The Curmudgeons group has decided that each of us should post something about ourselves. I think I probably went on far too long there, but I think my readers might want to know more about me. This is a long one and not well-edited (as i usually try to do). Just so you know in advance… Also the CV referred to is on my home page if you want to see it.
For a general view of my life’s work and accomplishments I have attached the CV I used for job searches. Over the past four decades I have trimmed this document. A full list of my organizational activities and my published work would be very long. This list is somewhat selective. I’d have to dig deep in my files to find the items left out.
My family came to this country long enough ago that I heard no foreign accents, let alone languages while growing up. My forbears in Europe were not poor shtetl Jews. My birth father’s parents came from families of professional musicians. My mother’s father’s family was an interesting mix of wealth and poverty (one side property owners and entrepreneurs and the other side tanners). My maternal grandmother’s family was descended from a long line of distinguished rabbis and owned a publishing house.
My birth father was of no particular profession. He was politically very conservative. My mother divorced him when I was five and married again two years later. My step-father was a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and America’s earliest missile programs. We moved to Chicago, which is where most of my family lived, and then out to Skokie. In Skokie many of my friends were the children of Holocaust survivors as was my Rabbi. Skokie, before it became suburban, was largely a German community. I faced anti-Semitism on a regular basis. In addition I was that unathletic bookish kid who was subjected to frequent schoolyard hazing. I tell you all of this because I believe that my passion for social justice and against bigotry in all forms comes from these childhood experiences. Maybe my pacifism is also a product of that time.
Today I would be identified as a nerd. A lot of my friends were also what we would call nerds today. With them I organized my first discussion group when we were high school freshmen (yes, we were all boys). I have sought good conversation ever since, so Curmudgeons represents a continuation for me rather than something new.
At the age of 14 it was as if something in me woke up. I started reading evderything about history and politics I could lay hands on. Someone gave me a World Book encyclopedia for my birthday and I read it all. At that age I stood on State Street and handed out Ban the Bomb flyers; at 15 I went to my first rally (anti-HUAC); and at 16 I volunteered in JFK’s campaign office. I was involved in interfaith activities, protests against slum lords, and other causes before graduating high school.
After high school I went to an unusual college during a remarkable period of its history. Shimer College is a Great Books school that was, at one time, a branch of the U of Chicago. The purpose of our curriculum was to teach us critical thinking. No one learned anything about how to earn a living there but we had the highest GRE scores in the country 18 years in a row. Amazingly Shimer still exists today with few than 200 students and has the third best record of graduates going on for Ph.Ds (only MIT and Cal Tech do better).
I once asked my mother if she knew what my IQ is and she told me I should not know because it might make me arrogant. I think I am smart enough to know how little I actually know. I try to apply critical thinking to myself. If my mother was right I am a serious underachiever.
After college I was unsure of what to do with my life. I had thought about becoming a rabbi since I was about 16 but in 1966 that just seemed way too establishment. I wdent up to Winnipeg, Canada to study with a truly remarkable teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter (now Schachter-Shalomi). It was a rich year both in learning ad experience. Reb Zalman encouraged me to go to rabbinic school. He said, “play the game and after ordination you can do it your way.” Tat never really happened. Most of my career was a rather conventional pulpit career, but I was really good at it. As for Zalman, he became famous. Here’s his Wiki article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zalman_Schachter-Shalomi and a page about him from the movement he founded. https://www.aleph.org/zalman.htm
I did not get into rabbinic school right away but found work as a social worker in a Jewish Community Center where I acquired more skills. I also found Phyllis (or maybe she found me). We married in 1968 and immediately moved to NYC where I began my rabbinic studies. Academic standards there were very high (almost all my classmates had degrees from the Ivies) and I was happy to find I could keep up. We had our older son, Shanan, in 1971 and our younger son, Josh just after my ordination in 1973.
During all this time after high school I remained very active in civil rights (including participating in the Selma march), peace, and the environment (more about that in a bit). I also volunteered in political campaigns (Lindsay in 1969; Gerry Studds in 1972), but stopped those activities because I do not think it right for ordained clergy to be involved in partisan politics – I may revisit that issue this year).
While in rabbinic school I took on a project considering traditional Jewish literature on environmental ethics. There were no secondary sources so this was truly original research. Eventually I put that together in an academic paper which later became part of the basis for an article published in a journal that has since become a basic piece in that literature. I have since published more articles on the environment and get invited to conferences on the subject.
My first pulpit was a student pulpit in New Bedford, MA. I learned my profession there. After ordination my first rabbinic position was as Jewish campus chaplain at Denver U. where I also had my first college teaching experiences. Following that I took my first regular pulpit on the island of Curacao (oldest continuing synagogue in the hemisphere, founded in 1651). Back in the States I found myself in the place I wanted to be the least, Long Island. I served there for 13 years followed by several other pulpits which you can find in my attached resume. I also worked as a dean at a small rabbinic school, a camp director, and adjunct professor.
Throughout this time I was active in interfaith activities and projects, human rights organizations, and labor issues. I served for ten years as Chair of the Jewish Peace Fellowship which led to many exciting meetings and events. I did a lot of issue lobbying in DC and organized conferences and meetings in a variety of venues. Along the way I published a long list of articles ranging from ephemera to academic journal articles (including one in a university law review).
I am still married to Phyllis (45 years and counting) and our two sons are both highly skilled professionals, married and doing well.
My interests include music (listening and playing), writing, rabbinic literature (especially Midrash and Kabbalah), reading (literature, history, economics, and much more), travel, drama and film. I write a blog pearleafblog.com and have a personal website at pearleaf.org and, if you Google me you wil get a great many hits as every online petition I have ever signed seems to be there, along with several published article and the occasional flaming from the right.
If you are still reading this megillah (Yiddish term for a long discourse or story) I will add, at Tony’s kind suggestion, my post on “Why I Post.” Here it is and then that is more than enough….
A few of you have told me you are uncomfortable with some of my posts. I would like to say a little about who I am and what I try to do in some of these online discussions.
First of all I am only active in discussing issues that are important to me or on which I have a long-term interest.
Most of my social and political positions are progressive but this is not due to any adherence to an ideology. In fact I distrust ideologies in general when they discourage thinking. Anything or anyone claiming to have all the answers to all the questions is especially anathema to me. That may sound strange coming from a member of the clergy. For me faith should be liberating, not constricting. Also my faith values argument. We have no problem arguing with God or even putting God on trial. The Talmud, the most important Jewish text after the TaNaKh (what Christians call the Old Testament) is the Talmud. In the Talmud there are many discussions of legal issues with dissenting and discarded opinions preserved. On one centuries-long set of disputes the Talmud concludes that one of the schools represents the law, but “both these and these are words of the living God.” I have actually written a book (still working on it for more than 20 years) on that idea.
William James said that some people thik they are thinking when, in fact, they are only rearranging their prejudices. That is my fear about myself. I do not even trust myself to have all the answers, even where I have a strong opinion. On this list I test my opinions against arguments against them. When a discussion starts looking like a game of Pong (two sides batting one thing back and forth) I do my best to throw a spanner in the works to get the discussion opened up.
I have long dealt with the problem of being an authority figure. I am pulpit clergy; I have taugght every level from pre-K to post-graduate; I have a strong personal presence; i have very strong speaking and writing skills; and I have other personal assets based on experiences and acquired skills. Nonetheless I have always made it clear from the pulpit and in the classroom that I welcome dissent and I do not want people to agree with me solely because I said or wrote something. That I express myself and my opinions vigorously should not be mistaken for thinking I am certain I am right. As Plato wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
It should also be noted that many of my views on controversial issues are derived from my spiritual heritage in which spirituality is closely linked to ethics, including social ethics. I am a religious pacifist; I believe in social justice as taught by the Biblical prophets; and I believe that humanity has the obligation to behave as the stewards of Creation rather than its owner or master. I think all of these views can be expressed in politically conservative terms as well as progressive ones. In my international work especially I have seen the truth of this.
I organized my first discussion group when I was fourteen and have sought or created places for thre exchange of ideas and opinions everywhere I could. Here in Hendersonville I am part of three, including Curmudgeons, I helped create. To know more about my thinking there are two articles in my blog you might check out. The blog is at pearleafblog.com and the two posts I am recommending are “Truth” (12/12) and “Dialog: How to Talk” (1/13). I post there around once a month more or less. What I post is more carefully written and rewritten than what I post on our list.
I try very hard not to offend or attack personally anyone, much less members of this group. I do not always succeed. I do ask that you remember I usually talk about ideas and opinions, but I do attack some public or published figures. Sometimes my passions get the better of me.
If you disagree with me I have no problem with that and welcome your arguments. I do not like being pigeon-holed or stereotyped. Each of us is unique. I accept people as they are. I do not expect to convert anyone away from their opinions, but I do hope for light to be shed on questions we discuss.
PS I occasionally get two questions. “Pearleaf” is an English translation of my father’s familiy’s name in Europe which was Barenblatt. When I adopted this name there was an 8-letter limit on names. I have found no other pearleafs and having a unique name can be very useful online.
“L’shalom” is Hebrew for “for peace.” Shalom is not just peace in a social or political sense. The word actually means perfection or completeness.