October 20th: A Cut Above

During last night’s NLCS game, Dodgers’ center fielder Joc Pederson came about one comment away from being thrown out of the game. After being rung up on a borderline strike three call, Pederson gave the home plate umpire an earful, arguing that he should have earned a walk. Clearly home plate umpire Angel Hernandez was feeling generous, because what would have been an easy ejection during the regular season was only a stare-down in a game that mattered that much.

What the camera didn’t show as clearly took place a few innings earlier. During an at-bat in the fourth inning by Cubs star and leader Anthony Rizzo, strike 2 was called on a borderline 3-1 pitch. Rizzo, thinking it was ball four, dropped his bat and began to walk to first base. Upon realizing a strike had been called, he came back, picked up his bat, and proceeded to club a massive home run.

The TV broadcast crew showed footage later on of Rizzo’s next at bat. In it, you can hear a conversation between Rizzo and Hernandez in which Rizzo gives a heartfelt apology for showing up the ump. They share a nice chat, all was forgiven, and Rizzo continued on to have a massive slump-busting night.

These games are the most intense part of the year. Every pitch counts, and both teams are playing like there is no tomorrow. For Pederson to get upset is absolutely normal, understandable even. For Rizzo to keep his cool and behave like such a class act shows just how special he is.

I won’t buy or wear a t-shirt or jersey for players who cheated or committed crimes. I will only represent people who are worthy of the admiration we give to our sports heroes. In the sports world, there are plenty f people who do not live up to the standards set before them, who do not uphold the values of our society. After last night’s game, and after seeing the entire body of his career, I am reminded that I’ll never have to worry about my Anthony Rizzo jersey. I’m proud to be a fan of a player who respects the game and all who make it possible, and a team that has chosen him as their leader.

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October 14th: What Jews Do

The following is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot on Yom Kippur morning at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God.” All of you. In our Torah portion this morning, we are told that all people, men, women, children, young, old, leaders and strangers are all present at the rededication of the covenant with God. We are in the book of Deuteronomy, toward the end of the book. The Israelites have wandered in the desert and are now finally almost ready to enter the promised land. But before they can enter, they are each brought before God, in order that they may be called back to the covenant.

This makes a lot of sense. The people are about to enter the promised land, and are about to begin the arduous work of creating their society. There will be many distractions, many tasks to busy the people. God wants to ensure that their bond is fresh in their minds when they enter, to ensure that they know that all that they have, all that they will have, is because of God’s deliverance and mercy.

God, in essence, is reminding the people of their identity. Many tribes and peoples were conquering and shifting during this time in history. Conquest was a popular notion in the geopolitics of this age. What made the Israelites distinct, what made them special, was that they were doing so for a purpose. They were in this place at this time because they were God’s chosen people.

Every member of the community was present on that day. There were no exceptions. Nobody was excluded because of their standing in life, nobody left out because of their lineage or wealth. Every single person had a stake in the future, and every single individual was part of that community, about to begin their journey together.

One of the parts about Yom Kippur that I have always found so moving is that Jewish people are in services this morning. All across the country and across the world, Jewish people are gathering together in their houses of worship to pray, to repent, and to gather together. Growing up at a very large congregation in suburban Chicago, this was the day where I would see classmates that I didn’t know were even congregants. Those once-a-year Jews, the ones who never made the time for Judaism in their day-to-day lives, and yet felt some notion of commandedness to attend Yom Kippur services. It felt, somehow, more powerful, more holy, because everyone was brought together.

Yet, this year, I read an article that discussed the notion of skipping High Holiday services. The central thesis of the piece was that for those Jews who attended services once a year, Yom Kippur was not Judaism’s best foot forward. The writer argued that, if you are only going to have a taste of one moment on the Jewish calendar, it should be Simchat Torah, a time for celebration and joy, or Hannukah, full of motifs of miracles and light, or even Pesach, where freedom and redemption are our focus. There was something too sad and depressing about Yom Kippur, something that, for those Jews struggling to attend services, wasn’t worth subjecting themselves to.

This got me thinking. For me, from my childhood, Yom Kippur attendance was one of the few ways that I could identify exactly what Jews do. “It’s what Jews do.” It is that easy reminder, both to one’s self and one’s community, that I am different, that I am somehow special, unique in the ways I go about my day. It was, to me, the same feeling as during Passover, when I would be one of the children at school eating matzah and turning down the pizza that my non-Jewish friends were eating. It was, simply, what Jews do.

But what, exactly, do Jews do? What are the unifying things that all Jews do that makes them unique and expresses their identity? It certainly isn’t weekly service attendance. Congregations all across America are experiencing drop-offs in not only attendance, but also dues. A physical space and regular attendance there clearly is not a singular priority for all Jews, or even for a majority of Jews.

How about a belief in God? Well, not all Jews believe in God. At the very least, we know that the word Israel comes from the Hebrew phrase meaning “one who wrestles with God,” and thus there is a built-in understanding that God may not be a unifying identity for all Jews, as different people may be on different steps of their journey of divine spirituality. In that regard, it may be that a STRUGGLE with God is “what Jews do,” but even then, we know so many who don’t even think about it, don’t even begin to tackle the major ideological issue about what God means to them.

The Pew Research Center released a study in 2013, analyzing the Jewish community in America. One of their questions was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Of the answers given by Jewish Americans, only three answers received more than 50% of the vote: remembering the Holocaust, leading ethical, moral lives, and working for justice and equality in society. In that regard, none of those things are uniquely Jewish. Anyone, a member of another faith or a secular individual, can remember a historical moment like the Holocaust. All humans, in some way or another, strive for morality and ethical behavior, and most would argue that they, too, work for justice and equality. The results with the lowest response rate were the ones that were most specific to living JEWISH lives: only 19% said observing Jewish law was imperative, 28% acknowledging the significance of being a member of a Jewish community.

We, as a Jewish people, are less sure than ever what it means to be Jewish. We have so many options, so many distractions in our lives. We have jobs, we have families to support, we have social groups and organizations clamoring for our attention. Yet, once again, our Torah portion helps to center us once again. God knew that our lives would be busy. God knew that we would get distracted, that we would get wrapped up in the day-to-day operations. So God brought the entire community together, a reminder that we, as a single community, are meant for something special, meant for something powerful, meant to be chosen.

On this Yom Kippur, my hope is that Jews come together and remember what it is that makes us Jewish. We do things that help us relate to our people, to remember our connection and our culture. It is eating Jewish foods, those things that we know from our heritage and from our childhood. It is going to Jewish places, both for prayer and for social life. It is talking about Jewish issues, keeping in mind that morality and ethical behavior that is so central to Judaism’s message.

What I have come to find is that “what Jews do” are Jewish things. When we approach our lives through a Jewish lens, remembering our faith and our heritage, we bring not only the best of ourselves, but we are truly present within the covenant with God. We cannot turn our backs from what it means to be Jewish, because, at it’s core, what Jews do is Jews do Jewish things. And the more we can do to keep our faith and our people and our culture and our heritage in mind, the closer we get to our own notions of the promised land.

Gamar Chatimah Tova.

October 13th: Sins Big and Small

The following is a transcript of a sermon given by Austin Zoot on Erev Yom Kippur at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

We begin Yom Kippur, our final day in the Ten Days of Awe. This has been our time to look back, to reflect on our lives and to decide what are the pieces of ourselves that we love, that we cherish, that we hope to continue, and what are the parts of ourselves that we need to repair, to improve, to make better.

Yom Kippur seems to be a day full of transgressions. We admit our selfishness and our deceit. We admit our shortcomings and our failures. We are forced to look into the face of our humanity and know that, in the coming year, we are asked to do better, to be better.

As I reflected over the past ten days on the nature of repentance and sin, of transgression and return to holiness, I found myself thinking of two different levels of sin. There are Sins with a big S, those things that we know, at our core, are wrong. Some of them we learn from holy scripture, some from the law, others from basic understandings of morality. We know that stealing is wrong. We know that lying is wrong. We know that causing pain to others is wrong. And yet, sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we make a mistake, where we do something that we know is wrong, and are forced, on Yom Kippur, to attempt to find forgiveness from those we love, from ourselves, and from God.

There are, too, sins with a lowercase s. These are far less clear, far less easy to identify. These are the times when we don’t do things that we should be doing. We should be listening to our loved ones better, and we miss the mark. We should be giving of ourselves to those who need more, and yet we find ourselves hording our resources and our gifts. We should be standing up for those who need our help, and yet we sit, waiting for someone else to do something to help.

These sins with a small s are maybe the hardest to see, the hardest to understand. We know the things we do that we shouldn’t, but there are countless opportunities to do better that we miss every day. It is easy for us to ask for forgiveness for something we did, something we know hurt another person, and yet it is nearly impossible to identify and to count all of the times that our inaction caused someone harm.

Last week, during Rosh Hashanah, I talked about many of the social challenges our country faces, and our inability to fix many of them. I talked about how we, as a nation, are faced with many issues that desperately beg for attention, and yet we find ourselves unwilling or unable to do anything to make a significant different. One of our greatest failures, as a country, is when we do not stand up against the things we see on a daily basis, those small actions of hostility, bigotry, hatred, or nastiness that we are afraid to confront head on, for fear of awkwardness of embarrassment.

We start this education on a large-scale at a very young age. We tell our children as soon as they begin school that bullying is wrong, that we should not pick on one another, that we should be nice to everyone. If this is a value that we teach from the very first day, why is it that bullying is, almost without fail, a major part of nearly every young person’s high school experience? Why is it that we are telling our children how to behave, and yet we so consistently see these problems recurring, year after year?

The answer is unfortunately simple, and it is that we also teach awkwardness and embarrassment to young people. We, as a society, do not like to call one another out, whether for fear of embarrassing ourselves by getting involved or embarrassing the other person by pointing out their shortcomings.

What exactly is bullying, after all? We certainly know that bullying is stealing someone’s lunch money, and that it is physical abuse. What about name calling? What about jokes that hurt someone’s feelings? What about those times when people are made to feel excluded, weird, separate from a community? We know that bullying is wrong, and that we should stand up against it, but we aren’t truly able to identify what is bullying worthy of standing up against, and what is considered ignorable acts of unkindness.

Everyone in this room is at least a few years removed from their high school years. And yet, our understanding of how to stand up for others is based on our notions of what we deem socially acceptable. Is it my obligation to tell off a customer at a store who is berating an employee? Is it my job to get involved when a man or woman is yelling at their partner in public? Am I expected to demand justice for homophobic and racial slurs muttered under one’s breath within my earshot?

It is impossible to answer each of these without a full understanding of context and situation. Yet, at our core, our society doesn’t do enough to identify each individual moment that we fall short. We allow too many moments to go by without demanding the best from one another, too many times that we fail to stand up and to demand that the world around us adhere to our own notions of morality and civility.

This Yom Kippur, we are aware of all of our Big S Sins, those actions we took for which we are not proud, that we hope to refrain from in the coming year. But, this year, may we also be aware of all of the Small s sins, those times when we didn’t do enough, when we weren’t looking around and finding the places to stand up and make a difference.

Maimonides, a 12th Century Jewish philosopher, said that repentance is only complete when we are willing to identify our misdeeds and refrain from making them again in our future. We know that, as we move forward, we are not going to be perfect, just as we were not perfect this year. Yet, we are expected to do all that we can to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes, that we do not fall prey to the same transgressions all over again.

We think of our Big Sins and little sins, those things we have done that hurt others and those things we didn’t do that we should have, and we hope to do better in the coming year. We hope to keep ourselves under control when we shouldn’t do something, and to be inspired to brave action when the time calls for it. And we hope that, as we approach the coming year, we are able to do all that we can to ensure that our world is a better place, in order that we may deserve another year in the Book of Life.

Gamar Hatimah Tova.

October 10th: Not My Locker Room

During Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump attempted to shrug off accusations of sexual assault and sexually inappropriate language by saying that it was simply “locker room talk,” nothing more. In the wake of a 2005 video that revealed appalling language and implications, denigrating women and demonstrating his overall values, Trump attempted to make it sound as if this was normal behavior.

The problem is, this kind of language IS fairly standard fare amongst men. This kind of culture that doesn’t respect women and uses vulgar language IS too popular in our society. Don’t believe me? Check out Total Frat Move. It’s a website that is meant for men in fraternities. Their articles are insulting. Their photos of “girls of the day” are objectifying. Their conversation regarding women is unacceptable. They are, of course, not the only example of this kind of language and material. The internet is full of similar pages and ideas. But, if our young men in college are learning that this is how we treat women, it is no wonder that we are seeing it reflected in other places in society.

It is all too likely that Trump is right, that his words are commonplace in the mouths of American men. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, and it doesn’t make it right. As a man, I not only stand up against his language, but also the “locker room talk” that he thinks makes it acceptable. If that is the image that he wants to present of the “normal” American male, than we, as men, need to stand up and say that this is not who we want to be, not how we want to treat our peers, our friends, and our partners.

This means that we, as men, need to be willing to call out the language we hear that isn’t appropriate. We need to tell one another what we expect, and we need to hold ourselves accountable. Our language needs to match our actions, and our actions need to be representing the best of ourselves, not the Trumps in our society.

What Trump said was inappropriate and unacceptable. His excuse for it was just as troubling, and we, as Americans, have an obligation to prove him wrong with the way we talk, the way we think, and the way we treat one another.

October 9th: A New Home

For six years, I have used blogger as the home for the Zoot Perspective. As of today, my content will be moving over to this new site, which can be found at zootperspective.wordpress.com. This new site will allow me to merge together my many different channels, from my blog to my videos to my twitter and Instagram, all on a single page.

The look and feel will be very similar, and will continue to allow me to play with my formatting. But the new site will hopefully allow convergence of all of my work into a single space, that will be easier for me to manage and easier for my readers to follow.

One of the other areas that I hope to play with on the new site is the posting of more frequent, shorter bursts. The world is constantly evolving, changing as fast as we have time to think, and this site will hopefully allow me to participate in the conversation with as many people as possible. Rather than one, 600 word post per week, I am going to aim for three or four 300 word posts per week, allowing us to cover more topics and process more together.

I’m very grateful to all of the individuals who consistently follow the evolution of my social media presence, and join the conversation when I post. I hope that we can continue to look at the world around us and find our own perspectives, as I continue to learn from and explore the Zoot Perspective.

Welcome to the new Zoot Perspective.

October 6th: Waiting for a Third Option

We already know that there are a great many Americans who are unhappy that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are our two options for President come November. As a result, the door has been opened for third party candidates, individuals who hope to take advantage of America’s need for a multitude of voices and a multitude of options for the direction of the country. Unfortunately, that third party candidate is Gary Johnson.

Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, has quite loudly declared himself to be the third-party option for all of those who don’t want to vote for Trump or Clinton. His argument is that this government system hasn’t been working, and we need to elect someone different, play by a different set of rules in order to get the country back on track.

johnsonThe notion of a third-party candidate is a good one, one that works for the health of the country, and encourages a discussion that will allow many different voices to be heard. The Libertarian party is a good option for many Americans who like the economic mentality of the Republicans, but aren’t willing to participate in many of their social ideals. The notion that individuals and businesses should operate outside of the jurisdiction of the government has validity, at the very least a place in the conversation. Gary Johnson, though, is not running as a libertarian. He’s running as “the other guy”. And it isn’t working.

Gary Johnson’s primary goal as a candidate is to NOT be the other two. All of his ads talk about who he isn’t, his website boasting all of the ills of the other candidates. If your complaint is that the other candidates are running smear campaigns, you have an obligation to run an issues-based campaign, something that Johnson has seemed almost determined not to do.

Worse, we have seen gaffes by the candidate on a frightening level. Sure, the Aleppo incident could have easily been a moment of nervousness, a human moment. Even presidential candidates are allowed to be human. The problem is, you can’t do it twice, and he most certainly did. When asked to name a foreign leader he admired, he couldn’t think of a single name. Couldn’t think of one. And while this may seem to be a minute issue, it is a demonstration of a lack of poise and a lack of diplomacy, two of the essential characteristics required of a president.

Gary Johnson has made it abundantly clear that he wants to be president. What he hasn’t done is give Americans nearly enough of a reason to believe that he should be. And, as voters begin to consider what they should do on November 8th, this is not the year to gamble with a bet on a candidate who both won’t and shouldn’t be elected. This year, as America confronts the reality of two very different, dramatic directions for the country, it is not the time to cast a vote for a man who has made it abundantly clear that he not only lacks the poise to be president, but also lacks the ability to gain any kind of momentum to make the point he is attempting to make.

Hopefully, in the next decade, we will see a rise in third party candidates worthy of their positions. Hopefully, we will see men and women with dedicated conviction to their issues, and a willingness to put themselves out there to discuss those issues fully. The reality of today, though, is that we aren’t there yet, and voting for a man who is a bad example of a good idea is a misguided version of the elections process.