Wearing Religion On Our Sleeves, Shirts, Shoelaces, Etc.

Seventeen years ago, a reporter from Newsday (a local newspaper based in Long Island, NY) asked me and other clergy, “Is it okay to wear religion on your sleeve?” She meant literally, and included other clothing as well. She shows examples in the article, such as a shirt that pictures a seated cross-legged Buddha with the legend, “Buddha is my om boy” underneath. Another shirt shows a picture of Mary with a halo and the words, “Mary is my homegirl” between her hands which are both making a thumbs up. Another shirt portrays what appears to be an abstract figure with “Proud Muslim” superimposed on it. All of the clergy supported the idea, especially for youth, as a way for them to communicate their religious beliefs and connect with their religion in a positive way.

I gave a positive spin on it too, but addressed two possible issues with it. This is what I said in 2005: “For me, the answer is a simple yes, as long as the religious content does not incite hatred. Perhaps the wearer wishes to integrate religious symbols into everyday public wear as an effort to bring God up close and personal. Since this seems not only harmless but desirable, then why might some people object to religious clothing? Because there is the danger that God is being trivialized. However, I don’t think that is the intent of the wearers.”

Here is what I’d like to add now: An interesting related question is why people want to comment on religion this way. Yes, intimacy is a part of it; after all one’s clothes are next to the skin. It is interesting that some of the wearers such as the ones mentioned, want to feel that a religious figure like the Buddha or Mary can come down to our level and be more relatable. The humor too, is a way to have a more playful relationship with God and less of an intimidating distant one. But I think too, especially the young want to test some boundaries. After all, clothes are public as well as intimate. Another picture shown in the article was of a cap with the word, “Jewcy” written on it. Sure this expresses some pride in being Jewish, but it does um “flirt” with Jewish sexuality. And I remember seeing someone in person who was wearing shoe laces that said, “Jesus saves”. Yes, God may be everywhere and anywhere, but I wonder if my Christian readers find it disrespectful on some level, or demeaning or trivializing regarding such a holy message. What if the shoes become untied and the wearer steps on their laces? How seriously can I take that message?

My point is that the wearers are questing after what their religion means to them. They are probing what needs to be challenged in it to deepen that meaning. They want their religion to be relevant to the times, which are less hierarchical and more informal than in the past. Think about those necklaces with crosses, Jewish stars, and Muslim crescents and stars that have been worn in the past. Those are tame in comparison and pose far less threat to conventional religion beyond hinting to others that they should consider becoming more religious, ideally in the same flavor.

Do you display religion on your person? If so, describe it. If not, why not?

Eulogy Of The Dancing Hands

“…..Dad loved to dance, especially square dancing. We heard his stories about dancing growing up, and all those stories have become our stories and in the retelling they are all together…”

“In his later years, he didn’t do the square dancing but he danced with his hands. You all know, his beautiful long-fingered hands, expressive and moving. When I sat with him in his final days, they were jumping and dancing and fluttering like birds and there was music in that motion as he told me his inscrutable Yiddish stories. He gesticulated wildly and told his stories until his final hours. After Daddy died my heart was broken, but perhaps God will be filling up that space. His last words to me were, ‘So long kid.’ So I say now, ‘So long Daddy’. “

That is how my sister-in-law Beth finished her eulogy for her father, Irving Isadore Kaplan, last week. That eulogy tested my family’s prediction that I would “hold it together” as I officiated at my own father-in-law’s funeral at their heartfelt request. Beth’s eulogy did make me tearful, and I simply acknowledged it before I called up the next speaker. I also cried when I got to watch her eulogy afterwards on Vimeo. This video provided virtual access during and after the funeral. (For those so inclined, the link is https://vimeo.com/700469242/9e7e04ea91 . Beth’s eulogy begins at approximately 24 minutes in.)

I’d like to say a few words now what it was like to officiate at a funeral for family as opposed to congregants or complete strangers. I felt more subdued and quietly emotional than usual. At all funerals, I sense the drama of the mystery of death and the intense emotions or stunned numbness of those present. As I am reciting or singing the Psalms and readings, I feel that I am bringing to life their most profound levels of meaning. I even feel like I am in a play, as a narrator facilitating the expression of a family’s feelings and confrontation with loss. This time, I was engaged in the same sort of thing, launching the stories of memories and loss. Yet I felt awed in the presence of death, swept along with the rest of family and friends into the swirling turmoil of feelings around and within me.

Yes, I held it together. Yes, I let myself be a member of the family as my heart dwelt beside theirs.

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FYI I just got quoted in this comprehensive article about normal grief versus dysfunctional grief: https://www.healthcentral.com/article/prolonged-grief-disorder

My Place at a Party of One Quadrillion

If I could only read one section of the New York Times per week, no question it would be the Science Times. An article entitled “Worlds We Can Only Wonder About…For Now” in this week’s Tuesday edition reminded me that not until as recently as 1992 could anyone prove there were planets besides the ones in our own solar system. Since then, some five thousand of their fellows have been found. I feel lucky I am a part of the first generation of humankind that discovered the great eight were not the only planets in town.

I bet you would guess wrong as to how recently astronomers figured out that our galaxy the Milky Way wasn’t the only one in town either: the discovery that the Universe consists of others besides our own occurred a mere one hundred years ago! (interestingly: “galaxy” comes from a Greek word meaning “milky”) Nowadays, scientists say the estimated number of galaxies that keep ours company is about 200 billion. As for the total number of planets outside of our own solar system, those five thousand are just the ones within our own single galaxy. Just imagine if planets were found in other galaxies. It wasn’t until last October, mere months ago, that as listed in a NASA site, a planet in a galaxy outside of our own might have been found. Let’s see, if on average there are the same number of planets in each galaxy, even at five thousand with more being found all the time within our own, we’d have a quadrillion planets.

And we think we are such know-it-alls.

It is ludicrous for example to rule in or rule out the existence of other life forms, intelligent or not, on other worlds. Even supposing there are such beings, they might be too far away for us to ever know about them, or they might exist with a mode of communication and/or in a physical form that we cannot detect with our senses or any scientific tools, much as we cannot detect certain sounds that dogs can.

Suppose we guess that other beings do exist among a quadrillion worlds besides ours, but that at least in our life time, we cannot get acquainted with them. At a minimum, as when scientists figured out that the earth circles the sun and not vice versa, we humans are reminded that we are not such big shots after all. And any one subset of humans—religious affiliation, color-of-skin, what have you within the set of all human beings who think that the world revolves around them are making an even more absurd proposition. Remember those quadrillion planets.

Well! This imagery takes me down to size. But it also elates me that little old me is given a part to play among the massive cast of characters in the Universe. I, all of us, get to partake of the fruits of knowledge and of living connections in our very own reserved spots.

How Divesting Russian Stocks Helps Putin

A friend recently wrote in his “how could you” tone to my husband, Steven Jon Kaplan, “You aren’t still holding RSX (a Russian fund) are you? We simply can’t support Russia now. The cost for supporting Putin and his threat to Ukraine and the world is far higher than losing money on Russian investments.” My husband, a professional investor, wrote a technical answer, which I have rewritten for the general public. I hope this will be my tiny part in helping Ukrainian civilians.

His response is as follows: “Even if everyone in the world were to dump their shares of a Russian company like Lukoil, the company would make exactly the very same profits. Instead, boycotting their product and supporting Ukrainian-made products would be a way to adversely affect their profitability as would negative reports on social media. How a company’s price is fluctuating up or down is irrelevant. The only time executives of a stock care about its price is when they are buying it low and later turning around and selling it when it gets high. So if there were some kind of popular divestiture of Lukoil and the profits stayed exactly the same because there was no other action such as a boycott, its executives would simply buy the depressed shares at bargain prices to push them back up.

That is to say, my own selling at low prices would help the ‘bad guys’ buy cheap and sell them later when they go up. (And it would hurt me because I’d be selling at a loss.) They would be happy with divestment because you would be helping them by increasing their control and power; you would not be hurting them at all, and you wouldn’t be affecting Lukoil’s profits by a single penny. In fact if you were to become a significant shareholder, you could vote on real changes such as a more democratic government structure in Russia.“

So, how to help Ukraine? Besides boycotting Russian products and buying Ukrainian ones, good old-fashioned giving to a reputable charity such as a refugee resettlement agency are practical ways available to many of us. There are of course more involved ways to help, such as volunteer work once refugees arrive in one’s own country.

I think in general, the more concrete and direct an attempt at being helpful to people in crisis is, the more chance it truly will result in a better world, even if that amounts to just one person more who finds their way to a safer and freer life.

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Steven Jon Kaplan is the CEO of True Contrarian Investments

For my own microblogging, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Doggerel About A Cat

As an antidote to the multitudinous cat videos in Cyberland, I proffer this poem, called “A Cat’s Rejection”:

O Siamese cat, I see you stride past, holding a motionless mouse in your mouth

As delicately as a French pastry that must be delivered

Untasted and unbitten to your master.

O haughty miss, you prance for patrons mew for matrons

Failing to bestow any favors on me.

Well, shall I let you be?

No. What then do you have for me?

Ow! Nothing but your freshest scratch

And my permanent discomfiture.

A Fantasy In Store (Part Two)

Sandra Noakley tammmmoak@gmail.com
to: Marcy

I’m sure glad you’re back in town Marcy.  Haven’t seen you in ages, and glad you feel up to getting out and about after losing Larry and all.  Let’s get together tomorrow.You remember that weirdo store on 24th and 9th I told you about several years back don’t you? The one that seemed to change overnight from one kind of store to another, and has no signs or anything out front or in back or anything about what kind of store it is? Our friends Mildred and Bradley still live here, so I decided to declare myself Nosey-Neighbor-in-Chief and see if I could make sense of what was really going on so I made the rounds yesterday in time to tell you what’s what. Well when I visited Mildred  she said she was too spooked to ever go back after what Bradley and I said, and also because she plain old didn’t like that dumpy dollar store she claimed she saw. Probably she was in a store on the wrong side of the street anyhow. That lady has no sense of adventure no how.

But Bradley humored me and said, “This is ridiculous. Let’s go together and settle this once and for all. Is this store the restaurant I saw or the kitchen specialty store you say you saw, or the dollar store, or something else?”  Ah, now I had a Watson to my Sherlock Holmes. Marcy, you won’t believe this. We get to the store, and like what I saw with my own eyes all those years ago, there was a nice flashy sign that said “Grand Opening” but no hints for what a new customer was in for. Chins up, we marched ourselves in there. It was a store for a chef’s dream alright, but now with a full restaurant on a second floor, Japanese or Korean or something like that. Second floor? There was only one floor last time, I mean, wasn’t there?  And you know Marcy how I just love Japanese and Korean food. 

I don’t know what the heck is going on here.  But this is about as much adventure as you’re gonna get in a town like this, so why don’t you and I go in there together tomorrow and just see?    Yours, Sandra

Marcy Madel mmmm4ad @gmail.com
to: Sandra

Dear Sandra,
You are a riot! What an imagination you have! That store went out of business since I last passed through when I saw you a couple of years ago. Serves ’em right for not advertising who they were, not even on their own establishment!  Love, Marcy


Sandra did see Marcy and had a lovely visit at a Japanese restaurant, and not one that comes into existence and then disappears. The visit, alas, did not include checking out the store, because ever since Larry died Marcy hadn’t felt up to doing anything that could be disquieting.  But before she left town to go back home, she figured it couldn’t hurt to just pass by and sneak a little peek at 24th and 9th. Yes, the store was dismantled, but she saw in its place a little museum, clearly identifying it as containing a display of Star Trek memorabilia, something her late husband would have simply reveled in. She parked and went in. As she lingered over some of the pieces for as close a look as possible, it was like having a bit of him back at her side one additional time.

(for Part One, see my previous post, January 6, 2022.)

To see my microblogging, go to: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

A Fantasy In Store For The Reader

Sandra decided to take her daily walk on a less-frequented route that included the corner of 24th and 9th so as to start the new year with a new sensation. Having lived in the same town for 36 years, new sensations there were getting harder to come by, except for the new recipes she was always trying out. She had heard that a gift shop there had closed up and so she thought she would see if someone else had taken it over. She found her way to the establishment, and saw a multi-colored lit-up “grand opening” sign, but could not tell what kind of store it had become. The crafts and picture books and such no longer flaunted themselves in the store window, but she could not see anything else displayed there in their stead so she figured it was no longer a gift shop. But what kind of store had it become? Nothing in her circuit around the front, sides, or back yielded a hint.

She looked at the sign again, and something about it seemed to invite her in, as if to say it didn’t matter what sort of store it was. She figured to herself, what the harm, it’s not like it’s gonna swallow me up. New sensation here I come! She entered and, lo and behold, it was filled with everything a chef could use. “What a find! What a coincidence,” she exalted to herself. Some time ago, she had appointed herself the neighborhood chef, and out came this shop to fortify her role.

The next day she told her neighbor Mildred all about it, but her response was only, “You mean that nondescript little excuse for a building on 24th and 9th? All they’ve got there is a dull dollar store. About the only thing you could get for your kitchen would be plastic forks, cups, and plates.” They looked at each other, disconcerted. How could they remember such different scenarios? Had the store changed overnight? They decided to ask another neighbor, Bradley. He said, “You guys are putting me on! A chef specialty store? A boring dollar store? That’s no store. It’s a little restaurant now that serves all kinds of soup with a choice of gourmet breads. Sure, they have enormous pots, and yes only plastic ware, but you can’t say by any stretch of the imagination that you weren’t in a restaurant.” The ladies poked each other and giggled, hoping he wouldn’t think they had gone bats after all and that of course, they were playing with him. He told them they must really be living in a rut and just had to get more new sensations in their lives.

This mystery has never been accounted for, but whoever designed that store must have known that the most successful enterprise is where the customers feel they are always right and have encountered the place of their dreams. All I know is that four years later, when I visited the corner of 24th and 9th myself, it was a bookstore called Offbeat Books and it had several copies of the two books I had written myself, prominently displayed in the front window. And it also featured a teeny snack counter that included my favorite dessert: unfrosted chewy brownies, with less sugar and a greater quantity of bittersweet chocolate drops than their fellows in the bakery across town.

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For Part Two of this story, see my next post, January 17, 2022.

For my microblogging, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

The Book Review I Did Not Do

I was thinking of reviewing The Samurai by Shusaku Endo, but decided that at this time of year, we all want to read something relaxing rather than taxing. It is true that the main character, a low-ranking samurai in the 1600s who knew nothing about Christianity until making a voyage to Mexico, grew to understand that at its essence is God’s caring and Presence at each person’s side. But most of the plot is about how each group in power, including the highest levels of Christian clergy and of Japanese government officials, betrayed and duped lower levels of people in power, including our poor samurai, who in the end was executed by his betrayer.

Despite all that, it was fascinating to see how a non-gentile like me, in the samurai’s case a Buddhist, reacted to such things as seeing an image of Jesus on the Cross, the insides of cathedrals, the behavior of missionaries, and so on during his tour of “Nueva España” (Mexico), Spain, and Rome.

But even centuries and thousands of miles away from the setting of The Samurai when Christmas time comes, I (and plenty of other Jews as well) become more aware of how different the main culture is that surrounds us as an ocean to an island. At bottom, there is always some degree of self-consciousness and anxiety. Some of that is expressed through a humorous mixing of the two cultures, for example by putting in Jewish references in Christmas songs, as in, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me: Lox, bagels and cream cheese.”

And so both to give everyone a break from heavy-duty wrestling with weighty issues, I offer this whimsical discourse about Santa Claus, a fit activity for a Jew:

* * *

We Jews have it easy when it comes to Christmas. We don’t have to agonize over how to break the news to the kiddies that Santa is just a symbol and not an actual person who despite his bulk slips down chimneys and makes judgments about their behavior before whipping out some gifts. And speaking of gifts, we don’t have to get frazzled and engage in the frenzy and expense of getting them all, and getting them all in time.

…Wait… While I nodded, nearly napping, there came a tapping, gently rapping at my front door. I bustle to the front to shoo them away. Was it going to be a raven? Nope. Hmm. Oh, come on now. A generously endowed man with a Santa suit on and the perfect white beard and all is waving to me through the glass. He calls out that he wants to come in and set me straight on a couple of matters, especially as I am a rabbi. I am alone today, so nothing doing. I tell him I’m sorry and no can do. And it’s unnerving that he knows my career history. I however will listen to him through the door, seeing him behind the glass like we are video-conferencing. He then comments that I just wrote in the preceding paragraph that Santa is just a symbol. I’m like how can he know what I had just written and which I have not yet released on this blog?

He goes on, “I know Jews especially are skeptical about me, but I am asking you to be open-minded.” “Mmkay”, I go. He declares,“I am here, and I am a Santa.”

A Santa?” I say to myself, grasping at that indefinite article for dear life. Good. Now I can say something nice and get him to move on without causing a ruckus or hurting his feelings. “That I get. There are many wonderful Santas doing so many kind things. And you all are so caring, too.”

This particular Santa then says, “And don’t you forget it. And you can set those Christian parents straight who not only don’t believe in Santa-ness but think they have to disabuse their kids of the notion as well. Tell them at least not to reveal their faithlessness to their young, for God’s sake.”

Being a rabbi I don’t know how much influence I’d have, but maybe my being in a minority might shame a few of them here and there. I figure I’d humor him and even give him some gifts to bring to the local food pantry. I tell him this and ask him to wait a minute. But as I hunt up the gifts and return to the door in a few moments to give them to him, I don’t see anyone there, just a red cap, a red suit evenly folded, and a belt with a big buckle all neatly placed on top of each other on my front porch bench.

Dear reader: Can you tell me what happened to him, or who he was, or where he might have gone?

Inclusive Language: Worth The Bother?

I have lived long enough for the English language to evolve—that is, I am plenty old. When I was little, we said “prescription” instead of “script”, referred to a female actor as an“actress”, and of course understood that“mankind” and the general use of “he” indicated both men and women. “God” of course was always “He” and its variants “Him” and “His”. (When I started writing sermons, I used “You” a lot and such expressions as “The Eternal One” to dodge the gender issue.) “Ms.” did not yet exist nor the singular use of “their” in modern times as in, “Each individual must provide their phone numbers to their fearless leader .” And we only had “firemen” not “fire fighters”.

Most of these changes have to do with what people call “inclusive language”. I remember when “he or she” in a sentence sounded so strange to me. Now it just sounds awkward, even though I use it at times because I am sympathetic to the idea behind it. Of course I perform linguistic acrobatics to avoid such awkward phrasing whenever possible, such as switching to the plural, or the second person, or using vocabulary we already have at hand, such as “humankind”.

Perhaps you think a lot of this is much fuss about nothing; that it is all petty and superficial. If so, thank God you speak English. Is it so hard to give at least a nod to inclusive language by avoiding certain vocabulary and throwing in an extra “ he or she” once in a while? Now don’t go around whining. You have it made compared to a speaker of a language like Spanish. Once I explain why, you will count your blessings as to how easy it is to display how open-minded and nondiscriminatory you are.

Get ready, because here comes a Spanish lesson: Suppose you want to refer to a total of 5 people in a room and not indicate their gender. In English, we would do that by saying “everyone”. No can do in Spanish. You have to choose to refer to all five people as female, if they in fact all are, with the word “todas”, or if all male “todos”, or if a mix, then again the masculine pronoun “todos”. And even if four were females and one were male it would still be the masculine pronoun “todos”. Yes, I know, that is so sexist. What to do? Some Spanish-speaking feminists have suggested a gender-neutral word “todes”.

A similar problem happens with a heap of words that refer to people, such as “friend”, “musician”, “teacher”, and so on. In English these can be male, female, or even non-binary. Not so in Spanish; there is a forced choice: In Spanish, “amiga” necessarily indicates a friend who is female, and “amigo” one who is male. So what will it be, “amig-” with a gender-neutral “e” sound at the end? (technically, because of sound rules, the spelling would be “amigue”.) So here’s the issue: A Spanish speaker who would aspire to changes like this would have to constantly speak differently, having to remember to change so many words, that it would be almost like learning a new language.

  ¡Dios mío! Spanish speakers have it tough. Maybe the solution for them is to have a manageable set of words that symbolically represent the ideal of non-sexist language, so they can go on speaking normally. If such a speaker is reading this, I would love to hear your opinion of how to bring your language up-to-date. Meanwhile the minimal sacrifice of effort to make English evolve for the good cause of making everyone—todes, todas, and todos– welcome and included is well worth it

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For smaller bites of my observations, go to https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

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By the way, on December 8th, this article from an online journal came out about a controversy over a gender neutral pronoun in French: https://theconversation.com/no-need-to-iel-why-france-is-so-angry-about-a-gender-neutral-pronoun-173304

Evil Accounted For In Four Paragraphs

Evolution has very low standards. No matter how deceitful and cruel a living thing is, if it survives it thrives. That is, if it does a better job than all the other try-outs that its alternate mutations have attempted. In other words, whatever or whoever is strongest, most adaptable and most intelligent gets the lion’s share in propagating its kind. Shorthand for that is “survival of the fittest”. If even for instance plants practice deceit with camouflaged designs and various odors to attract certain insects and repel others, then why should all of us goody goodies out there be surprised that deceitful and cruel humans get to rule countries, amass piles of money, humiliate others, become famous, and overall have the best of everything?

Even forgetting all that, why have we suffered through so many mediocre or downright mean teachers, preachers, camp counselors, campy receptionists, and of course that insufferable uncle or hypercritical cousin? And the news? Let’s not go there.

We hide from this truth about evil by saying that in the long run, goodness will win. Nice thought, but not necessarily true. I think the ultimate outcome in the war between good and evil is a toss-up myself as far as humans are concerned. That is, for humans at least, both being good and being evil can lead to enduring and stable societies. You know what, I just explained why evil exists and why good things can happen to bad people as well as why bad things can happen to good people, all without interfering with the principle of survival of the fittest.

At least until now.

Since the first hominids roamed the forests up to the current time, evil persons have been just as functional for the propagation of human life as good folks. But with threats to our survival due to pollution, weapons and all the rest of it, evolution in the end will have to raise its standards after all and require more loving of thy neighbor as thyself for our species to continue. “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” it’s either shape up or ship out.