year. One man spoke on behalf of Israel and while acknowledging the flaws of this kindred nation was asking for continued support.

(As an aside, while I was growing up, the state of Israel was the just and righteous country. It was the little Jewish state just trying to exist among powerful countries that on multiple occasions tried to drive the Jews into the sea. Somewhere along the way many mistakes were made and horrific acts of violence perpetrated on the Palestinians. Israel is no longer without blemish. This is a difficult conundrum for Jews wanting to show support for a Jewish homeland.)

Other open mike topics fell into the general category of “I am doing good things and I am publically patting myself on the back”. OK, this may be a bit harsh. I am sure that these people who are doing very good things just want others to know about them.

The second speaker during open mike and normally the first was Shirley the Torah reader. She walked with a cane and needed help climbing the stairs. Her first words were “I am 92 years old”. That led to several moments of applause. She went on to say that in the past she would share statistics about her exercise routines. Miles walked, number of push ups done, etc. I am guessing that I have missed years of entertaining milestones from a woman much older than she looked. This year she spoke about the trials she had been through. She had been through several illnesses and injuries and for months had been in constant, considerable pain. Only fairly recently had a doctor, a JRC member no less, figured out how to relieve much of her pain.

Shirley spoke of how she began to doubt if she wanted to fight after being so worn down with so much. Maybe at her age it was time to let go. She had lived a good life, a long life.  (I suspect that many people would think of themselves or anyone above the age of eighty in that way. Yet with someone younger they would be encouraging the person to kep fighting. Age discrimination?) Fortunately for anyone within the sphere of Shirley’s life she is still kicking. I for one look forward to next year when I suspect we will again be regaled with stat after stat of her exercise achievements. I certainly hope so.

We did not stay for the various discussion groups that followed the open mike session.By then we succumbed to the early hunger pains that are a part of Yom Kippur. It was time to go home and nap.

For those of you who grew up in and/or live in a Jewish tradition I suspect that JRC is not the norm. Yes we do say prayers, read Hebrew and the like but the connections to G-d, good works, and community are done in a way that is unique and special.

Yom Kippur At JRC: Part One

I have written about our time at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, better known as JRC. It is time to write again.

Though my family was not overly religious I grew up in a very traditional synagogue. By that I mean long services, prayers mostly spoken in Hebrew (for which I can sound out words but do not know what they mean), and professional shushers that would roam the aisles should any congregant attempt to chat with his neighbor. Shhhhsh.

The Rabbis’ sermons were of the hell-fire and brimstone variety. He would either be telling us what we were doing wrong as sinners or alternatively to  telling us to support the state of Israel, there were no other topics. Women had no role in these services. They were lucky not to have to sit in a partitioned off area as they do at an orthodox service. These were serious and stern services. The dress code was suits and ties, though admittedly this was decades before business casual changed our sartorial expectations.

It’s not that I disliked my family synagogue. I knew of nothing different. The cantor had a beautiful voice and many of the tunes I learned there are hauntingly beautiful. This was my opportunity as a terrible but enthusiastic singer to belt out songs under the cover of prayer and of being one of hundreds of voices.  I learned to pray solemnly–even if I did not understand the words I was pronouncing.

The JRC has a radically different approach to the holiday services and to the ideas of community and the role of a synagogue and its congregation. It did take me awhile to get past what I consider to be “prayer–lite” and the relatively casual dress of the congregants. (Yes, I can be shallow enough to judge people on how they dress as opposed to who they are.)

Once I saw past the superficial the substance of what Rabbi Brant Rosen and Cantor Howard Friedland brought to me as a Jew and a human it was hard not to like this place. Our time as a congregation on Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the year will be a good example of what JRC is all about.

Throughout the night and next day that make up this holiday, Rabbi Rosen communicated themes of community, commitment to the improving society, finding a connection to G-d both individually and collectively and understanding the spirit, not just the law of the holidays. The individual prayers are shorter than the tradition I grew up with (which bothers me at times) but the level of spirituality is higher.

If you are looking for a stern lecturer spewing fire and brimstone, you are in the wrong place. Rabbi Rosen– Brant– is passionate about many things but his delivery is that of an everyrabbi. He is calm, casual, caring, and funny (including a willingness to laugh at himself). He sets the tone for the service and for the service and for the community. Or perhaps JRC  found a rabbi that reflects his congregation. I am not involved in the congregation though we have been members for 12 years. But during the high holidays I get a sense of the long time and involved members and they appear to  share Brant’s characteristics and the desire to do good as well as be good.

Then there is Cantor Friedland–Howard. I have a strong distaste for people who pretend to care but are clearly insincere. I have come to refer to these people as the anti-Howards. While many care only if a cantor has a great voice, I care about whether the cantor has a great spirit. Howard brings both.  He is a perfect complement to Brent. I have not yet found the “team” to compare them to. Certainly not The Lone Ranger and Tonto for Howard is not a in a secondary role. Perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, at least as we know them from their portrays by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Both men of substance who work well together. ( I am not sure that the characters fit completely but Brant/Howard any objections being compared to Newman and Redford?)

Since the set up has taken so long I am splitting this story into parts one and two. Part Two will discuss the wonders of this particular Yom Kippur.

Before I go, let me share two more things. First, below is JRC’s self-description form its website which can be found here.

 JRC is a Jewish community known for our joyful spirituality, life-long learning, and a deep commitment to social justice. Located in Evanston, Illinois, our members come from all parts of Chicago and its suburbs. We are an inclusive congregation, reflecting the rich diversity of the American Jewish community – our JRC family includes interfaith families, blended families, young people, senior adults, people of color, and gays and lesbians.

JRC is much more than a synagogue – we are a community committed to a Judaism that makes a difference in our lives and in the world.

The second is a point I found out when I went to the website . Rabbi Brant Rosen has been listed in Newsweek as one of the “Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America” . Read more about this here.