Thursday, February 23, 2012

On Faith and Religion

Dear Mackenzie,

Your mom and I are not particularly religious in a conventional sense, and we’ve been grappling with how best to give you a proper religious education.

Faith, prayer and invocation are crucial elements of the human experience and we understand their importance. But how to best inculcate faith and religion into your life? Is it through organized religion? We certainly want you to learn the Jewish customs and traditions with which we grew up, and will try to teach them to you. But is that the only path to God?

Your aunt Viv and I grew up in a very (and I mean very) non-religious household. Yes, we went to temple and I went to Hebrew school, but in hindsight that seemed more geared towards community and tradition than towards communion with God.

Once when I was about your age your grandma baked a cake during Passover. When she brought it to the dinner table I was horrified. I told her she was not supposed to cook with anything leaven during Passover and accused her of “not being Jewish”.

Your grandma was nonplussed. She replied that though she had no idea it was Passover she was indeed Jewish to the core. Being the headstrong kid that I was, I didn’t believe her at the time and I demanded she throw the cake away. Now that I no longer attend Sunday School, I can’t keep track of a single Jewish holiday either, yet still consider myself profoundly Jewish. It’s just one of the many apologies I owe your grandma!

By the way Mackenzie, your grandma almost shut down my Bar Mitzvah. A week or two before the ceremony your aunt Viv and I got in a big fight (as young siblings sometimes do) and apparently I called her some very nasty names. Your grandma was quite upset with me. She said if that’s how I interacted with others when I was angry I was not ready to be a man, either under Jewish law or any other. I don’t remember how I got it all back on track, but I sure remember the lesson.

While I was in college I studied comparative religions and came away confused and conflicted, not only about Judaism but also about all organized religion. How could so many religions have such conflicting narratives? And which one was right?

The God I knew and trusted was that of the Old Testament. Yet the God I studied when I read the New Testament struck me as kinder and more loving (Corinthians 13 is a good example) than the God I had studied as a kid in Sunday School (the complete destruction of Jericho, of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of the Amalekites come to mind). 

The New Testament confused me too. It teaches that Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Holy Trinity, and that He died for our sins. But the New Testament also teaches that unless one accepts both that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for our sins, one cannot be absolved and enter the kingdom of heaven. How can that be? If Jesus is God, would He demand (or even allow) that we must believe Him to be God in order to be saved? I inadvertently started quite a heated discussion when I suggested that the notion seemed more like the human foible of vanity than anything particularly holy.

Then there’s the Book of Mormon (no, not the Broadway musical), which if I remember correctly teaches that there may be multiple gods, and that God the Father has a wife.  I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I do remember being taught that in order to embrace Buddhism as a religion one must deny Christ, and the bible too.  Hmmn.

Hinduism is often described as a conglomeration of distinct philosophical views rather than a rigid common set of beliefs. That, of course is completely inapposite to the teachings of both Judaism and Christianity. And though I don’t know very much about Islam, or the Bahai faith, or the Swedenborgian church, or some of the various other religions around the world, I know enough to be aware that many of their teachings don’t line up with those of other religions.

Is one of these right and all the others wrong? Does an invocation by a Sikh address a different higher power than that of a Christian? Does an invocation by a Jain address a different higher power than that of a Jew? I find that hard to fathom. And it seems improbable that any one religious belief system is more or less valid than any other.

Which brings us to faith. Faith is belief that is not based on proof. Faith is knowing that the hand of God (however we choose to define it) is there to help guide us and keep us from harm even if we can’t see it.

I was never able to visualize or articulate what the hand of God meant until you started to walk. You were just a toddler, and you would walk for a bit and then fall down. Then you’d get yourself back up and try again. Walk. Fall down. Get up. Repeat.

Your mom and I started to follow you around the house with our arms outstretched, ready to step in if terrible harm seemed imminent. We didn’t want you to know we were doing that, though. If you turned around to look at us we’d pretend to be doing something else. Yet we kept a watchful eye and our arms ready on your behalf. On a larger scale, that is how I now envision the hand of God in all of our lives.

So which organized religion got it right?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that faith and religion are important, that we’ll guide you as best we can, and that ultimately you’ll have to determine for yourself what makes most sense for you. The good news is that stripped of their different narratives virtually all religions boil down to the same basic precepts, designed to make our lives richer and to move the human race forward:

Have a kind heart.

Treat others the way you would want them to treat you (the Golden Rule).

Be charitable to those less fortunate.

Take care of your family and your neighbor.

Love learning.

Have faith in a higher power.

If you follow those basic tenets in your life you won’t go wrong, no matter what religion ultimately speaks to your heart, mind and soul.

And that, my sweet daughter, is the gospel according to Norman.

All my everlasting love in this kingdom and beyond,


Friday, February 17, 2012

On Wolves, Demons and Other Monsters

Dear Mackenzie,

You’ve had a lot of success in the entertainment industry at a very young age, and people often ask me how I feel about you being an actor. I answer that I’m excited for you. I say that in my experience it’s very hard to find something one is passionate about in life, let alone at your age, and the fact that you’re doing well is an added bonus.

I also acknowledge that having seen first-hand the ups and downs which artists endure, and how difficult that life can be, I am conflicted at the same time. I add that this is not the childhood I would necessarily have chosen for you.

The truth, though, is that most days I don’t feel particularly conflicted. You love what you do. I see how much you enjoy auditioning, being on a set or on a stage, going to premieres, and being on red carpets. What’s there to be conflicted about? Thus I get lulled into a false sense of security. But every so often the conflict and the dread I do feel about you having a life in the arts hits me upside the head like a two-by-four.

When I was starting my career in the early 1980’s, several of my clients were recording artists in the R&B world.  I remember at some point the town started to buzz that Clive Davis, the legendary head of Arista Records at the time, had discovered yet another singing sensation, this one with roots in the gospel world. 

In those days MTV was an actual music channel and played music videos around the clock. One day a video came on called “How Will I Know” and the singer took my breath away.  She was beautiful. She exuded a playful sex appeal. Her voice was radiant. Her name was Whitney Houston. She burst onto the scene and into the American consciousness and became a big star almost overnight.

I only met Whitney Houston once. It was early in her career, and she couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 years old. I was at some industry event with a client whose own career at the time was even more nascent than Whitney’s. My client noticed her across the room and said she wanted to meet her.

This was long before bodyguards and entourages and Bobby Brown came into her life, and I went and introduced myself. I told her that the firm where I first worked after law school represented her cousin Dionne Warwick and that one of my very first assignments had been to drive to Ms. Warwick’s house with some legal documents for her to sign. I said that Ms. Warwick was the first star I had ever met, and that afterwards I had literally called my parents back home to tell them that their son was now officially in show business.

Whitney was very gracious and she, my client and I all chatted for a while that night. From then on I watched from afar as she became a huge recording artist, and then a movie star as well.  As time went by I also watched from afar as she struggled with her addictions and her personal demons.  Her instrument deteriorated and her career struggled as she abused her body and her psyche.  

On the day of her death we were all discussing Whitney at dinner and you said you didn’t know who she was or why she was famous.  Sometime when you have a chance, my sweet daughter, you should experience the transcendent talent she possessed.

Watch the video that launched her into superstardom. Savor her soulful rendition of “My Love is Your Love”, “I Will Always Love You”, the national anthem (believe it or not) or any of the other hits that led her to become one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time. See her luminous performance in “The Bodyguard”.

I was sad when I read of her untimely death.  And I got a terrible pit in my stomach thinking about you in this industry, and of all the minefields that can explode on you if you’re not careful.

As I write you this letter no one knows exactly what caused Whitney Houston’s death, but it’s likely that her demons and addictions played a role.  I suspect every artist views her passing the same way NFL athletes look on when another player is paralyzed or otherwise severely injured during a game.  With sympathy and sadness for a fallen comrade, and with the unspoken but very real knowledge that “there but for the grace of God go I”.  

It turns out, Mackenzie that I’m in fact profoundly conflicted.  I want you to do what you love. I want you to succeed at it. I want you to buck convention. Yet at the same time I’m frightened for you when I see how many people get overtaken by the volatile mix of adulation and rejection that are part of an artist’s experience. The wolf at the door and the personal demons lie in wait side by side.

I pray that your mom and I can help keep you grounded and happy.  I pray that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) you can treat those two impostors called triumph and disaster just the same. I pray that no one with character deficiencies like those of Bobby Brown ever finds his way into your life or into your heart.

So I will continue to support your artistry. I will continue to delight in your successes. I will continue to be the best father I can be and to hug you as often as you will let me.  And though I’ll try not to show it, I will continue to worry about you and to ask whatever higher power is out there that wolves, demons and other monsters stay away from my little girl.

All my everlasting love,


Friday, February 10, 2012

On My Wedding Day

Dear Mackenzie,

The other day I started to contemplate what I might say to you on your wedding day, and my mind wandered instead to the memories of your mom’s and my own wedding.

Your mom had just moved to Los Angeles when she and I planned our big day.  Since we didn’t belong to a temple we set about finding someone to marry us.  As it turns out, Los Angeles has numerous itinerant rabbis who as the saying goes, are available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  A couple we knew had recently used one such rabbi.  They told us he was wonderful and that he was a very poetic speaker.  So your mom and I went to see him.  

The rabbi was very genial, but over the course of our meeting he asked very little beyond when and where we were getting married. After fifteen minutes or so he stood up and said he looked forward to seeing us at the event. Your mom and I were a little unsettled.  Poetic speaker or not, we didn’t want a generic ceremony.  We asked the rabbi whether some personal information about us would be appropriate, and he suggested we email him what we wanted to include, assuring us he would “work it in”. 

As you might imagine, we started having second thoughts about using him.  When we told our friends Betty and John Power what had happened, they suggested we meet a young rabbi named Paul Kipnes.  We were immediately taken with him.  Rabbi Kipnes was completely engaged, and he told your mom that I was an amazing man and that she was fortunate to be marrying me.  Okay, fine, I’m making that last part up.  

Once we decided that Rabbi Kipnes would officiate at our wedding, we were left with the uncomfortable task of dismissing the first rabbi. Though we sensed that he wasn’t particularly invested he was still a man of God, and your mom made the executive decision that I should be the one to call him.  Now in truth, I have dozens of difficult conversations every week in my work. Yet when it came to having one with a rabbi, I was petrified.

When I finally got up the courage, I was told that the rabbi was traveling, so I left a weak message that maybe he should call me.  When I didn’t hear back I decided to take the easy way out. Rather than calling again, I wrote the rabbi an email telling him we were joining a temple and would be using their rabbi.  That wasn’t true of course, but what can I say?  Welcome to the politics of fear.

On September 24th, 2000 at 5:00 P.M., your mom and I were to be married at a beautiful restaurant on Ventura Boulevard called the Bistro Gardens. Yet by 4:30 P.M., Rabbi Kipnes was still nowhere to be found.  As I greeted our guests, the clock moved inexorably toward the appointed hour.  I became increasingly alarmed by Rabbi Kipnes’ absence, and it must have shown on my face because people started telling me it was normal for the groom to be nervous on his wedding day.  For the record, my sweet daughter, I wasn’t one bit nervous about marrying your mom.  On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to do it.  But where the hell was the rabbi?

At 4:55 P.M. someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around to see…the first rabbi!!! He had a prayer book in his hand and a big smile on his face. “Ready to get married?” he asked. 

Now I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but this was beyond. I remember reading once that if you opened your refrigerator and found it filled with $1,000 bills you would experience two simultaneous emotions.  The first is the unbridled elation that your money problems are behind you.  The second is the alarm that something doesn’t compute in the natural universe. That’s what went through me.  In a fractional second I had four competing thoughts. The first was “Oh thank God”.  The second was “Oh fuck, what is he doing here?”  The third was that I should have had the courage to talk to him personally when we switched rabbis.  And the fourth was that I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth five minutes before my wedding when the guy who was supposed to marry us was nowhere in sight.

Well, gut check time.  I pulled the rabbi aside and told him apologetically that we had elected to use someone else.  To his credit (I guess this is the stuff that makes one a man of God), he was of good humor about the confusion. He wished me a wonderful day and a happy marriage, and gracefully departed.  As if the universe was now satisfied that I had learned some profound lesson, Rabbi Kipnes materialized.  After muttering something about the traffic problem in Los Angeles he said,  “why don’t we go sign the Ketubah and get you guys married”. 

Your mom’s parents were too sick to travel, but otherwise we were surrounded by loving friends and family. Rabbi Kipnes infused the ceremony with warmth and affection, and when our friend Tisha sang an amazing rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, she brought down the house.

Now my favorite custom in a Jewish wedding (other than kissing the bride) is when the groom breaks a glass with his foot. There are various explanations for this tradition, but the one I like best is that the broken glass reminds us of the fragility of marriage, and that both husband and wife must care for and nourish the relationship lest it shatter irreparably.  Once the groom breaks the glass, everyone yells “mazel tov” and the ceremony ends.

As a practical matter, the groom breaks a very light crystal or, since the glass is hidden under a handkerchief, sometimes even a small light bulb.  Both are easy to break, minimizing the risk of injury, and both make a loud popping sound for full effect.  Unfortunately, the restaurant where we got married wasn’t well versed in these realities.  Instead, the restaurant provided one of their incredibly sturdy lead crystal water glasses.  As a result, when the rabbi instructed me to break the glass and I pushed my right foot down, the glass did not break. 

Instead of a hearty “mazel tov”, the place erupted in uproarious, sustained laughter that would have been the envy of any comedian.  Though it probably lasted less than a minute, in my embarrassment the laughter felt like forever.  When it finally subsided, Rabbi Kipnes came to the rescue and said, “because he loves her, he perseveres”.  This time I gave it everything I had, and the glass mercifully gave way.  Everyone clapped and cheered and yelled “mazel tov”, and your mom and I exited the huppah as husband and wife.  Afterwards we ate and danced deep into the night, and the highlight of the evening was when Jamie serenaded your mom and me with “From This Moment” by Shania Twain. 

And yes, our wedding day contained some life lessons too. The importance of facing our fears (and our rabbis) head-on. The importance of persevering in the face of adversity (and of strong glassware).  And maybe most profoundly through the prism of time, that our lives are in fact storybooks, not dissimilar to the ones we read as children. It’s just that along the way we encounter our own unique twists and turns.  How we confront those twists and turns, and what we learn from them, weave the fabric of our stories and define the content of our character.  I look forward to watching your storybook continue to unfold, Mackenzie, and I owe you a letter for your wedding day too.

All my everlasting love,