The Force Will Be With You… When You’re Older

Eitan loves Star Wars.

He has masks of Darth Vader and Captain Phasma that he uses when playing dress-up. When Trudy bought him new pairs of pajamas to wear to school for pajama day he chose the Darth Vader set over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set.1 He has a pre-reader book of Star Wars stories and loves pointing out Chewbacca, Han “Sola” and the “Stormtrippers.” He starts laughing anytime he sees C-3PO and R2-D2 and, once in a while, I’ll catch him glancing at the Yoda toy sitting on his dresser that he got from my father. When he was a baby, I would throw him up in the air while singing the Star Wars theme song and I would take his echoing toy microphone and say in my deepest voice, “Eitan… I am your father.”2 We recently had to hide his “light-savers” so he wouldn’t use them in the house because things like this kept happening:

 

There’s one little problem with Eitan’s love of Star Wars, though:

He’s never actually seen it.

Eitan hasn’t watched any of the movies. He hasn’t seen any of the television shows. He knows most of the names and characters but I don’t think he would recognize Luke Skywalker if twenty-year-old Mark Hammill walked into the room. I’m actually not even sure he would recognize the name Luke Skywalker because characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are marketed so much more frequently.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t even think Eitan knows what the Force is.

Most of this is by design, of course. I could have put Star Wars on for Eitan so he could watch it during any number of rainy days. The biggest reason I haven’t done so yet is because I think it would scare him. Chewbacca is a giant teddy bear at heart, but there are a bunch of aliens in the cantina on Tatooine that are not nearly as cuddly. Emperor Palpatine’s eyes and voice are incredibly creepy and Darth Vader… well, Vader is just terrifying. He’s strong, he’s dressed in black, you never see the face behind his mask and he appears to be unstoppable.

Aside from the fear factor is my hesitation about pushing Eitan’s interests in the direction of conflicts that are sometimes quite violent. The light saber fights are exciting and the special effects of the various gun fights are incredible to watch, especially as a child seeing them for the first time. The problem is that weapons, in real life, are incredibly dangerous and are specifically designed to cause harm to others. Even though Eitan has (unfortunately) had some experience with death and is old enough to understand the concept, at least in a basic sense, I worry about the idea of encouraging his interest in a movie so replete with acts of violence.

I should add, for the record, that my unease isn’t limited to Star Wars. I have the same concerns about pushing Eitan to become more interested in super heroes for the same reason. Eitan “likes” Batman and Superman the same way he likes Star Wars; he has some toys, clothes and books, but he doesn’t know too much of the characters’ backgrounds. Even if Eitan is well acquainted with character deaths from Disney movies – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, take your pick – the idea of him becoming desensitized to shootings and sword fights just doesn’t sit well with me.

I realize that the desensitization is probably inevitable. Kids act out what they see on television and in movies, whether it’s Daniel Tiger learning coping skills, Blaze the Monster Truck speeding past volcanoes to teach fair play or super heroes fighting off bad guys. I suppose my hope is primarily that I can delay Eitan’s interest in guns so that he stays more of an innocent young child in my mind for at least a little longer before the negative influences of the rest of the world really start to creep in.

Look, Eitan will see Star Wars. It’s one of my all time favorite movies and I can’t wait to introduce Eitan to the stories and characters that I’ve loved since I was a child. The movies teach about magic, teamwork and a sense of wonder that I believe are so much more important than any references to violence, which is exactly how I will present the movies to Eitan. He is also finally getting to the age where I can really start sharing my interests with him in ways he can understand. I can tell he is looking forward to it, if only based on his enthusiasm for a movie he’s never seen and doesn’t even really understand. But I would rather wait another year or so, partially so that I can be more confident that the movie won’t scare Eitan too much, but also so that he understands more about the consequences of physical violence and the differences between fact and fiction.

 


1. Eitan made his choice fairly easily, but five-year-old me would have really grappled with that decision. Seven-year-old me would have had an even harder time.

2. I don’t do this anymore now. I’m scared he’s going to have that plot point spoiled for him before I can show him the movie and there’s no way I’m going to be the one to do it.

Advertisements

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I’m going to begin by offering you congratulations on your inauguration today. You may not have won my vote, or even the votes of the majority of U.S. citizens, but you did win the votes you needed to win the election, which is why you’re standing where you are today. As I told my students after the election was over, “Whether you were happy with the results of the election or not, the system worked the way it was supposed to.” And so, I will congratulate you.

I must tell you, though, Mr. President, I am nervous about your upcoming administration.

I am concerned about the people you have appointed to your cabinet posts. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom you have selected as your attorney general, has a political history replete with racist actions and statements; your Secretary of State appointment, Rex Tillerson, has close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; and your nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, not only has no formal experience working in schools, she struggles to understand the basic policies of our education system. I’m not saying that you have to be an expert in these areas or that you should be running these political and economic systems yourself, but your appointments of people to positions who are on record as being biased against the agencies they are about to oversee are, as I said, concerning.

I’m also concerned about the connections between your supporters and acts of violence, acts which seemed to happen fairly frequently during your campaign. I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that these incidents may not have been quite as prevalent as they seemed because of the publicity they received in the media. That being said, however, I would argue that even one act of violence on your behalf should be deemed deplorable, rather than minimized. It would also be comforting to hear you condemn acts of violence against women, people of color or even just people who disagree with you, rather than simply distancing yourself from those attacks, if you address them at all.

The root of my unease, Mr. President, is that I have difficulty believing that you have the well-being of our nation as your top priority. If my concerns stemmed simply from an inherent difference of political opinion, I would not be happy about your actions and cabinet appointments, but I would accept them. The problem is that every action you have taken, both during your campaign and since the election, has appeared to be self-serving, from maintaining ties to your businesses after being elected to appointing Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a position neither of you understood. Even if it is not necessarily the case, it appears to me you are more focused on your own interests than on how you will achieve your goal of making America great again.

Mr. President, you have the most unique of opportunities before you. Today you are becoming our Commander-in-Chief and our representative to the rest of the world. It is a position of great power, to be sure; but, as we learned from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If I may be so bold, I would like to give you some advice as you begin your new position. You don’t have to listen to it but I sincerely hope that you will at least consider it. You seem to put so much stock in what other people think of you, taking to Twitter to post angry responses, whether you feel you’ve been slighted by CNN, Saturday Night Live or Meryl Streep. I believe that one of the reasons why many people – including me – have been so outwardly negative about your election victory is that we do not feel like you see yourself as our leader. As I said earlier, your actions seem to indicate you have only your own interests in mind. It appears as though you plan to lead the members of your own socioeconomic group and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

My advice is this: lead all of us. Answer our questions, rather than suppressing the voices that imply that you might be wrong. Explain the rationales behind your actions and support your arguments with facts. Reassure us that you are thinking about the consequences of your comments and that you are listening to advisers who have some political experience as opposed to just your business buddies. Assuage our fears by demonstrating that you’re not just making decisions because “you feel like it.” Be more transparent about your thought process and engage in true political discourse, rather than simply insulting the people who contradict you.

We may not be happy with your policies or your political actions. You still may not get our agreement. But you may get our respect.

Congratulations again, Mr. President.

Sincerely,

Aaron

Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

This week I had one of those fantastic moments in class where I blew a student’s mind.

The class was made up of students in sixth and seventh grades. The broader lesson revolved around interfaith relationships and focused particularly on the degree to which we, as Jews, should be educated about other religions. I’m on record with my students as saying that it is not only a good idea to learn about other religions and cultures, it is critical for Judaism’s survival that we learn about the people around us so that we can find ways to coexist peacefully. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum and part of my lesson was imparting the message that we need to understand the beliefs of others in order to maintain healthy relationships with them. It is a matter of keeping the peace and being good neighbors, to be sure; but, for a nation that has been attacked and persecuted as long as it has existed, it is also a matter of survival.

During Tuesday’s class, there was a moment when we were discussing some of the basic distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. I chose to contrast the concept of the Holy Trinity against Judaism’s singular God to drive that point home: not only does Judaism reject the notion that God would appear in human form, the idea that there can be three “versions”1 of God runs directly contrary to the Jewish belief in one God. The students were familiar with Judaism’s stance from reciting the Shema but had some difficulty understanding the Trinity. They asked questions like, “How can God be in three parts but also have each part be God?” Also, “Is one of the parts higher than the others? Like, is the Father the ‘real’ God and then the Son and the Holy Spirit are below him?” And, the more basic, “Are the Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost the same thing?”

I might have considered the class a success at that point, if only because I had engaged the students and pushed them to grapple with foreign and challenging concepts. They were trying and they were taking the material seriously, which is all I usually care about. But then I used an analogy I had heard from my father, a Jewish educator in his own right, to help them along a bit more. I wrote the words “vapor,” “water” and “ice” on the board2 and said, “These are all the same matter, just in different forms. The temperature and the environment affect the way the matter appears but its basic nature never really changes.” The students nodded in agreement.

Then I asked, “Now, of water, vapor and ice, who can tell me which one is the real one?”

A couple students immediately blurted out, “Water!” One of their classmates corrected them and said that they were all real because nothing except their appearance was changing. A moment or two passed as the students kept going back and forth and another student started to ask me how the analogy connected to the Trinity. I started to explain that, just as there is no “real” form of water, vapor or ice, there is no “real” form of God in the Trinity, because God is both made up of the three parts and each one is God on its own. I was about halfway through my explanation when one girl, who had been sitting and listening quietly in the back, suddenly sat straight up in her chair and clapped her hands to the sides of her head.

“Whoa!” she yelled. “I think my brain just exploded!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Her eyes had gone wide as dinner plates and she began stammering, trying to find the words to articulate what had just happened. She was eventually able to string together a few coherent sentences and some of her classmates began to show similar understanding smiles, though there were no more exclamations.

Those are the moments I strive for. The sudden awakenings of understanding where everything somehow slides into place; the proverbial “light bulb” moments. It sometimes feels like my students are already so jaded that I wonder how much of an impact I’m really having on them. In many ways, these twelve and thirteen-year-olds have seen much more of the world than I had at their age because of their access to the internet, so I have to work harder to grab their attention (the social and political events of the last few months have been quite helpful in that regard). When those moments do come, though, whether they lead to smiles or laughter or gray matter getting metaphorically splattered around the room, I feel like my effort has been validated. Not only are my students learning, they are enjoying the process, which means I’m doing my job right.


1. I put “versions” in quotation marks because it’s a difficult concept to explain. As I understand it, the three beings combine to make up God, while God is also simultaneously fully present in each of them. So we’ll go with “versions” and accept that it’s a difficult concept to explain. (Thanks again, Sam, for help with the phrasing.)

2. Technically, first I wrote “steam” and then changed it to vapor when one of my students informed me that steam and water vapor are two different things. It was just one more instance of me learning as much from my students as they learn from me.

The Long and Short of Greed and Anger

I watched The Big Short last weekend, the 2015 Oscar-nominated movie about four men who saw the housing market crash of 2008 coming. Here’s a very quick summary, just in case you either haven’t seen the movie1 or weren’t paying full attention nine years ago when all this was actually happening (like me): basically, big banks began selling bonds made up of mortgages that weren’t nearly as strong as the banks said they were, so when the bonds matured, the money that was supposed to be there wasn’t. People hadn’t been paying their mortgages, which meant that the banks didn’t have the cash that they said or thought they did, which then meant that the banks couldn’t pay people’s loans or their employees’ salaries. Millions of people, both in the banking sector and in other walks of life, lost their jobs and their homes and it’s only been in the last few years that the housing market has really begun to recover.

The key, though, is that the whole mess was essentially created by bank executives who saw opportunities to make money off of people’s lack of knowledge, lack of interest and, most importantly, their lack of patience to actually research what they were buying. Without getting too much into specifics, the banks kept taking on loans that had no backing and, as with any system based on falsified practices, the foundation eventually fell out from under them and everything crashed. And, while “common” citizens were floundering trying to find new jobs so they could stay afloat and avoid going into terrible debt, the bank executives received bailouts from the government – paid for, by the way, by those same “common” citizens’ tax dollars – to keep their banks open and fix the mess they had made (more about this in a second).

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I wasn’t affected too severely by the market crash. My wife and I probably paid more for our apartment than we would have even six months or a year later, but that’s probably the most significant influence.2 We were able to make all of our mortgage payments through the eight years that we lived in our apartment. Neither of us lost our jobs and, probably because we were very young and didn’t know any differently, we didn’t think too much about what was happening around us.

But there I was, watching the movie the other night, seeing old news clips of people in tears leaving their offices with their belongings in cardboard boxes. I saw photographs of unemployment lines and tent cities. I saw parents trying to reassure their children that there would be food for dinner. And then I saw references to 2008 headlines about bank and insurance company executives receiving billions of dollars in bailout money from the government and using significant portions of it for lavish parties and personal bonuses, rather than trying to fix the economic crisis.

And I got angry.

I got angry at the bankers who willfully sold products that were doomed to fail. I got angry at the lawyers and accountants whose language was so esoteric and intentionally unintelligible so that people were driven to simply sign on the dotted line rather than give themselves migraines trying to understand the details of their contracts. I got angry at the executives for not only tolerating such behavior, but encouraging it because of the extent to which their bank accounts would be padded. I even got angry at the homeowners who stopped paying their mortgages. I’m sure that many of them did so for good reason because of job loss or other unforeseen circumstances, but that just made me angry at the banks again for not realizing the problems and addressing it immediately, rather than putting lipstick on a pig and bundling those underwater mortgages together in order to sell them under a different name.

Most of all, I got angry at everyone who either ignored their conscience or didn’t seem to have one to begin with while they were complicit in creating a fraudulent system that caused so much pain to so many people.

I don’t mean to sound naive. I know that greed is real and that there are always going to be people who will look to take advantage of others in order to move ahead. I know that hubris and arrogance are always going to rear their ugly heads at some point or another. I know that people are animals at their cores, which means that they are usually going to act in ways that promote their own best interests as opposed to limiting their potential for personal benefit after considering the impact of their behavior on others. I even know that it’s specifically because of those primal instincts that the responsibility gets placed on the rest of us to be upstanders, rather than bystanders,3 in order to pursue justice.

That is probably where the root of my anger lies. It’s a mix of disappointment in one group of people for their actions and frustration with another group of people for not speaking up about it.

The question, of course, is, “So what?” The Big Short chronicles events that happened almost a decade ago, so there isn’t much for me (or any of us) to do about the past. But there is something we can do about the future. We can pay closer attention to the influence that big banks, pharmaceutical companies and other corporations have on our government. We can contact our elected officials to make our voices heard so that they understand the motivations of their constituents. We can criticize the media’s coverage of certain issues over others and draw more attention to events that are important to us. We can be more aware of politicians’ attempts to pack so much activity into one day that we lose track of their actions, just as the aforementioned housing and banking lawyers used legalese and financial jargon to confuse and overwhelm unsuspecting clients, not to mention competing institutions.

The housing crisis and the Great Recession may be over for most of the United States but that doesn’t mean we can afford to get complacent. Our President-elect may not end up having quite as much power as he thinks he will after being inaugurated, but his greatest weapon as the leader of our nation will not lie in his Constitution-granted executive abilities, his partnership with a Republican Congress or his Twitter account.

His most powerful weapon will be capitalizing on the apathy and ignorance of the American people.


1. You should.

2. That, plus the fact that we were part of that first government stimulus package that gave homebuyers a grant that would need to be paid back a year at a time later on, as opposed to the later stimulus packages that included grants that did not have to be paid back at all.

3. There’s that Facing History language again.