Thursday, January 20, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

A master class


joes1 The class is soon to begin. Chairs shuffle, winter coats are thrown to the side, note pads and laptops are carefully balanced on the 12-inches-of-polished-wood for a desk, and low conversation floats through the room. Cell phones are turned off or carefully hidden just out of sight. Murmurs, coughs and dropped pens are given one last go-around, and then quiet.                

He stands at the front of the room in his tight black T-shirt and jeans. A small smile sits on his spectacled face, taking little away from the sense of energy compressed. Clearly, he will either begin or explode. Or, he may begin, and then explode. But there will be an explosion. Is it too late to leave?                

“I’m about to tell you something important…” And so the class begins. Rabbi Jay Holstein talks with a rhythm that locks you in your seat as sentences are broken into pieces as if he is speaking his last words. And you, a mere student at the University of Iowa, are the only person entrusted with his will and testament. You’re it. Then, as if to contradict the need for you to administer the last rites, the words themselves are boomed out or whispered with such dramatic overtones you begin to wonder if you’ve wandered into a Pentecostal revival in Dolby Surround Sound.                

“Let’s SAY… I had a PILL… that FINALLY… tells you the right thing to do.”                

“In a short LIFE… FULL of travail… WHY should we be interested?”                


And he is off and running. The Epic of Gilgamesh, death, meaning of life, old age, right and wrong, sexual austerity, family values, Jew/Christian, how one should lead his or her life, Genesis 2, the Book of Ruth, the movie “E.T.” That’s about 10 minutes in. This is not for the faint of heart.                

joes2“Do you read the Bible like you read Hemingway?… Are there special rules?… The Bible is wonderfully dangerous… I’m about to turn left, when you think I’m going right… This is a semi-casual question: Does this learning about us show something?… Is it possible to do what the Bible says about the table, the bedroom and the grave?… If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck… I don’t make judgments (laughter).”                

Seventy-five years old, this man has taught you, or someone you know, at some time over the last 40 years — thousands of Iowans. He ostensibly teaches courses in the Department of Religion, but everyone knows that is not what he’s teaching. Sure, he’ll teach the great writers, he’ll teach the Bible and he’ll teach you Biblical Hebrew, but that’s not what he’s teaching. He is teaching you how to think, how to live, how to grapple with a world that may not have your best interest at heart. It is intoxicating and terrifying. After 50 minutes of him, you need a nap.                

joes3Ah, but there’s a small catch. Rabbi Holstein’s heart is not so good. Yup, he’s been cut from one end to the other to clean things out. Medications are lined up for their proper dispensation throughout the day, and he carefully navigates workouts that are a shadow of the 100-mile weeks he used to run. Now, after one of his classes, a new weariness is evident. Everything has a price.                

But there he is, standing at the front of the room. Another class. Challenging your morality — challenging your thinking — challenging any mental laziness. He might explode. Or he might not.

“Are you tough enough?” he asks the young man in the fourth row.                

My money is on the teacher. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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