Friday, April 17, 2015

Fire, and the Prairie

Parashat Shemini
For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 17, 2015

I was back on the prairie last week, visiting Chicago with the older of our family's two, who is considering going to school there. It was an extravagant couple days at the University of Chicago. Model classes offered to young people and their parents, including linguistics, economics and even one on the work of JRR Tolkien. There were talks by deans, provosts, trustees and even David Axelrod who now, seemingly, has his own department at the University called, um, the Department of Axelrod or something. I hadn't been an undergrad at the University. But I did study there as a graduate student in linguistics and then in the law school. I spent seven years in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. And then bang, there I was last week, in the middle of all of it again.

I was in pig heaven, which is a phrase I don't particularly understand, and which I'm reluctant to use on this week in which Torah first lays out our ancient dietary laws: no pigs, no camels or rabbits; locusts are fine in a pinch.

So instead let's just say I was filled with relentless, overflowing nostalgia. I knew it was a bad idea to communicate the fullness of this to the 18-year old who, in the face of such parental enthusiasm, could end up choosing the other school for no better reason than that. So I strolled the quads with my best-mustered poker face, trying to only intermittently point out where I used to sit with friends over coffee or where I used to study into the night or where we staged our protests.

It was an odd trip in some ways. My first time in Chicago not having a childhood home to stay in, it now being rented - legendary basement and all - to a set of young cousins. So I was feeling a certain displacement, a new uprootedness in my ancestral city, and maybe that's why I dug so fiercely into my connection with the university and its neighborhood. Just to try to feel at home. I strolled past former apartments. Wandered stealthily into the linguistics department office. Noticed the continuity of culture that certain coffeeshops maintained, even though no one working at or sipping tea in them was even born when they were my hangouts. I saw the Hyde Park Herald on the news rack, a neighborhood paper dating back to 1882, and thought fondly about our own Shira Hadditt, who was once its editor.

To top it off, the University's library had a special exhibit up about University of Chicago's queer history. It was startling and stimulating to see faces, names, stories from my old days. To be reunited, through plexiglass, with artifacts that I myself had donated to Chicago's LGBTQ archive years ago, including a cloth banner that I had considered - but decided against - ironing before donating, thinking who's ever going to see it, and there it was, in the display, wrinkled. And my gay pride quickly dissolved into a deep domestic shame.

The 18-year old was seemingly excited about this exhibit, maybe even proud, or I hope so, although overall I had a strong sense that if I began another sentence with "back in my day," this young, self-professed pacifist would have no choice but to slug me.

But this was my world! How could I not want to gift it all to him?

But such desires are of no use, really. It can't be done. This is the inevitable truth about launching a young person into the world. You're going along, thinking you'll get a chance to teach your kid everything you know or at least everything you wish you'd known at that age; you intend to fill them with self-confidence and hope; you expect to transmit some deep values and some street smarts. But when they're little there's so much reading and counting and shoe-tying that who has time and then they turn 13 and stop listening to anything you say anyway and you missed your chance to teach them cooking skills or gin rummy or a second language or whatever while they were still impressionable and then they turn 17 and now they're people and they start listening to you again but by now there's hardly any time left before they leave the nest and don't look back. And that's when you realize you never taught them how to balance a checkbook and you're uncertain if they can actually read an analog clock. And you fill with shock at your own failure. You certainly transmitted a lot to them, but you're just not quite sure what it was you transmitted. And what if you missed that one detail that could spell the difference between swimming and sinking, between contentment and disappointment, between safety and danger?

These thoughts and regrets must have been swimming through the High Priest Aharon's mind in this week's Torah portion, Shemini. It is a portion that contains a harrowing tale of Aharon in his first day on the job, finally beginning the priestly work after so many chapters of instructions. He stands in the presence of God in the Tabernacle doing the difficult, gory, unpleasant, earthy and unearthly work of the sacrifices. Allowing the people, through this crazy alchemy, to have a vision of God's glory on the doorstep of the Tent of Meeting and to then witness a fire coming forth from God, consuming the offerings.

Aharon finishes this work for which he has been lengthily prepared. And then, without warning, his eldest children, Nadav and Avihu, try it a different way. They offer something like incense, dropping it on the fire, and something goes terribly wrong. A flame issues from God and consumes them as it had just consumed the ox and the ram. In the moment of shock that follows this, Moshe, Aharon's brother, utters something enigmatic and moralistic and, in one of Torah's most poignant moments, Aharon stands there, mute.*1*

The sages, like most readers of Torah, hate this episode. They struggle long and hard to imagine what these two young people did that was so wrong. Why their deaths were justified. Was it the choice of incense? Was it something wrong with the fire pan? Maybe just that they didn't have God's express permission? Or maybe that they were drunk? Or maybe, as Nachmanides offers, they approached the altar with a youthful infatuation with God's power, God's gevurah, and a youthful indifference to God's kindness, God's chesed. They valued God's might and they were met with God's might. And thus the lesson for us is that whatever you choose to value above all else in the world needs to be something you're willing to risk getting back square in the jaw.

But mostly these explanations fail to satisfy us or to console Aharon. And with this episode, the ritual life of our people launches with the unanticipated sacrifice of the firstborn. An unsettling echo of Egypt.

While this plot is unhappy-making, it is not unlike a million anxiety dreams I've had, in which I am responsible for some harm to my kids, or am unable to save them from danger. Perhaps this story is meant to be like a dream, tapping into all of our fears of loss; our anxieties about the future; our feeling that if we had done better, the future would have come out differently.

In this dream, each of us is Aharon. Each of us serves a kind of priestly function. We are the priests, the Cohanim, of our own lives, orchestrating our offerings and our atonements and our petitions and trying to move our lives from sludgy states to holiness whenever possible.

And like Aharon, we are not just priests. We are parents too, some literally and all metaphorically. We all have a posterity. We have all been trying to convey to the future what we know and what we desire. To transmit what we've learned and how we've managed our journeys and how we've tended our own sacred fires. And we fear that despite our detailed instructions, the future will act in unpredictable ways, ways that could bring disaster.

Besides being Aharon, each of us is also Nadav and Avihu, his sons. Each of us has an imperfect knowledge of what came before us. Each of us longs to tend our own fire in our own way. To choose incense instead of blood or vice versa. None of us can worship at exactly the same altar as our parents or teachers or rabbis or leaders. To do so would be soul-killing. And in fact, we are told two verses later in Torah that Nadav and Avihu's cousins pulled them out of the holy chamber by their tunics, which Rashi takes to mean that their bodies were not physically consumed. The damage was to their souls.

The dream of this parashah is a dream of change. The risk it poses. And also its inevitability. There is no doubt that the future will undermine our best hopes. And it will heal some of our worst mistakes. In equal or unequal measure.

All we can do is do the best we can do. Tend our fires. And hope that when flame bursts forth from the Divine, it is not flame that consumes but flame that blazes a trail. So that the next generation can tend a fire that is different and maybe better.

At some point last week, I gave up hoping the 18-year old would worship at the altar of my Chicago days. I stopped telling my Hyde Park stories. My sentimentality and his youth made a truce. Instead we decided to do something together that neither of us had ever done, something to fuel both our flames.

We drove ten blocks south to the old Oak Woods Cemetery. We looked at its burial mound of Confederate prisoners upon which someone had scornfully (I presume) placed an empty bottle of Southern Comfort. And then we looked for graves of trailblazers who rest there. Ida B. Wells, the radical turn-of-the-century African-American journalist; Jesse Owens, the African-American runner whose prowess shamed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics; and Hyde Park's own Harold Washington*2*, Chicago's first black and first progressive mayor, whose ethos made possible gay rights in that city, and whose election so rocked the world that while I was on a 1983 visit to Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia, the mere mention that I came from Chicago, which would have once produced an Al Capone pantomime, now elicited the amused observation, Ah, Chicago. Negri Burgermeister.

These three, Ida, Jesse and Harold, like Aharon's sons, offered something new and in response they drew fire. More fire than anyone deserves. But to our lasting good fortune, they weren't consumed.

And let that be our prayer for our children and their children and for our students and our cultural heirs. Let them bring the new ideas to make the world better, to fulfill a vision of justice and glory that we can't even yet imagine. Let them draw fire if that's what it takes, but use that fire to blaze paths for those who follow. And in the process, may they bring us one generation closer to Olam Haba, to a world perfected.

*1*For a beautiful review of rabbinic interpretation of Aharon's silence, see Rabbi David Kasher's current post on his blog, ParshaNut.

*2*For a good exploration of Harold Washington and his impact, see Gary Rivlin's biography, Fire on the Prairie.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spirograph, Leviticus, and the Cycles of our Lives

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Parashat Vayikra

New moon, new year, equinox, eclipse, junk in a basement. 
The possibilities are endless.

Today is a day when all the cycles collide. It's evening, the denouement of another day on this planet. It's Shabbos, the settling out of another week of struggle and effort. It's a new Hebrew month, the launch of a new lunar cycle. It's the 1st of Nisan, which is one of our people's four new years. (This one is declared in Torah, in the book of Exodus, but historically it relates not to Egypt but to the Babylonian calendar that we adopted in exile, which is why tonight is also Nowruz - the Persian new year.) Meanwhile this particular new moon, thin as a pencil line, traces the underside of a supermoon that is brushing close to us, closer than it has in months. Today was the equinox and the beginning of spring. And to top it off, overnight was a solar eclipse, dazzling the Scandinavians while we were sound asleep. It's like there's a big celestial party going on. All these cycles - 24 hours, 7 days, 28 days, 1 year, 14 months - all of them intersecting and overlapping like the whirling designs we used to make with our Spirograph sets when we were kids.

Do you remember Spirograph? I had a set. So did my sister. Over the last month, they resurfaced in the cycle of chaos and order that over the last year has characterized my mother's basement in Niles, Illinois. As you know from previous drashot, this basement is a magical treasure chest, a never-ending cornucopia of objects from every era of our family's history in this country. From immigration through junk peddling, political scandals, business ventures, cousins clubs and deaths; the basement is littered with diplomas, ketubos, NRA badges, meeting minutes, sheet music and an awesome collection of childhood games. Lynn and I looked at our Spirograph sets side by side. Hers had all the pieces, each one carefully put back in its proper slot after its last use some time in the 1970s. Mine was a mess, many of the translucent plastic disks cracked or chipped; none of them in the right place; the little pins that held pieces and paper to the cardboard backing were all over the place, threatening to prick whoever would reach into the dusty box heedlessly.

My sister decided to keep hers, and it took its place in her takeaway stack, perched atop Candyland and Mystery Date. I let mine go. It's hard for me to let anything go. But I decided to make a clean breast of it. A fresh start. I couldn't see myself at this point in my life sitting and drawing crazy psychedelic spirals anyway, and a half-ruined childhood game seemed a waste of my otherwise prodigious powers of sentimentality.

So I took a fresh start on that one, even while other items cycled back into my "reconsider" pile. See, the thing about cycles is that they're always giving fresh starts and second chances. What I mean is this: we all know that today is just a continuation of time. It is not qualitatively or empirically different from yesterday, other than the fact that it is later; the world is older. But today can feel like a completely different thing. What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours. A new month, a new year, all of these arbitrary markers signal possibility. Rebirth. Reset. Reboot.

Of course, sometimes the desired reboot doesn't happen. We get stuck in a rut, a needle in the groove of an old LP. Whether it's a habit or a grudge or an Israeli election, we don't know how to think, do or try something differently. How to clear the way for a new chance. Sometimes we need something extra, something a little more juiced up, to break the inertia. But what?

One possible answer comes from this week's Torah portion. This week boasts another new beginning, this one in our cycle of Torah reading, which stretches from Genesis to Deuteronomy and from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah. This week we orbit back into the Book of Leviticus, our great and ancient ritual manual. It details a system of offerings that themselves mark time and mark cycles of human experience. Our failings, our leaders' failings, our brushes with death and illness, our communal festivals, our personal joys - all of these end up marked in Leviticus as part of a cycle, marked with ritual offerings. We move from tamei to tahor - from states that are pervaded by everydayness to states that feel radiant with holiness. And back again. In English we call the states described in Leviticus "purity" and "impurity", which is unfortunate. Because they don't refer to physical states of contamination, but to a range of emotional states, spiritual states. Think of the way you feel after you break a promise. Or the way you feel after experiencing a loss. These are psychological states that Leviticus addresses, by prescribing the kind of repair you can do in your world to release it, or the kind of offering you can give to God in order to make a shift and experience, even if briefly, a new start.

In our culture, we don't recognize these fluctuating states in any open, community-supported way. Our emotional ups and downs belong to each of us individually. We hold them privately, even secretly. We are told they are aberrations from what we should be; they are disorders, rather than the emotional landscape of living. We do therapy and we are sold medication. We hide our messy states and pretend we're fine. And we move forward as if we weren't ever in a state of spiritual disarray, when actually we probably are most of the time.

The system in Leviticus, though it seems archaic and, in the case of animal sacrifice, barbaric, was far more accepting of the emotional topography of life than we are. It was assumed that you experienced the full range of life's gifts and sadnesses, fulfillments and foibles. And that you could mark those those by an interaction with the divine that would allow you to transition from one state to another; to let go of one part of the cycle and move forward into another.

In the Levitical code, there's always a new beginning available for you whenever you need it. And the prescription for that new beginning is usually an offering.

So I wonder what we can offer up to help us move from state to state, or to be mindful when we do?

When Lynn and I work in the Chicago basement, it doesn't clearly feel like a cycle, but more often like one, unending difficult state. A jumble of reverence and frustration and ambition and despair. We look at all the holy relics with which my mother was entrusted and ultimately burdened. We sit inside of it and wish it had a cyclical quality. After all, even Sisyphus has his "up" moments. Where are ours?

But then, unforeseen, came some change, through a ritual of offering. We had already been giving furniture and housewares to cousins and friends right and left. But one morning last week I opened a dry cleaner's paper garment bag to discover my father's army uniforms - two dress uniforms and one set of fatigues. They were clean and pressed. His overseas hats folded flat and pinned to the lapels. They had been in this garment bag since, I assume, 1946. They were in pristine condition and their discovery led to a quandary. What do we do with these? They suddenly were symbolic of our father. Not just his service in the army, but the gentle meticulousness that was so part of who he was. How could they be thrown out? We were stuck in a humbling and hobbling reverence for him and needed ritual to move from that state to a different one.

It was my sister's partner who saved the day. Sue said, "Call a theater." And we did. Lynn called Steppenwolf, Chicago's premiere theater, the one that produced Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf - performers whom my mother referred to never as "actors" but rather as "Chicago actors," as if that signified something obvious about their skill and their talent and their loyalty to the city of her birth. Over the past 20 years my mother frequently ushered at Steppenwolf. She would call us after a performance and tell us the storyline, mixing into it tangents about the other ushers and the very nice house managers, all of whose stories were as interesting to her as the plot of the play. Steppenwolf said they'd be happy to take the uniforms. Lynn inquired further. Would they take our grandmothers' and great aunts' fur-collared 1940s and 1950s coats? Yes, they said. And we collected them all up and we lay them on the back seat of the car like sleeping children, and we drove into the city. Laurel, the wardrobe mistress, accepted these with the gentleness and regard that one would hope was shown by the Levites as they accepted the offerings of the Israelites on the steps of the Temple. She examined them to see if they were in fact without blemish. She complimented them. She remarked to us about their uncanny state of preservation. As we left the uniforms and the coats on the costume shop cutting table, the altar of alterations, we felt a burden lifted. This was not like giving coffeepots to cousins. This was an offering, in a near-Biblical sense. We were offering up these objects of love to the greater universe. To the gods of creativity and catharsis. So that someone on stage one day in a diminutively sized seargent's uniform might make an audience member cry or laugh and rethink something in their life and be released from some state that they were trapped in so that they too could have a fresh start.

These clothes, held in suspended animation for seven decades, had now reëntered the cycle of things; they were recycled, upcycled. And we moved from our stone-heavy state to one of elation. Even knowing that the next day we might once again feel buried under the weight of our earthly responsibility. For today, it was new beginnings all around.

So new beginnings. From an outsider's view, every day on this earth just looks like a continuation of the previous day's developments. As Ecclesiastes would say, eyn chadash tachat hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun. But from the inside, from inside our cycles, new beginnings are possible all the time. A new year, a new month, a new day, a new chance. Just offer up what you need to offer up - your regret, your love, your gratitude, your hope. Let the regret burn away. Let the gratitude feed the gods. And then you can descend the Temple steps, into your new beginning, the place where possibility lives.

I am grateful to Suzanne Shanbaum who, when I was at a loss, said, "Write about new beginnings." And to Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who teaches the class I'm taking called, "Learning to Love Leviticus." Thanks to her and my classmates, I am.

Note: This drash is powered by Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

My, You Look Divine!

Esther in the king's chamber. By Elisabetta Sirani

For Congregation Ner Shalom

May I just say? You are all looking divine.

And appearances matter on this particular week in our Jewish reckoning of time and symbol. This was the week of Purim. A story of danger and rescue, managed in large part by the Jewish queen of Persia, Esther, whom Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women ever to have lived [BT Megilah 15a]. She was graced with a kind of beauty that was hard if not impossible to resist, and she ultimately used it not for her own advancement but to save the lives of her people.

In fact, placing herself right in the king's view was, at least to some commentators, a critical element of the strategy to save the Jews. When the edict for the Jews' destruction is issued, Mordecai reaches out to Esther, the palace insider, with the dire request that she should:

לבוא אל–המלך להתחנן–לו ולבקש מלפניו על–עמה

She should come to the king to make supplication to him and to petition before him for her people. [Esther 4:8]

So the Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, also known as the Berditchever, asks the question, "Why does it say 'before him?' Couldn't the text have simply said, "to petition for her people?" Why "to petition before him for her people?"

The answer might have been so that he would clearly see her beauty and his heart would warm. But the Berditchever sees the phenomenon in mystical terms. He says that when Esther enters the king's chamber, the Shechinah would enter with her. And it would then be important for her - for either Esther or the Shechinah - to be planted right smack in front of the king, so that the light of the Shechinah could melt his resistance.

So maybe we need to back up to make sure we're all on the same page or the same column of the same megillah. The Shechinah is what? It is, in Jewish mystical thought, the Divine that dwells among us. The concept is rooted in the Torah portion of a couple weeks ago where God says, "Build me a mikdash, a holy place, v'shachanti b'tocham - and I will dwell among them." [Exodus 25:8] Shachanti - I will dwell - is the same root as shechinah - the dwelling, the residing, the abiding. Before this moment in Torah, God is a character, a personage, a personality like gods of other mythologies might be seen. God speaks to select individuals. God frightens the bejeezus out of the Egyptians and out of the Israelites too. But there isn't yet a sense of God as a presence, which might in fact be the best translation of Shechinah. God's Presence, among us.

The Shechinah (as Shechinah lore evolved) came to be understood as the aspect of God that stays close to us as a people. The Shechinah comes with us into exile. And, in fact, the Book of Esther is one of the very few books of Tanakh that takes place entirely in exile. So in a sense, the Jews of Shushan would have had an intimacy with the Shechinah, even while they might have had a more skeptical relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the great God of the Cosmos, the fiery God of Sinai. God is never mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, as if salvation came davka without God's help. Whereas the presence of the Shechinah might be inferred in the story, the way it is inferred in our lives.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever, is confident that the Shechinah accompanies Esther into  the king's throne room, when she goes in to invite him to her apartments, to resolve with a banquet the terrible trouble that was birthed at a banquet.

Why is the Berditchever convinced the Shechinah will enter with her? Because of her clothes. He points to the language of her entrance:

ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות

On the third day, Esther dressed in malkhut. Esther dressed in "royalty". [Esther 5:1]

What could that possibly mean? It's commonly translated as "Esther dressed in royal robes." Meaning robes of purple and crimson. But the Berditchever points then to Talmud's interpretation:

שלבשתה רוח הקדש

What she wore was the holy spirit. [BT Megillah 15a] The sages of the Talmud, who couldn't bear God's absence in the text, interpreted God right back in. And in the process they were, remarkably, presaging the idea the kabbalists would later call Shechinah. For the kabbalists, the word malkhut, "kingdom", did not just have a geographic or political meaning, but was the name of the last and earthiest of the Ten Sefirot, the nodes of divinity that each pour out a different element into the cauldron of Creation. Malkhut means "kingdom" in the sense of this being the realm under God's rule. Malkhut is Creation as we know it. Everything we have ever experienced exists in the realm of malkhut. We can intuit the other nine sefirot. But malkhut we live in. And in the kabbalistic view, malkhut is home to Shechinah. No, more: malkhut is the Shechinah. So for a kabbalist, whenever you see the word malkhut, you may dare to replace it with the word Shechinah. In which case, the megillah verse reads, "On the third day, Esther dressed in Shechinah." This is why the Rebbe was certain that when Esther entered the chamber, the Shechinah would be with her. She swept into the room, garbed in Shechinah.*1*

Maybe Esther is not unique. Maybe we all sweep into the room garbed in Shechinah whenever we are going to act in a way that brings us toward our purpose. Whether that purpose is justice or healing or tending nature or teaching or witnessing or even raising morale. Maybe there's a connection between getting close to our purpose *2* and getting close to the Shechinah. Mordecai himself suggests this when he says to Esther,

ומי יודע אם–לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות

"Who knows? Maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the malkhut." That you came to the kingdom. Or to sovereignty. Or to the palace. Or to this world. Or maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the Shechinah, or to the Shechinah's attention. [Esther 4:14]

So maybe it is Ruach Hakodesh, that holy spirit, the Shechinah, that each of us wears whenever we are acting in ways that are close to our purpose. Sometimes we can even feel it surrounding us, clothing us, when we perform those brave acts or those mundane acts that just feel right. Like we're wearing a shechinah robe, or a shechinah muumuu, or an off-the-shoulder shechinah toga.

But then sometimes the sensation of divine comes not from outside, wrapped around us, but from inside. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God identifies an artist named Betzalel who will captain the team building the mikdash, the holy place whose construction God requested a couple weeks ago. God says,

ואמלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכל–מלאכה

"I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding and knowledge and every skill." [Exodus 31:2]*3* The idea of the divine spirit infusing Betzalel stands in contrast, perhaps, to a conception of divinity as discrete and separate that is exhibited elsewhere in this very portion. When the Children of Israel give Moshe up for lost and demand a new god, Aharon has them remove their gold earrings. They pass them forward. He melts them down, and fashions a Golden Calf for their worship. [Exodus 32:2-4] Here the god is fashioned from the garb. When Moshe comes down from the mountain and sees this, he goes into a rage. He burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it. [Exodus 32:20] This could just be some kind of punishment or trial, much like the bitter waters adulteresses are subjected to drinking in the Book of Numbers. Or it could be obedience training, like sticking a dog's snout in its own pee. Or maybe it's some symbolic messaging on Moshe's part that divinity is within you, digested, integrated, in all your cells. It is not something worn as an adornment, and removed at will.

So then, is divinity in you, as in Betzalel's case, or around you, as in Esther's? Who's wearing whom?

Maybe we wear each other. We wear Shechinah in our Esther-like moments. When we speak truth to power. When we live our purpose.

And maybe God is wearing us as well. God experiences God's self through malkhut, through our vantage point, in a serious and playful game of dress up. We are God's garb. Not just our bodies, although those are certainly the fabric that holds the garment together. But our thoughts, our loves, our longings, our losses, our musical tastes, our moments of vanity, our quirks - all these are beads on God's necklace, embroidery on God's tunic. God tries on each of us, not for a moment in a fitting room, but for our whole lives.

At the Oscars a couple weeks ago, the faux regal red carpet ritual was played out again, like every year. As is the longstanding custom, the men were asked about their careers, the women about their dresses. And the recurring question was not "What are you wearing," but "Who are you wearing?" When I think of God wearing this world as garb, I like to imagine God on the red carpet; the reporter from E Network shoving the microphone toward the divine mouth. "And so God, who are you wearing tonight?"

"Well," God replies with feigned modesty, "tonight I'm wearing Esther. And Mordecai. And Haman. And Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Myra. And Lorenzo. And Shira. And everyone else here. And everyone watching. And you.

"Oh", God continues, "might I add? You all look . . . divine."


*1* I was very happy to stumble upon this teaching of the Berditchever last week. A couple days later I found that my teacher, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, had just blogged expansively and exquisitely about this very point. You can read her piece by clicking here.

*2* I am grateful to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen for making me think more deeply about purpose, and what engaging it feels like in the body and the spirit.

*3* In explicating the Ruach Elohim, or "spirit of God," this text fascinatingly identifies two (or three)  qualities that would later be considered higher kabbalistic sefirot: chochmah, binah and their synthesis, da'at. What would a kabbalist make of this in contrast to the use of malkhut in Esther? If the spirit is in you, is it from a higher source in the Tree of Life stepladder? And if you are garbed in it, then it is malkhut, or Shechinah, representing a more bottom-up, grassroots  kind of divinity?

Fine print: These drashot are made possible by my work at Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Ghost of Shtetl Future

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Feb. 6, 2015

I took some walks over the last week or two; not here in green Sonoma County, but walks through my family's ancestral shtetl. Well, one of them. A place called Krynki in Polish; the Jews called it Krinek. It is next to the Belarus border, not far from Bialystok, in what was once Grodno Gubernya. I walked there on a Sunday afternoon, then the next day at bed, and a few more times this week. It was a beautiful sunny day in Krinek each time I visited. In fact, it was the same beautiful sunny day each time I visited.

You might not even have noticed me missing, because technically I wasn't. I first visited Krinek eight years ago with my mother and sister, and strolled it on 2 consecutive March days, one similarly sunny and one full of dark, regretful rain. But this time I wasn't there in the flesh. My visit was virtual and I was a kind of cyberghost.

I have always felt drawn to the places of our collective Jewish past, including my family's specific past, and of late I've found myself using high-tech means to maintain my arguably masochistic connection to those places. My iPhone clock tells me the time in Warsaw and the weather app lets me know when it's snowing in Vilna. And sometimes when I want to check in visually, I do so from the sky, using satellite images on Google Earth.

And that's what I'd intended to do last week: a little look-down, look-over, of Krinek. And in that process, I saw for the first time that Google Streetview was now available for Poland.

If you don't know about Streetview, the idea is this. Drivers, hired by Google, roam every street in the world that they can get access to, with a 360-degree multi-directional camera thingy that works with sensors and a rolling shutter. This is mounted on a tower on the roof of the car. As they drive, imagery is taken in from all directions - forward, backward, sides, up and down, the camera's gaze waving like a lulav. Then the massive Google brain stitches these shots together to create, arguably, the world's largest photo - a navigable photo that includes every street, every highway, every publicly accessible house in the world.

And while most people use this function in mundane ways, like seeing what the restaurant looks like that they're trying to find, and maybe the more adventurous among us explore the streets of Rome or Rio, I choose the shtetl.

I can't say why this connection to the Old Country is so important to me. Most American Jews don't remember where the last stop across the ocean was. They might know the country or region even but not the town. Two generations ago, the town continued to be an important marker of identity, even in America. Our grandparents belonged to fraternal organizations, landsmanshaftn, organized to help others from their own shtetl. My great-grandparents were lynchpins in Chicago's Krinker Fareyn, the group for immigrants from Krinek, and my great-grandfather headed the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. The members of the Fareyn bought and walled off a section of Chicago's monumental Waldheim Cemetery. My great-grandparents are buried there, flanked by Krinker luminaries, such as they are, including Studs Terkel's parents on one side of them, and the Shure Brothers, founders of the pro audio equipment company, on the other.

The generation of Jews who could freely talk about their Eastern European towns and villages is gone. But I like to be an aberration in my generation. Sometimes it's meaningless. Mentioning Krinek has never gotten me a discount or even a smile at Shure Audio, and Lord knows I've tried. But once in a while I do meet someone like me. At Oliver's one day I was sampling coffee from the Bella Rosa people. Ari was with me and there were sugar cubes on the sampling table and Ari joked I should put a cube between my teeth, like my great-grandfather did. I was pleased he'd remembered my story, but I said that he did that not with coffee but with a glezl tey - a glass of tea. David, the owner of Bella Rosa looked up and said, "He was Russian?" I said, "Well, between Bialystok and Grodno." And to my delight, he said, "My family comes from a shtetl between Bialystok and Grodno too." It wasn't the same one, but nearby, and suddenly we were neighbors. Landsman. And now I drink Bella Rosa when I can, because isn't that the job of landsman, to help each other get a leg up in this golden land of opportunity?

So back to my walks. Over these last couple weeks I've gone back to Krinek, with the help of Google Streetview. I move around in the village, navigating using the keys of my laptop. Forward, right, stop. Turn around. Look at the houses in all directions. I can transport myself any direction at will, as long as I don't try to go where the Google car couldn't reach. And so I feel like a ghost, bound by the kind of arbitrary rules that bind ghosts in every legend and every horror film. I can go toward the houses but I can't go in. I can float down a street but not a footpath or a blind alley. I can't go in the water. I am invisible. I am stuck in the same day all the time. My sight is impaired: there are places that are distorted, pixelated; houses sometimes bend or bulge on the periphery.

Ruins of the Slonimer Yeshivah
But being a ghost here seems fitting. This was a town that in its heyday had a population of 4000; 80% of them were Jews. There were synagogues, a mikveh, a Slonimer yeshivah. It was a town of labor unrest, where striking tannery workers managed to win a more humane workday of a mere twelve hours. There were reprisals by the Russian Army against the town's Jews for leading those strikes, beginning around 1902, prompting masses of Krinkers to leave for North and South America — my ancestors among them.

There are no more Jews in Krinek. Not a single one, as far as anyone knows. In 1941 they were corralled into a long, narrow ghetto running along the river from the town center to Gabarska Street, where the Jewish tanneries stood. And a year later the Jews were gone altogether and Krynki became a ghost town.

The path of the Krynki Ghetto.
How does one live in a ghost town? I don't know. The 800 Poles who remained somehow managed it. They spent the Communist Era and beyond slowly occupying the empty space. It took 65 years for the population count to return to 4000, 65 years of pushing back the ghost town, street by street, house by house.

And my mind gets stuck on what this process looked like. I can't help but think that for every one of those houses, there was a moment when someone pried a mezuzah off a doorpost. Maybe they did it grieving, maybe they did it gloating. But it was a thing, a real thing, a real and symbolic thing that happened, for each of those houses.

Roaming the streets of Krynki, invisible, propelled not by legs on pavement but by fingers on a keyboard thousands of miles away, I look at those houses, at the unevenness of the paint on the doorposts revealing where mezuzot had once, and for generations, been affixed. The town still feels empty. And though I call it a ghost town, I am the only ghost there. The Bashevis Singer-style phantoms you would expect decamped half a century ago, boarding ships to who knows where.

Still, my own odd, ghostly presence allows me to see somehow between the pixels and perceive the celestial beings that have not quite given up on this broken place.

This very week, we read a haftarah from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a terrifying vision of God's throne. Above it hover seraphim, fiery beings. Each one has six wings - two hiding its face, two around its legs and the middle two keep it aloft. The seraphim famously cry to each other kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai tz'vaot; holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts. And at that cry, Isaiah says,

וינעו אמות הספים מקול הקורא
the doorposts shook from the crier's voice...

And sure enough, it was the doorposts in Krynki where I too saw the celestial beings. Visible only to ghosts like me, there were three at every doorpost of every house. Their upper wings enfolded their heads like turbans. Their lower wings wrapped their bodies like a gabardine. Their middle wings did not beat but instead draped over their shoulders like a tallit, feathers dangling like fringe. They looked like Jews, they looked like my grandparents, but on second thought they didn't look human at all. They looked like all people and all creatures. They were of all genders, each of them, and their eyes were aflame. They were seraphim - fiery angels, determined to burn off the pain, the trauma, of the past.

Standing in their threesomes, they faced the indentation in the paint, the spot where the mezuzah once hung, where the violence of the crowbar took place. I could see the creatures clearly, even while the house itself blurred and the street buckled from too many camera angles. I could see them standing steady, facing the mezuzah, rising up and down on their toes saying kadosh kadosh kadosh, although I couldn't tell if it was in fact aloud that they said it.

He sees the Google car, but he can't see me.
They went about their work with singular focus, undistracted by cars or kids on bicycles. They were unfazed by people coming and going out of those very doors. Unlike in Isaiah's vision, the doorposts did not shake at the sound of their voices. Still, if you looked with a different kind of eye, you could perceive that the angels' words were exciting the atoms, animating the molecules. A kind of light, not quite light as we know it, was pooling on the doorpost in the shape of a mezuzah. It was clear that through the angels' steady labor, the house would be restored and the Jews of the house would come to be recreated too, in some spectral way, in their Shabbos finery, with their songs and cigarettes and political arguments and sentimental poems. Parents kissing their children, making kugel, making kiddush, bentshing likht. All of this, re-forged in light.

I do not know to what end the angels' project was undertaken. It seemed to be a tikkun, a healing. If so, was it for the sake of the Jews who were lost? Or for the Polish children living, unaware, in the house? Or for God's own sake, God, whose hands are voluntarily tied and kept from tampering with history, but who wishes forgiveness anyway?

Or maybe the seraphim are teaching us a lesson: that there is healing for all our broken places. Slow healing. Maybe the first step is envisioning those places, both inside and out, as healed, as holy. Imagining them glowing, wondrous. And then our task is to do the work that will, as philosopher Jean Houston has said, "make the wonderful probable."

So perhaps I speculated about this for a moment, but in my ghostly condition I could not have asked, and the seraphim would not have answered. Still, whatever its cosmic purpose, I was suddenly able to see what the angels were aiming at. They were crafting an angle, a facet, of Olam Haba, the World to Come. And there it now was, flickering before me. A glowing Shabbos shtetl, a hubbub of light under a starry Chagall sky. This vision of brokenness healed and life reignited filled my mind and coursed through my veins like fiery brandy. I breathed in the familiar Polish air, catching a hint of pine trees and candlewax and challos baking. It was now Shabbos in the village. The sounds of khasidishe niggunim drifted out of one nearby window; revolutionary anthems out of another. I closed my eyes, a whisper of kadosh kadosh kadosh emerging from my lips as I sighed and closed my laptop.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

D.I.Y. Song of the Sea

This week, the week of Shabbat Shirah, we read the Song of the Sea. (Exodus 15:1-21.)

The Children of Israel stood at the Red Sea; Pharaoh's army closed in. Deep water ahead. Horses, chariots, spears behind. Every Israelite there thought this was the last moment before death. And, after giving up on the possibility of defense or escape, after giving up on the certainty and habit of living, the unexpected, the unexpectable, happened: a miracle. Or a low tide that hadn't been properly forecast. However it happened, the possibility and promise of life came flooding back. They crossed - on dry land or hoisted by angels; it is unclear. On the other side, after the waters surged into place and the pursuing army was destroyed, there was a terrible silence. And then Moshe and the people began to sing a song. The Song of the Sea. It came to all of their lips simultaneously. They sang, and then Miriam and the women took drums and danced. This celebration was necessary before the business of the next journey could begin.

So what is your Song of the Sea? What is the danger that you escaped? The illness you recovered from? The crisis that was resolved or averted? The thing that didn't end well, that stung, but nonetheless you survived? The decision that brought you to where you are, but in retrospect you see it could have gone terribly wrong?

All these things are important. Worth noticing. Worth celebrating.

So here is a Do-It-Yourself Song of the Sea, to help you do just that.

  • Answer Questions 1 through 5 on a separate screen or sheet of paper.
  • Read the subsequent words of celebration, plunking in your answers for Questions 1 through 5 as directed.
  • Modify or improvise to make it fit and to make it one degree more honest.
  • When you finish reading it, go back and read it again more fluently.
  • Add some melody or a sing-song tone of voice that you make up.
  • Keep singing the melody, even after you're done with the words.
  • Take a drum or a tambourine or a saucepan and wooden spoon and dance around your house, singing and drumming. Throw key words back in if you wish.
  • Repeat the whole exercise whenever you escape danger or come through a hard time. At the very least, do this once a year on Shabbat Shirah.


1. Describe, in one sentence, a danger you escaped.

2. Name a personal quality or strength that enabled you to escape this danger.


3. Name another personal quality that enabled you to escape this danger.


4. Name an ancestor or mentor or favorite great aunt who shared those qualities.


5. What is the most surprising part about escaping this danger or coming through this experience?



I sing a song to Adonai the triumphant, for ______1_______.

_____2______ and _____3______ really saved my ass. And I am grateful.

Because those qualities in me didn't come from nowhere. Adonai gifted them to me. Just as Adonai gifted them to _____4______.

_____2______ and _____3______ are two of Adonai's faces. And Yah is Adonai's name.

There was a moment when I feared I was lost. A moment where I thought there was no escape. But despite the odds, _____5______.

I will surely remember this experience. But the pain and fear of it shall be absorbed into the great waters of my life until they are ripples on a gentle sea under a warm and soothing breeze.

This survival is glorious. This survival is holy. Who is like you, Adonai, who holds my head above water?

When I next meet such a danger, it will be different. It will turn tail and flee. Because I am stronger. I have crossed the sea and made it to the other side.

This is my song of gladness. This is my dance of joy. This is my gentle victory lap. These are my humble thanks.

I sing a song to Adonai the triumphant, for ______1_______.

And my journey continues.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Parashat Vayechi: Gathered to his People

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Jan. 2, 2015

Rembrandt: Jacob Blessing Joseph's Children
I had a chance to be at the ocean last week on a surprisingly bright and warm Dillon Beach day. I stood on the sand and watched the waves. The ocean extended itself out toward the dunes, and then gathered itself back. I had a moment of wondering which of these was the positive space and which the negative. With each expansion of the sea, the earth would contract. And with each contraction of the sea, the earth would seem to expand. There was no net gain or net loss. Instead, always some element to fill the space.

These thoughts came back to me as I read this week's Torah portion, a very beautiful piece of Torah, the last bit of Genesis, in which Jacob bids farewell to his children with prophecies and character assessments and then expires. His death is described poetically. So poetically, in fact, that, as Rabbi David Kasher reminds us in his Parshanut blog this week, there is some mystical uncertainty whether Jacob ever died at all.

The key phrase that jumps out is this:

ויכל יעקב לצות את–בניו ויאסף רגליו אל–המטה ויגוע ויאסף אל–עמיו

Jacob finished instructing his children. And he gathered his feet into the bed, breathed out his last, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33.)

There is something striking about the repetition of the Hebrew verb asaf, "to gather," within the verse. The first instance of it, Jacob's gathering of his feet into the bed, is a detail that is intimate and physical. Whereas his being gathered to his people is majestic and metaphysical.

But this is Torah, and the repetition of a word means we are supposed to relate the two iterations to each other, equate them in some way. So the two instances rub off on each other. Jacob's intimate drawing of his feet into the bed is lent some extra grandeur and dignity. And the stately moment of his death is imbued with coziness and warmth.

This verb asaf, "to gather" was also used earlier in this same passage of Torah, at the beginning of the scene. It says:

ויקרא יעקב אל–בניו ויאמר האספו
Jacob called out to his children and he said "gather yourselves."
(Genesis 49:1) Or slightly more literally, "be gathered."

What light does this instance of the verb shine on Jacob's death? There's something about gathering together. That Jacob's death is not just a parting, but a kind of coming together.

My mother's death last year also had a "gathering" quality to it. From the moment of her stroke, loved ones, including many people here and many people far away, came together for her. To witness, to help, to soothe. They gathered in her hospital room until they overflowed into the hallway. They gathered on Facebook, watching for posts like villagers in the square, awaiting the town crier. And when she died, they showed up in Santa Rosa to chant and in Chicago to mourn.

But it's not the attendee count that is significant in this idea of a death being a kind of gathering. Because whether we are a community of 100 or a family of 50 or a household of a scant handful, death has a way of stripping away our differences. We all look more alike in the presence of death. We see beyond and underneath our squabbling to what we share - our mortality, our physicality, our fear, our love of life, our love - period. When Jacob says, "be gathered" to his children, he doesn't just mean that everyone should show up in the room, but that they should allow themselves the closeness that our day-to-day differences sometimes impede.

If we look beyond the book of Genesis, we find other instances of the verb asaf that could color our understanding of Jacob's death. Sometimes it's used in an agricultural sense - gathering grain, collecting fruit. Now imagine Jacob's death in that context. His life had sprouted, grown, flowered and fruited. And at the age of 147 - the ripe old age of 147 - his soul was at last ripe for the plucking. And he was gathered.

Other times asaf is used in the sense of drawing back, or drawing something back that had already been offered or extended. Sometimes it's physical, like when King Saul says to the High Priest,

אסף ידך

Gather your hand, meaning "draw back your hand." (1 Samuel 14:19.) And sometimes it's a more intangible image, for instance in the book of Joel, in a prophecy about the end of days:

לפניו רגזה ארץ רעשו שמים שמש וירכ קדרו וכוכבים אספו נגהם

Before God the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon grow dim and the stars gather - i.e. draw back - their brightness. (Joel 2:10; repeated in 4:15.)

In both these examples, something that was given is being retracted. The priest's hand, the light of stars. Here asaf, to gather, implies a drawing in of something that had already been emanated outward. Jacob's life had been radiated into this world; now it was being pulled back.

The idea of a soul being emanated into this world and drawn back at death is more deeply developed in our Kabbalistic tradition. In that cosmology, the soul is made up of three components (18th Century Rabbi Chayim Luzzato and others say five but we'll keep it simple). The neshamah soul is sourced in God and at the neshamah level, this root level, we are all connected. The ruach soul is the conduit that reaches into this world. And the nefesh soul is the one most identified with our physical being and this physical world. It is our personality; it is what we're referring to when we say, "Oh this Mogen David shpritzer is so good for my soul."

When we die, our mystical story goes, this nefesh soul is cut off from the neshamah and the ruach which are busy retracting into the Oneness of God, like the recoil of a snapped rubber band. The nefesh will follow as well, but it is so identified with the joys and pains of this world, that it lingers for a year. It is, according to our tradition, the presence we sense in a deceased loved one's absence.

I can testify to this as can anyone who has lost a parent or a close loved one. Just this week I emerged from the first year - first solar year - of my mother's death. And for this whole year I have felt her close. She has crowded my thoughts, visited my dreams, sat in a place of honor for holidays and simches. Whether that is her nefesh staying close out of love or disorientation, I couldn't say. Or maybe it was simply me, stuck in the deep, never-before-broken habit of having a mother.

Either way, the truth is that I do feel a little different this week. I have experienced every landmark of the calendar now without her. And I feel somehow lighter or freer or less pained. I noticed it yesterday on a new year's walk. She was in my memory, in my thoughts, in my enjoyment of the day. But in a different way that I can't quite describe.

I'm now in an in-between state. The solar cycle has completed. Yet, because of the caprices of the Hebrew leap year, I am given another two and a half weeks to mourn, to be an avel, with Mom's first yortzayt falling, ironically, on my father's birthday. And there it is: another gathering. Mom and Dad, he'asfu. Be gathered.

I think I now feel Mom more integrated into me. Her memory stirring pleasantly in my own nefesh. Which makes me wonder something else about Jacob's death. Torah says, vaye'asef el amav. "He was gathered to his people." We naturally read the reference as being to his predecessors - Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca. Even his dead wives, Leah and Rachel. But Torah doesn't say "his ancestors," and Torah could have if Torah wanted to. Instead it says "his people," which is a term devoid of chronology. It does not need to refer to the ones who came before him. It could refer to his successors: to us! We call ourselves Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, Israel being Jacob's AKA.

At the moment of his last breath, Jacob was gathered into us. And sure enough, here he is still. We carry him inside us. We tell his story. We reënact his life, with sibling tensions and work struggles and heavenly dreams and love foiled and love found and wrestling matches and tearful reunions and an enduring ambition to scratch out some legacy for a world we can't yet foresee. Jacob is withdrawn from this physical world; he is gathered into us and we continue him. The magic of the gathering is that, like the waves and the shore, it is not a net gain or net loss, but a rearrangement, a reconfiguration. Jacob's death is a contraction. And with it comes an expansion in our souls, as his memory comes to be ours, as he comes to be a person not of this earth but of our spirit. 

And maybe that is true of all our losses; they do not create emptiness, even if they seem to at first. They form space, maybe early on filled with grief, but later, we hope, filled with love and memory and whatever values and stories and jokes our lost loved ones imparted to us, making us the next great souls whose goodies will in turn belong to others.

One more instance of this tricky verb, asaf, relevant to the question of loss. We read this in Psalm 27:

כי–אבי ואמי עזבוני ויי יאספני

My mother and father have left me, and Adonai gathers me in.

Adonai gathers me in. Into an embrace? Maybe God exposes the fullness, the God-ness, of the now-vacated space where father and mother once were. Where they had been, like Jacob, plucked from the vine, retracted like starlight in reverse. And where we look to see emptiness, we find some fullness too. After all, God has a soft spot for spaces that look empty but are full. God has created whole universes inside just such places.

And in this shmitah year, which we talked so much about over the High Holy Days, this fallow year, maybe it will become evident to us that the space we create by curbing our compulsive tinkering in the world is not empty space after all. But full of God or love or spirit. It is not a hole but a wholeness that we find.

May we all gather and be gathered. To each other. To our loved ones who are here. To our loved ones who are gone. So that even as we say, when we must, "Goodbye Mom," we know we are saying "Hello Mom" as well.

Dedicated, as always, to Marilyn Keller.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Re-Vision Weekly

For Congregation Ner Shalom
It is a well-known and empirically proven fact that we Jews get a neshamah yeteirah, a second soul, on Shabbat. This has been discussed extensively in the mystical literature, of course. And on the more scientific front, Medieval French commentator Rashi has proven it through his analysis of the phrase uv'yom hashvi'i shavat vayinafash (Exodus 31:17) - "on the seventh day God shavat, "rested" (from the same root, obviously, as shabbat) and God yinafash, "breathed or expanded." In the chemistry of the Hebrew language, the molecule yinafash is primarily composed of the atom nefesh, which is one of our words for Soul. So you could read the verse as "on the seventh day God 'sabbathed' and put some soul in it."

But more than from textual proofs, we know about our additional Sabbath Soul from our own experience. We know in our heads it's shabbos when we light that first candle. But we feel the influx of that neshamah yeteirah, as we see the second candle catch. If you were distracted and missed that moment, check it out right now. I'll bet you feel fuller now than you do on other days. Because you are fuller now, with these two souls stuffed in you, playing and embracing.

We look forward to the arrival of our Sabbath Soul every week and we welcome it. But, one must ask, do we ever ask it how things are back home, in the holy spiritual realms that it can inhabit? No we don't. And it's a shande, a disgrace.

So this week I thought I'd do just that. I got a bit of a jump on Shabbat, since it's dark so early now. I took the opportunity before services to sit down with my second soul, and have a good chat. I didn't really need to catch her up on my doings, but I did make a point of finding out what's happening in the realms of holiness and possibility that she spends her time flitting around in. And I was surprised. That world of holy potential looks so much like ours. The differences are small. And she caught me up on all the news. Here's what I learned.

This week in the realm of holy potential, the president issued an Executive Order on Immigration, reminding everyone that they had mostly all once been strangers in a strange land. Congress responded by passing a Welcome Wagon law, setting up checkpoints near borders. When immigrants are stopped, agents provide them with trail mix and water and a list of services, including schools, health clinics, housing options, job training and upcoming cultural events.
In California, a lot of rain fell all week. Because of good, widespread permaculture practices, this will mean excellent organic produce ahead. No mudslides were reported, and no houses fell into the ocean.
The State of Israel passed a nationality law. It states, "We the Jewish people have longed to be in this place for thousands of years. We look forward to sharing it with our neighbors who love it as much as we do." It's unclear what the legal effect of the law is, although multi-ethnic block parties are now cropping up all over the country.
In Ferguson, Missouri, two black teens were walking down the middle of a street late at night. A police officer rolled up and asked them to walk on the sidewalk. The young men  said they didn't mind taking the risk. The officer is reported to have said, "Yeah, I was a kid once too," as he waved and drove away to fight crime and protect the public.
In what some see as a related story, a police officer in Staten Island came upon a man selling individual cigarettes, an act that business interests had made illegal. The officer began to chat with the man about the oddness of that law when he noticed the man's wheezing. Concerned about all the second-hand smoke he must be breathing, the officer ran home and grabbed the man a box of nicotine patches to sell instead. The officer and the man sat down and wrote a grant proposal for law enforcement and community members to walk the streets together offering public health interventions, now a model program in that world.
Students in Hong Kong protested for more democracy. A quick vote was taken throughout the country, and the rest of the population agreed.
The Centers for Disease Control came out with a surprise statement about circumcision, of all things! The statement pointed out that circumcision is associated with a 50% reduction in HIV transmission among heterosexual African men. The statement went on to say, however, that condoms are twice as effective, so there's no point using health as a reason for circumcision. "Deep down, it's really a cultural matter," said one CDC spokesperson. Jewish communities agreed and began a series of Town-Shul meetings to check in and see if this ancient ritual is still something we feel good about, or if there are other symbolic ways to welcome our children into the tribe that might make us feel even better.
It was noticed that Northern California sits about halfway between Kyoto and Vilna, and that is what makes it ideal soil for equal parts contemplation and Torah study.
Jews all over the world read the Torah portion called Vayishlach. In it, Jacob and his family have returned to Canaan after the years of his labor for Laban. Shechem, a local prince, sees Jacob's daughter Dinah and finds her spellbinding. He manages to catch her alone and make an arguably aggressive sexual advance. Dinah, however, says, "No, I barely know you." And of course it is axiomatic in this world that "no" means "no." So instead Shechem went home and began writing love poetry and heartfelt folksongs dedicated to her. Little by little he won her over, and when she was sure of him, she gave him a "yes." Jacob was at first bummed that Shechem was not of his tribe, but Dinah was so clearly happy, and Shechem was a decent guy. So Jacob and Leah paid for the wedding, and this signalled the first of many peaceful relationships established between the Children of Israel and their neighbors.
But not all that happens in the other realms is, as our 13-year old, Ari, would say, "happy butterfly pony" stuff. There was sorrow. There were misunderstandings. There was even violence. But these were mostly responded to quickly with fine, sincere apologies and many displays of good intention and acts of service. Some people there did act in some small-minded ways. But the expansiveness one feels in those worlds every day, not just on shabbat, made it easier for people to yinafash, to re-expand, when the small-mindedness was pointed out to them. And people still became sick; some died. Their loved ones cared for them with kindness; mourners were embraced by community and given some extra slack and compassion and casseroles, and that part reminded me very much of my experience of this world.

And with that thought, I came back into my body, and realized that even if there was more my Shabbat Soul could tell me, I really needed to change clothes for shul, grab a bite, and make sure the chairs were all placed right. But it's okay; I got plenty of her other-worldly vision; enough to hold me and to move me well through next Friday.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Learnings from YiddishLand (Parashat Toldot)

For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 21, 2014

I will get around to this week's Torah portion, Toldot, in just a little bit. But the thing that has really been pressing on my brain all week long is actually YiddishLand, last week's festival of Yiddish culture here in Sonoma County. It has overtaken all my thoughts, maybe because I've been down sick and repetitive thoughts are what happen to me when I'm down sick. (Better this than some Britney Spears song.)

YiddishLand was amazing. And how it unfolded was amazing. That four people, planning and conspiring over a really short period of time could pull it off; that everyone in the community said yes to everything we asked of them; and that we filled this building with more people than we have ever had, except for High Holy Days. And YiddishLand did, in fact have a kind of High Holy Day feel - a very grand and musical erev followed by an intimate and intense daylight yom experience, an emesdike yiddishe yontev.

YiddishLand was so satisfying, but it was a puzzlement too. As people started snatching up more concert tickets than we have parking spaces in all of Cotati, I began to wonder, what makes this thing so irresistible?

Theories have swirled around in my brain; 600 words of which are appearing this weekend in an Op Ed in the Press Democrat. But trust me, I have more than 600 words-worth of thoughts on this, lucky you.

So why did people respond to YiddishLand with such enthusiasm and joy? Yes, we offered great entertainment and classes. But I suspect what we were selling was not exactly what we thought we were selling. We were offering, for the low, low price of $18 on Saturday and $0 on Sunday, a sense of belonging; an unfettered belonging that a certain large segment of Jews - maybe all Jews, maybe all people - are looking for right at this very moment.

YiddishLand seemed to be a way to touch back into the feel of tribe, without having to get a tattoo or go to Burning Man. It was tribal. It was a safe way to be Jewish. There were no religious requirements - as people assume there are when they come to shul. A synagogue - even a welcoming place like Ner Shalom that doesn't make particular theological demands - is often a locus of religious anxiety, where we sit and feel conflicted about God and tradition and all our clashing values. Even those of us who love and spend our lives inside of Jewish tradition and ritual often find ourselves in a mixed posture: part embrace, part apology. But coming for YiddishLand was something you could do with no apology at all.

And YiddishLand made no ideological demands either. While a century ago Yiddish-speaking Jews might be loudly and angrily debating socialism and communism and the role of literature, those days have passed. What remains in our hands of the Yiddish world is unencumbered by factionalism. And our biggest ideological hotspot right now as Jews - the State of Israel - severed its relationship with Yiddish long ago. So Israel plays no role in the world of Yiddish revival. At YiddishLand, there was no State to promote and no State to defend and no State to krekhtz over, and it felt like a small, guilty, and blessed reprieve. 

So the Jews felt free to show up, at least the Ashkenazim did. Well, Ashkenazim and the people who love them. And it was fun. Crazy fun. But the ever-cynical part of me kept wondering if the whole enterprise was just an indulgence in nostalgia. After all, every Jew in the room could - and would, and did - tell you a story about Yiddish, and generally it had to do with family matriarchs and warm childhood feelings. I myself am a shockingly nostalgic person, but I don't want a tribe that is built on that only.

Maybe it's not nostalgia that's the driving force here. It is more a kind of longing to repair something that's broken, to fill in something that's missing. And something is definitely missing for us. There is some kind of transmission that we would have had from our tribe that we didn't get. One disruption of transmission happened when our ancestors arrived, traumatized, on this continent and decided never to speak of the Old Country. Another disruption happened when the next generation used Yiddish as the secret code for the adults instead of as the secret code for the whole family. Another disruption in transmission came when we, our younger selves, decided we didn't want or need any of that Jewish stuff anyway.

A lot of those are turning points we now regret. And now it's time to come back to this week's Torah portion. Because in it, Esau makes a decision about his inheritance that he will later regret. This is the story of Jacob and Esau. Esau is the firstborn, barely, and by law he is the one to inherit both property and blessing from his father. But these are things he doesn't care about in the moment. Jacob, however, is beloved by his mother. Torah tells us he "sits in tents," meaning he's a homebody. (If my kids sat in tents they'd be impressively outdoorsy, but this was another era.) So we might reasonably picture Jacob sitting in the tent at his mother Rebecca's side, as she conveys to him all the family stories and customs. Even before he goes and buys his brother's birthright for a bowl of soup, we could easily imagine him to already be the inheritor of the family transmission. He is invested in the past and seems to have an eye toward posterity. Whereas Esau sees no use for what the past is offering, and seems not to be able to imagine a future where he will begin to care. As it says in the parashah, vayivez Esav et hab'chorah. "Esau disdained his birthright."

Now this is not meant to be a sermon about why can't you be more like Jacob, especially since Jacob frankly doesn't come off so great in this episode. Instead, I want to point out that each of us contains both Jacob and Esau. A part that will do anything to grab hold of our inheritance and the blessing that comes with it. And a part that will let go in exchange for something else that is, at least as far as we can tell in that moment, more important. We have to have both these parts. We could never carry the full life stories and wisdom of every ancestor from every direction. Our lives are not long enough, our brains not ample enough. We must have selective memory. There is no one on the planet who does not choose what they take from the past and what they convey into the future.

The question becomes how we know when to let go. How we know when the sustenance of the lentil soup is greater than the cost to our heritage. Our grandparents withheld their Yiddish from us. For them it was just a language, it wasn't a gateway to a mysterious and forbidden culture. And what they imagined their children and grandchildren could gain by a truly saturated American life was more important to them. Our American-ness was our grandparents' judgment call. They'd lived through 60 generations of outsiderness; this was their chance to fix it. To do something different. To have descendants like us - who could write and sing and design and build and vote. Who could do body work and program apps and be doctors and teachers and astronauts and a million things they'd never heard of and we haven't yet either.

We are our grandparents' judgment call. They dreamed a better life for us. And, for the most part, they dreamed right. And there is loss in that too. Inevitable loss. But not necessarily irremediable loss. And so if, in gratitude for their great ocean voyages and their years of pushing a peddler's cart through city streets, we want to infuse into our lives and our world and our posterity, some of the flavor, some of the language, some of the wisdom of their world, it is entirely our prerogative to reach back and grab what we can for ourselves. Abi gezunt.

And that's not just our grandparents' Yiddish lullabyes or Ladino or Arabic ones either that I'm talking about. There is vastness in our history - mysticism and devotion and learning and custom of a million sorts. Whatever we need to grab and learn and absorb in order to have our feet firmly planted on the ground, in order to feel rooted enough in this rootless time, so that we can weather the storms ahead and flower all the more brilliantly on the other side - they are there for the taking.

We must be both Jacob and Esau. We must grab onto birthright and make it a blessing for us and for this world that we will give birth to. And we must also be willing to let go of what we can't or shouldn't carry. Let go of our hurt. Our pain. Our anger. Whatever keeps us from hope. So that we can feel both belonging and openness. Denseness and expanse. Wisdom and curiosity. So that we will merit a proud yesterday - an eydele nekhtn - and a better tomorrow, a sholemdike morgn.

I am grateful to my YiddishLand collaborators: Gale Kissin, Suzanne Shanbaum and Gesher Calmenson, whose dedication and vision continues to amaze me.