Marc Gellman

Stories by Marc Gellman

  • Open Your Tents

    Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations: spare not, lengthen your cords and strengthen your tent pegs, because you will break out on the right hand and on the left.Thus we read from the pundit who has the best take on the meaning of the midterm elections, the prophet Isaiah.Isaiah’s imagery comes from the desert wanderers who were compelled to set up tents with long cords and strong pegs. Short cords make a safe tent but also a tent that is too small to include family and friends and guests who come in hungry from the savage desert. Tents with weak pegs will blow away in the first stiff wind. Long cords and strong pegs are needed to erect large and safe tents in the wilderness, and we are in the wilderness now.Isaiah’s wisdom about tents must be our wisdom about the journey ahead. There are those rejoicers in victory—and whiners in defeat—who have taken this election as a mandate to shorten our ropes, to make our tents more...
  • Worry. Don’t Be Happy

    A popular but false saying we hear all the time is, "All I want is that my children should be happy."The most obvious reason this wish is wrong is that very bad people can be very happy. Sinners can be smiling and saints can be tormented. In fact, this is often the case. I learned from the comics the truth about superheroes, which is that they are hardly ever happy, while the supervillains are hardly ever sad. The Joker is always smiling, and Batman is always morose. Superman is constantly depressed about his inability to eliminate all evil while Lex Luthor exults in his every act of carnage and murder.In the real world, happy saints are also rare. King, Gandhi and Schweitzer lived with troubled souls but were nonetheless able to achieve a level of surpassing goodness. Gangs exult after killing a rival gang member, and as the Twin Towers were smoking and people were jumping from the windows, some jihadist sympathizers were jumping up and down in delirious happiness at the deaths of...
  • A Rosh Hashana Wish

    This year I am declaring war on conventional wisdom, which is really nothing but a collection of sayings we think are true just because we hear them and say them all the time. The problem with conventional wisdom is that most of it is just not true. My first target is the saying “Time heals all wounds.” Imagine that you were bitten in the butt by a poisonous snake. At that moment would you really believe that time heals all wounds? More likely you would think that snake antivenom serum administered immediately to your punctured posterior heals all wounds. The truth is that even if you are never bitten by a snake you know that time does not heal all wounds. Decisive, immediate action is sometimes exactly what is needed to cure your tush—or your soul.One of the reasons we think that time really does heal all wounds is that over the long run people tend to bounce back from loss and disappointment. Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, once conducted a study...
  • A Prayer for After 9/11

    My prayer is not for 9/11 but for after 9/11. My prayer begins with sacred memory. You see, the memories of 9/11 are not just powerful. They are sacred, and sacred memories are different from all other kinds of memory. Sacred memory is not about what we can recall from the past. Sacred memory is about what we must do for the rest of our lives because of the past.For Jews, the sacred memory of the Exodus is not a quaint recalling of some event in hoary history, but rather an active and eternal commandment to “know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The sacred memory of liberation produces a religious life in which the suffering of people anywhere must be relieved in order to remember the event.For Christians the sacred memory of the life and teachings of Jesus is not the mere recalling of a Galilean carpenter, but rather an active and eternal commandment to try to love the way he loved.For Muslims, the sacred memory of Muhammad is not the...
  • Summer of Creeps

    This has been a good summer for creepy pervs.First there was John Mark Karr, whom we found out is not the murderer of JonBenet Ramsey that for some reason he claimed to be. He is still, though, facing charges of possession of child pornography. Then there was the arrest of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous cult leader accused of marrying off underage girls. He’s also alleged to have used his power as a self-proclaimed prophet to punish dissenters by taking away their children or their spouses and redistributing them to other more obedient acolytes.What can we learn from Karr and Jeffs that will not force us into utter despair about the moral disintegration of humanity, forcing an expensive move to a remote desert island?The lesson of Karr that we might all want to consider is the consequences of pimping our children. There is, I believe, an unbroken line linking the tapes of JonBenet seductively prancing around in little-girl beauty contests and the sight of our daughters, too many of...
  • On Boldly Going

    A few weeks ago the physicist James Van Allen died in Iowa City at the age of 91. Van Allen was America’s most important early space scientist, a man who, in addition to inventing the instrumentation and circuits for many of the early satellites, discovered that the Earth is encircled by belts of high radioactivity trapped by its magnetic field.  They are now called the Van Allen Belts.  He was the chair of the physics department at the University of Iowa and had taught physics and astronomy since 1951. Van Allen retired in 1985 and though he never slipped the surly bonds of gravity, he was one of the most important early explorers of space.Around the same time came an anniversary of a different sort: Aug. 10 marked 487 years since one of the most important explorers of our world, Ferdinand Magellan, set out from Spain with five ships to circumnavigate the Earth.  After an epic voyage across the Atlantic, down the eastern coast of South America through what we now call the Strait of...
  • Remember Amalek

    The Bible is the greatest collection of books, and I believe it to be the complex but discernable word of God. However, the Bible can also be a dangerous book when it is used as a blueprint for any particular political or military stance seeking sanction and support through a few carefully selected and often misleading segments.On both sides of any war debate, both pacifists and provocateurs can use the Bible's authority. The same is true for the Qur'an and for the Vedas. God's will and God's ways, we must always remember if we are to be true to the message of faith, are not our own. As Abraham Lincoln cautioned, the important question is not whether God is on our side but whether we are on God's side. However, we ought not conclude from this humble caution that the Bible is utterly recondite and irrelevant to the wars we fight. I believe that the key to the Bible's message to us in this moment is remembering Amalek.In Deut. 25:17-19 we read: “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by...
  • Risky Business

    When our daughter Mara first bungee-jumped off a bridge in New Zealand, I had her DNA checked to see if she was really my daughter or, perhaps, another baby switched at birth. I learned my wimpish caution from my grandma Sarah, for whom any activity more dangerous than mahjong imperiled the very existence of the Jewish people. I now see her phobic nature as far too extreme, preventing me from entering the physical world of play and condemning me to a life of reading and golf. However, recent news items have brought me back to Sarah’s immigrant wisdom that personal safety trumps any adrenaline rush you can get by doing something dangerous for fun. Too bad Ray Ducharme and Ben Roethlisberger did not have Sarah Gellman as a grandma.Ray Ducharme, according to the AP reports on Friday, July 7, may be paralyzed for life because he went to Pamplona, Spain to run with the bulls. At the end of the first of eight days of bull running he was stepped on by a cow he was taunting in a bullring at...
  • A Letter to Will Reeve

    Dear Will,You do not know me, and I do not know how to get this letter to you except in this way.  On June 28th a new Superman movie will open. I await this new film with mixed emotions. I am glad to see my favorite superhero come to the screen again, but I will miss seeing your father, Christopher Reeve, who was the greatest movie Superman I ever saw. I do not know if June 28th will be a harder day for you than any of the others since you were 13 and your father died in 2004 at the age of 52, or since your mother died last March at the age of 44.  If it is a harder day, I ask you to please take some comfort in the condolences of a grateful public for the courageous example your parents set and for your terrible loss. May God comfort you and receive their souls into the place where their souls are together and where illness and injury have no power and cause no fear.  I am also thinking about how your father did not merely play Superman.  Your father was Superman.The fundamental...
  • Public vs. Private

    The arrival of Father's Day this Sunday has caused me to reflect on both the ties my dad wears as well as the general nature of our public holidays.All living cultures prove their vitality by both preserving old and generating new public holidays. The opposite of public holidays are sectarian holidays like Ramadan and Rosh Hashana and Easter, which are only celebrated by adherents to a specific faith. Christmas has a high public profile, but it remains a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, whom Christians believe to have been the Christ. Therefore Christmas is not an American public holiday--though it is the centerpiece of a joyous American holiday season. Public holidays celebrate national values (Thanksgiving) or national events (Independence Day) or national sacrifice (Memorial Day) or national heroes (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). They put taste and color, substance and spirituality into what it means to be an American.At their best, public holidays emerge organically from...
  • In Praise of the Menschadictorian

    We are in the season of commencement, and I am happy and sad at the same time. I am happy and proud that despite our cultural predilection to give awards to bad music, worthless TV sitcoms and puerile movies, we still give awards for learning something. These moments deserve celebrations and deserve ceremonies because they remind us of the primacy of education in the moral and intellectual growth of our children. It’s all good. However, for me there is one deeply depressing note in this symphony of intellectual growth, and it is seen particularly in high-school graduation ceremonies. It is the honoring of valedictorians.Honoring the person who got the best grades in high school establishes the value of intelligence over virtue and, in the long run, it is virtue that will determine the fate of the graduates with far more precision than their grade-point averages. I am not indifferent to academic excellence, and I do not mean to demean in any way the diligence and sacrifice of those...
  • Trying to Understand Angry Atheists

    I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don't think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them. I do think they are wrong about the biggest question, “Are we alone?” and I will admit to occasionally viewing atheists with the kind of patient sympathy often shown to me by Christians who can't quite understand why the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection has not reached me or my people. However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.So we disagree about God. I'm sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don't like animals, but I try to be civil. I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the...
  • The Death of Miles

    A letter to Dr. Alan Coren, chief veterinarian of West Hills Animal Hospital, Huntington, N.Y., who is my friend and who was the veterinarian for my dog Miles who just died....Dear Alan,I could not write to you until now to thank you properly and personally for your compassion and care for Miles through his life and up to his last moments, when Miles died on the blanket you had spread out for us in room No. 2. Miles's debilitating renal failure was a death sentence, and thankfully his suffering is now over. As Miles turned cold in my arms and entered a breathless eternal sleep, I was utterly unprepared for the flood of tears and grief I felt at his death. Now I can only begin to sort out my feelings and the first feeling I need to express is a deep thankfulness for your care and love.You have cared for all the guide dogs we have raised up from puppiehood to faithful service. One of them, Topper, who flunked out of Guide Dog School because he was an inveterate cat chaser, now pads...
  • Symbols of Our Times

    A friend I call The Flounder reminded me of the sorrowful fact that in the last nine months three television icons dear to me have, as we say in my line of work, passed to life eternal.  They are James Doohan, who played Scotty on "Star Trek," Bob Denver who played Gilligan on "Gilligan's Island," and Don Knotts who played Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show." May God receive their souls into the world where everyone is a star and where every life is syndicated.  Beyond the personal grief their passing has brought to their families and friends, I ask you to consider the characters they played as metaphors of our lives in these broken times.Scotty represents all of us who are constantly asked to do the impossible and to meet unreasonable deadlines by bosses who just don't understand that you can't run engines at warp speed after Klingons have blasted the engine room. I think mainly of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan now and of how every day they are asked by...
  • Davos, Bono and the Pump

    At the heart of the religious view of the world there is a heart. At the heart of the globalists' view of the world there is a pump. The pump pumps capital around he world, or it doesn't pump capital. It all depends on whether you obey the rules of the pumpmasters, whom I met at Davos, Switzerland, as they tweaked the pump that pumps the capital that runs the world, the world that I tell my congregants runs on love and mercy and goodness and compassion. Someone does not understand the world, either the pumpmasters or me, and after a week in Davos, I fear it may be me.The day I arrived in at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, I gave a speech to assorted billionaires on the nature of happiness, and that is when it first hit me. I have never felt so stupid and irrelevant in my life. Whenever I speak to Jim Watson about DNA, I feel stupid, and whenever I talk to teenage girls, I feel irrelevant. However, until I was invited to Davos, I have never felt both stupid and...
  • And the Winner is...

    The cultural confluence of the NFL playoffs, Hollywood's award season, the NCAA basketball finals, the arrival of college acceptance/rejection letters and the publication of the new Zagat restaurant guide all have got me thinking about the spiritual corrosion caused by the cult of winning. Now I am just as happy to win or to see my team win as the next guy or gal, but things have gotten out of control. And, by the way, why is it that you never hear about that many female Vince Lombardis? It's almost always guy coaches and guy fans who say, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."That philosophy--actually, its passionate hold on people makes it more a secular theology--has corrupted sports and our public and private lives in several ways. There are the not-so-rare news reports of violence committed by outraged parents at their children's sports games. The destruction of the integrity of baseball and baseball records and the baseball players' bodies by steroid use is just the...
  • How We See Sharon--and Israel

    "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."-- Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)Ariel Sharon is more like a cipher than a person. He is a holder of our own preconceptions, a validation of our fears and prejudices, and a symbol of our hopes and desires for peace and security for the Jewish state. He is a large man, indeed his largeness was no doubt a primary cause of his illness, but no man should be forced to become a symbol. So let me reflect on what American Jews now believe, not so much about Sharon, but about the State of Israel--of which he is such a towering symbol.The willingness to trade land for peace has divided the Jewish world. Those Jews who reject giving up a single hectare of land underneath any Jewish settlement hold that view because of two different but complementary sets of beliefs. Some oppose withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank because of their religious beliefs. They lift up the belief that God...
  • Pews In The News

    Some people form their opinions of the most important religious trends of 2005 (and most other things) by licking their fingers and sticking them up into the wind. Amazingly, these people inevitably discover that the wind is blowing in exactly the direction they already believed it was blowing. These folks are never disappointed, but they are also never right. Others actually take the time and effort to study what is happening in the world of religion. The best of the others are the people at The Barna Group (barna.org), a consulting and religious research firm in Ventura, Calif. These are some of the trends they discovered in their research into particularly Christian religious life in America in the past year:1. Pathetic prayer. Churches are more concerned with programming than with prayer. Barna discovered that prayer is rated as one of the top priorities by less than one out of 25 churches. Most church attendees say that they do not experience the presence of God in the service...
  • The Spiritual State: March of the Loving Penguins

    Normally, I am not the least bit defensive about my remarks in this column. I have always believed the words of that great existential philosopher Popeye: "I am what I am and that's all what I am." However, this week I am feeling a little shaky because my remarks may well be misconstrued by some as anti-animal or, more specifically, anti-penguin. So let me say defensively at the outset that I love animals, and I particularly love goofy animals like penguins, platypuses, ostriches, giraffes, sloths, armadillos and kangaroos who seem to have been designed by drunken angels on the day God was off making other worlds. Yes, I love all animals. My grandfather, Leo Gellman, was a zookeeper at the Milwaukee Zoo. My wife, Betty, and I raise guide dogs for the blind. I have many large dogs. Because of my love of animals I was even a vegetarian for years until my doctor told me that I needed corned beef to live. Heck, I once did a funeral for a woodpecker. Some people have street cred; I have...
  • The Spiritual State: Softball Together

    America owes its two most important creations to guys named Hancock. In July of 1776 in Philadelphia, John Hancock (and a few friends) invented democracy, and in November of 1887 in Chicago, George Hancock invented softball. The world-shattering discovery came after a Harvard-Yale football game when a Yalie, overcome with joy that his team had prevailed 17-8, threw a boxing glove at some Harvard men who tried to hit it back with a stick (this was the 19th-century Harvard-Yale version of a gang riot).Seeing this display of unbridled Ivy League violence gave George Hancock the idea to transform the boxing glove into a larger, softer baseball and then pair it to a version of the game that would not force you to dodge a 98mph rock-hard baseball headed right for your vitals. Hancock's game was called Kitten Ball, then Diamond Ball and, finally, in 1926 was called softball. It eventually split into fast-pitch and slow-pitch versions. This weekend in this country, 40 million to 56 million...
  • The Spiritual State: I Shall Fear No Evil

    What it takes to fight the war on terror is a decision for our leaders and our soldiers and the leaders of our soldiers. We must of course confirm their decision with our assent and our sacrifice, but in this war, more than in any war at any time, the front line is not a place but a state of mind. The goal of our enemies is not to plant flags on our hills but to plant fear in our hearts. In other wars we supported and encouraged our soldiers. In this war our soldiers support and encourage us. When the war was across two oceans, President Roosevelt told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Who can now explain to us how to fight fear itself when the war has come into our buses, our buildings and our hearts?For me the search for solace in fearful times always flows like a river from its source in the one biblical text that is beloved by Christians and Jews, the 23rd Psalm. It is not a political or military manifesto, but this is not a political or military war. It is only...
  • Hello Dalai

    sunyatapratitya samudpayaI had the pleasure of meeting His Holiness in 1989, soon after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. I ate chocolate-chip cookies with him and joked around with him. (Question: "Your Holiness, what do you miss most about Tibet?" Answer: "Yaks." It's Buddhist humor--I don't expect the unenlightened amongst you to understand). We met in New Jersey. Diana Marks, a spirited, passionate and joyous woman I knew in college, runs a Buddhist monastery near Hackettstown, N.J., with her husband, Jonathan, because, quite frankly, the Buddhist element in New Jersey was ... fuggedaboudit! When the Dalai Lama stayed with Diana and Jonathan, he asked Diana, who is Jewish (well, she is Buddhist now, so I guess she is Jewbuish), to invite some Jews over for cookies and chat. So she did--and there we were with the Dalai Lama in New Jersey. The possibility exists that this was the first such meeting between Jews and Buddhists that had ever occurred.After cookies and tea, His Holiness...
  • Spiritual Lives: July 4 and the Irish Debate Team

    So the Supremes agreed with me about the Ten Commandments being OK in Texas. Hooray! They then disagreed with the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky because that display had a "predominantly religious purpose." All of this reminds me of a formal but lighthearted debate I heard about years ago between a team from University College Dublin and a team from Harvard. The topic was, "Resolved that the Irish Constitution is superior to the American Constitution." The main argument of the Irish team was that nobody in Ireland has ever even heard of the Irish Constitution, and although in America great deference is paid to the American Constitution, it is only what nine judges say it is at any given time. At various times the Supreme Court has ruled that slavery is legal and slavery is illegal; that abortion is legal and abortion is illegal; that capital punishment is legal and that capital punishment is illegal and so, the Irish debaters claimed, who cares what the American...
  • The Spiritual State: The Naked Graduate

    I know it. I'm funny. However, I also know that I am not professionally funny. It's just that if you think of me as a rabbi, I am hilarious, but if you think of me as a real comedian I am several clicks below ordinary. Truth be told, I am not even the funniest rabbi. Jackie Mason (who was a cantor for 25 years and then ordained a rabbi) is funnier than I am. Also Rabbi Joe Potasnick, the director of the New York Board of Rabbis. He is also funnier, and then there is my friend Rabbi Robert Alper. Bob and I were classmates at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion (we went there because it had the funniest name of any seminary we could get into). Bob was a professional rabbi until he became a professional stand-up comedian. He lives in Vermont (www.bobalper.com) but he will gladly come to your place and make you laugh with really funny clean jokes (and those are hard to find). Bob looks like Steve Martin, who is funnier than Bob but not a rabbi so you will have to pick...
  • The Spiritual State: The Old-Age Lie

    My father is vanishing. Last week he was found in the middle of the night wandering the halls of his assisted-living center in Milwaukee looking for his secretary. Dad's Alzheimer's disease is getting worse. My mother, bolstered by the loving but ultimately irrelevant advice of her four children and eight grandchildren is trying to decide if she should put dad into the Alzheimer's ward next door. He does not want to leave mom, and she will not send him until she cannot care for him or until he hurts her. These are my Father's Day facts, and they don't remotely relate to deciding what kind of tie to buy him.I will not burden you with yet another long, agonized and ultimately narcissistic account about what it is like to lose a parent's mind while their body ticks on. I have read a hundred Alzheimer's accounts, and they all tell the same story and recount the same agonies: how you wish you had said things or asked things that cannot be said or asked now; how you are grieving for the...
  • The Spiritual State: Words of Faith

    I'm a rabbi and I like Billy Graham.I don't agree with him about Jesus, but I like him anyway. He is coming to New York on June 24 for his last crusade (OK, I don't like that choice of words either), and I am praying for him and thinking about him. I am mostly thinking that when he dies, there will never be any preacher like him again. I love the choices he made with his life and his gifts.Mostly I love that he is a great preacher, and preaching is a lost art. Young clergy kids I mentor fill their sermons with psychobabble and pal-talk. Their sermons are just spoken apologies for having to take their congregants' time. They sadly contribute to a culture where the word "preachy" is a universally understood as criticism. But Billy Graham loved to preach, respected the form and used it to its fullest effect. He understood that preaching is essentially the presentation of a spiritual argument, which means that a sermon must be filled with ideas, not just feelings. To preach you must be...
  • The Spiritual State: A Voyage Apart in the Same Direction

    Since the author of The Spiritual State in June is overscheduled with weddings, this seems to me an appropriate time to tell you everything I know about brides and grooms. I have watched a parade of them enter my office, enter the holy state of matrimony and enter the world as its newest family. Marrying these people (and naming babies) has made every fractious and interminable committee meeting I have ever attended seem to be merely a minor annoyance.At first, 33 years ago, I used to ask everything and listen to everything brides and grooms said as they gurgled out their love for each other. Now I ask less and listen and watch more. This is what I have learned. I am sure that other preacher folk have learned the same things from touching other springtime loves. Do they touch and do they laugh? This is the single most important question I ask about people in love who want to get married. They are all I look for now.Brides and grooms who do not touch each other, hold hands, sneak a...
  • The Spiritual State: Just Ask

    Theodore Roethke, the great Michigan poet who died in 1963, once said, "What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible." In his memory, I will occasionally highlight the work of impossibility specialists. These are people and organizations who are willing to enter politically supercharged issues in the culture wars without becoming political at all. They represent a kind of deep spiritual courage (although some of these impossibility specialists are not religious or even spiritual) that is both rare and needed in order to recover hope. They show us all that outside of the fractious debates and polemics, some real bipartisan human healing can still occur and the poisoned political environment can be detoxified if we look to what we all agree can be done, rather than what we refuse to agree can be done.I recently encountered some specialists in the impossible who are working in the supercharged field of gun violence--but who have no interest and take no position on the...
  • The Spiritual State: The Dying Woman in Room 402

    It was early in my friendship with Tommy Hartman, the priest. My wife, Betty, who freely admits to being the only woman in the world married to both a rabbi and a priest, was in Houston visiting her sister and I called up Tommy and asked him if he wanted to go out for a pizza and beer. He was happy to get out of his priest bunker and go.When I picked him up and asked were he wanted to go, he said, "North Shore Hospital." I said, "I don't think their pizza is that good, and I don't think their liquor license came through." He replied, "I want to go there first because there is a woman in room 402 who is dying of breast cancer. I want to see her and pray for her before she dies."I am compassionate plenty during the week--plenty--and I am even compassionate for my congregants late on Tuesday night. But on Saturday night I need time with Betty and friends in order to fuel up for another week of explaining how people should not blame their pain and suffering on The Boss. So it was with...