Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Continuing Relationship Problems

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Sep 28, 2014 @ 8:05 pm PDT

The Great Gatsby (Rep East)userpic=repeastThis has been a weekend for relationship problems. Earlier this morning I wrote about some relationships in flux in Atlanta in 1973; these were portrayed on stage in What I Learned In Paris” at the Colony Theatre. This afternoon we saw more relationship problems — this time in the 1920s in New York — when we saw the Los Angeles Premier of “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East Playhouse (REP East) (FB) in Newhall.†

I’d been roughly familiar with The Great Gatsby before: I knew of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (but had never read it); I knew of the two movie versions of the story (but had never seen them); and I used to work next to a restaurant called Gatsby’s in Brentwood (but never ate there). I knew it was about the decadence of the 1920s, and that it concerned a relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. But that’s about all I knew.

As a result, as I sat through the show, I found myself hindered by the confusing exposition and relationships. I liked the characters and the performances, but the story left me cold. Discussing the show on the way home I discovered that was partially the intent: to show the decadence and how there was coldness behind it. I also read the Wikipedia page with the summary of the story, and it very very closely matched what was on stage. I opine that this show will be received at little better by those with a passing familiarity with the Gatsby story — be it from the book, the movies, or even the Wikipedia version :-). That’s not to say that the show wasn’t enjoyable — it was — just that a little more familiarity would have helped (I can’t fault the writer or those who adapted it for the stage, as they followed the original story; rather, I think there is so much meaning behind the elements of the story that the presentation would be enhanced with an understanding of those elements).

The adaption of the story was by Simon Levy, the producing director for the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. It was first produced at the Guthrie Theatre in MN; it had its West Coast premier at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. This production was the Los Angeles premier — it is great to see REP reaching the stature where it brings new plays to Los Angeles.

So what is the story behind Gatsby? Wikipedia summarizes the story as follows (condensed a little), and this is essentially what is portrayed on stage:

The story takes place in the summer of 1922. Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate and World War I veteran from the Midwest – who serves as the novel’s narrator – takes a job in New York as a bond salesman. He rents a small house on Long Island, in the (fictional) village of West Egg, next door to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who holds extravagant parties but does not participate in them. Nick drives around the bay for dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Fay Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, a college acquaintance of Nick’s. They introduce Nick to Jordan Baker, an attractive, cynical young golfer with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship. She reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Not long after this revelation, Nick travels to New York City with Tom and Myrtle to an apartment they keep for their affair. At the apartment, a vulgar and bizarre party takes place. It ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose after she annoys him by saying Daisy’s name several times.  As the summer progresses, Nick eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick encounters Jordan Baker at the party, and they meet Gatsby himself, an aloof and surprisingly young man who recognizes Nick from their same division in the war. Through Jordan, Nick later learns that Gatsby knew Daisy from a romantic encounter in 1917 and is deeply in love with her. He spends many nights staring at the green light at the end of her dock, across the bay from his mansion, hoping to one day rekindle their lost romance. Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle and wild parties are an attempt to impress Daisy in the hope that she will one day appear again at Gatsby’s doorstep. Gatsby now wants Nick to arrange a reunion between himself and Daisy. Nick invites Daisy to have tea at his house, without telling her that Gatsby will also be there. After an initially awkward reunion, Gatsby and Daisy reestablish their connection. They begin an affair and, after a short time, Tom grows increasingly suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Gatsby. At a luncheon at the Buchanans’ house, Daisy speaks to Gatsby with such undisguised intimacy that Tom realizes she is in love with Gatsby. Though Tom is himself involved in an extramarital affair, he is outraged by his wife’s infidelity. He forces the group to drive into New York City and confronts Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, asserting that he and Daisy have a history that Gatsby could never understand. In addition to that, he announces to his wife that Gatsby is a criminal whose fortune comes from bootlegging alcohol and other illegal activities. Daisy realizes that her allegiance is to Tom, and Tom contemptuously sends her back to East Egg with Gatsby, attempting to prove that Gatsby cannot hurt him. On the way home, Nick, Jordan, and Tom discover that Gatsby’s car has struck and killed Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. Nick later learns from Gatsby that Daisy, not Gatsby himself, was driving the car at the time of the accident but Gatsby intends to take the blame anyway. Myrtle’s husband, George, falsely concludes that the driver of the yellow car is the secret lover he recently began suspecting she has, and sets out on foot to locate its owner. After finding out the yellow car is Gatsby’s, he arrives at Gatsby’s mansion where he fatally shoots both Gatsby and then himself. Nick stages an unsettlingly small funeral for Gatsby, ends his relationship with Jordan, and moves back to the Midwest, disillusioned with the Eastern lifestyle.

The performances of the actors were very good; the direction of co-directors Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and Christopher Chase (FB) worked well to bring realistic performances, although at times there was a little confusion as to what action was where. In the lead positions were Dennis Hadley (FB) as Jay Gatsby and Carole Catanzaro (FB) as Daisy Buchanan. Hadley was affable and gave off the ambiance of the well-to-do well; Daisy seemed appropriately self-centered and not really invested in any relationship — or to put it another way, in whichever relationship could move her forward. It was interesting to contrast Daisy with Ann in the Colony play. Both were torn between two men — one that loved them madly but wasn’t their spouse, and their spouse who was somewhat indifferent to them. The resolutions were very different, but the situations similar. Completing the love triangle was Dustin Emery as Tom Buchanan. Emery’s Buchanan gave off the appropriate violent menace required for the character. Emery played the character in a way that made it clear he did not love Daisy, but had a strong physical (but not necessarily emotional attraction) to his mistress. A friend of ours opined the similarity between Buchanan, a sports hero in the story, and certain characters in the NFL today.

Although I hesitate to call them supporting as they were critical to the action (but supporting in the sense of who you remember) were Cole Shoemaker as Nick Carraway and Alli Kelly (FB) as Jordan Baker. Shoemaker’s Carraway had a bit of cold indifference, but when you consider he was the narrator of the story that is less surprising. At times, I found his exposition a bit hard to follow, but in general I liked his performance as the character. Kelly’s Baker was fun to watch — she had these odd sardonic facial expressions at just the right moment.

Rounding out the cast were Amber Schwinn (FB) as Myrtle Wilson, Jeremiah Lowder/FB as George Wilson, John Lucewich (FB) as Chester McKee, Julie Henderson (FB) as Lucille McKee, and Brent Christensen (FB) as Myer Wolfsheim. Amber was great as Myrtle Wilson, capturing the distaste for her husband and her desire for Tom well; she also plays dead great :-). Lowder captured the mechanic nature of George Wilson well, but otherwise was written superficially. Lastly, I never quite understood Wolfsheim as his character was never given a good explanation; but Brent played him well.

Turning to the technical side. Sound and lights were by the usual REP suspects: Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB on sound and Tim Christianson/FB on lights. Both worked well. The set design was by Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and did a reasonable job of establishing place and era; this was aided by the projections by  Mikee Schwinn/FB. Costumes were by Janet McAnany (FB) and seemed reasonably flapper era — plus the suits that she chose for Gatsby were spectacular. Jeffrey Hampton/FB was the production stage manager. “The Great Gatsby” was produced by Mikee Schwinn/FB and Ovington Michael Owston (FB).

The Great Gatsby” continues at Repertory East (FB) until October 18.  Tickets are available through the REP East Online Box Office, as well as through Goldstar. It is well worth seeing.

Although there is no printed announcement, Repertory East (FB) has announced their 2015 season: “Avenue Q“, “Doubt“, “Dinner with Friends“, “Jesus Christ Superstar“, “Diviners” and “Deathtrap“. Specific performance dates and season subscription information should be available at the next REP show, “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of the Suicide Club“, starting November 14.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I've been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I've been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I'm a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  October currently has two shows (three if you count Yom Kippur on 10/4): “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) on Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25. November is back to busy, with “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’m looking at The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto, or “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB). As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

†: Plus I did something to upset my wife (although not intentional), starting with not going to her backup restaurant when there was a 90 minute wait at our primary restaurant because there was nothing that looked appealing to eat. Following that, I was less then enthused when we went to an art show/pow-wow after the show (when I had load and loads of stuff to do at home). I’ve apologized, but I’m probably in the doghouse for a while. Back to cooking dinner, for example….

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Theatre Reflections and Community Participation

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Sep 28, 2014 @ 9:53 am PDT

What I Learned in Paris (Colony)userpic=colonyIf there is a problem in the theatre today, it is the makeup of the audience. Go to most shows, and you’ll see the same type of audience — older, white, and typically better suited financially. None of these are particularly surprising, given who was trained to attend theatre when they were younger (i.e., in the 1950s and 1960s). Some theatres, playwrights, and artistic directors know how to change that — and I’m thinking of folks like Sheldon Epps over at the Pasadena Playhouse. They’ve mastered the art of the “black play” — that is, a play with something that draws out the African-American audience to the theatre. I’ve written before about how I believe this is a good thing — how, in fact, I wish that the audience for theatre in general was more reflective of society’s makeup. I’ve also bemoaned that the white audience seems to disappear for the perceived “black” plays, and black audience isn’t there for the “white” plays.

So what makes a successful “black” play or musical? To my eyes, there seems to be three varieties. There is the black play that draws on the uniquely black experience and uses that to teach. The Pasadena Playhouse has done loads of these, and you can often find them from playwrights such as August Wilson. The Colony had one recently in Breath and Imagination. Then there are those that draw on the black musical experience. A friend commented that the current musical “Motown” is like that. Then there are others that are just an everyday play with some slight story changes and an all-black cast. The current “Kiss Me Kate” revival at the Pasadena Playhouse is like that: it is the stock “Kiss Me Kate” placed in the milieu of 1920s black vaudeville. Other examples are the castings of “Guys and Dolls” or “Hello Dolly” with an all black cast. I ask all of this because last night we saw “What I Learned In Paris” by Pearl Cleage at The Colony Theatre (FB). This is obstensibly a “black play”: it is an all-black cast set in a significant time and place in black history. But there was no distinct color shift in the audience. Was this due to the play? The promotion? The fact that it was in Burbank?

I don’t really have the answers, alas. But I walked out of “What I Learned in Paris” thinking that the story itself was universal: with the exception of a few elements (mostly having to do with housing discrimination), this could have been the story about any election and the events that happened afterwards. In doing so, it made an important point: that there really is no difference. The black experience is often our experience. It was a good play; a fun play. The black-ness came from the cast and the setting, however, not as much the particular story. I was sad that the African-American theatregoing community in LA hadn’t discovered this play; our audience composition was the typical subscriber composition, and many of the seats on the sides were empty (as if the white single-purchase theatregoers normally drawn in weren’t, and the black single-purchase theatregoers weren’t drawn in). My only conclusion is a marketing one: the Colony simply may not know how to get the word out about its shows to the potential African-American audience. This is too bad: if theatre is to grow and survive, it must draw in the younger audience, draw more minorities to the live theatre experience, and do stories reflective of the world today (the Colony’s recent “Year Zero” was a great example of this, looking at the Hmong commuity).

Is “What I Learned in Paris” a black play? Set in Atlanta in 1972, right after the election of the first African-American mayor of any major city (Maynard Jackson), Paris concerns itself not with the pivotal events of the election and campaign, but the immediate post-election lives of his campaign staff. There are five main characters: J.P. Madison, an older lawyer working on the campaign; his first wife, Eve Madison; his second wife Ann Madison; another lawyer on staff John Nelson, and another staffer who worked on the get out the vote effort, Lena Jefferson. As the story opens in Eve Madison’s place (which was being used as campaign headquarters), J.P., Ann, Lena, and John are celebrating Jackson’s election. We quickly learn the nature of the characters, and that John is secretly in love with Ann, and was just waiting for the election to be over so she could divorce J.P. and be with him. The two major plot complications then appear. First, Eve Madison returns from San Francisco creating tension between J.P. and all. She wants to return to Atlanta and start hosting salons and parties to bring the diverse separate communities of Atlanta together, and to do this she wants to buy a house in Buckhead, an upscale white community near the Governor’s Mansion . Second, J.P. gets on the short list for city attorney. The latter brings to the front the fact that he never actually married Ann — they went to Vegas to get married, but never went through with it and have just been pretending for the last few months. J.P. asks Lena to find him a pastor who can discreetly perform the ceremony before the press finds out.  You can see the collisions already on the horizon.

You’ll note that “Paris” is no where in the description above? The title refers to the time when Edie was in Paris just before she divorced J.P., when she realized that she had to know who she was first before she could do any form of relationship — as she put it, she had to be free enough to be able to enjoy eating in Paris alone. This becomes the pivotal point in the second act, when Eve volunteers her services and her townhouse to host J.P. and Ann’s wedding, which she’ll perform; prior to the ceremony, she’ll host a small bridal shower for Ann with just her and Lena.

From the description, you can see there is little distinctly black about this story, save for the campaign that brought everyone together, and the reaction of the upscale community to Evie wanting to purchase there. That, perhaps, is the wasted potential of this play. It had the opportunity to say more about this election and the impact on the community… and it didn’t. Thinking about it a bit more, the problem could be the fact that the election wasn’t all that pivotal. He wasn’t the first African-American mayor of a major city (that honor goes to Carl Stokes in Cleveland in 1967; he wasn’t the first African-American mayor of a southern city (that was Howard Lee in Chapel Hill NC in 1968). In fact — an more importantly for this production and this play — Jackson’s election was the same year as the election of Tom Bradley, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles.

Still, despite these flaws, we thoroughly enjoyed the story. It was fun to watch, well performed, with some unexpected twists and turns. The director, Saundra McClain (FB), shaped the performances to be natural and to fit the characters well. These seemed like people you would enjoy knowing; they had little quirks and mannerisms that made them fun to watch.

The cast was great. There weren’t really tiers here — all roles were equal in significance. There were two groupings, however. The “Madison” grouping consisted of J.P. Madison (William C. Mitchell (FB)), his first wife Eve (L Scott Caldwell), and his second “wife” Ann (Joy Brunson (FB)). Mitchell played the pompous politician/lawyer well, and at points gave great hints of the compassionate man under the surface. Caldwell captured the free-spirit nature of Evie well. I had recently seen Brunson on Masters of Sex, and it was a delight to see her here. She initially seemed colder as a character, but near the end of the play you could see flashes of fun in the character as Evie drew her out of her political shell and back into herself.

The second groups, for lack of a better term, were the non-Madisons: Shon Fuller (FB) as John Nelson and Karan Kendrick (FB) as Lena Jefferson.  Fuller (actually, his character) came across as young and headstrong, and confused about the love with Ann and how to deal with the fact that she was already married. Fuller portrayed this well. Kendrick’s Lena was that all knowing friend: she was in the middle holding things together; she conveyed quite a bit with an expression or look in reaction to an action.

In short, all five actors were great.

The technical side was up to the Colony’s usual excellence. The scenic design by Charles Erven captured the 1970s townhouse era well; this was aided by the properties and set dressing of John McElveney (FB), which was up to its usual excellent standards. The sound design of Dave Mickey (FB) provided great backround music, and the lighting design of Jared A. Sayeg (FB) was simple and effective.  Scenic art was by Orlando de la Paz. The costumes by Dianne K. Graebner (FB) were beautiful and effective, and reflected that era well. Leesa Freed (FB) was the production stage manager.

What I Learned in Paris” has one more week at The Colony Theatre (FB), closing on October 5th. Tickets are available through the Colony website; discount tickets are available on Goldstar and through the LA Stage Alliance.

Dining Notes: We tried someplace new for dinner: The Story Tavern, about 6 blocks (not counting the mall) from the theatre near Olive and San Fernando. In short: yum. I had a delightful beef stew, and they had loads of gluten-free goodies for Karen including Shepard’s Pie. Well worth trying, and we’ll be back.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I've been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I've been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I'm a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This afternoon brings “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB) on Sun 9/29. October currently has two shows (three if you count Yom Kippur on 10/4): “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) on Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25. November is back to busy, with “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’m looking at The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto, or “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB). As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

Saturday Stew: Roaches, Hookworms, and other things that are creepy

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Sep 27, 2014 @ 4:47 pm PDT

Observation StewJust realized it is Saturday and I haven’t done my news chum stew post, even though I’m likely to have stew for dinner. I’ve been too busy updating systems and installing the new version of Acronis, my favorite backup software. So here are some stew items for you:

 

Two Sides to a Story

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Sep 25, 2014 @ 4:45 pm PDT

userpic=tallitAs I wrote earlier, I typically blog about our rabbi’s sermon on the High Holydays. This morning was Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Lutz was up at bat, so… I’m not going to talk in depth about Rabbi Lutz’s sermon, but use it as a jumping off point for something else.

Rabbi Lutz’s sermon (which I’ll link in once it is posted) was, alas, both predictable and necessary. He spoke about Israel and his love for her; in particular, he talked about his reaction about the fighting this summer. He emphasized the importance of learning the truth about the situation: that Hamas, as an organization, states in its charter that “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors. ” and that, according to Hamas, ” the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement”.  He related facts which many of us that support Israel know: that Hamas provoked this summer, that they were launching attacks from civilian areas, and they were using civilians as ammunition in the propaganda war. But I think the most important line the Rabbi said was this: “Remember, all Hamas are Palestinians, but not all Palestinians are Hamas”. He emphasized the importance of seeing Palestinians as people, and working with the moderate Palestinians to bring peace over the fundamentalist side.

Moderates and fundamentalists. Keep that in mind, folks.

When I got home, I was reading my daughter’s tumblr. She posted an interesting link to Jewish Women Watching, a group aimed at “rous[ing] the public to challenge and change sexist and oppressive practices in the Jewish community.” It included the following:

In these days of repentance, ask yourself:

Is the leader of my organization a man?
Is the board of my organization more than 50% men?
Is my rabbi a man?
Why?

This bothered me quite a bit. As President of the Men of TAS, I’ve been reading a lot of literature from the Men of Reform Judaism. A key question on the lips of MRJ leaders is: Where have all the men gone? If you go out to progressive congregations these days, increasingly, the Rabbis are female, the congregation Presidents are female, and much of the board is female. At our congregation, we have a woman rabbi (one of two), a woman cantor, our current and past presidents are women, and much of the board are women. The problem is encouraging men to be leaders. The issue is not that men are better leaders — they aren’t necessarily. However, both viewpoints are important in congregational life.

So I went out to Jewish Women Watching site, and read through their material. Their focus is not the progressive congregation. Their focus is Orthodoxy, and pushing to get women to a more prominent role. This is difficult to do in Orthodoxy with their different view of distinct woman’s roles, but some Orthodox groups (such as Aish and other modern Orthodox organizations) strive to come as close as they can within their constraints. Others are still very sexist; witness the problem of the agunah if you want an easy example.

As I ate my lunch, I was thinking about this and about Rabbi Lutz’s sermon. Both were connected because of the importance of seeing both sides of the story, and realizing that the fundamentalist view does not represent the complete view. The ultra-Orthodox and similar fundamentalist movements within Orthodoxy are all Orthodoxy, but not all Orthodoxy has fundamentalist views. Just as we need to see moderate Palestinians as people, we need to see moderate Orthodoxy as people, and work to encourage the moderate point of view.

In both cases — Israel and Women in Orthodoxy — the problem is unchecked fundamentalism. This is the same problem we have with Islam in general — the actions of groups such as ISIL/ISIS are not representative of all Islam.

Let us strive to learn — and stay informed — on the differences between moderates and fundamentalists, and work to encourage the moderates (both in the Middle East and at home).

What Are You Comfortable With?

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Sep 25, 2014 @ 8:19 am PDT

userpic=tallitEvery year (unless I fall asleep*), I try to write up my thoughts on the Rabbi’s sermons. Sometimes it is something that resonated with me; other times, it is things I thought the Rabbi missed. Whichever is the case, this helps cement what I remember about the sermon in my head. Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (if, indeed, that term is correct), and Rabbi Shawna gave the sermon, so guess who is the lucky winner?

There were two main themes that I could discern in Rabbi Shawna’s sermon which, at least to me, weren’t connected as well as they could have been. Both were good points to be making; they just came across a little disjointed. Let’s explore each of them.

The first dealt with getting outside of your comfort zone, and the importance of doing that if you are going to achieve any form of personal growth and improvement. This is something I understood well–it is the main reason I accepted the mantle of leadership in $mens_club. Handling the logistics and running organizations isn’t a problem, and is well within my comfort zone from my work on ACSAC. However, going out there and interacting with strangers to sell an organization: that’s extremely uncomfortable. Being in a position where I have to occasionally say “no” to people. Outside my comfort zone. Making blind telephone calls to congregants to welcome them. Very outside my comfort zone. Yet these are skills that will serve me well in the future.

So I strongly agreed with Shawna’s call for people to get outside their comfort zone. I wish it had gone a little further — in particular, calling people to get more involved with organizations at the synagogue. It is far too comfortable to go to synagogue twice a year or for the occasional service, never get to know anyone, and be hidden in the corner. It takes effort — especially for introverts — to go out and get involved with groups like $mens_club or $sisterhood or $committee. Yet these are just the small groups where you can meet people easier and try on leadership capabilities.

Shawna, instead, used the notion of going outside your comfort zone to connect to the recent NFL scandals, and to the importance of speaking out against domestic violence. She connected this to Jewish notions about defending the downtrodden, and how we have imperatives to prevent this. Again, I didn’t think she went far enough. We need to realize how our actions reflect to others statements not only about us as individuals, but us as groups.

Last week, I listened to a wonderful “This American Life” titled “A Not So Simple Majority”. The prologue described the show thusly:

Before the war in the East Ramapo, New York school district, there was a truce. Local school officials made a deal with their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbors: we’ll leave you alone to teach your children in private yeshivas as you see fit as long as you allow our public school budget to pass. But the budget is funded by local property taxes, which everyone, including the local Hasidim, have to pay — even though their kids don’t attend the schools that their money is paying for. What followed was one of the most volatile local political battles we’ve ever encountered.

What followed was a story about how the Orthodox community took over the school board, refused to listen to community input, decimated the public schools seemingly to move forward in the Yeshivot’s best interest, and thoroughly divided the community. Listening to the piece (which everyone should do) raised numerous discussion issues about who was right, who was wrong, and so forth. Related to the sermon, however, is one more issue: appearance.

Irrespective (and that’s the prefix “in-” as an intensive) of the “rightness” of the O side, what did their appearance and how they behave say about them and about the Jewish community. Did it project a bad image that opened the door to antisemitism? On the other hand, would such an argument be analogous to the claims that women need to restrain how they dress and act because men can’t control themselves. Where is the balance between how our behavior says something about us, and how latent attitudes come out with respective of behavior?

The answer, of course, it that we should not restrain our behavior because of how it might impact others, but more so, because our behavior is a reflection of our values. The Orthodox behavior was wrong because it showed that their value was their own self-interest over the interest of the down-trodden in the community (which may have been a behavior outside their comfort zone — caring about someone not in your own community). Similarly, tolerating domestic or physical abuse and not speaking out or doing something is wrong, because it reflects an acceptance of those values. Being ethical comes from within, and must be reflected in everything we do. (Or, as I say in MoTAS (Men of Temple Ahavat Shalom, otherwise known as $mens_club), because we’re the role models).

Let’s connect this back to the first idea of comfort zones and getting involved in synagogue life. Often, we don’t get involved because we had a bad experience, or we feel the synagogue is a “Marble House full of Plastic People”. That’s comfortable, but that also sends the message that such behavior is acceptable in a congregation. Act up. Fight AIDS (oops, wrong musical). Act Up. Get on those committees and boards and force change from within (a palace revolt) so that our Jewish institutions can reflect Jewish values of today.

People ask me why I got involved with MoTAS. It certainly wasn’t for power or glory, or even (completely) to learn skills. It wasn’t for “male bonding”, as I still have no idea what that it. Rather, it was to help make MoTAS, and hopefully the congregation, the place I believe it can be. A place where the esteem in which you are held is based on what you do and how you live, vs. how many zeros you can write on a check. A place where fundraisers can involve everyone — from those for whom $10,000 is noise, to those for whom $18 is a significant outlay. When your organization only asks for the large contributions, what does it say about your attitude towards those who can’t make large contributions? People often don’t realize those subtleties (just, as I’m sure some friends of mine will point out, those benefitting from “white privlege” often don’t even realize it).

Get out of your comfort zone and your complacency at your congregations. Get involved, and make those organizations reflect the values and attitudes that care about the poor members as well as the rich members, the moved as well as the movers, the shaken as well as the shakers. Be the example this coming year about how to do things right.

[so folks know, I often never know where these posts will end up until I write them -- the message just seems to want to get out on its own.]

* P.S.: As I’m now on the Board at temple, I was honored by sitting on the bimah last night. Little known fact: The people on the bimah can see you when you are sleeping during the sermon. Yes, you. Fourth row, end of the aisle. And you, in the back.

L’Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year – 5775

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Sep 23, 2014 @ 7:19 pm PDT

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts tomorrow night. Thus, it’s time for my annual New Years message for my family, my real-life, Blog, LiveJournal, Google+, Tumblr, and Facebook friends (including all the new ones I have made this year), and all other readers of my journal:

L’Shana Tovah. Happy New Year 5775. May you be written and enscribed for a very happy, sweet, and healthy new year.

For those curious about Jewish customs at this time: There are a number of things you will see. The first is an abundance of sweet foods. Apples dipped in honey. Round challahs. Honey cakes. The sweet foods remind us of the sweet year to come. As for the round challah. Some say they it represents a crown that reflects our coronating God as the King of the world. Others suggest that the circular shape points to the cyclical nature of the year. The Hebrew word for year is “shana,” which comes from the Hebrew word “repeat.” Perhaps the circle illustrates how the years just go round and round. But Rosh Hashana challahs are not really circles; they are spirals… The word “shana” has a double meaning as well. In addition to “repeat,” it also means “change”. As the year goes go round and round, repeating the same seasons and holidays as the year before, we are presented with a choice: Do we want this shana (year) to be a repetition, or do we want to make a change (shinui)? Hopefully, each year we make choices for change that are positive, and each year we will climb higher and higher, creating a spiritual spiral. The shape of the Rosh Hashana challah reminds us that this is the time of year to make those decisions. This is the time to engage in the creative spiritual process that lifts us out of the repetitive cycle, and directs our energies toward a higher end.
[Thanks to Aish Ha'Torah for these insights]

There are also apologies, for during the ten days starting this evening, Jews examine their lives and see how they can do better. On Yom Kippur (starting the evening of October 3rd), Jews apologize to G-d for their misdeeds during the past year. However, for an action against another person, one must apologize to that person.

So, in that spirit:

If I have offended any of you, in any way, shape, manner, or form, real or imagined, then I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done anything to hurt, demean, or otherwise injure you, I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done or said over the past year that has upset, or otherwise bothered you, I sincerely apologize, and will do my best to ensure it won’t happen again.

If you have done something in the above categories, don’t worry. I know it wasn’t intentional, and I would accept any apology you would make.

May all my blog readers and all my friends have a very happy, healthy, and meaningful new year. May you find in this year what you need to find in life.

Religion’s Influence in America

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Sep 22, 2014 @ 11:54 am PDT

userpic=levysAs I sit here and eat my lunch, the headline in today’s LA Times screams “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more“. The article notes that only about three in 10 Americans see the Obama administration as “friendly to religion.” About four in 10 rate the administration as neutral and another three in 10 call it unfriendly. To me, I find the article infuriating. Here’s why.

We don’t have freedom from religion in the country; we have freedom of religion (and I consider atheism to be a religion as well — religion is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven without the use of miracles). Every individual in America has the right to practice whatever religion they wish, and to let it influence their lives and behaviors as they wish. Churches have the right to speak out as they wish (as long as they don’t endorse specific candidates). So, if religion is losing influence, it is because we the people have chosen to make it less influential. The government has nothing to do with it.

But, you say, there is a war against Christmas or against Christians. Sorry, there isn’t. You can personally be as Christian as you want. Wear your cross. Wish me Merry Christmas. What appears to be a “war” is one of two things: a government institution attempting to not show favoritism of one religion over another (as the constitution prohibits establishing a state religion), or bureaucrats going above and beyond to be “fair.”

Before you claim there is a war, put yourself in a minority religion’s shoes: I’ve had miss about 5 meetings scheduled by others, including an award lunch, because they were scheduled for this Thursday (which, if you look at your calendar, is Rosh Hashanah). But do they miss meetings because someone schedules them on Christmas or Easter?

Further, the same people that bemoan religion losing influence are equally quick to condemn those areas where religion has undue influence — especially when that religion isn’t theirs. Look at the fears of Sharia (Islamic Law) or the areas with Orthodox Jewish law. Alas, in American, fears of religion losing influence are actually fears of Christianity losing influence (which doesn’t even consider the fact that the type of Christianity often pushed by those wanting it to have more influence is not the type of compassionate Christianity this non-Christian believes Jesus would have taught).

For all the arguing about whether religion has influence, the truth is: religions still have a lot of influence. We all have a common moral code that eschews murder and encourages honesty. We all strive to make lives better for the poor, to help the hungry, to heal the fallen, to care for the widow and orphan. We all work for a society that emphasizes love and emphasizes that children should be raised in a loving family. These, my friends, are universal qualities found in all religions — I know them to exist in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What no longer has influence is intolerance driven by religion, or arbitrary punitive codes anchored in practices from ages ago.

TQM for the Soul – Some Lunchtime Thoughts

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Sep 22, 2014 @ 11:20 am PDT

userpic=tallitA dear friend of mine, Rabbi Sheryl Lynne Nosan-Lantzke, has been posting over on Facebook at teaser about the High Holy Days: First “Getting…”, then “Getting ready…”, then “Getting ready for…” and so on, at a speed of about one per day. This would make the National Slow Talkers of America (and Australia) proud. She does, however, have a point — the High Holy Days start Wednesday evening (even in Australia), and now is the time to get ready. In that spirit, I went to TAS’s recent S’lichot study and service (although we didn’t stay for the service, as my wife wasn’t feeling well). There were some interesting ideas discussed in the study that I want to share, for they reminded me very much of the only useful thing I ever got out of TQM.

Normally, as one prepares for the HHD, one focuses on what one has done wrong in the past year, and how to “right the wrongs”. This is very much a “repent ye sinners” tone, and it is off-putting to many. The approach taken during S’lichot at TAS, however, was based on the approach over at Let It Ripple — and focused more on character development and character traits. In particular, we discussed the periodic table of character strengths. We discussed where were were already strong, and what character strengths we might focus on in the upcoming year to improve.

Here’s the TQM connection: the only thing I ever got out of TQM was the notion of +/Δ: when evaluating a program, don’t focus on what went wrong. Focus on what went right, and those areas where you can improve. The character strength approach is similar: identify those character strengths you have. Identify those strengths you want to improve. Don’t focus on your failures: be positive, move forward instead of looking back.

This is a notion I can support, and it doesn’t even require that you buy into the spirituality side. What a wonderful way to explore making yourself better in the coming year. I suggest looking at the table of character strengths, and seeing where you can be stronger.