I took the photo about 40 minutes ago, at the bus stop where he’ll now stand every day on the mornings of middle school.
Today is his first day of sixth grade, meaning it’s also his first day of the wife and/or I no longer driving him up to school, then walking him to a courtyard. He’s not even 11 yet, but it feels different. I’m sad. I’m happy. I’m crushed. I’m giddy. I’ve written this before, and I’ll write it again: No one prepares a parent for this shit.
Oh, they prepare you for sleepless nights. They prepare you for crying. They prepare you for carnival rides, for vacations, for midnight throw-ups, for drop offs at the grandparents. They prepare you for As and Ds, for scratches and cuts and broken bones. They prepare you for bullies and mean teachers and coaches who don’t know the first thing about coaching. They prepare you for boyfriends and girlfriends and sips of whiskey behind the bleachers. They prepare you for calls to the principal’s office.
What they don’t prepare you for is the bittersweet symphony of growing up; of not needing you quite so much; of choosing friends over Mom and Dad.
My son didn’t see the bus stop as any big deal. He bounded out of the car, grabbed his backpack from the seat and waved to his awaiting friends. He said, “Bye, Dad,” then walked off into the abyss that is sixth grade.
A bunch of months ago, while appearing at a book festival in Green Bay, I found myself in a bar alongside a fellow author.
An organizer introduced us, and once David Sigel told me he was a firefighter who has had a book out, well, the book part faded into dust. A firefighter? A real fight fighter? Shit—I had questions.
Over the next two hours, I listened to a genuinely fascinating, decent man talk about duty, about honor, about saving lives and giving of oneself. It was riveting stuff, and when it was time to leave I said, “So, this is random, but would you be up for a Quiz Q&A?”
JEFF PEARLMAN:So David, I’m a big fan of money stories—meaning, the most memorable moments from a career. You’ve spanned the decades as a Green Bay firefighter. What’s your money story? The scariest moment? The most exciting moment? The craziest moment? In other words, what’s the story you would tell, if you could only tell one?
DAVID SIEGEL: I can’t answer this one to my satisfaction. The fire and EMS stories you’re asking for defy my ability to convey to non-firefighter/paramedics. There’s an old joke that somewhat explains this. What is the difference between a fairy tale and a fire-rescue story? A fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time,” whereas a fire-rescue story starts with, “OK, this is no shit.”
We’ve all had experiences that fit your criteria. I just can’t describe them to the point of justice. This is why so many relatives of combat veterans describe how their loved one never talked about the wars. Same with fire-rescue and law enforcement.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Like, when did you know you wanted to fight fires for your career? Was there an ah-ha moment? A spark?
D.S.: I had a previous career after college and lived in a small town in southern Wisconsin. To impress a gorgeous woman, I joined the volunteer EMS agency. Initial “hands-on” training was done in the ER of a Madison hospital. The first patient I dealt with had shot himself through the roof of his mouth with a small caliber handgun. The bullet passed through the front and top of his brain, but was not immediately fatal. The nurse directed me to clean to blood from his face. I started to do so with a wet towel. The patient said it hurt and asked me to be more gentle. He was fully conscious and coherent. Though he later died from the damage, the first human I ever spoke to as a responder had been shot through the brain! The “spark” was when I realized just how difficult and challenging it was to do this. The bug was in my blood and within a few years I changed careers to become a firefighter/paramedic. And that is no shit.
J.P.:How do you explain the kinship of firefighters? It seems to cross geographic, age, ethnic, gender lines. Doctors don’t have it. Journalists don’t have it. What is it about firefighters?
D.S.: We’re like dogs, because we’re drawn to each other, though there’s a lot less sniffing. Much has to do with the fact that nobody else understands what we go through. Civilians just don’t understand what happens and words can’t express the reality. Additionally, our shifts are 24 hours long. We essentially live together and form a secondary family. That imparts a closeness and bond that doesn’t happen with nine to fiveers. Twice a day we eat together and that’s one of the ultimate family experiences, whether it’s blood or camaraderie.
J.P.:What’s the most misunderstood thing when it comes to your profession? What do we, the non-firefighters of the world, get wrong?
D.S.: The vast majority of our responses are for emergency medical services. Fires are much less frequent than just a few decades ago. EMS is now our bread-and-butter and this keeps us very busy.
J.P.:I’m sure you guys get a ton of false calls, unnecessary calls. Cat in a tree, I can’t find my keys, etc … etc. Do those piss you off? Do you have to handle them a certain way? What’s your approach?
D.S.: More than false calls, it’s the misuse of emergency services. A tremendous segment of the population has no reluctance or compunction about calling for complete BS. They do not need to go to the ER or travel by ambulance, but could get their problem addressed by more routine appointments. These people are without consciousness or with absurd senses of entitlement. Some people have such profound social dysfunction they ignore right from wrong. They know what they’re doing, they just don’t care. For example, I’ve been called to a home to transport a person the hospital. They tell me they just left the hospital after waiting longer than they wanted. They thought that getting brought in by ambulance would move them to the front of the line! So, they leave the hospital, go home, call 911, get transported back to the same hospital. Ultimately they go back to the end of the line and get a citation for misuse of emergency services.
It’s aggravating to be taken advantage of and upsetting to know the ambulance is busy dealing with a BS call when someone could really use our help for a legitimate medical emergency. However, we commiserate with each other because we understand. Again, this is why we are drawn to each other. I imagine many readers are astounded this happens. It does and that’s no shit.
By the way, the cat in the tree thing is a total urban legend. Ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree? Of course not. They come down when they get hungry.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
D.S.: Greatest: I saved a baby’s life. A 3-month old baby was born with brain-fluid issues and had suffered seizures. It already had surgery to address this when the mother called 911 to report another seizure. There was definitely something wrong with the baby. However, I took a closer look and realized there was something “off” from a typical seizure. I tried ventilating the baby and immediately the baby spit out a plug of milk, took a deep breath and the crying began in earnest. The baby was choking on vomited milk … not a seizure. Because of the recent seizure and surgery history, the mother had tunnel vision. However, I kept my eyes and mind open and remembered an old adage, “Nothing is as it seems.” If I hadn’t cleared the airway, that baby would have choked to death.
Lowest: You’re asking me to put into words the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I can’t do it justice, so I won’t try. This is why firefighters/paramedics are such a tight group. I could convey to them and they’d understand, but writing for civilians would prove inadequate.
D.S.: I originally intended to write a short article, thinking it would be a simple, basic history. However, the early history of the Green Bay Fire Department is incredibly rich and fascinating. Most important, I found a clear trend in our history. Change never just happened. All the major changes occurred because major fires went horribly wrong. The fire department, community, newspapers and municipal authorities resolved never to allow these disasters to repeat, so the Green Bay Fire Department changed. This trend holds from creation in 1841 to the present. Most human endeavors change reactively, but with the fire service, the events are dramatic. Makes for a great story.
I discovered a previously unknown Green Bay Fire Department line-of-duty death. In February 1892, Hans Hansen died after being thrown from a horse-drawn host-cart that overturned at a corner. At that time, only those dying at the fire, directly due to the fire were considered a line-of-duty death—Hansen did not fit the criteria. Furthermore, his family buried him in an unmarked grave because they didn’t have enough money and the city provided just enough for the funeral. However, current fire department culture recognizes Hansen as a line-of-duty death and we considered the lack of recognition as intolerable. Therefore, as part of a formal fire department ceremony in July 2016, we dedicated a donated grave marker, about 124 years after he died. Hansen had no children nor did his only sibling. Consequently, finding living relatives proved unsuccessful. So the honor guard presented the folded American flag (typically given to family members) to the current Green Bay fire chief, representing his Green Bay Fire Department family. Now, Hans Hansen will never be forgotten again. Above all other aspects of this history project, I’m most proud of this.
J.P.:We spoke about the loneliness of the book signing event—four people, strange looks, awkwardness. You had some of these. What were they like for you? How’d you handle it? Because, Christ, it’s my least-favorite thing in the world.
D.S.: A total kick to the confidence and ego. When we met, you told be that because I’d been skunked at signings I’m “now officially an author,” which made me feel like I’d gone through a rite-of-passage. I’m grateful you shared that with me.
J.P.:You work a job where death is a very real possibility. When you approach a particularly big blaze, does that run through your head? Should it/should it not run through your head? Can a firefighter be successful and also fear death?
D.S.: I’ll borrow something from the military … you don’t fight for country and apple pie, you fight for the people next to you. What goes through my mind on every call is to do right by my comrade brothers and sisters … don’t screw up! It’s the benefit to having a pseudo-family, rather than a group of coworkers. This is true whether it’s a large blaze or a simple medical call. Do my job right for my people. First and foremost, I worry about their well-being.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID SIEGEL:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Faye Dunaway, Sterling Sharpe, Chris Cornell, Oscar the Grouch, Ft. Lauderdale, raisins in your oatmeal, Tupac, Mike Pence, Bermuda shorts: Raisins in oatmeal, Oscar the Grouch, Faye Dunaway, Bermuda Shorts, Mike Pence, Sterling Sharpe, Tupac. Never been to Ft. Lauderdale and don’t know who Chris Cornell is (and resisted temptation to Google him).
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you an Aaron Rodgers? How does it end?: Really? A 33-year-old, 6-foot-2, 225 pounder versus a 52-year-old, 5-foot-11, 183 pounder. It doesn’t end because it would never have begun. Can we make this a one-on-one competition playing hockey?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never had an incident with threat of a crash. As a side note, I always introduce myself to the flight crew as an off-duty paramedic and offer my help in case of an emergency. They love it and sometimes I get an extra bag of peanuts. Yes, I have had to help with medical problems mid-flight, once over the middle of the Atlantic.
• What’s the absolute grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: On a warm summer day, a neighbor checked on a man who lived alone and found him dead. He had died several days earlier while laying on a heated water bed. The weather and bed dramatically sped up the decomposition process and basically turned him into soup. We could smell him from the street as soon as we got out of the rigs. Everybody on the crew was gagging and all of us showered and changed uniforms back at the station. And that is no shit.
• Five reasons one should make Green Bay his/her next vacation destination?: A frequent misconception is that Green Bay is a very large city because there is a professional sports team here. However, we’re actually mid-sized with about 100,000 population in the city and similar number in the adjacent area. So, rather than five reasons, I’d say a visitor would experience the uniqueness of big city life emerging from a small town. Frequently there are deer, turkeys, foxes and skunks in my yard and there even are a couple of working farms within the city limits. LA got those?
• Why would anyone live in a city that hits negative 20 in winter?: Perspective. It makes the summers that much more enjoyable. It’s a cliché, but the change of seasons is a great experience.
• What are the keys to growing a kick-ass mustache?: Eastern European ancestry, don’t shave your upper lip and keep it groomed. I spend more time on my mustache than the hair on my head.
• I never much cared for Ben Seaver in Growing Pains. You?: I have never spent a moment of my life watching Growing Pains, but I suspect I haven’t missed anything.
One of our great frustrations in three years of Southern California living has been the awful pizza options.
It’s truly unbelievable. We live in a world of soggy crusts, or nasty cheese, of Ragu-esque sauce from a can. There are 1,000 places that promise “Real New York Pizza,” but fail to add, “Only in the case of a Nuclear Attack” to the end of that phrasing.
Seriously, the pizza here is that bad.
Yes, tonight we visited a new pizza joint that opened locally one week ago. And the food was off-the-chain terrific. Everything we tried reminded us (as much as possible) of our roots in New York. The pizza crust was flavorful, the sauce was bursting with flavor. From my chicken parm to the wife’s lasagna, everything was top shelf.
At last, I thought.
Then, about an hour ago, Emmett, our delightful 10-year-old son, vomited Italian food all over his bed and carpet.
Now, I usually don’t pay that much attention to the metrics of online media. I mean, when I publish pieces for Bleacher Report, someone with the site will (if things are going well) perhaps drop an e-mail with, “Hey, you’re up to XXX,XXX reads.” Which is cool and appreciated, but not really needed. At this point in my career, I genuinely focus upon doing my best, hoping things work out—then moving on toward the next assignment. If the work generates a shitload of eyeballs—awesome! If it doesn’t, well, I gave my all.
So why is this one so meaningful? Multiple reasons. First, no one wanted it. And, by no one, I pretty much mean no one. I pitched it to a friend at The New Yorker. He passed (didn’t see what the focus could be). I pitched it to Bleacher Report. They passed (like many outlets, there was (I think) an understandable trepidation about writing on media). I mentioned it to someone at ESPN and was assured they wouldn’t bite. On and on and on.
Deadspin? Well, I’ve had a pretty hot and cold relationship with Deadspin through the years. On the bright side, they’ve been great with excerpting my books and I’ve written a small handful of stuff for them. On the dark side, they’ve mocked and ridiculed me more than once. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes, eh, um, yeah.
That said, I really like what Barry Petschesky, the site’s editor, is doing, and from the beginning he’s struck me as a fair, decent guy. Also, I really don’t hold stupid grudges. So I reached out to Barry via Twitter DM and tossed the idea his way. His response:
A. He loved it.
B. He could pay me $500.
I was thrilled.
Now, in case you don’t know, $500 for what turned out to be a 5,000-word story is terrible. It’s 10 cents per word, and most of my career I’ve made—bare minimum—$1-to-$2 per word. So why was I thrilled? Because I … knew … this … was … a … fucking … great … potential … story. Anyone who has worked long enough in journalism has seen something like what happened in Gallatin. Hell, in many ways I was Nick DeLeonibus during my early days at The Tennessean. I took nothing seriously. I inserted curses into copy. I was immature and all-knowing and obnoxious beyond belief. In fact, I’m pretty sure my history drew me to this narrative. No, I never reached the journalistic depths of “Dixon sucks donkey dicks.” But I easily could have.
So with a Deadspin agreement, I went about making calls. I probably reached out to, oh, 30 people. Twenty or so spoke. I knew Nick DeLeonibus had passed two years ago, but I wasn’t aware of the details. That’s why one of the first folks I left a message for was Dottie, his mother. I called—got nothing. Called—got nothing. Called—got nothing. Then one day, a voice message. “Hi Jeff, it’s Dottie DeLeonibus. Give me a call if you still …”
The other key figure was Kris Freeman, the sports editor. I tracked Kris down via Twitter, and we DMed quite a bit before he agreed to speak on the record. Kris is a truly wonderful man, and he was worried about the implications of a story that would, inevitably, dredge up some old ugliness. But, ultimately, I think—as a former scribe—he could empathize with my plight. He probably spoke because, were he in my shoes, he’d want someone to talk.
I’m babbling. I usually hate what I write. I do. I read it, count all the things I did wrong, bemoan missed opportunities, etc. This time, however, I feel genuinely accomplished.
So as I noted in two earlier posts, yesterday I took my son to watch the Chargers’ first Los Angeles-based home game.
It was an expensive-yet-fun evening, mainly because the magic of a kid beholding something big and colorful and loud and thrilling never grows old. Emmett is an NFL fan, so this experience (his first live game) was admittedly cool.
Early in our time at the stadium, however, I was distracted by an action that still sticks with me. In the leadup to the game, former Charger LaDainian Tomlinson (who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) was standing on the grass while being interviewed by one of the franchise’s in-game entertainment peeps. He was asked about the thrill over the Chargers moving from San Diego to Los Angeles, and responded thusly …
At that moment, I could only think of one thing: Donald Trump and loyalty.
LaDainian Tomlinson was a San Diego Charger for nine seasons. He professed—repeatedly and enthusiastically—his love for the city. Hell, he moved full-time to the city. He became a San Diego icon, no different than Tony Gwynn and Dan Fouts and Trevor Hoffman. When one thought of San Diego and sports, he thought of L.T. The fans embraced him. No, loved him. He was theirs, and they were his.
When Dean Spanos, the Chargers owner, decided to move to Los Angeles, he tore the heart from the city. This is not New York or Chicago or LA—huge places with 1,000 entertainment options. This is San Diego. Small. Comfortable. Interesting, but not exactly electric. It was a crushing blow, pulled off solely out of the greedy interests of an uber-wealthy ogre (Net worth: $100 million) who desired a better stadium in order to turn millions and millions into billions and billions. There was no civic responsibility. No interest in the good of the many.
Ugly fucking greed.
Which brings me back to L.T. and D.T.
If anyone should be speaking up for San Diego (and out against Spanos), it’s Tomlinson. But … no. There he was last night, happy … smiling … waving … explaining how excited everyone was over the relocation. Is it the truth? Of course not. Tomlinson is surely no more happy about the bolt to Los Angeles than he would be over the removal of two molars. But this is (sadly) what happens when the rich and powerful take hold of our scruples. They twist them, nudge then, rearrange them, fry them, warp them. What we once stood for evaporates into dust.
Look, for example, at Ted Cruz—whose wife’s physical appearance was mocked by Donald Trump; whose father was accused of being a JFK assassin by Donald Trump. As soon as the election ended and Trump was sworn in it was, “Hey, Mr. President! Whatever you need!” Look, for example, at Mike Pence—conservative Christian, Mr. Morality, Mr. Integrity. As soon as the opportunity to become vice president arose it was, “Yes, sir! Whatever you say, Mr. Trump!” The examples are endless—men and women who trade in their integrity for both access to importance and financial gain.
I don’t think LaDainian Tomlinson is a bad guy.
I don’t think LaDainian Tomlinson believes he’s doing wrong.
So back when I was a kid of, oh, eight or nine years, I stumbled upon this 1981 Topps baseball card …
At that moment, Ken Griffey became my favorite professional athlete. Why? Because look how insanely smooth the guy is. Hat hanging back on a sick Afro; thick sideburns that scream, “Fuck off! I’m cooler than shit!”; a facial express that oozes, “Yup … and?”
I was, truly, sold—and throughout the remainder of his long career I was a no-holds-barred Griffey guy. Knew his birthday, knew his hometown, knew his stats, nearly cried when the Yankees sent him to Atlanta for Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella. Why, if one takes a quick scan through my high school yearbook, he’ll find endless Griffey references. Like, oh, this …
My point, though awkwardly made, is that there is no rhyme or reason for why most kids select a favorite athlete. I mean, sure, many pick a Mike Trout or LeBron James because of their unparalleled greatness. But an equal (if not greater) number are wooed by hair, or tattoos, or a kind word at an autograph signing, or a Bleacher Report story, or a shared birthday or hometown or favorite ice cream flavor. It can be anything. Everything.
Which leads me to Emmett, my 10-year-old son.
A few weeks ago, while attending a Los Angeles Chargers practice, Emmett and I decided we should root for a rookie defensive back named Rayshawn Jenkins. Why? Well … um … eh … I’m not entirely sure. Emmett thought his name was really cool. I thought he looked to be playing particularly hard. He’s one of 16 siblings, which is amazing, and he’s from the east coast—as is our entire family. Also, he’s young, but not first-round-pick young. What I mean is, as a guy selected in the fourth round, Jenkins is fighting for a roster spot. Nothing is handed. We dig the struggle.
Anyhow, tonight, while attending the Seahawks-Chargers game, Emmett focused 90 percent of his attention on Rayshawn Jenkins. “He’s in!” Emmett bellowed on multiple occasions. “He’s in!”
When Jenkins made a sideline tackle, Emmett shouted out a loud, “Yes! Rayshawn!”
It was cool, and as we exited the stadium I asked, “So, why are you a Rayshawn Jenkins fan again?”
So as they begin their first season in Los Angeles (OK, not the first, per se. They played in the city one year, in 1960), the San Diego Chargers have adopted the slogan, “Fight for LA.”
The son and I saw the three words, oh, 200 times tonight as we attended the pre-season opener against Seattle at the StubHub Center.
Fight for LA
Fight for LA
Fight for LA
Fight for LA
Fight for LA
And, to the marketing department’s credit, it’s catchy. The Chargers are trying to obscure the fact that their owner, Dean Spanos, abandoned San Diego for riches (and a new stadium) an hour up the road; trying to obscure the fact that the move had nothing (literally nothing) to do with love or affection and everything to do with pure, unadulterated greed.
So we keep hearing how the Chargers need to “Fight for LA.” They will give their all. They will represent us. They will become one with the city and, in return, the city will become one with the Chargers.
Which is funny—because earlier this afternoon, as we pulled up to the stadium, I asked Emmett how much he thought it would cost to park.
“Twenty five dollars,” he said.
“Nah,” I replied. “I’ll go $20.”
Answer: Forty bucks.
I want to state that again, and in slightly different terms: On the occasion of the Chargers’ debut game in Los Angeles—a city they claim to be fighting for—attendees were forced to pay $40 to park their cars. It is, I’ve been told by Charger fans from San Diego, a $15 hike from fees outside the old stadium.
This is how you fight for LA?
This is how you win loyalties?
The parking attendant literally issued an apology to me—before I said a word. Our exchange went like this …
Me: “How much to park?”
Her: “I’m so sorry.”
Her: “It’s $40.”
Me: “No, really?”
Her: “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it either.”
I’m gonna be honest: Had I known it would cost so much to park my car (on top of the $70 per ticket, the $5 waters, the $46 for not much food), there’s no way in hell I would have attended. No. Way. In. Hell. This is a bad football team playing a meaningless pre-season game. Fuck, this is a bad football team playing a meaningless pre-season game in a town it’s supposedly trying to win over. The bang for the buck just isn’t there, and I don’t see how Los Angeles—a city worth fighting for, but also a city with 1,001 other entertainment options—will go along.
I get greed.
This wasn’t mere greed.
It was stupidity.
PS: And that video—seriously, give me a break. A bunch of actors making up expectations of a city that’s largely indifferent to this whole experiment.
The above image comes from the pages of my old college newspaper, the University of Delaware’s Review. It dates back to 1993, when the KKK (or a bunch of idiots referring to themselves as the KKK) held a march in Newark, Delaware.
The whole day was typical. Klansmen paraded down Main Street, shouting racist slogans and pumping their fists. The opposition (folks of all races, of all ethnicities) stood behind barriers, screaming and hollering and waving protest signs up and down. Policemen kept the peace, firemen patrolled the lanes.
I don’t know what it is about humanity, but when it comes to facing racist marches, we continue to take the bait. And take the bait. And take the bait. And take the bait. We’re the Washington Generals, falling for the hidden ball trick in game No. 765,332 against the Globetrotters. We’re New York Jets fans, convinced this will—at long last—be the year. We’re the New York City tourists who drop $100 on the street-corner ball-beneath-the-walnut shell trick, then come back the next day and try again.
What you witnessed today was precisely what the alt-right wants. It was their dream come to fruition, because it allows them to declare, “Look! We matter!” They didn’t march to make a point. They marched so we (general society) would make a point for them. They wanted a spectacle. They wanted fireworks. Thanks to today, their message spreads. Kids across America who sit on the fringe of extremism can watch the news, or YouTube clips, and think, “Fuck, yes! These guys are explosive!”
As a human, as a Jew, as an emotional individual, I get the impulse to attend and oppose. Truly, I do. But it’s foolish, because it doesn’t work. It never works.
You know, however, what devices would work?
Going to a movie.
Hitting up the mall.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, it does not make a sound. And if an ass-wipe march takes place in a town, and nobody (but ass-wipes) sees it, it never happened. Seriously, imagine the blissful scene of a let’s-stir-them-up march that stirs nobody up. The Klansmen arrive early, put on their hoods, spark up their torches, psyche each other up, line up, step onto the street—and … no … one … is … there. Not a single protester. The quiet would be blissfully deafening. Shh.
In the name of editorial transparency, this whole line of thinking isn’t originally mine. Back at Delaware, in the lead-up to the march, a colleague and friend named Greg Orlando penned a Review column headlined WELCOME TO NEWARK, KKK, NOW LEAVE! (I’ve pasted it below). He urged students to pay the Klan no mind, and invited everyone to skip the march and head to his apartment at 1305 Christiana West for Doritois, Cheez Whiz, football and AC/DC.
I mean, that’s just the way it is. You ask a rabbi about a higher power, he/she will explain—in great detail—how God is in charge of all; how God led our people to safety; how God is looking after the Jews as a parent looks after a child. God knows all, and you must obey Him!
Three years ago, shortly after our relocation from New York to California, the wife and I decided to join the University Synagogue in Irvine. We’d been members of a reconstructionist congregation in Westchester County, and the chill approach to religion appealed to us (Or, put different, I’m not a particularly involved Jew). What we found at University was a bunch of lovely people, a perfect-for-us hands-off dogmatic style, a fantastic Hebrew School run by an even better director and a rabbi who, well, didn’t believe in God.
Or, wait. Hold on. “Didn’t believe” isn’t quite right. Rabbi Arnold Rachlis’ position is that God is not a supreme being, per se, but the inspiration, creativity, conscience and consciousness that dwells within humanity. I’ve never heard him speak of God being angry, or annoyed, or frustrated. Nope—not once. Instead, his sermons focus on betterment, and helping others, and making a difference.
I dig that.
I also dig the non-pressure of the rabbi’s approach. As you’ll see below, he’s not begging (or guilting) me to attend synagogue. If you wanna go—please go. If you don’t, hey, it’s your time and your life. Use it wisely.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, you’ve blessed … as the new Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Rabbi, I’m gonna kick this off with a tremendously awkward question. About an hour ago I received an e-mail from you, asking if we’d like to take part in an upcoming Friday night service. And, to be completely blunt, I have no interest. I actually hate going to services. I hated going as a kid, as a teen, as a young adult, as a middle-aged adult. I don’t find service inspiring or interesting. I’m not moved. I don’t want to make new Jewish friends. I don’t want to join one of the chavurahs. It’s not about the rabbis, or the venue, or the music. I’m … just … not … interested. Being blunt—at this point in my life I see the synagogue’s value as a place for my kids to get three hours of weekend education. That’s pretty much it. So I wonder, as a rabbi, if this sorta pisses you off? If you understand it? If you view it as your job to change my mind? And, really, does it even matter?
ARNOLD RACHLIS: It’s not an awkward question. I try to make services as interesting as possible through relevant-to-life sermons, participatory music (often with a band), meditation, dance and discussion, but, even then, it’s OK not to be interested. I’m trying to attract people to a different kind of service, not make them feel guilty for not attending. I also have problems with the idea of prayer since I don’t believe in a supernatural God. Rather, for me and most Reconstructionist Jews, if God exists, we conceive of divinity as a force or power within human beings and the universe that moves us toward being loving and caring. There’s no God who commands, demands and punishes. Rather, this humanistic philosophy sees God not as a supreme being but as inspiration, creativity, conscience, consciousness and motivating us toward Tikkun Olam/repairing the world.
J.P.: So you head a reconstructionist congregation—which fascinates me, because there’s this sorta, “Take what you want, ignore what you want” flow I’ve picked up from the movement. So how do you define reconstructionism? What separates it from reform or conservative?
A.R.: In addition to our humanistic philosophy that I mentioned above, we focus on opportunities for human growth, not obedience; on affirming individuality, not prohibiting the actualization of the self; on choosing within Judaism and all cultures what’s meaningful to each person. We’re inclusive and equal—men and women, gay and straight, Jewishly learned and not, Jewish and not Jewish. We have lots of intermarried couples and even a few non-Jews not in a relationship with a Jew and all are welcome and fully integrated into our congregation, University Synagogue in Irvine, CA.
We also see Judaism as an evolving religious-cultural civilization, meaning that Jewish culture is as important as religion, that change is good and that each person—liberal believer, humanist, agnostic, atheist or whomever—needs to find his/her path within Judaism honestly and meaningfully. My role as a rabbi is to provide a roadmap within Judaism to help people find significance. My goal is not only to make Jews more meaningfully Jewish, but also more meaningfully human.
J.P.: I’m mental about death. I think about it almost every day, as this eternal nothingness that creeps closer and closer, and there’s nothing I can do to escape. I mean, it terrifies me. But how about you? How do you feel about it? Do you believe in an afterlife? Does it matter?
A.R.: My father died when I was 11, so death has always been a part of my life. I don’t literally believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in “immortality” through deeds, genetics and physics. How we love, help and mentor people shapes an ever-widening future; our biological children keep our genetics eternally alive; naming children after deceased ancestors and telling them stories about whom they were named after keeps us alive in memory and, if matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but just transformed (e.g. ice to water to steam), then we are forever part of the “All” of the universe. We may not be distinct souls, but we are still here. I truly enjoy life, and the love of my wife and children. I hope that I’ve contributed value to the world and I’ve had a good time. So, I’m not afraid. Although I’d like to live a long time—in Judaism, we say: “may you live to be 120 years old”—I’m well prepared for fewer years.
J.P.: You’re somewhat outspoken politically. I mean, clearly you’re not pro-Trump, pro-wall, pro-a lot of what’s going on in America. But what’s the balance for clergy? Do you feel comfortable bringing politics to the pulpit? How far should a rabbi, priest, etc. go?
A.R.: I bring ethics to the pulpit, not partisan politics. I wouldn’t endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but I do give money and sign ads and petitions as a private citizen. I want people to feel comfortable during services and not be worried that their candidate will be attacked by me. After President Trump’s election, we had a number of evenings devoted to examining our anxieties and hopes for the future with speakers who ranged from liberal to conservative. Everyone knows that my politics are liberal, that I worked in Washington, DC as a White House fellow and that I annually attend the political think tank Renaissance Institute, started by friends of the Clintons. We have hosted, at the synagogue, speakers from Gov. Michael Dukakis to Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to GOP consultant Frank Luntz—a very broad spectrum of opinion.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? Like, was there a lightbulb moment when it came to being a rabbi? When did you first know this would be your path?
A.R.: My parents were immigrants; my father from Ukraine and my mother from Vienna. Both became successful physicians in Philadelphia after fleeing anti-Semitism. America saved their lives. My mother, especially, instilled in me a love of America and a hatred against injustice. She worked hard for civil rights, treated African-Americans with dignity and had a lifelong interest in Jewish history and ideas. I have, in a way, followed in her footsteps. Also, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I became inspired by the depth of Jewish philosophy and ethics and decided to become neither a physician nor a lawyer (my original choices). After college, I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and simultaneously a graduate program in World Religions.
J.P.: I feel like every profession comes with an absolute must-tell-at-parties money story. I dunno—a drunk uncle ruins the Bar Mitzvah story, etc, etc. So, Rabbi, what’s yours?
A.R.: I really don’t have a funny religious story, although “Shaky the Mohel” is one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes! Rather, I love that the rabbinate has afforded me unusual integrative opportunities that have brought together my human and Jewish lives. The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, spoke of “living in two civilizations” as American Jews. I’ve had a diverse rabbinic life—one of two rabbis to ever be a White House fellow, winning an improv comedy championship at Second City in Chicago, traveling the world, meeting and studying with Nobel Prize winners, political figures, academicians, artists, actors and composers at the Renaissance Institute, being the subject of a documentary film and recently attending the Tony Awards. I’m curious about so many things other than Judaism and I’ve been able to integrate all of those interests with my Judaism and offer that synthesis to my congregation through the years.
J.P.:A congregant dies. You’re the rabbi. What do you do? What’s the approach? What are you supposed to do? And how hard was that to learn/adapt early in your career?
A.R.: My early experience of the death of my father created not just pain and loss, but also empathy. I never have to feign caring—at a funeral, wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah or naming. I really do care. I always feel privileged to enter the “sacred space” of a family in celebration or mourning. It’s what I find to be most meaningful in my work as a rabbi. I never had to learn how to do it. I’m just there, in the moment. I listen, and then I speak, offering condolences in the face of death or “mazel tov” for life’s blessings.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
A.R.: There’s no one greatest or lowest moment. Seeing the admiration from my children for what I do—a vocation that helps people, educates them, consoles them, enhances their celebrations and gives them a respect, love and pride in their Jewish identities—that’s at the top. One son is a lawyer and the other an actor and neither has an interest in the rabbinate—but both are proud and knowledgeable Jews and fine people. Some of that, I think and hope, comes from what I do professionally. Among the lowest moments are when I have to spend precious time convincing people that they should trust my instincts, experience and knowledge. I may be wrong, but I want to experiment, try to make changes and see if new ideas work.
J.P.:Do you ever do weddings and your gut says, “This marriage just isn’t gonna work?” And, if you have concerns, is there any moral obligation to say something? To step in?
A.R.: Twice in the hundreds of weddings I’ve done, I’ve felt that something was deeply wrong. Once, I told the couple that they should postpone getting married and go into counseling to work things out. They left my office immediately, furious at me and even left a phone message later saying that Rabbi X thought that they were just fine and was going to marry them. The other time, I brought up delaying to the couple; they disagreed; I performed the wedding thinking that perhaps I was being presumptuous and they divorced within a year.
J.P.:A lot of people (myself included) are losing boatloads of sleep over Donald Trump’s actions, from environmental to legal to … on and on. So what are we supposed to do? How do we ease our minds without turning off our antennas? In short, how do we survive?
A.R.: Having lived through Watergate, I agree with John Dean and Carl Bernstein—this Presidency is “worse than Watergate.” The offensive rhetoric of the campaign and the possible collusion with Russia have poisoned even further our already fractured politics. So going to marches, demanding action from Congress, getting involved in the 2018 and 2020 elections, financially supporting progressive organizations and advocating for the importance of honest journalism are crucial. Also, we need to understand why so many people in this country are frustrated and angry and voted for Trump. They didn’t vote for a true Republican; they voted for a protest candidate. What can Democrats and the GOP truly learn from that anger and will they find responsible ways to address these concerns, offering normative, conventional, informed and decent leaders?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RABBI ARNOLD RACHLIS:
• One question you would ask Lil Uzi Vert were he here right now?: “What did you like most about Philly where you and I came from?”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Only once, when the breathing masks dropped, the plane was badly shaking, people were screaming and, even though I was anxious, I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply and meditatively and looked for the exits.
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: With due respect … I prefer some of the other Woodstock era performers, especially folk, pop and soul from the late sixties.
• In exactly 16 words, can you make a case for California pizza?: Not as traditional as New York or Chicago, but more experimental—a perfect metaphor for California.
• Global warming terrifies me, yet most people don’t seem to care. What the hell are we supposed to do?: Spread more awareness, do more small acts around the house and lawn to build consciousness, support candidates and organizations that are fighting for the planet, advocate for science over narrow business interests, and widespread ignorance.
• What word do you overuse in your sermons?: “Finally”
• On Facebook, I tend to block all the arch-conservative wingnuts from my high school. Then I get ripped for it. What to do?: Be kind and patient. Forward articles to them. Don’t get overly involved emotionally.
• Your wife is the congregation’s cantor. How did you guys meet?: At the synagogue. Colleagues first, then friends and now the luckiest guy in the world!
• What are your three favorite Yiddish words/expressions?: “Mazel tov”—colloquially “congratulations,” which means that you’re at a “simcha”/happy event. “Mentsch”—one of the best words in any language – a humane, honorable and decent human being. “Schmooze”—to be with people, sharing your life, through the joy of small talk.
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