In Judaism the most important event in a newborn boy’s life is the bris, or the circumcision for those who don’t know. It takes place eight days after the boy’s birth and is so central it even supersedes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Meaning that if your boy was born eight days before Yom Kippur you still have to have the bris. Crazier still, it still has to be celebratory even as the rest of Israel is in the midst of the most grave self-reflection and denial.
The bris is so important because it is when the young boy officially becomes part of the Jewish nation. It is one of the most important days a Jewish boy will ever experience, and if he’s lucky he doesn’t even remember it.
Girls, of course, can’t have a bris, so in modern Judaism a complimentary service has arisen, called the baby naming. This is when the young girl receives her Hebrew name, and is officially brought into the religion. I had never been to one. But, of course, we were quite keen on Stella getting to have just such a ceremony.
The concept of a Hebrew name, by the way, has always been a cool one, in my opinion. It’s like a secret code, or handshake. Sometimes the name is very much like your English name. My Hebrew name, for example, is David (pronounced the Hebrew way, Daveed) Svee. My brother Stuart’s Hebrew name is Schmaya, which certainly provided some entertainment around the kitchen table. I am not sure what my sister’s is.
We were taught about the centrality of the bris by our rabbi, Joshua Simon, who was the rabbi of the Actor’s Temple, on W. 47th Street in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen through 2005. Rabbi Josh was truly one of a kind, an instigator, a charismatic leader, a scholar and a polarizing figure. He conducted a ragtag service, fronting an electric, and eclectic, band, with him on an electric Gibson SG guitar (like Tony Iommi from 'Sabbath), and players on instruments that included tuba, accordion and a full drum kit. His congregation, though technically conservative, welcomed converts, homosexuals and, indeed, people who were merely curious about Judaism. He created an extremely warm, if nontraditional atmosphere.
I noticed something was different about Josh the first time we went to services at Actor's. I am a native-born Jew, but the BBM is not. Still, she gamely went along to services with me, to at least see what she thought about it. At the end of services Josh and the congregation read over a deeply esoteric passage from an obscure Jewish text. At the end of it Josh looked out at his congregants, and said something I will never forget: “What does this mean? I don’t know, but I just love it! Don’t you?”
I had never seen a rabbi act anything other than omniscient—at least in their deck-stacked chosen field—before. Here was a man running an odd, yet deeply engaging gauntlet. We were intrigued.
Josh was intellectually fearless. Sometimes his services devolved, or evolved, into lengthy debates. For example, after The Passion Of The Christ came out we had a long, involved discussion about Jesus. I don’t know how illuminating it was, but it was surely a strong statement in the belief of conversation and debate, which most Jews claim to value. But few took it as far as Rabbi Josh.
Eventually, after much deliberation, Randi decided she was interested in converting. I won’t go on about her reasoning—that’s for her to tell—but for that year she studied closely with Rabbi Josh, as did I.
Often it was just us, in the basement of the Actor’s Temple. I have never felt like an adequate Jew. My Hebrew is simplistic, I am not much of a Zionist, and my feelings about God waver.
Josh didn’t care.
“This,” he’d say, as we pored over a text, “is Judaism. Three people discussing, and learning together.” From him I learned that in Judaism you are not supposed to only learn alone, you need to speak with people, share, discuss, get corrected. In this way the teacher is refreshed, the student learns, and the knowledge thrives. Together we create the religion anew.
Josh taught us to not fear the barriers Judaism puts in place. Hebrew is a beautiful language, but the scriptures were written in that, Aramaic and other languages because they were current. It’s no less holy, or legitimate, to read in English. Because the documents live, as we live, and are only as relevant as we make them. Yes, learn Hebrew, but don’t let your lack of Hebrew kill your nascent scholarship.
I was as impressed by how Josh made the Bible relevant. Our vanity, our violence, our insanity, these are not new things. The ancient Jews who brought Roman wrath upon their collective heads—leading to the suicides at Masada—are not so different from the radicals of today. In fact, all the various characters face dilemmas we face today.
To me this meant that our choices, despite a change in setting, are every bit as relevant as those faced by the heroes of the Bible. I found this empowering. There was no one holy time, trapped in amber, inaccessible. There were only people, making choices, as we do, living as we do. The holy time, in fact, could be right now. It's up to us.
“So there is only really one time, now?” I asked, grasping something that felt profound.
“Yes, there is only one time,” Josh answered.
While Josh often surprised us with his heart and mind, occasionally we surprised him back. I remember once after class we spun this quote, from the great scholar Rabbi Akiva, on him: “If water, which is soft, can hollow out a stone, which is hard, how much more will the words of the Torah, which are hard, cut through and make an impression on my heart, which is soft.”
Josh was impressed, though the quote came from an assignment he gave us.
Still, Josh didn’t always mix as well with the rest of the congregation. During his tenure the congregation's size initially grew, but then plateaued. The temple's foundation also lagged due to financial mistakes made by the board of trustees, though that wasn't Josh's fault. Still, these financial issues brought extra stress, and pressure, upon him.
One problem was that many long-time Temple members wanted him to lead more traditional services. His inclusiveness, and radical approach, simply rubbed some people the wrong way. He was treading water at a floundering temple, yes, but some people still didn’t want him to try anything new.
Eventually his job was on the line, and it came to a head at a Board of Trustees meeting. We attended, and I have never, ever seen a more venomous, spite-filled room, on both sides. It was extremely personal, with his supporters insulting those against him, and vice-versa. The fact was, the temple was running out of money, he wasn't bringing in the bacon, so to speak, and this issue alone was more than enough reason to get rid of him. That he had irritated many long-timers--who rarely attended services, by the way--was yet another mark against him. The writing was on the wall.
The decision was made to make him part time, which precipitated him leaving the temple. He had alienated powerful foes, and even some erstwhile friends.
Complicating all this Josh had a relapse of brain cancer.
The last few times we saw him he waved in and out of lucidity. Together we discussed plans to help him find more students, but, in my typical fashion, I never followed through.
The last time we saw Josh we were in his apartment, discussing our upcoming wedding, which he was to preside over. He took it very seriously, as he did everything relating to us; I know he saw Randi’s Jewish education as a grave responsibility. When she converted he made me promise to always take care of her. We were, in a way, his people, and he cared for us in a manner that was involved, real, and beyond what was typical.
Unfortunately Josh never made it to the wedding. He had a serious relapse just a few weeks before, and, in a tragic coincidence, died the day of the ceremony, August 7, 2005. It's a shame, as I think he would've had a really good time. We had a bluegrass band and everything.
We’d seen it coming, and had arranged to have another rabbi, but it’s hard to not think about how it might’ve been that day had he been there. At the very least he would've sat in for a tune, I'm sure.
Despite this tragic ending Josh left a strong, positive mark upon us. Not the least of which is in really understanding the importance of the bris or, should we have a girl, the baby naming ceremony. Now that it came time we were determined to honor what we'd learned.
Luckily for us we had a girl, so we didn’t have to worry about the little one getting the chop. But we had no idea what to do. Thankfully some good friends stepped up to the plate, in a big way.