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The shock — and gift — of change
August 31st, 2012
In 1970, Alvin Toffler in a best-selling book coined a phrase that for a few years seemed to be echoed everywhere, and that appeared to capture the spirit of the time: “Future Shock.”
The book and the phrase seem to have vanished into the history of American fads (though Toffler is still alive and working). But I read the book around the time it was making news and I still have a copy; and I recalled it as I thought about what is coming up in Jewish year 5773, which begins on the evening of Sept. 16.
“This is a book about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change,” Toffler wrote. “Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future. It may well be the most important disease of tomorrow.”
One doesn’t have to be a prophet to know that the coming year will bring an abundance of change in our local Jewish community and in the whole world. For some, that means we are in for an exciting time; for others, the prospect brings apprehension and even terror. Consider:
• The Milwaukee Jewish Federation will continue its Reimagining and Transition processes under the leadership of a new chief executive officer/president, Hannah Rosenthal.
• The Jewish Federation of Madison is embarking on a search for a new executive director, a process that may well take most of the year as leaders of that community decide how best to develop the strategic plan for change that JFM approved in 2008.
• This November, the United States has national and many local elections. Whichever parties and candidates win — even if they are the incumbents — the results will bring changes.
• Even though Israel has no elections scheduled for this year, the results of the U.S. elections, whether Israel’s leaders decide to strike at Iran’s nuclear energy (and likely nuclear weapons) program, and many other developments will bring significant change to that country as well.
Of course, ours is not the first culture to notice the inevitability of change. The clichéd proverb “You cannot step twice into the same river” goes back to the ancient Greeks; and in ancient Jewish literature a Midrash passage (Exodus Rabbah 31:3) says, “There is an ever rotating wheel in this world.”
But change in the ancient world and the Middle Ages took place at a far slower rate than in modern times. Even in 1913, French poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914) wrote, “The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last 30 years” — and that was just before World War I, the event that sent the rotating wheel on a dizzying, ever accelerating spin through the 20th century to the 21st. My father died at the end of July, and the changes he experienced in his 82 years (1930-2012) boggle the mind. Just the medical advances he saw are incredible; he probably would have died in his 50s or earlier had he lived in Péguy’s time.
But change this rapid produces stress in individuals and cultures, Toffler contended. “We may define future shock as the distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an overload of the human organism’s physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes,” he wrote.
And the symptoms of this condition “range all the way from anxiety, hostility to helpful authority, and seemingly senseless violence, to physical illness, depression, and apathy. Its victims often manifest erratic swings in interest and life style, followed by an effort to ‘crawl into their shells’ through social, intellectual, and emotional withdrawal.”
Indeed, it appears likely that one reason Wade Michael Page turned to racist activism and then violence against the worshippers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek on Aug. 5 was reaction to change in his life and country. And one huge reason the Arab-Muslim world hates Israel is because it embodies radical change — putting a Jewish state into what had been a Islam-dominated region, showing that despised Jews can defeat, and demand equality with, Muslims — leading to desire to turn the clock back to when Jews and Judaism were subordinate to Muslims and Islam.
But change can also be exciting, energizing, and an affirmation of life. “The ultimate disinterest in new possibilities is death,” said Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser in a 1992 sermon. “Life is an openness to stimulation.”
And popular historian Thomas Cahill in his 1998 book “The Gifts of the Jews” contended that belief in positive change — that the future can and will be better — is the great Jewish contribution to the world: “Most of our best words, in fact — new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice — are the gifts of the Jews.”
May most of the coming changes be positive in 5773. Meanwhile, we at the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle are adding our own bit to the changing world. You will notice that this issue has a different look — a new logo, new standing headlines. Some of the changes you may not notice consciously, but we hope you will feel them — that the typeface is more readable, there is more color on the pages, and the pages seem more open.
But one thing we will not change — our tradition of bringing you the news of your Jewish community, of sharing the delicious diversity of Jewish life, and of being open to your views and suggestions.