top of page

On Judaism

Thoughts about Jewish life in the 21st century


5779: The Year in Review

It started simply enough. One Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Katie included in her evening sermon a few sentences about the events of the past year. I liked that: it felt true, important. I suggested we do it again the following year, but more fully. What if it became a separate thing, not part of the sermon? Katie agreed and, being a good leader, delegated it to me. I’ve done the Year in Review every Erev Rosh Hashanah since 2010.

I’ve been standing in front of audiences for over 40 years, but the response I get to the Year in Review is different from anything else I’ve experienced. People heartily thank me (but I’ve been thanked before). Some ask me to email them a copy (but I’ve been asked for scripts before). So what’s the difference? My hunch is that the Year in Review meets a need. A need that we may not have even known we had, for communal orientation. The Year in Review is a collective marking of time, an acknowledgment of what we have lived through, are living through.

Here's The Year in Review for Rosh Hashanah 5780 ( September 2019 ).

Remembering 5779

For Or Shalom Rosh Hashanah services, 5780

Charlie Varon & Myra Levy,
with help from Deborah & Dave Frangquist, Janet Varon & Eddie Muñoz, Margo Freistadt, Abby Miller, Marc Loran, Rachelle Resnick and Debbie Benrubi 

We gather this evening as a community, witnesses to the passing of another year. We remember, we reflect, we take stock.


Since we gathered here a year ago, the Earth has completed another orbit around the sun.



 This week Donald Trump became the fourth President in US history to face impeachment proceedings. Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited Trump’s scheme to get Ukraine to interfere in our next election, and accused the President of violating the Constitution, and betraying his oath of office.


Let’s pause for a moment to let this sink in. 


And let’s take another moment to notice what we have lived through this year – what we are still living through.


In the last year…

Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere reached the highest level in human history, AND in the last week, over 7 million people marched in 170 countries to demand climate action.


In the last year…

The Trump administration smoothed the path for oil and gas pipeline construction and loosened rules on coal plant emissions and offshore drilling. It repealed important clean water regulations, and is threatening to block California’s authority to set its own auto emission standards.


In the last year…

Robert Mueller issued his report into election interference and obstruction of justice, Attorney General Barr issued a misleading summary of it, then released a redacted version.


Attorney Michael Cohen testified in Congress, accusing Trump of multiple criminal acts.


An impasse over Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall led to the longest U.S. government shutdown in history.


In the last year…

Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census fell apart when his Commerce Secretary was caught lying by the Supreme Court.


The Federal Elections Commission no longer has enough members for a quorum, leaving it unable to enforce campaign finance laws.


And Trump’s erratic trade wars continued to create economic disruption and uncertainty. 


As all of this has unfolded, Republicans in the House and Senate have largely stood with Trump.


In the last year…

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 50-48 despite allegations of sexual assault.


In the last year…

A wave of grassroots activism led to 40 Congressional seats flipping from Republican to Democrat. A record 117 women were elected, including the first two Muslim women, and the first two Native American women. 


Democrats also flipped seven governorships, six state legislative chambers, and more than 300 state legislature seats.


Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become Georgia’s governor amid widespread voter suppression.


In the last year…

The House passed a bill to expand voting rights, limit gerrymandering, strengthen ethics, and limit the influence of money in politics. Democrats also introduced a sweeping climate and jobs measure, the Green New Deal.


“Medicare for All” evolved from a fringe idea into one being seriously debated.


For the second consecutive election cycle, many more Republicans than Democrats are choosing not to seek re-election for House & Senate seats.


In the 2020 Presidential race, Democrats fielded a large and diverse group of candidates, including six women, the first openly-gay Presidential candidate, and the first openly-vegan one. 


In the last year…

We marked the 50th anniversaries of the Stonewall uprising and the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 99th anniversary of the ratification of women’s right to vote, and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony.


In the last year…

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Juan Guaidó contested Nicolás Maduro’s election in Venezuela. Venezuelans continue to suffer through the crisis.


With Benjamin Netanyahu facing possible indictment, Israel held two elections, but so far no coalition government has been formed.


There was a military coup in Sudan, followed by a military-and-civilian power-sharing agreement.


In the last year…

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was confirmed dead after disappearing into a Saudi consulate in Turkey.


Iran resumed enriching small amounts of uranium, and shot down a US surveillance drone. 


British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned, Parliament rebelled against her successor, Boris Johnson, Johnson tried to suspend Parliament, and the Supreme Court declared his move illegal. The outcome of Brexit remains uncertain.


In Hong Kong, a protest against an extradition bill evolved into a battle for the future of the territory, with millions of protesters demanding democratic reforms.


In the last year…

India canceled the special status of Kashmir, plunging the Muslim-majority province into chaos.


Misery and death continued in Yemen, Syria, and Sudan, among the Rohingya and the Uigurs, while Trump sought to drastically decrease refugee and asylum admissions.


There were suicide attacks in Somalia and Afghanistan.


North Korea began a new series of missile tests.


Boeing’s 737 Max planes were grounded after two deadly crashes.


In Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral burned.


And in Ethiopia, a notorious torture facility will be transformed into a museum as a reminder to respect human rights.


In the last year…

There were mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, at Chabad of Poway, at a playground in Brooklyn, a mall in El Paso, a bar in Dayton, and at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, among many others.


Gun reform laws were passed at the state level and in the House of Representatives, but were blocked in the Senate by Majority Leader McConnell. March for Our Lives students unveiled their own comprehensive gun reform plan.


And in the wake of a mass shooting at two mosques, New Zealand banned semi-automatic weapons.


In the last year…

The U.S. Department of Justice declined to bring federal charges in the police killing of Eric Garner.


There were teachers’ strikes around the US, yellow vest protests in France, pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow, and protests in Puerto Rico that brought down their governor.


Social media giants came under attack for infringing privacy and providing a platform for disinformation and hate speech.


In the last year...

A federal judge halted an administration attempt that would have allowed children to be held indefinitely in immigrant detention centers. 


Other policy issues being litigated in the courts include DACA, Obamacare, partisan gerrymandering, Planned Parenthood funding, and the conflicts of interest resulting from Trump’s failure to divest from his businesses. 


Meanwhile, eight states passed laws severely restricting access to abortion.


Activists organized to resist deportations and ICE raids, and to defend immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Young Jewish activists formed the group Never Again Action, and took direct action protesting inhumane treatment of immigrants.


In the last year…

New treatments for Ebola raised hopes that outbreaks of the disease can be contained.


Medical researchers announced they had successfully eliminated HIV from the DNA of infected mice.


Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy.


And at the nuclear complex in Fukushima, Japan, eight and a half years after the tsunami and triple meltdowns...more than a million tons of radiation-contaminated water may soon be released into the ocean.


In the last year…

Extreme weather events shattered records around the world: heat, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes. 


The deforestation crisis in the Amazon was accelerated by intentionally-set fires endorsed by Brazil’s President Bolsonaro.


France became the first country to ban all five pesticides linked to bee deaths.


In the last year…

The U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup, and simultaneously sued the federation for more equitable pay.


In the last year…

Governor Newsom suspended executions of death row inmates in California.


California approved statewide rent control, expanded medical care for undocumented immigrants, banned private prisons, and moved to reshape the gig economy by forcing companies like Uber and Lyft to reclassify their drivers as employees.


The state also strengthened the standards for police use of deadly force, and paved the way for public banking.


The State Senate adjourned without voting on a measure to restore voting rights for people on parole.


In the last year…

The wildfire in Paradise, California burned for more than two weeks and was the deadliest and most destructive in California history. Heavy smoke reached as far as the Bay Area.


PG&E declared bankruptcy.


In the last year…

The housing shortage in the Bay Area got worse.


A UN report on housing called the Bay Area's treatment of homeless people "cruel and inhuman."


San Francisco became the first city in the US to ban e-cigarettes. The city also banned the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies.


Beloved San Francisco brick-and-mortar businesses closed: Thrift Town, Gumps, Lucca Ravioli, Portals bar, the Haight Ashbury Music Center, and Mission Pie.


In the last year…

The world lost Toni Morrison, George H.W. Bush, Hal Prince, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Paul Stevens, Ross Perot, David Koch, John Dingell Jr., I.M. Pei, Doris Day, Mary Oliver, Carole Channing, Willie McCovey, Sydney Goldstein, Jeff Adachi, Ntozake Shange, Cokie Roberts, Amos Oz, W.S. Merwin, and Juanita Abernathy, who wrote the plan for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.


In the last year…

Relief workers saved lives.

Activists organized for justice, for peace, for universal health care, for voting rights, for environmental sustainability.

Around the world millions of people worked for universal access to safe food, shelter and clean water.


In the last year…

Without warning or preparation, human beings entered into moments of intense joy.


In our community in the last year…

We celebrated new babies, b’nai mitzvah, graduations and weddings.

Teeth were lost, new teeth grown.

Many hours of homework were done.

We sent sons and daughters off to kindergarten and to college.

And received young-adult children back into our homes in the increasingly unaffordable Bay Area.

Grandparents took care of grandchildren.

Adult children cared for aging parents.

A lot of us did the best we could for our loved ones.


In our personal lives, some of us have had an ordinary year; others have been shaken to the core.

Some of us have lost family members and friends.

Some have struggled with illness, injury, addiction, and unemployment.

Some have been blessed with healing and new beginnings.


Change and stability.

We reflect on what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained.

People we have grown distant from; people we’ve grown closer to.

Who we’ve been and who we are becoming.

We reflect on what we have learned this past year:

What we’ve learned about ourselves.

What we’ve learned about loved ones and about our community.

What we’ve learned about the world.

What we’ve learned about our purpose in life.


Make sure everyone you know is registered to vote. It is 402 days until the 2020 general election.



"Tevye is not going to save us" and other thoughts I didn't know I was going to think

During the 5-year journey of writing and performing my play Rabbi Sam (2005-2009), my characters never stopped talking to me. They made me laugh. They made me think. They upset comfortable assumptions.

This is why I write plays: My characters can take me places I cannot get to without them.

The thoughts below were by-products of that journey.

1. "Tevye is not going to save us"

I'll start with an op-ed piece I wrote for the J, San Francisco's Jewish weekly paper, in October 2009. The title "Tevye Is Not Going to Save Us," is a line from one of Rabbi Sam's sermons.

... I happened upon an audio cassette of a talk by an American rabbi. He was discussing the teachings of the Sfas Emes, the great 19th century Chassidic rabbi from Poland.

I felt myself being drawn in, not just to the wisdom of the teaching, but drawn into that lost world, picturing myself in the crowd of disciples huddled around the Sfas Emes — people like my own Eastern European ancestors, poor simple folk, dressed plainly, perhaps a little hungry, hanging onto the sage’s every word.

And then I awoke from the daydream and thought the dangerous thoughts of Rabbi Sam.... Beautiful as the teachings may be, they were for poor people, pre-industrial, segregated from the rest of society, politically powerless! You are living in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world, you have a hot-water heater, and your vote affects the fate of the planet!

Until American Judaism squarely faces this existential truth, and builds a spiritual narrative true to our time and place, most American Jews will shrug their shoulders and synagogue attendance will dwindle.

Read full article

2. A Thought Experiment

This short piece grows out of the argument in the board meeting scene in 'Rabbi Sam.' Whose needs are being served in the decisions made at a synagogue?

Imagine that you'be been given a special role to play on the board of directors of a synagogue.  You are to represent all the Jews who haven’t found their way to the synagogue – or have felt that there was nothing there for them. 

It is your job to raise the question, over and over, of what would make your synagogue a place that works for those Jews.

And now someone hands you a note. Your mandate has gotten larger. There are non-Jews in your community – maybe a few, maybe many – who are hungry for what only Judaism can offer. 

Without these non-Jews, who will bring fresh blood and fresh passion, your synagogue will not achieve its spiritual potential. You must be their voice, as well, to make sure a way is opened for them to enter the community.

3. The Texts of Our Times

In February 2008, I was mulling the fact that Judaism is a text-based tradition. We read, we study, we argue. But what happens when the texts are out of date, or don't speak to the existential moment we are living in? I gave vent to my thoughts and disquiet in the essay below and showed it to a few people, including my friend Deborah Frangquist and Or Shalom's rabbi, Katie Mizrahi. The conversations that followed led the three of us to begin the News Minyan.

What are our foreground texts? -- the stories that occupy our minds and hearts?

For most American Jews they are not the received texts of Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Talmud, commentators. That is not where most of us live our inner and outer lives. Here’s a beginning list of our actual foreground texts:

Scientific texts: The Big Bang, cosmology, evolution, genetics, microbiology, new views of the natural world..

Current events texts: Global warming, the Iraq war, oil, water, other resource issues, human rights, globalization, Darfur, Bushism, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, AIDS, other new diseases, cancer epidemic, Islam, fundamentalism, hyper-capitalism, eco-catastrophes (non-warming), Israel/Palestine, economic shifts national and global, labor movements in transition, indigenous people's struggles, poverty, megacities, 6 billion human beings, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, terrorism, species facing extinction, immigration, crisis in education, prison crisis, and the explosion of activism in our time...

Historic texts: American history, including the central stories of the Founding, the Civil War, immigration, labor movement, New Deal, civil rights movements, feminism;  world history and the sweep from early civilization to the present; Marxism and the left; colonialism and the colonial legacy; development...

Cultural texts: This moment in American Judaism, gay and lesbian movements, race, fundamentalisms, multiculturalism, culture wars, consumerism, pervasiveness of media, omnipresent technology & gadgetry  transforming our daily experience, wondrous availability of information, information overload/Internet, the ad blitz, pornography, 500 channels of cable, me-centrism of the above, pop culture and gossip, recovery movements, food awareness, fitness awareness, more old people, how to age perfectly, social science and psychology measuring everything in sight and explaining everything by genes and comparing us endlessly to mice and chimps...

Anthropological and archaeological texts:The expanding array of information about the range of human cultures past and present, and the human journey through time.

Local and community texts: What is happening now in our place?

Family texts: Each family's unfolding drama, joys, anguishes, struggles, breakthroughs, losses, crises, births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, divorces (also gay ones now!), school and career milestones...

Individual texts: The outer and inner journey of each person through life, including but not limited to dreams, hopes, despairs, illness, loss, jobs, promotions, layoffs, quitting, the appetites of the body and the ego, yearning for love, relationship ups and downs...

The existential text: What is it like to live now with the sum of the above texts?

These texts are unfolding before us and inside us – right now -- many with wild uncertainty. Through the many media, our access to the larger unfolding stories of our time is vast and unprecedented. It is dizzying: the quantity of information, the quantity of suffering we are witness to, the fluidity of events, the emotional impact of it all (if we let it in), and the very number of different texts we are simultaneously following! And dizzying too in the question of our response: how do we live given all of this? Practically, ethically, spiritually? For some of the current events texts, our impulse is to consult the Prophets. The prophet's cry is a starting point but inadequate. Understanding events as they unfold and responding to them -- our systems for doing this are in flux, and the looming climate crisis hovers over all of it, all the time, every second, even on Shabbat.

Notice the disconnect, for most Jewish mortals, between all these actual foreground texts and -- for example -- the ancient dermatology of Leviticus. Why do we keep twisting ourselves into midrash-pretzels, trying to make Leviticus speak to our current foreground texts, our lived and felt experience? So much current midrash has the feeling of late-night college term papers, the fulfillment of an assignment, full of forced connections and obligatory references to sages and commentators, the circle to our lived experience never completed.

Add to this the fact that we are as yet ill-able to name what it is like to be living now. Add to this the hesitancy to speak dark thoughts aloud in polite company. Add to this religion's tendency to play it safe, to take refuge in the familiar and the established.

And add to this the matter of privilege, which for many American Jews is a lens through which we view the texts of our time. We who are well off, not hungry, not under fire, not persecuted or excluded because of our Jewishness – we are among the wealthy of the world, living like kings, with the awareness that our way of life is not sustainable. We harbor the guilty suspicion that as our privilege and power have grown, so too should our responsibility to make change.

So how do we read the foreground texts of our lives and our times? How do we meet them as spiritual beings, as Jews, as links in a 3000-year-old chain? What do our ancestors and our descendants want for us and demand of us?

Our tradition -- like all traditions -- is both gift and trap.

What if the assignment were not to connect the dots between this week's Torah portion and something current? What if the starting point were the actual foreground texts of our lives -- or even one of them -- with all the uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety that the unresolved can stir in us? What if then we were to ask -- without knowing the answer in advance -- what in our extraordinary, rich tradition speaks to this text, this truth that we are living in? Think of it as midrash in reverse -- where you can draw on the entire body of Jewish stories, teachings and wisdom to comment on -- no! to dance with the foreground text of our time. I interrupted myself when I said "comment on" because commentary implies an intellectual exercise. And the foreground texts demand more: they demand an existential response, using words not for words’ sake, not to be clever or scholarly or brilliant, but to reach toward a full human response.

The spiritual call I’m suggesting doesn’t have to do with conclusions but with honest existential and spiritual searching, exploring as courageously as we can the truth of our times and our lives – not in a book, not on television, not on the Internet. In a room with other human beings. And the voices of our ancestors.

bottom of page