The New York Times. June 23, 2071. Obituaries.
Jonathan Blake, Michelin-Star Awarded Chef, Dies at 97.
Jonathan Blake, whose restaurant Fress has long been a shrine to Jewish cuisine and has served as the training ground for rising stars in the culinary world, died Saturday at his home in New York, surrounded by family.
Chef Blake’s innovative spin on classical Jewish cuisine--one of the restaurant’s signature dishes is a mousseline of gefilte fish in a carrot-jalapeño foam--helped transform a modest six-table restaurant in Greenwich Village into a culinary powerhouse that received its Michelin star in 2047, upon moving to its current location opposite Lincoln Center. It has held on to those stars ever since, becoming the first Jewish-themed restaurant so recognized.
Many of the dishes that won that star remain on the menu, like “lox in a box,” a house-cured gravlax of salmon concealed in a perfect cube of brioche and truffled poached egg. In an era of celebrity chefs, Blake was a throwback, a dedicated practitioner more comfortable in front of a saucepan than a TV camera. He also contributed to a renaissance of interest in Jewish cuisine with his popular cookbook series entitled The Well-Tempered Kugel.
Blake was raised in a food-obsessed family, in a home suffused with the aromas of a Jewish kitchen. But it was only later in life, upon retirement at age 65, that the chef answered his second calling. In a stunning act of reinvention, he traded in the modest yarmulke of his first career as a congregational rabbi for the signature white toque of his latter years. Though the rabbinate is sometimes regarded as a footnote in Blake’s otherwise butter-slathered biography, it should be noted that even in retirement, he never missed a Saturday morning Torah study, a pursuit which stirred his passion no less than his restaurant’s most popular appetizer: the purple-potato latke with crème fraiche, chives, caviar, and sweet red onion jam.
Well, one can always dream.
I’ve been inspired this year by stories of reinvention, and the fantasy I’ve just outlined I owe to my college classmate and friend Julie Powell whose name comprises one half of “Julie and Julia,” the uplifting, if now ubiquitous, true story of reinvention for both its namesakes. The popularity of television shows like American Idol and Project Runway, in which a nobody emerges a superstar, suggests that reinvention is part and parcel of the American dream.
As tough times put more and more people out of work, careers undergo re-consideration and, for the inspired, yesterday’s misfortune has become today’s opportunity for reinvention. Layoffs have activated untold numbers of Americans to pursue discarded dreams, reconfigure priorities, take up new hobbies, go back to school, volunteer in their communities, promote their professional expertise online, discover what had been missing from their lives at home and among family members.
Even for cynics the possibility of reinvention holds an allure. “My one regret in life,” Woody Allen said, “is that I’m not someone else.”
Some have been summoned to reinvention by a newfound conscience or consciousness. Last month Nick Kristof wrote an Op-Ed piece about Wendell Potter, a big health insurance executive who for twenty years worked to block health care reform. But in his heart, doubts began to creep in. The defining moment came in 2007 when Potter dropped in on a three-day charity program at a county fairgrounds to provide medical care for patients who could not afford doctors. Long lines of people were waiting in the rain, and patients were being examined and treated in public in stalls intended for livestock. “It was a life-changing event to witness that,” Potter said. Since then he has gone public with his concerns, testifying before the Senate, working tirelessly for reform.
Or consider Julius Lester, African-American professor emeritus of Judaic Studies at UMASS. Periodically, Prof. Lester would lead Shabbat services at Amherst College Hillel when I was a student. Trained as a chazzan, the baritone lent a gospel beauty to our prayers. You’d never know that in the 1960’s Lester distinguished himself as a militant anti-Semitic radio host who called his first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! With encouragement, love and the guidance of my Hillel rabbi, Yechiel Lander, he reinvented himself. You can read his eloquently testimony in his book, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “There are no second acts in American life,” was dead wrong. Could anyone familiar with Ronald Reagan’s work in the 1940s or 50s imagine him in the 1980s? Or for that matter, could anyone have predicted Al Franken’s second act? Celebrated folk artist Grandma Moses took up painting in her seventies, after arthritis made it impossible for her to continue her career in embroidery. Luciano Pavarotti was an elementary school teacher and insurance salesman who studied voice for six years, performing intermittently at small recitals for no pay. A nodule on his vocal cords and a disastrous concert prompted him to give up singing altogether, a decision so psychologically liberating that he suddenly found his natural voice able to make sounds he never before dreamed possible.
Alfred Nobel, namesake of the world’s most celebrated prizes, undertook a stunning reinvention that began when, quite by accident, he happened to read his own obituary. In 1888, an erroneous publication of a premature obituary by a French newspaper condemned Nobel for his invention of dynamite. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort: “The merchant of death is dead,” and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Reading those words haunted and transformed him. Seven years later he signed his last will and testament to establish the Nobel Prizes in fields of science and literature and peace, to be awarded annually, without distinction of nationality.
Our sacred texts tell stories of reinvention. Abram reached a ripe old age ambling around his hometown in Mesopotamia until he heard God’s call, Lech-Lecha, “Go forth, go forth from anywhere you’ve ever been and everything you’ve ever known, and forge a destiny, an identity, progeny, people.” Thus was Abram reinvented as Abraham; his wife Sarai, as Sarah.
Moses had more than one “second act.” An infant abandoned; a child of Egyptian privilege; a fugitive killer; a soft-spoken desert shepherd; and then came the mountain and the bush aflame but unconsumed. Returning from the epiphany he descended all aglow, radiating light and law and leadership.
Stunning acts of reinvention, all.
And who can forget Jacob? Tarnished by stealing birthright and blessing from his twin brother, Jacob fled Esau’s murderous rage as a young man. For more than twenty years he has tended sheep, taken wives, raised a family. He decides to return home. He sends his family ahead. Alone in pitch-black night by the riverbank, he awakens to find himself gripped by a stranger, pinned to the ground. All night long he wrestles.
At daybreak the foe, overcome at last, releases Jacob and tries to escape. But Jacob holds him fast. “Let me go,” the adversary cries, “for dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob insists, “until you bless me.” His opponent struggles hard, wrenching Jacob’s hip from the socket.
“What is your name?” he gasped.
“Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with people and you have prevailed.”
He blessed him and departed.
There, in the dark, a dramatic reinvention. Out of a harrowing encounter, the patriarch emerges transformed. Jacob the sly trickster has become Israel the spiritual victor.
In the course of a lifetime, we all visit this place, the place of life struggle, of wrestling in the dark. The loss of a job, a marriage, a loved one, a cherished hope or dream, can pin us down in an iron grip. From Wall Street to Detroit to the heartland, from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur, we’ve endured a long, dark night. Can we extract blessing from the struggle, emerge transformed? Arise victorious, with new confidence, new purpose? New degrees, new opportunities, new vocations?
I can hear what some of you are thinking:
“Rabbi, this is a retirement account we’re talking about, a life-long endeavor, not a fleeting mid-life crisis. We planned for decades for a quiet golden age of family and travel and togetherness--not for more time at the office. I’m spent.”
Or: “Rabbi, I liked my line of work. Yes, it provided an income, but it also provided happiness and fulfillment. Why should I re-invent myself when I’m happy with who I was, who I am?”
Or: “Rabbi, what’s done is done. My loved one is gone forever. But don’t expect me to pull myself up and look on the sunny side… let alone start dating again! I can’t be someone I’m not.”
And, you know what?
For most mortals, the possibility of reinvention remains vanishingly small. Most attempts end up frustrated, failed. Fitzgerald may have gotten it right after all. Very few are granted second acts. We are not, cannot be, need not be, Julia Child or Luciano Pavarotti or Alfred Nobel, let alone Abraham or Moses or Jacob.
The familiar saying about teaching an old dog new tricks is accurate and wise. Perhaps you have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI is a questionnaire designed to measure personality type: our psychological preferences in how we perceive the world and make decisions, extrapolated from the theories of Carl Jung. Today as many as two million MBTI questionnaires are administered annually, including at WRT among your rabbis and cantors, who have utilized the Index to understand each other’s personalities and work habits, and thereby to improve the way we work together as a team.
Here’s the interesting part. Research shows that one’s baseline personality attributes as assessed by the MBTI will remain essentially unchanged from adolescence until death. If at age sixteen one prefers to make lists than to “go with the flow,” prefers solitude to the company of others, feels moved by passion over logic, then these ingrained tendencies will probably hold fast for a lifetime.
Reinvention? Get real! “I am what I am and that’s all that I am. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!”
Come to think of it, Jacob didn’t really re-invent himself that night. Even after earning the name Israel, the one who struggles and prevails, the Torah still refers to him as Jacob, even on his deathbed. Jacob could never erase all the things made him Jacob, ugly though some of those traits may have been: sneakiness, narcissism, ambition, stubbornness. Writhing in the dark, battered and exhausted, Jacob won’t just walk away, leave it be, let it go. “No!” he says. “First, I have to get something!” Why should we expect that Jacob would ever let anything go? At every stage of life, Jacob remains quintessentially Jacob: unyielding, unbending, unrelenting.
So it should not surprise us that in old age, Jacob regretted opportunities unmet and relationships unfulfilled. He carried grudges with him to the grave, over children who let him down.
When all is said and done, reinvention is not the ultimate Jewish goal, not even a Jewish way of thinking about what a meaningful life demands of us. The secular world is always telling us, “Change your hair, your clothes, your attitude! You can be someone else.” That is not what Judaism tells us.
The Chasidic Master Reb Zusya famously taught, “When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ The question will be, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Why were you not the person you were meant to be? Why were you not the most you that you could be?
But if reinvention is not a Jewish path, neither is its opposite: stagnation, complacency, becoming ossified, calcified, set in our ways, unwilling to change. Even among the gainfully employed, how many of us feel stuck, unable to break the old, predictable patterns? Lily Tomlin once said, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” It’s no way to live, and, frankly, our faith asks more of us.
Here is what Judaism teaches:
You can change.
You need not reinvent yourself.
But you have to change.
Call it evolution.
You can evolve.
You must evolve, if you really want to live.
Darwin who taught us evolution is a deeply misunderstood figure. Evolution through natural selection says little about “survival of the fittest” and much about adaptability. Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The world keeps changing: in some instants, immensely, more often, imperceptibly. But it keeps changing. Why not you?
The Creator made you that way, able to change. At this very moment your cells are replacing themselves: out with the old, in with the new. What is true for the human cell is true for the human body and what is true for the human body is true for the human spirit. You can change. You were born to evolve, and to keep evolving.
Reverend Peter Gomes who serves as the spiritual leader of the Memorial Church of Harvard University is one of America’s great preachers. He recalls meeting two ladies, twins in fact, who had recently celebrated their ninety-third birthday. “In response to the usual newspaper question, ‘To what do you attribute your longevity,’ the laconic answer from Miss Minnie was ‘Time.’”
Upon which, Gomes observes, “...time presents the opportunity for growth and too many people waste too much time waiting for epochal ‘mountaintop’ experiences as a stimulus to growth when there is so much work to be done in the valleys, where we spend most of that time anyway.”
So much time, so much potential growth, so much work to be done down here, in the valleys.
Why are you not the most you that you can be?
And let us ask yet more, on Yom Kippur, day of questions:
If I could read my obituary today, would it say what I would want it to say?
What lies within my capacity to change?
And what lies beyond my capacity to change?
If parts of my life dissatisfy me, am I trying too hard to change the people around me, or the circumstances around me, and not hard enough to change … me?
Is my way in the world--my words, my deeds, my priorities--harmonious with my most cherished values and with the values I espouse to others? If not, why not?
How can I recalibrate my deeds so that they more closely resemble my innermost values, the things that I tell myself and others “really matter the most?”
If I am unwilling to change, how much of that unwillingness is rooted in fear--fear of what I might find out about myself, my limitations, my weaknesses? Fear of abandoning the reassuring familiarity of old ways?
Am I open to the possibility of evolution? Or have I convinced myself that I’m done changing, that my power to evolve dried up long ago?
Am I ready not only for change to happen, but to struggle, really struggle, to make it happen?
To open ourselves to change is to become Israel: to confront the adversary and refuse to let go until we emerge with blessing. Yes, Jacob will be Jacob. He can never undo his childhood mistakes, never recover the misspent years, never change his essential nature. He can never relinquish every regret. Even after encountering his long-estranged brother in a healing embrace of forgiveness, he can never reconstruct a perfect relationship with Esau. He can never make himself impervious to hardship or heartbreak, and he will yet know plenty.
But in that long night of wrestling, Jacob insisted: “I can change. I can evolve. Never again will I run away from my troubles. Never again will I toil for years in silent bitterness, hopeless of my own power to change. I can never stop being Jacob, but I can also be Israel, the one who strives and prevails. I may forevermore walk with a limp, but tonight I will not let go until I change.”
Judaism does not ask us to scrap who we have been. It does not call us to reinvent ourselves. It calls us to evolve, to change, to grow spiritually so that our deeds more closely resemble our innermost values. Judaism never asks us to become someone else. It constantly demands that we become our most authentic selves.
The notion that Yom Kippur furnishes us with a “blank slate” is misguided and a bit ridiculous. The slate is never blank, not even at birth: we come into this world burdened with potentialities and tendencies and family histories, features inscribed by genetics, by parenting, by environment. We’d be fools to think that Yom Kippur can erase the deeds already done, the tenacious habits, the insults and injuries.
What Yom Kippur does give us is perspective: the perspective to see that there’s still plenty of room on that old imprinted slate to add another chapter, to revisit ourselves with unflinching honesty, to go back and try again, and this time, to change it a little bit.
Alice Walker who wrote The Color Purple has said:
“I feel that as long as the Earth can make a Spring every year, I can; I won’t give up until the Earth gives up.”
Great God of Life, you have blessed us with a glorious Earth, constantly evolving, constantly renewing itself. Today, make us like the ever-changing Earth. Help us make our Spring, this Autumn, at the beginning of the year, 5770, and never give up.