Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Classical Reform Jewish theology has no mandate to see the Temple rebuilt because we have no need for the sacrificial cult. For this reason, when I was growing up, our movement rejected mourning the Temple’s destruction.  Frankly, I don’t want to return to animal sacrifice, either.  After all, I do call myself “Almost Rational” not “Wildly Irrational” (although there are plenty of others who could write that blog just fine).

My movement did not gather to pray or to chant the book of Lamentation on Tisha B’Av; we did not even fast. But, I have always approached this powerful day with awe. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, for good reason aside from the temple cult. Sitting on the ground and chanting the book of Lamentations is a transformative experience.

The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of both the first and second temples. I don’t care whether both temples were destroyed on the same day. What matters is that the most sacred space in early Judaism was twice destroyed and is now crowned with the Muslim’s Dome of the Rock. The Temple is not my big concern. I care more about the history of Jewish Tragedy. Reform Judaism now cares about Tisha B’Av: because, to us, it represents every tear, in the vast ocean of tears, ever shed by our people. We remember every disaster, calamity, show of hatred, murder, antisemitic act, genocide. and horror . Many horrific events and lamented on the 9th of Av because our people has suffered to a greater extent than nearly any other Western culture.

So, momentarily, let’s set aside 586 BCE and 70 CE and think about the bigger picture..

We find the first event that is supposed to have occurred on the 9th of Av in Numbers 13 – 14. Twelve spies are sent by Moses to reconnoiter the promise land and all but two come back scared as hell.  Only Joshua and Caleb  have faith in Adonai and, lacking faith, an entire generation missed out on the promise land. I’m going to be heretical and say that I won’t believe that story until I see grapes as described therein that are organic and non-GMO (but that’s another story).  I also have no reason to believe that it happened on the 9th of Av. Still, we Jews have no shortage of lamentation worthy historical events!

Here is a partial list of subsequent 9th of Av tragedies:

  • 586 BCE: The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
  • 70 CE: The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
  • 132 CE: The Bar Kokhba’s rebellion was overturned.
  • 133 CE: Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple and everything surrounding it.
  • 1066 CE: The Granada massacre took place on 30 December 1066 when a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada. They assassinated the Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred most of the Jewish population.
  • 1095 CE: The First Crusade was declared by Pope Urban II in 1095, killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities through Western Europe.
  • 1190 CE: The day that the Jews of York, England were slaughtered
  • 1290 CE: The Jews were expelled from England.
  • 1305 CE: A mass imprisonment of the Jews in France
  • 1492 CE: The Jews were expelled from Spain.
  • 1493 CE: The Jews expelled from Sicily. About 137,000 Jews were exiled.
  • 1496 CE: The Jews expelled from Portugal and from many German cities.
  • 1571 CE: Italy ghettoized the Jews of Florence
  • 1648 CE: The Chmielnicki massacres occurred from in 1648-58. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered throughout Poland and the Ukraine
  • 1660 CE: The destruction of Safed by the Druze occurred during the rein of sultan Mehmed IV. Both Safed and Tiberias had large Jewish communities that were destroyed entirely,
  • 1670 CE: Austria forced all Jews out of Vienna.
  • 1775 CE: Mob violence against the Jews of Hebron.
  • 881–1884, 1903–1906, and 1918–1920 CE: Three huge series of pogroms resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews in Russia and Ukraine.
  • 1914: World War I began.
  • 1942: On Erev Tisha B’Av the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began.
  • 1994: The Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina was bombed on July 18th, killing 85.
  • 2006: The Seattle Jewish Federation shooting occurred on July 28, wounding 6, killing 1
  • 2012: In Toulouse in the month of March 4 Jews were murdered and in Bulgaria, an Israeli tour bus was bombed killing 7 and wounding many more.

So, here’s the deal: Even if you don’t believe that destruction of the Temples, the overthrow of Bar Kokhbah , the Spanish expulsion, and the start of WWI all happened on the same day; even if (like me) you have no desire to pray for a return of the sacrificial cult; there are thousands of years of Jewish tragedies to mourn. Perhaps most important to me is my contention that it is insufficient to mourn the Holocaust only on Yom ha Shoah. That is the most despicable thing to ever happen to Jewish culture and life, the survivors are nearly gone, and time and again people say we put too much emphasis on it. Nonsense. It was not the only, nor the first, nor, sadly, the last of our tragedies. So, if you care about nothing else, use Tisha b’Av to commemorate that.

Lamentations 5:1-3 states:

  • “Remember, O Adonai, what has befallen us; behold and see our disgrace! Our heritage has passed to aliens, our homes to strangers. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows”.

So long as those words ring true to our ears, we must never forget the murder of a single Jewish soul. We owe it to ourselves, our communities, and out heritage to share in the sadness of Tisha B’Av!

The Clouded Mirror of Memory

A couple of decades ago, I wrote a poem called “Memory” that was published in 2013 in my book “The New Poetics of Isolation“. It was a poem about repressed memories and memories of actions that could have had different consequences. One particular stanza was about my father:

“I summon memory / and pause upon the pathway / leading to the rear edifice / within which father’s / chemistry was taught / with plastic molecular models. / A retrograde reality / where polymers build atoms; / not vice-versa”

That was a play on the fact that the model atoms were made of plastic. (Hey! I never said I was going to be a great poet… just a poet.)

That poem ended by saying:

I could have / learned much / had my ego / not prohibited / my assumption / of apprenticeship.

This poem did not speak only of my father. But, with his recent passing, I have come to view it with greater clarity. I missed so many, many opportunities to learn from him. I don’t think it was my ego alone that got in the way. I think it was the clashing of both of our egos. Still, one does not have control over others and must, thus, be satisfied with finding and acting with the best within ourselves. That means taking responsibility and that is why I put this on myself.

Brilliance in Context

Dad was a brilliant guy and had he tried to talk to me in the context of things I was interested in – cooking, the creatine / glycogen cycle during my weightlifting workouts, etc. – I would have been damn interested. I was not taken by polyimides and heat shields, and wire coatings and that’s on him. But, I own the responsibility because I could have done something too. Like:

“hey, dad, why do I always want to eat so much after being around all those people taking bong hits in the Toys-R-Us parking lot on Saturday night? No, dad, it must be from secondhand smoke.”

Joking aside, I could have pivoted to my interests and asked him questions in my context. I didn’t and now I regret that.

Here’s why I say dad was a brilliant guy:

A CV in Plastics

My father received his BS in Chemistry in 1949 from Rosevelt University in Chicago. He went on to the University of Chicago where he earned an MS in 1952 and his PhD in 1956. He authored countless papers and, by the end of his career has amassed over 100 patents, all in Polymer Chemistry and primarily in High Temperature Polyimides. These plastics formed the foundation for electrical insulations, lubricants, ablative materials, and polyphenylenes. In the vacuum of space, many materials outgas and can be damaged by the recondensation of volatilized gases. These plastics were able to avoid failing in these environments. Perhaps the best known applications for we non-chemists would be as conformal coatings used in aerospace applications such as to protect electronic devices and wiring from the intense heat of spacecraft reentry.

My father was pretty self-absorbed with his career. We kids, could say “dad…. dad…. DAD!!…” and he would not even answer. But to get his attention we need only whisper, “hey… Doctor Bilow’…” and BOOM! we got his attention. When I think about how odd that sounds, I also think about how committed he was to caring for his family. He worked so hard so he could put us through college, help his brothers, care for his mother, and raise a family on one of those 1960s single incomes. Doctor Bilow committed himself to his career for all of us, even when it did not always seems that way when he was at Moffit Field, or chairing a Sigma Xi conference. Think about it…

When dad decided to become a chemist nearly 75 years ago, polymers were in their infancy so he began his career at Dow Chemical Company developing polypropylene. At that time, anyone who was a bit creative could come up with projects which they believed warranted development and products which they would like to see invented. He, thus, went on to spend 25 years at Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, CA where he led laboratories in Polymer, Physical, and Analytical Chemistry and served as Senior Scientist for the Advanced Materials Lab.

The position that dad held at Hughes was largely the result of the space race. The USAF and NASA requested proposals to develop polymeric materials which could char efficiently but still retain physical integrity. These government organizations anticipated developing spacecraft which could enter the earth’s atmosphere at high reentry temperatures and this required high-char plastics to maintain structural integrity. Dad was at Hughes and his team submitted a winning proposal. That led to a lifetime of these materials (and, frankly, the possibility for a space program from which vehicles and humans could safely return!).

Family Matters

That use of my father’s brain-power is what allowed him to purchase a home in the San Fernando Valley, to support the Jewish Community, to get us through our B’nai Mitzvah and weddings, and to send his electronic-musician / photographer / mediocre scholar son to CalArts – a world class private art institution while simultaneously helping my sister through UCSD. His work was for him and, as a teenager and young adult, it seemed like that was the end of the story. But, as a 60 year old who has been nowhere as successful as he, my “old curmudgeon” perspective is very different. I’m now 5 years older than dad was when he first retired and I’m not close. He had a whole second career ahead of him though.

At 55, dad retired from Hughes and joined Furane Products Co. as director of R. & D. At Furane he got to experience what I experienced through my years at Grass Valley, corporate mergers and acquisitions. After a merger with Rohm & Haas, dad became manager of research, and, a couple of years later, Ciba-Geigy bought Furane so he ultimately retired again; this time from Ciba-Geigy. Of course, in the spirit of good old American M&A, the company was by now part of Novartis. At Furane dad dealt primarily with polyurethane foaming processes. This is a far cry from the space program but his work ultimately led to another amazing change in the world – an entirely new mattress market. From space to bed, that’s my dad!

In the Community

There is another thing I think a lot about now-a-days. That is my early involvement in ACM OOPSLA conferences, my book review editorship and columnist position at several computer magazines, and even the involvement I have with the SMPTE Journal Board of Editors and my ACM volunteerism. That came from Doctor Bilow, too.

Dad was also an active part of the research community. He was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, a member of the American Chemical Society, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists. In both 1970 and 1974 he was presented with the Industrial Research Magazine IR-100 Award, first for his work with wire insulations and second for a family of thermosetting, high-temperature, addition curable polyimides. Dad also had the high honor to serve as President of Sigma XI and to receive Hughes Aircraft Company’s coveted Lawrence A. Hyland Award. He was no stranger to awards!

Hidden Influences

I ask myself, often, why a PhD Polymer Chemist would support his son in getting a degree in Electronic Music Composition at an expensive Art School when he knew the power of the sciences and the difficulty of the arts. Well, he and I had vastly different tastes, but he loved the arts. He loved paintings (not what I liked) and classical music (which I adored even while going to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead concerts.) And he LOVED to DANCE (he danced, I watched Twyla Tharp and Bella Lewitzky, and got certified as a teacher of “Movement Expression” – so, again, we differed but he led the way). And…. man…. he could dance!

Doctor Dance

Those of you who knew my father well will know this, but most people will not. Dad was a marvelous ballroom dancer. He and my mother were extraordinary on the dance floor. Even as a hand drummer I could not count as well as my dad did when even casually waltzing (God…. I just this second realized that this may well be why I am addicted to Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”!!!)

Mom and dad were both proud of this and well into his 80s dad’s “dance card” was full up at the Burbank Senior Center. As they aged mom because the greeter at the senior center door while dad danced up a storm with all the “young” ladies. Once in a while, while visiting LA, I would join them but I was generally too self-conscious to dance with or around them. To me, it was like singing in a karaoke contest with Placido Domingo. I could not do it but it sure made me proud and it sure made me happy to see them smile. They were much more stylish than the folks I hung out with at “Dance Home” above the Radio Shack in Santa Monica.

Endnotes

I want to close with some thoughts I should have opened with:

  1. My father used to sit in Norm’s Restaurant, time and again, while I was as Cedar Sinai Medical Center having my many regularly scheduled esophagus dilations. His worrying gave him an ulcer but never did he complain. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  2. My father used to bring home dry ice and liquid nitrogen to use at our Cub Scout meeting so that we could freeze hot dogs and smash them with a hammer. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  3. My father helped me adapt our bathroom so that I could use it as a darkroom with my first Kodak enlarger sitting on the toilet, when I was 12. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  4. My father helped me convert the storage closet beneath our stairs into a darkroom so that Jeff Brown and I could process our rock concert photographs. And he pretended to believe I only inhaled second-had smoke out back. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  5. My father drove to Valencia to attend every one of my CalArts composer’s concerts, family in tow, to support me even though he could not understand why he was paying soo much money for me to write music that he had to sit in the dark to listen to on an Ampex Quad Machine through giant JBL Speakers. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  6. I never demonstrated this very well, certainly not as well as my siblings, but I want to tell you something. Dr. Bilow… I love you.

As my wife said when her father passed away “I’m an orphan now”. In it’s own funky way, that’s true. But I will say that, perhaps because of that, I realize more now than ever what a blessing it was to be the son of the son of Russian immigrant who made good, went to a university I could only dream of, helped put humans in space, supported his family so well, and set me on a solid course for my own journey.

Dr. Bilow… I love you.

Dr. Bilow… I miss you!

All the rest is commentary.

z”l

A lot of folks tell me about how important it is to keep a “gratitude journal”. I used to do that but I haven’t for a long, long time. With everything so strange because of COVID and the recent election insanity it’s easy to think that the world sucks. So this Thanksgiving I thought I’d share how easy it is to find gratitude if you just look around.

I can be jealous of people who have more money, bigger houses, cooler cars, etc. I can think I’m not as lucky or not as talented as some. But the fact it, like all of you, I’m blessed. You just need to look around.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement” 

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

For example, here are a few things I’m grateful for…

  • Patt. My wife and life partner of 31 years who was in my Christmas stocking on Christmas Eve 32 years ago and who put’s up with all my unique traits 🙂
  • A brother and sister who still love each other even after 50+ years.
  • My friends from Cafe Marzocca who have made a year of COVID-19 bearable even while standing outside in the rain 6 feet apart and wearing masks. And, who, by the way, share with us cookies and scones from their kids, home made masks, invitations to their fundraisers, lively political discussions, and especially the kindness of lending an ear when I talk too much about myself and my little problems.
  • Eric, the best barista in the world.
  • Johnnie Walker Blue Label – and the fantastic attorney who so graciously gave it to me for my 60th birthday.
  • A Torah Study Group that shows up for class even when thy know I’m teaching instead of clergy.
  • Rabbis that honor me by asking me to lead Torah Study in their absence.
  • My old friends from CalArts who keep me in touch with a past so different from today and so important in my life.
  • SMPTE leadership who gave me the huge honor of asking me to edit 2 issues of the Motion Imaging Journal this year, got me a byline in TVB Europe, and asked me to host a session at the 2020 conference.
  • The old leadership at BlueVolt who gave me a chance to work with them when I needed it.
  • The new leadership at BlueVolt who gave me the chance to continue on and to learn so many new things.
  • My Weight Watchers group who supports me even though I’ve been at my goal weight for, like, 2 years.
  • Doctors Kubicky and Jaboin from OHSU who have become trigeminal schwannoma gurus
  • My guru (speaking of Gurus) whose instructions on meditation I rarely pay enough attention to but who I know won’t ever give up on me and my karma.
  • My dear friend Traci, who is my Oregon sister and always will be.
  • My financial planner who keeps telling me that I may someday retire.
  • The tens of millions of people who agreed with me about the need for a fundamental shift toward empathy and compassion and away from vitriol and voted to change our nation’s leadership.
  • The few Republicans, Libertarians, Objectivists, Evangelical Christians, and others who’s views differ from mine who are willing to discuss issues and philosophies without anger, meanness, or insults. I wish there were more of us on both sides. But, I’m deeply grateful for those I can still speak to, rationally.
  • That I was able to turn our dog Zimrah from a PTSD rescue dog who destroys venetian blinds when not on Prozac into the best canine friend I’ve had since Sydney died.
  • That Bluebell has lived for 17 years.
  • The memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, and C.T. Vivian among the many awesome people who left us this year.
  • The memory of my mom, who I miss every day.

Happy Thanksgiving!