As we begin to pack up our things and erase our presence from this borrowed space in Cambridge - returning chairs and planters and lamps to their original places and the apartment itself to its rightful owner - I realize not only how revealing this place has been about the spirit of the one who fashioned it, but also how intrusive it must have been for her to have us live here.
With every shift we made, every surface we rearranged, every picture we ignored, we “manhandled” a bit of her life. This was a place carefully constructed - both intentionally and, in part, no doubt unconsciously - to capture the spirit of its owner, her comforts, her pride, her dreams achieved and those unfulfilled.
So it is with all of us. All our homes speak narratives of ourselves, projecting our sense of self out to the world and back onto us again.
To have people live in your home must feel a bit like having someone commandeer your wardrobe.
Architects, too, are famous for feeling that they “own” the spaces they design and build. They can get outright outraged if and when the occupiers use the spaces for purposes other than those anticipated, or worse, actually make structural changes.
Which in some way gets us to the ways we build our world. Increasingly, we seem to build our cities and our suburbs and our malls and public places as if we - now - are the sole intended users, the ones whose taste and dreams and needs matter most. We seem to build for immediate sale and occupancy, so quality and design and longevity often suffer. And those who come after us have to fit themselves into the places that reflect us. Or tear them down.
But what if we imagined that we were building for the centuries? What if versatility, sustainability, mobility, accessibility, camaraderie and privacy were essential elements of our building requirements - not even so much by law but by practice, by habit, by instinct?
We could make the spaces our own as long as we lived there, but we would also know, like many cultures did not so long ago, that we have inherited the spaces of our ancestors, and so our children will inherit our spaces after us.
What would our cities and streets, suburbs and public buildings and homes look like then? How would the architectural curriculum be transformed, the building arts be reframed, our attitudes toward the spaces we enclosed and fashion change?
Our lives and our dreams are etched out in the spaces we devise. The earth’s surface and the world’s economy are reshaped by them. And we, in turn, are reshaped by the earth and the economy. It is an iterative, endless, feedback loop of a process. It is something that is much too important to leave to architects and investors and bankers and builders. We must all learn and engage in the policy of earth-scaping and approach it very intentionally, and wisely.
(Photo: the view of our sitting area as seen from the dining area. looking south)
Why oh why oh why will the news folks not think for themselves?
Housing starts were down 10% over the last month - the lowest level since the 1940’s - the news media are telling us.
That is fine, but it is the jeremiad, sky-is-falling, oh-my-oh-my-oh-my attitude that accompanies it that is disturbing.
New housing starts are falling for several very good reasons:
1) We have too many houses. Builders over-built. The rule of thumb - so we are told buried somewhere in an otherwise hand-wringing report on low starts on NPR - that one million new homes a year would satisfy the market. But builders built - and bankers loaned money for - two million new homes a year for a good part of the past decade. So roughly speaking, we have a glut of 5-10 million new homes on the market.
Rather than lamenting the fact that we are not adding enough new homes to an already over-stuffed market, shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that the “invisible hand” is doing its thing? Or does that only work in one direction?
2) Not only do we have a glut of new homes, but thanks to the folks who brought us the recession by savaging the mortgage industry, we have too many existing homes on the market as well. When will the economists and market journalists recognize that enough is enough?
3) The very people whom the bankers-and-builders want to buy their new new-homes are the people whose investments, jobs and financial security the bankers-and-builders destroyed! Talk about hutzpah: first they build too much, bulk up the cost of the house, run a scam on the loan, crash a family’s finances and then complain when those same families aren’t buying their new stock.
I know: we are told that in the past, it has been the housing market that has pulled the economy out of its doldrums.
If you buy a house, you have to spend money on all that goes with it: appliances, paints, furnishings, art, tchotchkes, and that is supposed to stimulate the marketplace.
But perhaps we can look toward economic revival another way.
First, not far from the old way, we can look at home renovations. Remodeling and remaking existing homes can generate an ocean of new business and stimulate the economy with much less environmental degradation and waste than the creation of new homes.
A friend told me that for the first time in decades, more people are settling in, staying put, and renovating their houses less with an eye for resale and more with an eye toward personalizing their living space. That is, for the first time in ages, our houses are being seen first as our homes, the places that hold us close and bind us together with loved ones, the places that offer us refuge and peace, the places that we can personalize to fit our desires and our ways of inhabiting home, and only second as commodities, objects of resale for the future. That can be so very good for our spirits, our neighborhoods, our local workman and our economy.
Second, perhaps during such renovations we can build-in greater efficiencies, more energy-savings devices, better insulation. I would bet owners who expect to live in the homes they create will spend more money per house on such green amenities as better insulation, storm windows and efficient hvac systems than builders who build, sell and walk away. This dip in the new housing market can help cause a bump up in greener homes, an expansion of the green building market and decreased operating costs for homeowners.
Third, perhaps any money we save by renovating rather than buying new can be reinvested in other segments of our economy. We can begin to pay down our debts; buy greener, cleaner cars; pay those few extra pennies for local, organic foods which will eventually help bring the cost down for everyone; give a bit more tzedakah; get those music lessons you’ve been wanting; schedule that visit to the doctor you’ve been putting off; take that class you wanted to audit; buy tickets to the concert you thought you couldn’t afford.
If we cannot expect our shell-shocked financial theorists to see this new economic reality of ours, at least we should be able to expect our journalists to.
Low housing starts may not be the tragedy it is trumped up to be. Indeed, it may just be the green leading edge of economic recovery.
The sabbatical is almost over. It is time for me to begin to emotionally disconnect from this haven up north and prepare my return to Baltimore this summer. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check out how these differing lifestyles - city/suburb, apartment/house - affect the level of my CO2 emissions. That is, how does my ecological footprint here in Cambridge compare to my ecological footprint at home in Baltimore?
I used one of the easier and quicker - if coarser - carbon footprint calculators, at nature.org.
Here is what I found: our comfortable, city apartment lifestyle gives off a modest 15 tons of CO2/year, well below the national household-of-two average of 53 and much more in line with the world household-of-two average of 11, while our spacious, suburban Baltimore single detached dwelling lifestyle contributes a whopping 57 tons of CO2 a year.
And that is with our hybrid car, our composting all our foods stuffs, recycling everything we can (we usually generate only one small bag of garbage a week), swapping out most of our incandescents for CFLs, using energy star appliances, putting in a wood-burning stove, etc etc.
So while the green movement appropriately continues to preach individual behavior change, and a recasting of our attitudes and the narratives we tell ourselves about our relationship with the earth so we can fundamentally affect our consumption patterns for the better, there is no doubt that the buildings and neighborhoods we live in have a far greater impact that our intentional daily behaviors alone.
The truth is, on a policy level, clustered living is good for the earth, and, when done right, good for the spirit.
We must, therefore, re-imagine what it takes to make livable, friendly cities which blend privacy and neighborhood, density and open spaces, efficiency and beauty, nesting and prospect, home and commons, presence and away.
Efforts such as Transition Town, co-housing, re-treeing urban environments, daylighting our urban streams that have been buried underground, re-creating a greater sense of the commons, and equitable access to the raw gifts of nature are all pulling together to get us there.
How we retrofit suburbia is a bit more challenging. But there are folks working on that too.
The hope is that by this time next century, the ways we live, and the world we live in, will all be healthier, happier places.
It was a memorable trip down the driveway last night. A bodacious half-moon with a full-moon’s light shone on me and my garbage-can escort as we sauntered to the curb. It was a moon with an attitude, making up in self-possession what it lacked in size, proclaiming its majesty of the sky. Which is, after all, its patrimony: “And God fashioned the two great lights, the large one to rule the day and the small one to rule the night.” (Genesis 1:16)
The Torah does not stipulate minimum size requirements, so even a brash half-moon can own the night.
That, in itself, is a worthy object lesson: we can be bigger than we appear, fill a space larger than ourselves, if but dare to launch ourselves outward and let our lights illumine the dark spaces around us.
All the while, the trees serenaded us, squeaking and squealing as they swayed, like the joints of a chair groaning under the weight of its ample burden. Years ago, when we first heard that sound, we wondered if it meant a tree was about to fall. We went out in the wind, in the night, at dusk to see if we could catch the culprit, see why it moaned. We never found it, never could cut it down, and so it continues to moan to this day. Only last night it sounded softer, more content, as if the tree was just settling into its bones, working on making its bark catch up to the growth of the sapwood and the sapwood settle comfortably in with the stable heartwood. It was a sound of earnest living, the pleasures and pains of life.
The leaves over-hanging the driveway were not to be left out, silhouetted as they were upon the ground, my form mingled among them. We looked like the fading shadows on the flash-wall in the dark room of a science museum. Only the flash-wall images faded faster than the night shadows. Or so it seemed.
In life, unlike in physics, time, duration, is measured in relation not to speed but to worth. Our shadows in the science museum are meant to be ephemeral, playful, lithe and changeable to match our mood and perhaps capture, ever so fleetingly, a hidden essence that we would bare only in the safety of the dark, and only for a fleeting moment. They are just the right duration.
But we want our lives, this physical world, to go on forever. The moon shadows may last a night; our lives ten thousand more. But still, when measured against their worth to us, they are fleeting.
We dare not waste time, then. We must strike our poses, make our mark, thrust ourselves out so we can be bigger than we are. We must bare in the fullness of light that hidden essence that can illumine the world, so that as the shadows fade, we can know that we have dared to live.
Such was my walk to take out the trash. And all the while, the peepers kept peeping.
Mother’s Day used to be so uncomplicated. It was a time to surprise the one who always knew everything, and give to the one who was always giving to you.
Dad would take us shopping. All the kids would pile into the car, somehow thinking Mom would never notice, and go the mall to pick out a Mother’s Day gift, one that lit up the eyes of children.
We would get a joint gift and invariably, excitedly, settle on a piece of tin jewelry with bright, sparkly glass gems; or an apron - which back in the good old days held tight the vision of hearth and cookies, love and motherhood, and was often adorned with a front pocket that was clearly the secret entrance to the world’s tunnels of magic, for all sorts of amazement mysteriously appeared from within them. And then there were the home-made, hand-written cards scrawled with “I love you”, which were often tucked away in mom’s treasure chest.
Life was eternal then, parents forever young, children forever children, grandparents old enough to have attained worldly wisdom yet youthful enough to play games on the floor.
Generations fanned out all around. There was time and joy enough for all.
Yesterday, a colleague buried her mother, on Mother’s Day. Judaism calls the act of tending to the dead, hesed shel emet. Difficult to translate, it means something like the truest act of lovingkindness. In a world of transactional deeds, when people often do things for others so that - in some way or other - others will do things for them, tending to the dead is non-transactional. It is a gift we give to those we love, simply because we love them.
Those of us who love mothers, those of us who are mothers, sooner or later realize that time is not endless, that generations do not fan out forever. And the pain of that is almost more than we can bear. So for most of the year we pretend it isn’t there, we pretend it isn’t true. Which is why once a year we need to carve out a time to say what goes without saying.
It is good that Mother’s Day is in the spring, when we can bury our pain in a world of rebirth.
Yesterday, one of my sons and I planted an upside-down tomato plant with my mother. I can see why it is all the rage. It is neater to tend to than tromping around in the garden bed, it keeps the tomatoes a bit freer from bugs and no doubt makes harvesting them a breeze. I wonder if they can also be grown indoors for those without a garden to hoe. Maybe even all year round? We will see what sort of harvest ours gives us.
And, in my on-going attempts to tend well to my garden and keep the deer from my apple trees, I staked and fenced-in the saplings in my little orchard. It looks much neater now. The trees are snug but free, protected yet not constrained, much better than the netting that bound them too well.
Isn’t that what good mothering is all about anyway? Setting up the next generation so they can blossom and flourish, so that even after we are gone, they will still be bringing forth their fruit, their blessings, for themselves and the generations after them?
Perhaps on Mother’s Day , we should spend our time and money in the garden, our own or others, on community plots, apartment balconies or hanging baskets, growing flowers and vegetables and fruits, recapturing through our hands the feelings of eternity that our mothers once lovingly gave us.
(And since issues of sustainability and creating a healthy world for the next generation should be an integral part of our Mother’s Day celebrations, check out the source of your floral gift next year. Scientific American and Smithsonian tell us a bit about the environmental impact of all those Mother’s Day flowers, and Floraverde is an organization that certifies green and humane flower producers.)
This Thursday I go to Siach, an international gathering of environmental and social justice activists gathering on the shores of the Housatonic River in Connecticut. There, we hope to begin to create a global network of partners who work with organizations pursuing tzedek and hesed (justice and generosity), or so I imagine.
In anticipation of these rich discussions and connections, I turned back to a manifesto I wrote three years ago about what the Jewish community needed to do to become a leader in the sustainability revolution that is being born all around us.
There is no doubt that we have come a long way in three years. Yet there is much more that needs to be done.
So, with the intent of creating manifesto that can be brought before every congregation, school and federation to discuss, refine, endorse and implement, I share it with you here.
I need your feedback, your improvements. The manifesto is long - but the task is great and there is much to do. And in a way, it is not long enough. Each item still needs to be unpacked and explored and better explained. That comes next.
It is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think.
Throughout the ages, and most intensely in our lifetimes, the Jewish community has been in the forefront of just and noble causes. The current critical movement to keep the world healthy and sustainable should be no different. Yet to date we lag behind in our collective leadership. We should take our place in this green revolution. It is time.
We need to re-imagine the ways we live. We need to redesign how we mine, farm, manufacture, fund, build, power, own, move, use and dispose of the stuff that holds up society. We need to redefine what the good life is. If we don’t, we will so exhaust our resources - both natural and monetary - that we will bequeath to our children a world harsher, much less giving and much less prosperous than the one we inherited. And that dark legacy will be a stain on us all for generations to come.
Here is what we must do and how we can do it:
1. Reclaim environmental ethics as a central mitzvah, a sacred standard of Jewish practice.
We must enfold a Jewish earth ethic in the practices and policies of all that we do, from the paints we use in our classrooms and Section 202 housing, to the food we serve at our simchas to the cleaning supplies that clean our JCCs, to the curricula we develop in our day schools and synagogues, to the investment policies of our Federations’ endowments to the vans we buy to keep our seniors mobile to the legislative policies we endorse on local, state and federal levels.
In short, environmental concerns must become part of the formula that guides the values, operations and decisions of the Jewish community in the daily conduct of our lives.
2. Redeem the concept of am ha’aretz – the people of the land.
We act in accordance with our beliefs, our sense of self. For 2000 years, we have used the phrase am ha’aretz, the people of the earth, to denigrate the unlettered working class. It was contrasted with am hasefer, the people of the book, the learned and scholarly class.
This symbolic earthiness/learning dichotomy came to represent, and contribute to, the growing alienation of the Jewish people from their connection with the land. It is time for a reconciliation; time for the Jewish people to be known as both am ha’aretz and am ha’sefer, to renew our covenant with the land which serves as our provider and which we serve as its protectors, even as we continue to celebrate our unbreakable covenant with the text.
3. Reclaim the practice of Pe-ah (leaving the produce of the corners of your field for the needy)
We must find ways for businesses to integrate social justice in their commercial practices. The Torah offers the model of pe’ah, wherein we are commanded to plant a section of our fields for the needy as part of our standard business operations.
As we were bidden to do in the Bible, so we must do now. If corporate values (maximizing profits for the privileged shareholders) and public well-being (caring for the needy as well as the “commons”) continue to be pitted against one another, social justice will forever be a beggar. We need to explore the expansion of B-corporations (Benefit corporations), blend business and social entrepreneurship, and create tax structures that embed caring for the needy and the environment in their very operations.
4. Do not waste - Bal tashchit – classically translated as “do not wantonly destroy things,” this concept can be understood today as:
Make no waste. Nature knows no waste. Neither can a sustainable society. There is no “away” that can antiseptically handle our trash. We must develop ways to construct commerce, production, distribution, transportation and disposal so that it creates no waste, so that everything can be part of the 5-R’s: reduce, re-use, recycle, repair and redistribute. We need to engage in the growing field of collaborative consumption, which is part of a broader effort to build an economy in which we purchase services and outcomes rather than hardware and “goods” (as they say, why pay for the drill, which lies dormant most of its life, when all you want is the hole?).
5. Mazria Zera – Preserve the life-giving powers of growing things. God made this world with trees and plants that mazria zera, “bear seed within it”, so that life can go on under its own power. That is the way life is ordained to be. We dare not destroy earth’s life-giving systems, or create sterile seed, or disrupt the hormones of fish and wildlife or otherwise so impair the world that it ceases to bring forth new, healthy life. We dare not hunt and fish beyond reproductive levels or irrevocably foul the land and water or contaminate the world with refuse it cannot absorb. And we cannot nervously dismiss genetically modified foods but we cannot be careless in our pursuit of them either.
6. Sova – Enoughness. Our appetites have become extravagant even as the world’s population becomes more numerous and its resources more stressed. Yet, we are taught that the very stability of our economic system depends on buying more. The words “full” or “enough” or “No thanks, I don’t want any more” are considered anti-American, anti-progress, economically devastating. Yet, we must build an economic system based on progress, not growth; services more than stuff; access more than ownership. We must recalibrate our measure of fullness not only so that there will be enough for all, but even more, so that we can finally feel fulfilled, satisfied, and say, “No thanks. I am full. I have all I need. I have all I want.”
7. We must establish national and local Offices of Sustainability. Making the transition to sustainable operations and practices is not obvious or intuitive. Sustainability is as technical and demanding a field as IT, marketing and investing, and it needs its own professionals to guide us.
Local agencies, schools, synagogues cannot afford such personnel on their own. Centralized, trusted professional consultants are needed. Universities have them, municipalities have them, businesses have them. The non-profit world needs them.
And to buttress these local efforts, to create a national collection of wisdom, best practices and perhaps even a “collaborative resource use community,” local sustainability officers should be organized in a network by a national sustainability entity, perhaps best housed Jewish Federations of North America.
8. We must create national and local Green Funds. We need a handful of influential federations and philanthropists to come together to use their moral and financial suasion to fund the first stages of this effort and to move it toward the top of the American Jewish agenda.
Through the leverage of local and national Green Funds, Jewish philanthropists can inspire and enable the Jewish community to embrace this work. They can guide a national discussion on Jewish environmentalism. They can grow the field with new or expandable programs. They can support the pioneering and ground-breaking work of Jewish environmental organizations such as COEJL, Teva, Isabella Friedman, Hazon Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School and others that work on both ends of the learning continuum, teaching both the leaders and the learners. And they can serve as a model for local Jewish green funds.
9) Limmud - we must deepen and strengthen our centers of Jewish environmental learning. Our seminaries must offer courses and concentrations exploring the teachings of environmentalism and sustainability embedded in our classic texts and traditions. Our rabbis and lay leaders must be conversant in this field and confident in speaking to this issue both within and beyond the Jewish community. Our schools of education must train their students to authentically incorporate Jewish lessons and activities of sustainability in their year-round curricula. This must become a part of who we are.
10) Tzedek. We must place advocacy for sustainability and environmental justice on our communal and JCRC agendas. All the other issues that have captured our hearts – poverty, hunger, housing, third-world development – turn on the well-being of the natural environment and the affordability of clean energy. We cannot properly and systemically address the former without fundamentally addressing the latter.
There are more tasks we must undertake. These are just the beginning. But if we embrace them and adopt them, the others will follow. And we will have done our part to bring healing to this endangered world, and a life of opportunity and not unnecessary constraint to our children.
Judaism does not celebrate killing. When we speak of our enemies, we hope for repentance, a change of heart, not destruction of the soul.
That is the story of Yom Kippur, when we read about Jonah and the people of Nineveh. That is the story of the Exodus that we recount at the seder, when we diminish our wine, and thus our joy, as we speak of the plagues that afflicted and killed the Egyptians.
In interpreting the Bible, the rabbis severely restrained the application of capital punishment. To this very day, there is no capital punishment in Israel.
And yet, on rare occasions, there are exceptions. Eichmann was executed for his role in the Holocaust. Pharaoh and his men were hurled into the sea.
And today, there is Osama bin Laden.
How do we know how we should respond? Where do we draw the line between those destined for execution and those who should be spared? Our tradition offers a way for us to determine whether a crime, and an individual, rise to the level of deserving to die.
Psalm 104:35 offers an ambiguous reading. Classically, it is translated as:
“May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more.”
This is most often taken to be asking for sinners to be punished, killed off, by God; that justice be meted out to those who pursue injustice.
However, the Talmud presents an alternative reading, in the voice of Bruria, the wife of the renowned sage, Rabbi Meir. Upon being mugged, Rabbi Meir came home and ranted to his wife about the ruffians who ruffed him up. He called for their death. Bruria responded: “But is that what you should ask for? After all (offering a softer reading of Ps 104:35), perhaps we should not read: ‘Let sinners be removed from this world.’ Rather, we should read: ‘Let sin be removed from this world.’”
Bruria was arguing that Rabbi Meir should pray for the bandits to repent and change their ways, not be zapped by God for their misdeeds.
That is a noble and gentle sentiment. Yet, at times it may be overly sentimental, and thus dangerous. We know that not all miscreants will be penitent. Some will never change and will always be a threat no matter where they are. So how shall we handle them?
Shall we read the verse as asking for the destruction of sinners or asking for the destruction of sin? Death or compassion?
Or perhaps there is a third way. Reconciling these two positions, allowing for compassion where appropriate but harsh punishment where necessary, tradition offers yet a third interpretation.
“Sinners” here is said to refer to a special class of sinners, those who sin unrepentantly, incessantly, tenaciously, aggressively; those who have become as dark as their actions, those who cannot and will not change.
In this light, bin Laden was a sinner, and in this light, tradition supports the actions of the United States.
Most of the world is breathing a sigh of relief today. Over time, perhaps, more information will come to light about the heinous, destructive nature of this man’s philosophy and deeds and the justice in his execution.
Today, we might feel relief, even pride, in the masterful, careful, limited and dignified way this maneuver was carried out and concluded. But we cannot be joyful that we were forced to do it.