Monday, March 2, 2009

Bagel Flambé

It all began with a bagel. In my last column I spoke of the inspiration I got from my first class at the Darrell D. Friedman Institute by realizing the connection I had with Judah Maccabee.

Now the bagel is complete. Our class had a siyyum.

Siyyum means completion. However, I was informed by one of my co-fellows in the STAR program that the Hebrew word begins with the letter Samech and ends in a Final Mem. Both are round, circular-like letters — kind of like a bagel. Where do they begin and where do they end?

With an election and inauguration still fresh in our collective conscience, it is indeed a new beginning. After a year of hearing about “change” though, I think we’re ready to say, “Enough of the change, already!” In fact, I could use a little stability. I’d be happy if the stocks would just hold steady.

Yet perhaps an important element we missed, when all of us were ready for change, is that change is constant. That may sound like a cliché, but if we think about it, it’s also inherent in the meaning of siyyum’s circuitous lettering.

In class each morning we read a parshah from Exodus. No other portion of the Torah is more representative of change than Exodus — leaving one world and entering another. Also interesting is that in it God often takes the form of fire.

Now as a former philosophy major and an ad man, too, that wasn’t lost on me. In fact, I came across a book that incorporates both callings — “The Philosophy of Branding.” In chapter one, the focus is on Heraclitus, who was a Pre-Socratic. His greatest perception was that the world is continually in flux, and to demonstrate this he uses a flame as a metaphor. A flame being a “thing,” but not the same thing from moment to moment.

Judaism, too, uses the flame, and its symbol for many occasions, from Shabbat to yahrzeit, and even the ner tamid connotes this same notion of continuity — eternal.

So if that’s a symbol of our creed, what does a flame need to survive and to grow and to be strong?

Well, it needs air. All kinds of air. Especially new, fresh air.

But oxygen that’s too pure can be dangerous. Likewise, Judaism needs a blend and needs to have a breath from outside of itself to live and spread and catch.

Can either extreme be dangerous — too pure or not pure enough? Sure. So we must all tend the flame.

What I also learned from the siyyum is, like so many Jewish holidays — from Simchat Torah, when we end and then begin the Torah, or Rosh Hashanah, when we end the year and celebrate the new — is that the beat goes on.

We mark the occasions, but they don’t end there.

And like that flame, built into Judaism is a richness of thinking and knowledge that we offer back to the world for it to soak up its rays.

Likewise, there’s a lesson for America, too. As we go through our economic crisis, there’ll be a tendency to smother ourselves off. But as Tom Friedman has pointed out, we became the wealthiest country in the world not by protectionism or fearing free trade. Rather, we invited the smartest most diverse ideas and people into the U.S. and it is they who fueled our growth.

I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of the DFI and the STAR program, and I can’t wait to breathe air back into it to help continue the flame.

And so, thank you Cindy Goldstein for agreeing to meet me for a bagel that morning in Mount Washington.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES. More of his work is at abenovick.com.