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Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts

Associate Editor

It may well be the most exquisite moment on television this season, and the most simple. Alone on a bare stage, before a live audience, Rabbi Irwin Kula, shaggy haired and without a tie, sings the transcripts of telephone calls from the doomed of 9-11 using the bittersweet melody of Tisha bíAvís Lamentations.
Looking at his papers as if they were a prayer, Rabbi Kula softly chants, ìHoney, something terrible is happening. I donít think Iím going to make it. I love you, take care of the children.î
And this, if you can imagine the Tisha bíAv tune: ìMommy, the buildingís on fire. Thereís smoke coming through the walls. I canít breathe. I love you, Mommy. Goodbye.î
Thatís the way that people speak when their world is coming to an end ó with simple truths.
The show, which on Sunday begins a 13-week run on the Nwe York PBS station WLIW, is called ìSimple Wisdom.î The wisdom derives from Rabbi Kulaís versatile reservoir of Jewishly illuminated ideas and sources.
What makes it simple is that the wisdom is transmitted in conversational tones, without pretense or footnotes, without look-at-me scholarship. Heís no ìMusic Manî Henry Hill selling Jewish brilliance as a cure-all for everything from intermarriage to dishpan hands.
In the brief segment on 9-11 phone calls, he conveys the complex wisdom of the Jewish trop system of musical notation, and the Jewish understanding of loss, but without belaboring the point. He simply shows up, starts talking, and you pick it up as you go along.
When he suggests techniques to enhance peopleís lives, a Jewishly literate person might recognize echoes of the Bedside Shema, or a meditation from the Gemara, but Rabbi Kula, 45, the president of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, uses the sources without scaring the horses. He explains off-camera that he doesnít want to dilute Jewish wisdom, but he also doesnít want to see it reduced to a private language.
Just a few weeks after Passover, the oft-dismissed simple child of the Haggadah is finally having his day. Kulaís ìSimple Wisdomî (Sundays at 8 a.m.) follows in the wake of the growing, but somewhat unnoticed, Simplicity movement.
The Conari publishing house in California offers an unrelated book series with titles such as ìSimple Kabbalah,î ìSimple Meditation & Relaxation,î ìSimple Wiccaî and ìSimple Chinese Astrology.î The Longstreet Press in Georgia has come out with an unrelated ìSimple Wisdom for Parenting,î and Time Inc. is generating considerable success with its Real Simple, a national magazine designed for ìsimplifying your life,î with a regular section on the ìSoulî juxtaposed with simple recipes and simple redecorating.
Real Simple, whose circulation has more than doubled in two years, to more than 1.2 million, says its Soul section contains advice as if ìfrom a trusted friend.î Thatís exactly the tone Rabbi Kula sets.
Some of the topics in his series are love, money, sex, community, family, the body, forgiveness, connection, identity, spirituality and death.
The shows spring out of Judaismís ìconstant wrestling process, never allowing any partial truth to spin out of control,î says Rabbi Kula.
ìThe genius [of Judaism] is to hold dialectical truths together, even when they are contradictory. Iím doing a selective read that looks for the niche between fundamentalism and New Age narcissism,î he says. ìThere are real fundamentals, but that doesnít mean it has to be fundamentalism. And thereís nothing more glorious than our individuality, but that doesnít mean it has to be individualism.î
The program is being picked up across the country in places not known for settling down with a tele-rabbi ó Topeka, Kan.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Amarillo, Texas ó as well as major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, 10 of the top 15 markets, more than 35 markets in all.
Sitting in CLALís Manhattan offices, where we previewed the series, Rabbi Kula suddenly asks, ìWhat if the key to keeping the [Jewish] body politic healthy is to actually make sure your wisdom can be accessible to anybody? (In private, he positively percolates with epiphanies and decidedly unsimple wisdom).
ìWhat the Jewish people are most about is the Jewish wisdom they bring to the world,î he says. ìOur security as a people depends upon how wise we are. But the people who know the most Torah tend to be the most inwardly pointed. And the people who know the least amount of Torah tend to be the ones playing in the world,î something his program plans to rectify.
Rabbi Kula doesnít play to the balcony with sentimentality, guilt or nostalgia, as one has come to expect from PBS Jewish specials. Not that the charming rabbi isnít a master at maneuvering audiences emotionally, as he clearly demonstrates with his Tisha bíAv 9-11.
But, he explains, ìIf you can make people feel proud, you can teach them anything. I can make any Jew feel proud or make any Jew cry. When people call me to speak, I ask them what emotion theyíd like me to have because chances are they donít care about the content. Most Jews donít care about the content, they want to feel something. Do they want me to make Jews feel an obligation? I can make Jews feel anything using the tradition. But in this program I canít use that.
ìThe goal is not to make anyone feel anything. It came down to what is the human question, to which the tradition answers. I had to find what is it that Jewish wisdom has to offer to enhance individual lives.î
For example, regarding the segment on family, Rabbi Kula says that people ìwant to escape their families and they canít. They want to rebel against their parents and they also want their parentsí approval. Then I thought, oh my God, Bereshit [Genesis] is all about families that are completely dysfunctional. Yet every one of those families transmits to the next generation what is essential to it. What if the messiness isnít something we escape but has a sacred quality to it?
ìYou look at Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob. The key is, you screw up but you stay in for the duration. They worked through the dysfunction. Sometimes you donít speak to your brother for years, but the bonds are there no matter what. It may turn out,î as with Joseph in Egypt, ìone brother can save the other, you meet and you hug and you kiss. From there we have the show on family.î
What struck him about the 9-11 phone calls was that ìnone of them was angry. Every single one of them was about love and connection, about relationship.î
On television, he quotes the first value judgment in the Bible, ìIt is not good to be alone.î He also quotes the poet Allan Ginsberg: ìThere are moments in our lives when we recognize the dearness of the vanishing moment.î
That, simply put, is Jewish wisdom, too. n

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