Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections of a Retiring Drag Queen


Splitsville!
 
The Affair of a Lifetime
 
It was Kahlil Gibran who first famously said, if you love someone, let them go.
Which has got to be the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard. I mean, yes, if they don’t come back, they were never yours, blah blah blah. But who wants to find that out? And then you’re just left full of high-fallutin’ principle, surrounded by people you don’t particularly care for. No. If you love someone, hang on tight.
And that’s what Winnie and I have done. We’ve stuck together for 21 years now. She’s seen me through a lot: legal practice, new love, marriage, children, the boomeranging of a long cast-off rabbinic calling, and the loss of both my parents. And she’s no picnic either. I’ve seen her through meltdowns, relationships, hairdos, artificial insemination, Republicanism, cleaning obsessions, and even prison (trafficking in Julia Child pornography, if you don’t recall).
But sometimes it is time to say goodbye, and you may be surprised (or relieved, or sad, or indifferent) that Winnie and I are, at long last, bidding each other farewell. No scandal. No drama. No cheating. No vicious fight over the labradoodle. It’s just that we want different things. She might nod towards domesticity, but she loves her life on the stage. I love life on the stage too, but after 21 years, I want to be home.
And so I offer this tribute to my time as a member of the Kinsey Sicks, to my colleagues therein, to my hopes for the future, and to Winnie, the second greatest love of my life.

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be
By now the story of the founding of the Kinsey Sicks is well known. There was a Bette Midler concert. There were friends. There was a crazy idea. There was an enthusiastic ovation from an audience full of people not there to see us.
That was in December of 1993. Seven months later we were on an iconic street corner, Castro and Market, at Harvey Milk Plaza, performing our first show. Luckily we thought to shoot video of it. There we were, the Kinsey Sicks sprung fully formed out of the pounding heads of Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Abatto Avilez, and me.
Well, maybe not fully formed, but well on our way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel was already obnoxious, Trixie already a slut, Vaselina already a dipshit. Winnie was the one waiting to begin a long journey of self-discovery. At the beginning she emulated her mother – me – far too much. She was Irwin in a dress. I wasn’t an actor; I didn’t know how to create a character. I look at the videos and see myself in those years: bearded, wooden, Irwin-in-a-wig, engaging in some side task like finding props or adjusting someone’s microphone, thinking that no one would notice. As if by sheer force of will, I could make my on-stage multitasking invisible.
But luckily, Winnie began asserting herself. I confess that I liked her well enough, but didn’t start falling in love with her until maybe 7 years later. That’s when I began loving her for her faults. I began to realize that while my own insecurity on stage and determination that nothing go wrong were an impediment to my performance, they were the stuff of sublime comedy for Winnie. Slowly I learned that she’s far more entertaining in her foibles than her triumphs, unless the triumph is obviously illusory. Winnie standing center-stage in nervous, wide-eyed silence, searching for a way to cover up the awful thing that the other girls undoubtedly just did is Winnie at her funniest and her most lovable. Not just to the audience, but to me.
Like all of our characters, Winnie grew to embody the traits that make me bad dinner company. Winnie would come to blurt out esoteric trivia (which the other girls, at the instigation of Maurice Kelly, came to refer to as unnecessaria, as in "Well thank you, Winnie, for that little bit of unnecessaria."). Often it would have to do with grammar, or subtle points about Proto-Semitic lateral fricatives. She would, with great enthusiasm, try to amuse an overdrinking Puerto Vallarta audience with a bizarre tale about Jewish-American writer Grace Paley who, according to Winnie, once visited the nearby fishing village of Yelapa, met the love of her life, married him and changed her name, causing her to utter the now-famous palindrome, “A Paley Was I Ere I Saw Yelapa.” And Winnie would stand on stage in the silent, puzzled room, and laugh at her own joke, unaware that no one else was amused.
Over time, her belief in her correctness and infallibility, a belief not shared by all, became her stock and trade. She would brag about the cute little pet names her sweetheart called her, such as “Ouch” and “Don’t.” Or in a beautifully cutting Ben Schatz-written moment, Winnie would turn to the girls with authority, and begin, “Girls, is it just me?” And Trixie would quickly interrupt, “Usually,” before another word could be uttered.
Winnie has been good medicine for me, good medicine for my tricky ego and my belief in my own infallibility. She has proven to be iconic for many people, myself included, who think particularly well of themselves, sometimes out of fear that they’re not actually good enough. She demonstrates that insecurity and overconfidence can still be lovable. She has saved me thousands on therapy and has, as any good partner should, made me a better person in the process. She’s made me ready to go on without her.

Why Now?
There are lots of reasons why now is the time. In a world with seven-year professional cycles, Winnie represents three careers' worth. But that’s not an answer. I know I could play Winnie all the way to the grave, with the help of the fictitious heavy-duty concealer whose name was coined by Maurice Kelly: Spackle-tacular!
Dad on sax.
But other things have grown in importance. I have a family, including a husband (Oren is hugely supportive but nonetheless a long-suffering Kinsey widow), co-parents and fellow householders who matter deeply to me, a kid finishing middle school and one finishing high school. I’ve spent a lot of years missing birthdays and Chanukah and school plays and concerts. My own father was a bandleader. He worked nights and weekends. I never felt his absence – he was very present when he was home; plus I was secretly thrilled that the kids on the block always saw him going to and from work in a tuxedo. But I know that missing much of our childhood was his great regret, and that is something I intend to fix in my own life, for his sake and for mine. Now is the time to be home.
Another element informing my decision is the death last winter of my mother. I hate to say it, but after she died, performing Winnie became a little less fun. Fun itself became less fun.
With Mom, 2013
The performer in me is to a large degree born of the child who would caper and make rhymes and songs and dances to get laughs out of Mom and Dad. And Mom was, for 20 years, the Kinsey Sicks’ biggest fan, even courteously waiting a day until our sold-out 20th Anniversary show last year was done, before closing her eyes for the last time. In some cultures, mourners tear their clothes or shave their heads. I am shedding Winnie.
The third reason has to do with making space for my deepening engagement in Jewish life, in my rabbinical post in the Sonoma County outback. Wait, I guess I should back up and explain the rabbi/drag queen thing.

All is Foreseen, Yet Permission is Given (Pirkei Avot)
In some ways the trajectory of my life was fixed and foreseeable by the time I was in third grade. A couple pivotal things happened around that time. First, I read a story about the boy who would become Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic sage of antiquity. The story involved him nearly freezing to death on a rooftop where he’d spent the night eavesdropping on a group of rabbis discussing Torah. It was that story that made me think that learning itself could be a value, and not just a means. I wanted to be like Hillel; I wanted to learn and learn. I decided right then that I would be a rabbi, even though I knew that in some circles it might not be so very cool to say so.
The other formative thing that happened around then was discovering how easy it was for me to walk gracefully in my mother’s pumps. 
My fate was sealed.
And yet, things didn’t play out in expected ways. Years later, when my peers were applying to rabbinical school, I had just been one year out of the closet. I was in a relationship. At that point, no Jewish denomination would ordain openly gay rabbis or accept them into their seminaries. I’d have to purposely lie in order to make good on this calling, and that seemed an unworkable contradiction. So I didn’t apply, I didn’t go. I meandered through some graduate work and into law. My activism in Chicago in the 1980s was intense and exhausting, and I finally let myself be wooed into a law job in San Francisco, just so I could be around lots of queer people, who had become the substitute for Jews in my life. I found my way into a great job at the helm of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel of the San Francisco Bay Area. I found my way into a great family. And when we finally moved to Sonoma County together I found my way to a funky little synagogue.
Ner Shalom of Cotati was a plucky congregation in a building that a century ago was a Ladies' Improvement Club, and seventy years later a hard-drinking rock-and-roll venue. When I stumbled in the door, the place was at a turning point. The rabbi was leaving, and a certain dispiritedness pervaded, as is often the case at such moments. And as is often the case, the next guy became a flashpoint for underlying conflicts in the community. I walked in fresh. I liked the place, I wanted the synagogue to survive, so I rolled up my sleeves to help. I began to cover some ritual leadership, just to fill in, and because I had the literacy to do it. And then I discovered that a decade-plus on stage with the Kinseys had netted me some good chops for this kind of thing. It was easy to bring humor and irreverence and music into what I did. This congregation that included many marginalized folk seemed to value the outsider outlook I brought to the bimah. In 2008 they decided to cancel their rabbinic search and ask me to come on staff part time as the rabbi for the community. I was not ordained by any seminary, by any denomination. I was invited by this congregation. This congregation of lovely, creative, interesting people for whom having a rabbi who was also a drag queen, a rabbi who sometimes even showed up in a skirt, made the place safe, made Judaism safe.
That was the crazy turn. Just when I thought it would never happen, the life of a rabbi ricocheted back and hit me in the face. Maybe it was bashert, predestined, that I shouldn’t go to rabbinical school. Maybe I was meant to be an outsider, and being an outsider was meant to be a deep part of what I bring.
As Rabbi Akiva, a generation after Hillel, might have seen it, life as a rabbi and life as a drag queen were both foreseen. And yet permission was given: for me to do it in my own idiosyncratic, meandering, backdoor way.
This is, I hope, the life ahead. Studying, blogging (subscribe or follow by email in the column up and to the right!), rabbying, and seeing what else grows in the garden now that I’m home to tend it.

What’s Not to Miss?
People in the know ask me constantly, “Won’t you miss the Kinsey Sicks?”
Duh.
What’s not to miss? I’ve had the chance to sing with brilliant musicians of the caliber of Chris Dilley and Jeffrey Manabat. I’ve gotten to share the footlights with people who are so funny on their feet that I can barely be around them without laughing, like Maurice Kelly, the late Jerry Friedman and the ridiculously delightful and hilarious Spencer Brown. I’ve gotten to watch talents like Kevin Smith Kirkwood dazzle audiences and me, and then go on to make good on Broadway. I’ve enjoyed and will miss untold hours of late-night and pre-dawn car conversation with Jeff Manabat, while the other Kinseys slept in the back seat.
And what can I say about my friend Ben Schatz? The brother I never had, he and I have been friends since I brought him to speak at University of Chicago Law School in 1987. We are often at each other’s throats and we always have each other’s backs. I’ve often felt called to temper the extremity of his imagination, and thankfully, I have succeeded less than half the time. His work is clever – brilliant really. Cutting and shocking and subtle and subversive and politically meaningful and simply appalling. Having Winnie as the vehicle for delivering some of Ben’s best lines and lyrics has been one of the great honors of my life. What a delicious treat for Republican Winnie to turn and say, “But Trixie, we don’t think of you as Asian! We think of you as not black.”  And “Tranny Boy,” written largely to please me, was a gift.
I am prouder of this group than I could ever imagine being proud of anything. I have business partners who are thorough and dedicated and principled and funny. I have traveling buddies whose eating and sleeping habits I know much better than I’d like to. Together we’ve played everywhere from Montreal to Mykonos, Sydney to St. Petersburg (Florida and Russia), not to mention every major US city and a million minor ones that I might never have had the unexpected pleasure to set foot in, from Idaho Falls to Salina, Kansas, to Greenville, SC. We've been Off Broadway, we've done Vegas, we've been on the silver [plate] screen. It’s been a privilege to work with some of the loveliest people to ever inadvertently land in the theater and music worlds, including ShellyWeiss, Ed Decker, Paul Reder, the late Ron Lanza, Ken Bielenberg, Alonzo Ruvalcaba, Danny Scheie, Maurice Molyneaux, Maria DiDia and Glenn Casale. It’s been a delight watching the Kinseys grow from an idea to an act to a phenomenon to a staple, a slow, casual unfolding, like a flower. Or a pox. Of course I’ll miss it.

La Winnie est morte. Vive la Winnie!
But I have no worries about The Kinsey Sicks. This group has a life of its own. The Gestalt of it is bigger than any individual player. Every change we’ve made has made the group richer, more interesting, more relevant to the moment. The Kinsey Sicks will not just survive but thrive. The next era is going to be brilliant, with new ideas and songs and twists and character flaws.
I know this for several reasons. First of all, last winter, in the emergency that followed my mother’s stroke, my three fellow performers did a multi-week run of “Oy Vey in a Manger” as a trio (as they will for several performances this December too – a rarity not to be missed!). Last year’s 3-person run was a huge success. To my colleagues’ credit (and, I admit, to my disappointment), people who had not previously seen the Kinsey Sicks had no clue that someone was missing.
Nathan & I: The Bilateral Winnie Brain Trust
I also know this because the next person to take up residence in Winnie is himself a wonder. Nathan Marken. How did we find him? We went onto a matchmaking website, looking for skinny, 5’11”, baritone, bespectacled, Jewish, vegetarian, native Illinoisan drag queen. We couldn’t take the time to audition all of them, but Nathan was enough. His sense of humor was so good, his singing so precise, his Winnie-ness so apparent, that we all knew immediately that this was a match. Truth is he quietly began making some Winnie appearances already last month, to rave reviews. And he makes me laugh. In rehearsal he began doing some things with Winnie – gestures, faces, improvisations - that made me smile through clenched teeth while thinking, “Why the fuck didn’t I ever think of that?” I suspect Winnie might be a little darker in her next regeneration. But she will be brilliant.
Nathan is an accomplished actor, and holds a Masters Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The true story is that we prospected him at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the same fertile ground whence we landed Chris Dilley (Trampolina) and Jeff Manabat (Trixie). Nathan, talented young man that he is, will undoubtedly introduce into Winnie a DSM’s worth of new neuroses that I couldn’t have imagined, each one a pearl.
Will Winnie and I meet again? I can’t imagine we won’t have the periodic reunion. Or the occasional appearance of two Winnies in the same place, like some temporal anomaly. Mostly I will enjoy her in Nathan’s capable and tastefully gloved hands.
Winnie has been a loving friend. Loyal, lanky, always a-dither. I will miss her.

Catch one of my Farewell Performances this December!
Santa Cruz, California – December 11
Winthrop, Washington – December 12
San Francisco – December 13
Sonoma County – December 14 (a fundraiser for Congregation Ner Shalom)
Cedar Rapids, IA – December 19
Chicago – December 20 (there is an early show and a late show)
Kansas City, MO – December 21

Or find out details about all of these at www.kinseysicks.com.

Kinsey Sicks circa 1996: Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Irwin Keller

Kinsey Sicks circa 2012: Spencer Brown, Irwin Keller, Jeff Manabat, Ben Schatz

Friday, October 3, 2014

Treasures, Release & Bucket Lists

Yom Kippur Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, 5775



הודיעני ה' קצי ומדת ימי מה–היא

Hodieni Yah kitzi umidat yamay mah hi.

"Yah," Psalm 39 says, "make my end known to me and the measure of my days."

The measure of our days - if only we could know such a thing! How we might be different, for good and for ill. How the entire emotional landscape of our lives would be altered. What would be our ambition? What would be the source of our calm? What are the things we would rush to do because there's no time to waste? What are the things we'd put off because there is?

But such knowledge is withheld from us. You'd think our cells could figure it out. That our DNA could speak it to our brains. Or that an angel might whisper in our ears who by fire and who by water, and when. But instead we live in this greatest of mysteries with this greatest of anxieties.  The measure of our days. Sometimes it gets us moving in meaningful ways. And sometimes it stops us in our tracks.

I made the mistake of picking up a National Geographic that was sitting in our house the other day. Between the manatees and the mammoth tusks, I found a report on changing average life expectancies in America. And of course, average just means average. As much above as below. But still, the ages colorfully printed on the US map looked like prognoses. No, worse. They looked like destiny.

I tried to make sense of the numbers and I noticed that my mother had outlived the average female life expectancy by four years. "Oh, good for her," I thought, as a parent might kvell over a child bringing home an A on their report card. Then after a moment I melted into bitter resentment that she only outlived the average by four years.

My eyes then, nebech, drifted over to the average life expectancy for men, and I didn't like that very much either. My remaining allotment, for so it felt to me, was far too short to accomplish the things I still want. I'll probably never get to master another new language. My days for rough travel are probably over, certainly if my achey back has anything to say about it. Doubtful I'll ever go to rabbinical school. Oh, and hadn't I intended to work out and get into shape some day? So many things I figured I'd get around to. Now I don't even know if I'll get through my old papers in the shed.

This mortality and this uncertainty about time. They are always the elephant in the room, especially on Yom Kippur. Looking over our shoulders into the prayerbook, pressuring us to make amends, egging us on toward a renewed future, or, frankly, just scaring the shit out of us.

How do we make our lives what we want them to be? Now that we're old enough to feel the finiteness, how do we make our unknown number of days count? In this year of loss, in what felt like the premature loss of my mother - and what loss doesn't feel premature? - my wandering mind wondered whether she got to the things that she wanted to get to in her time. And I've concluded that she did.

One explicit piece of evidence had to do with her bucket list. Now as a disclaimer, I think that this whole bucket list concept that has evolved over these last years is a mixed blessing. It might be good as a values clarification exercise; if it causes you to do something very beautiful or meaningful that you might otherwise not have thought to do, then it's a good thing. If it just dangles before you beautiful and meaningful things that you don't actually have the means to do, then it's just a final, eleventh-hour taunt. If you really want to be Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love," then you probably needed to have started earlier and to have been, well, Julia Roberts.

But on the subject of my mother's bucket list. Last summer, in 2013, I was back home and Mom and I had shabbos dinner with our friends Dawn and Eitan in Skokie. I don't remember how the topic came up, but my mother announced that she needed to have a bucket list. I had never heard her talk like this; she never acknowledged her mortality. We all leaned closer and asked her what would be on her bucket list. She thought for a moment, and then announced, "Well, I'm not jumping out of a plane." Everyone around the table was agreeable to this. So I asked her again what would be on her bucket list. She thought some more. "Well, I'm certainly not going bungie jumping," she said with a somewhat accusatory tone, as if we were just waiting to slap bungies on her ankles and knock her off a bridge. We sat for a while in silence. After a while I pressed further. "Mom, instead of telling us what's not on your bucket list, why don't you tell us what is." She drew a blank. She couldn't think of anything. In the moment it felt a little bit like failure of imagination: there must be things she wants to do or experience that she hasn't. Then she asked us for suggestions. Exotic travel and going back to school she dismissed out of hand. The suggestions that most appealed to her included hearing music, seeing theatre, and visiting her children in California. All things that she was already doing.

It wasn't failure of imagination. My mother had achieved her ambitions. She was doing just what she wanted to be doing. Her bucket list was actually a description of her life. It seemed the only thing missing was her being able to tell her friends that she had a bucket list. But otherwise, there wasn't really anything significant that she had put off, no loose ends sitting around obviously untied.

I don't know if this kind of outcome is rare. Or as we continue to get older, do our desires scale down to match what is already working well in our lives? Either way, this is something I shamelessly wish for myself and for everyone I know. That our desires should be simple and manageable, and that we should grow into a time, if we haven't already, when we are fulfilling our desires over and over.

Hodieni Yah kitzi, what are the number of our days? The question of how we handle this particular kind of not-knowing is articulated all too clearly on Yom Kippur. The possibility that this year could be our last year, tfu tfu tfu, is mentioned more than once in our liturgy. We sing it, we declaim it, we beat our breasts with it. Yom Kippur intends this face-off with mortality to be a motivator. To impel our cheshbon hanefesh, our accounting for ourselves in the face of God and this world. And it is meant to grease the wheels of resolution in our bumpy relationships, if not making real apology easier, then at least making it pressing enough for us to do it anyway.

But it also leaves us unsettled too, vulnerable in a way that might be good, but is nonetheless alarming. By the end of the Ne'ilah service, I often feel incredible pathos, I hear myself pleading, not fully knowing who I'm pleading with. With God? Let me live, God! Let me get another crack at this! Write me in that Book! Or am I pleading with the Universe? Let me live! Universe, let these cells of mine thrive and fight off disease for a while longer! Or am I pleading with myself? Irwin! Be careful! Be safe! Don't text and drive! Or maybe I'm not pleading with myself for my life but for a change in my life. Change, already, Irwin, change! Be the person you want to be! Embody the values that you insist are important!

Yom Kippur is a hugely important check-in for us, for our people. It's hard not to be affected by it. It's hard not to emerge from it without feeling some kind of bitul hayesh, a breakdown of the ego. (No worries, we'll rebuild our egos in a jiffy.) But for this day, to feel such openness, such vulnerability, is really quite something.

I find that on this holy day there's a lot that bubbles up. Stuff that I've stored away in my cells somewhere, stuff I don't look at even though upon reflection I imagine it's always somewhere in my peripheral vision. Old stuff. Disappointments. Longings. Grudges. Shame. Desires. Experiences. Emotional memorabilia. On Yom Kippur I get a chance to look at these things directly, to turn them over in my hand like rocks from a river - examining their shapes and heft and markings, and then putting them back down again.
I do this every year. But this year, in this shmitah year, this fallow year of the Hebrew calendar, I've determined to look at what I've stored away a little bit differently. I'm going to use a shmitah lens, or two shmitah lenses actually - sort of shmitah bifocals, if you will -  and I'll tell you what I mean by that.

First, just the quickest of refreshers. Shmitah is the sabbatical year - the seventh year in which Torah commands us to give the land a rest, not just a rest but a shabbos. As of 10 days ago, we are now resident in a real live shmitah year. Last week we talked about shmitah as being a kind of being-not-doing boot camp, teaching us to live in the not-knowing, to let go - for some period of time, maybe one seventh of the time - of our need to find out about and tinker with everything in sight.

BTW, anyone make any headway with that this week?

But there are two other elements of shmitah, two lenses that I think are worth using as we look at all of these things we've stored up over time, especially the painful things. The first shmitah lens has to do with looking for sustenance. In the shmitah laws laid out in Torah, God anticipates the people's concern that they will not have enough to eat to make it through the fallow period, the time of not-knowing. So God promises abundance in the 6th year that can carry the people through.

So the first lens that I want to use this year is that. What, of the things that I've sacked away in my spirit actually has the ability to offer me some sustenance? What of my old interests, friendships, skills, delights and longings are still in there somewhere? What are the elements of me that at some point I abandoned, perhaps because they didn't seem useful enough, or they were too time consuming, or they came to feel childish, or maybe other people told me not to value those things and I believed them. What are the things I felt shame about still because I was taught that those things are shameful, that now could offer me some real joy, some new energy, some delight, some strength, some wholeness? These life experiences, even the difficult ones, can be a source, a stockpile, of nourishment during times of uncertainty. Times of uncertainty like the Biblical shmitah year, like Yom Kippur, like, well, always. So with this first lens maybe I can identify what there is to haul out of mothballs. Even what we rejected in our younger years can still become a cornerstone of our future lives. Consider it an inheritance, a gift, a time capsule, from an earlier you.

The second shmitah lens also involves that collection of stuff stored in our psyches. And it connects to another element of the Biblical sabbatical year, and that is the release of debts. Not only do the fields stop being thrall to our will, so do our debtors. Obligations are let go.

So I think there's something here for us to consider on Yom Kippur about release of obligations. It closely parallels much of our Yom Kippur liturgy, including the Kol Nidre prayer, where we ask to be released from vows we made. But I'd like to propose we look at the obligations that we've carried internally, which might now be ready to be let go.

I've been learning a lot this year about letting go. My sister and I have spent weeks already going through our childhood home. It has a basement that has become legendary, carrying 56 years of family history: it is the repository of all the remaining treasures and undiscardables of grandparents, great grandparents, beloved great aunts, and relatives who moved away. It contains wedding cards and condolence cards and even a note from Jackie Kennedy thanking my Grandma Sade for her kind expression of sympathy. It also holds boxes full of my sister's and my childhood report cards, photos, compositions and, especially, art projects, many of which are living proof of the surprising longevity of Elmer's library paste.

Much of that stuff had a quality of being put away in anticipation. Socked away for later. But for what? My sister at last put words to this as she was looking through the umpteenth construction paper masterpiece of her grade school career. She said, "It was like all of this was put away so that it could be looked at and appreciated again. And now that's what we are doing."

And once she said that, it was as if something had been released. Our obligation to these things melted away even while our love for them didn't. They stopped being there for us to store for yet another generation. They were there for us to appreciate and let go of. And that's what we were able to start doing. Appreciate, maybe talk about, maybe even photograph in special cases, and then let go.
Now this happened to be lovely stuff, nostalgic stuff, but I think the same holds true about anything from our pasts that obligates us, that binds us: old disappointments, regrets, grudges, shame. Those things might be deserving of some appreciation too. We can appreciate them for what they say about who we were once; what we longed for, what we dreamed of, even if it didn't come true. We can appreciate them as souvenirs of what we suffered and what we survived. We can offer our appreciation and some forgiveness to those artifacts of difficult times. And we can also consider letting them go.

I know it's easy to just get up and say, "let go of the things that hold you back." It's not like that hasn't occurred to any of us before. It's not like we haven't spent good time and possibly lots of money on therapy trying to do just that. It might not even be doable. But still, on this Yom Kippur, the one that falls during the shmitah year, when we are released from obligations, it might be a good time to revisit this project. To adopt this shmitah view: that this year we are not under any obligation to our old grudges. We are not under any obligation to our hurt feelings. We are not under any obligation to old shame that continues to bully us even at this advanced age. So even though it's difficult, perhaps we can at least make the effort to imagine what it would be like to let go.

Imagining. After all, we're talking about the state of our spirits. It is something in that spiritual world that we wish to shift. And so using our imaginations is a legitimate tool. The Slonimer Rebbe gave the view that a way to enter Shabbat with a true feeling of Shabbat peace, is to imagine that all your work is done. Such an imagining is completely ineffective if your goal is to finish your work. But if your goal is to feel Shabbat, then it's the right prescription. Similarly, imagination can work here, I think. Of course it's difficult to let go of things we've held onto, even destructive things that for whatever reason have become in some way precious to us. But a reasonable first step might be to imagine. Imagine how it would feel if we were released from this bond. What lightness would enter us? What light - what Holy Spark - might we see reflecting in that now emptier mirrored chamber of our soul? Imagine feeling that way right now, as if the work were already done, the hard thing released. Feel it now, and perhaps that in itself will be a big enough step.

Hodieni Yah kitzi. Our time is uncertain, our future is uncertain. We come here for Yom Kippur, year after year, because the future is uncertain. We are ignorant of the measure of our days. We don't know if we will hit the National Geographic averages or, God willing, 30 years beyond them. We don't know whether we will meet sickness or sorrow or have a year in which we are blessedly, blissfully spared. But let us consider carrying these three shmitah lessons with us through this Holy Day and into the year beyond. And they are these:

(1) You have what you need to get through. Your abundant soul has stored away resources for you, resources that can sustain you. Look and see what's there! There might be some lovely stuff that you long ago shelved that could still become the cornerstone of your future self.

(2) You can let go of your obligation to what harms you. If it hobbles you, if it haunts you, if it's not helping you see your Holy Spark, maybe you don't owe it anything anymore. Appreciate what it's meant to you, offer it some love and forgiveness. And then let it go. Or, if that's too much to ask, at least begin imagining how letting go might feel. And finally,

(3) Your bucket list is now. There is no future that is certain. You can only be sure of what you are doing at this moment. So whatever you dream of inviting into your life so you can have greater richness later, you have to begin inviting now. There is a legend you probably know about the two angels that follow you home on Erev Shabbat. One is your defender, one your adversary. If your house is aglow and ready for Shabbat, your defender says, "So may it be next week," and the adversary is obliged to say, "Amen." But if your house is cold and unready for Shabbat, the adversary says, "So may it be next week," and your defender is obliged to say, "Amen." And although it is told in this folkloric way, there is an underlying real-life truth here. What you do now is in fact your practice. If you want Shabbat, you need to be doing Shabbat, not waiting for a time that is better suited, or Shabbat will never be your practice. The same can be said of anything on your bucket list. If you want it in your life, now is the time to invite it in. Resolving to invite it in later is no guarantee of anything. All it means is that today you have a practice of making resolutions about the future.

So that's it. The shmitah lessons. Activate your hidden resources. Release your obligation to what doesn't serve you. And live your bucket list now. Because we don't know how long we have to put it off. And when your angel sees that you are in fact living the life you want, the life you value, it will say, "So be it," and the adversary will be obliged to say, "Amen."


Here is a poetic treatment of these themes by Ner Shalom's Poet Laureate, Sally Churgel: Shmita Year for the Heart.

Some thoughts here were impelled by two chant settings by Rabbi Shefa Gold: "Inviting Our Future Selves" and "The Cornerstone."  Gratitude to Ellen Atzilah Solot for always making me think.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Year of Not Doing (Quite So Much)

Rosh Hashanah Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, 5775


I want to start by wishing you all a shanah tovah — a good year. In the American fashion people will sometimes say "happy new year," like you do on New Year's Eve, the way you might say "happy birthday." But of course it is more realistic to wish someone a happy birthday — a 24-hour stretch is easier to fill with happy-making activities that produce short-turnaround happy outcomes. But a year? A year is a long time to stretch out happy.

And so the Jewish way is a little less ambitious. Not a happy year. We wish each other a shanah tovah. A good year. Gut yor. We know that every year will carry with it its sorrows, its achievements, its disappointments. Happiness will not be waiting at every turn. Yet we hope that in the aggregate it will turn out to be a year that was good.

And who's to measure? Who's to say one year is better than another? Some years might be more exciting. More marked by big events. But in the simple day to day, how easy is it to make a comparison?

That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this last year was terrible. It was a terrible year. Terrible in many ways for many people. There were garden variety sorrows—I know I'm not the only person in this room who lost a parent or loved one over the year. But there were also public sadnesses that we all shared together. Violence in the world — kidnappings, murders, lost planes, suicides, trouble in Ukraine and Syria and Iraq and Gaza and our precious and difficult Israel. It was a terrible year and I am not sorry to see it go.

Despair is hanging in the air, at least that's what I perceive, and I blame this last year for it. 

As Jews we have a mixed relationship with bad times. We have a longstanding fatalistic streak, well justified. Anything bad that can happen, will happen, and often to us. There's an old Yiddish joke about the bear that escapes from the circus and the police give orders to shoot it on sight. A Jew starts packing his bags to get out of town. His neighbor asks, "Wait, why are you leaving?" The Jew says, "You know how it goes. They shoot first, and only afterward sort out whether it was a bear or a Jew."

Jewish fatalism. I see my grandmother shaking her head and saying gornisht helfn. "Beyond help."

But I think Jewish fatalism is only skin-deep. Because more often we respond to the deeply human compulsion to do something. We are, after all, a species characterized by being toolmakers. We are tinkerers, interveners, doers.

And all the more so as Jews I think. Torah contains 248 mitzvot aseh, i.e. commandments to affirmatively do something. Light candles, wash your hands, make sacrifices, give to the poor, pursue justice. We Jews are an action-oriented people. For many of us, action in the world is our way of being Jewish, which is why in the Western world there is barely a political movement or cultural phenomenon that is not statistically overpopulated with our people.

We don't just do to stay busy. We do because alongside our fatalism, we incongruously believe that the world can be a better place. That it is fixable—by us. Our mythos of Tikkun Olam, of the shattered world that can be repaired and redeemed, courses through us. We are cosmic fixers.

And we don't stop with the world around us. We fix us too. If the world is inherently broken, then aren't we inherently broken too? Don't we also need tikkun? Aren't these Days of Awe, with their chest-beating and confession, an enterprise based on the need to fix our brokenness? Heck, we don't even need a Jewish-driven reason. We have a consumer culture that tells us every day that we're not good enough; that there is always something we can do to make our lives better, our bodies sexier, our children smarter, our investments more profitable, our spirits more enlivened. And all those things can be gotten for the low low price of . . . , well, whatever the market will bear.

The constant striving to make ourselves, to make our lives better, to make the world better, is exhausting. And when our hopes for our lives or for the world don't come about, or don't come about as desired, we can only understand it as failure. This is why our helplessness over the  summer, over this last year, hit us so very hard.

So here's where, I think, I hope, our tradition offers us a bit of medicine: shmitah.

Now for some of you, this word might be new. So let me first tell you what shmitah is not. It is not a disparaging Yiddish term for ragged clothing or bad fashion, as in Did you see that shmitah that Meryl Streep wore at the Oscars?

And shmitah is not a nonsense rhyming word that you might blurt out defiantly, such as, PETA shmitah, I'm gonna wear the fur anyway.

Instead, shmitah is the Biblical sabbatical year. (See? Sabbatical sounds nice, doesn't it?) This is the  year in which Torah says let your fields go fallow. No tilling. No plowing. No planting. No monkeying around. Just let the field be already. Give it a little shabbes.

Okay, I hear you thinking, we don't own fields. So how is this medicine?

It's medicine because shmitah is more than about farming. Sure, on its face, it looks like an antiquated system to keep fields productive. But of course, if the mitzvah of shmitah were just for that purpose, Torah could have done it better. It could have created a crop rotation system in which each field gets its time off every seven years, but not all at the same time. Having every field in the Israelite economy go fallow simultaneously? That's shocking! Asking a whole population to sit on their hands and hope there will be enough food is a stunning demand for Torah to make; a demand that clearly is meant to be about more than agricultural productivity. It is meant to teach a lesson as well.

The 18th Century Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, in his masterwork Derech Hashem, the Way of God, suggests that every mitzvah has two purposes. One is simple obedience. You do the thing because God says do the thing. But the second purpose is to help perfect some quality in us, not in the world, but in us, the doers of the mitzvah. So what is the quality in us that is perfected by laying off of the plow for a year? Maybe we are perfecting our ability to sit. To sit still. Not to do those extra ten things you could've done. Maybe shmitah teaches us to be okay with uncertainty. Wait. Listen. Breathe. To remember what it's like just to be when there is nothing you are required to do. To let go of control. To be vulnerable. To allow things to unfold. To have trust that somehow we will be okay; that deep down we are already okay.

Patience. Trust. These qualities of patience and trust are very challenging. For me at least. I am not naturally a sit-and-wait kind of guy. I spend my life in a whirlwind of doing. I find it hard to maintain any single contemplative practice over a long stretch. I once did a 10-day silent meditation retreat, at the end of which I should have been calm and equanimous, but instead I was ready to smack the next yuppy Buddhist offering me soup and an enlightened smile. But Torah, through the shmitah laws, takes the Buddhist position. Torah wants you to know that you cannot control it all. Shmitah helps you absorb this hugely important information. That you are not the boss. Learn this, Torah is saying, or you are in for some significant suffering.

Shmitah reminds us to be humble in the world. It reminds us that the land doesn't belong to us. It may be yours to farm for six years; but every seventh you need to let it go back to its rightful owner, and that is not you.

Yet, I have to say, our sense of the land being here for our exclusive benefit is deep in our culture and our bones and very hard to shake. A few weeks ago I took a walk near my house on Sonoma Mountain. Along the road I came upon a large blackberry patch where, seeing that no one was looking, I proceeded to gorge myself - a childish and pitiable display.  That is, it was a beautiful nature experience. And I looked up, beyond this patch, and saw a vast bed of blackberries — maybe an acre of them. They were a distance off the road, through impassable brush, and at the foot of a steep incline. It was clear that no one could actually get to them. I remember looking at them and thinking, "Well, that's a stupid waste of blackberries." I heard this thought in my head and was shocked. As if the blackberry didn't have its own life whose purpose was not to feed me. I looked at my purple fingers and felt shame.

As much as I unconsciously think that the blackberry should be of use, I think that about me too. I judge myself by my own utility. Always so busy. Always doing. And if I ask the question, who is there underneath all this utility, I can't say for certain that I always know.

So I think this is my shmitah challenge. Can I — not all the time, but in this shmitah year, in this special shabbes-like year — step back? Make some room? Breathe? Get a little more comfortable with the me who's not so busy trying to do and fix and please?

After all, isn't that the highest possible act of teshuvah? Returning to the you that is there underneath all the shoulds, underneath the plans and expectations. Returning to your integrity. To your longing. Returning to your neshamah, that deepest and holiest part of you. To arrive there with love and forgiveness, and to say, in Abraham's words in the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, hineini — here I am. Ah, here I am.

Perhaps revelation is waiting. Perhaps shmitah will reveal you to yourself.

Maybe we all give this a try over these Days of Awe.

And in suggesting that, I should probably make a disclaimer. While shmitah as a guide for farming demands an entire year of disengagement, shmitah as a spiritual practice doesn't. So don't worry, no one here is suggesting you lay off of all your doing for the next year. No one is suggesting that you stop engaging with the world or working for justice or scheduling your kid's soccer practice. But the shmitah law does offer a sense of proportion, a recipe to help your field regenerate. One in seven. Just like shabbat. One in seven. If you can take every seventh day, or hour, or minute, to let go of control and notice and honor who you are inside, I suspect you will be better equipped the other 6/7 of the time. And you will be a better instrument of change when you go back on Tikkun Olam duty.

So let us pray that in this coming year we can allow more shmitah consciousness into our lives. That in that consciousness we may find balance between doing (doing, doing, doing) and being. That we give our ambitious and perfectionist selves a sabbatical. That we sit better with what we can't change. That we open up to all the beautiful surprises that could grow in our own gardens if we backed off and let  them. After all, as far as we know, Eden didn't need so much tilling, did it?

May shmitah give us the tools to make this new year, even if not always a happy one, a good year; a good, good year.

Shanah Tovah.


The lovely thought and turn of phrase of something "revealing you to yourself" emerged from my old friend, the wise Ezra Cole.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Quick Kaddish in a Dreadful Summer

For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 15, 2014




A couple weeks ago I wrote an essay in my blog about going through my mother's basement back in Niles, Illinois, and the stories and sadness that were emerging for me from those long sealed, dusty boxes. I shared the essay with a new friend, a rabbi friend, that I've only known for a couple months. He emailed me back and said, "I didn't realize you were an avel.  I wish you constant comfort and strength through this year of mourning."

Those words hit me hard. Avel. The Hebrew meaning "a mourner." A word that signifies a special status that one maintains for a full year following the death of a next of kin. I felt myself choking up, feeling "seen" in a way that I hadn't been. And feeling "seen" made me feel the loss all over again. I wasn't used to being visible as a mourner. After all, in our culture, we don't have good words for people who are in mourning. If you lose a spouse, you're a widow or widower, and you stay that way. And while in Hebrew a yatom, an orphan, can be of any age (I choked up similarly a few months ago when a friend called me yatom sheli - my orphan), in English the word "orphan" applies to a child, and pretty much a child only. An adult who loses parents and says aloud, "I'm an orphan" is judged as self-pitying or overly theatrical. An orphan child who grows up will, at some point, gently morph from saying "I am an orphan" to "I was an orphan."

In our culture, "mourner" is an ephemeral state, situationally dictated. A mourner is someone at a funeral. Mourners can even be hired for the day. And then, after that funeral, you have no status. And you become invisible. But in Hebrew, avel is an attribute that sticks beyond that difficult day. It allows you, even requires you, to be seen. This designation reminds those around you to judge your actions and your moods not in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of loss. Not just at some moment where you are publicly singled out as a mourner. But in your day-to-day life, when you're running errands with jaw-clenched stoicism, or when you're having a private moment of crazy grief that can take any surprising form, even screaming obscenities at inanimate objects. For instance last night, driving home, trying to send a text message in a compliant and safely hands-free manner:

Me:   Siri, send a text to Anne and Suegee.
Siri: Do you mean Anna Bell Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: Neither.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: Neither one.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither one." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: I mean somebody else entirely.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "somebody else entirely." Anna Belle Kaufman or  --

At which point, crazy with rage, I hurled an uncharacteristically graphic expletive at Siri. To which she replied, "I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by," and then managed to repeat the profanity with absolute precision.

Anyway, the point is that being in grief means that sometimes you're just bonkers. And when your loss, your avelut, is invisible to others, no one knows or remembers why you keep sliding off the deep end.

But Jewish tradition does in fact encourage us to to be visible as mourners, to show up publicly as avelim. The custom is, as we know, for mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer, and to do so, when possible, publicly, in a minyan, a community of at least ten people. As I remind us whenever we're together, the words of Kaddish, in the Aramaic that was once our everyday tongue, are words of praise. In the face of loss, sometimes because of loss, we are called to express wonder; we acknowledge that the workings of this Creation are bigger, deeper, higher than we can possibly imagine or understand. But now that Aramaic is more remote for us even than Hebrew, it is not the lofty sentiment that speaks to us. Rather it is the heartbeat-like rhythm of this prayer - yitbabam v'yitbabam v'yitbabam - that hits us most profoundly, and that we associate not with death itself, but with the Jewish experience of death. I just finished reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and this little insight about Kaddish jumped out at me:

Most people in America, including myself . . . don’t know what these words mean, but nearly everyone recognizes the sobering message they bring: a Jew is dead. Another Jew is dead. As though death were not a consequence of life but a consequence of having been a Jew.

The traditional way of reciting the Mourners' Kaddish, in which only the avelim, the mourners, rise, was another way to make sure that you, the mourner, were seen. And in that moment of being seen, you would inevitably see your own altered state. The modern progressive custom of the whole room standing, either in support of the mourners or in the name of the 6 million, is beautiful also and well intentioned. But it inadvertently neutralizes loss and renders individual grief invisible. Standing as a mourner among a bunch of non-mourners has the perverse effect of making me, at least, feel more alone than I felt starting out.

That said, I do think there are times in which we are all in fact, and not just symbolically, avelim together. And I think right now is one of those moments. There is a pervading mood of loss and desolation that everyone I know has been experiencing for many weeks now, and that has only been deepening with each new turn of events. We're all feeling Robin Williams' loss this week with a surprising keenness. Because we were already primed for it by the grief we feel about the war in Israel and Gaza and all the senseless deaths there. But of course that grief itself was an explosive extension of the grief we already felt about three murdered Yeshivah bochurs and one cruelly killed Palestinian boy. And those shocking acts came on the heels of or intertwined with other things: the downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine; the still inconceivable kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. And even grief about ISIS overrunning far-away Iraq, which brought with it the death of many members of ethnic minorities there, and the death of any lingering hope we might have had that despite our bungling invasion of that country we might somehow have left it better than it had been.

It's been a season of tremendous grief. It courses through all of us. What we are feeling this summer is not polite sympathy, such as we expect from those who obligingly stand to say Kaddish alongside the mourners. But real personal grief. We feel it and we act on it without naming it. Not just Jews. The country. The world for all I know. We feel it, our children feel it through us. Our pets probably feel it. Our tempers are short, our misunderstandings are frequent, our ability to find the right words eludes us.

This is because we are impaired. Impaired by grief. Traumatized might or might not be overstatement, but impaired is not. We are impaired like any avel is impaired. We can't always trust our reactions, we can't always trust our better selves. We don't know when we might start screaming at Siri.

But maybe there is some comfort available. This is the season for it, after all. After Tisha B'Av, after our holiday marking the destruction of the holy Temple, where the ruined Jerusalem is described as a widow; after this holiday of desolation comes a season of comfort, of slow, step-by-step emergence from our broken state, culminating with the last blast of the shofar at the ne'ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, when we are, once again, we hope, whole. During this time in between, our tradition hands us weekly haftarah portions of comfort.

This week's haftarah, from Isaiah, offers repeated and insistent declarations that we are not forgotten, that we are engraved on God's hands like a divine tattoo, that our children carried off to captivity are bound to return, that our desolate city will once again be alive and bustling.

These prophecies might have been comforting to our conquered and exiled ancestors. But we are cynical moderns. We know that on the global scale there are rhythms of loss and regeneration. We know that destroyed cities fill up again. But we also know they don't fill up with the people who were lost in the conquest. The hope offered by Isaiah is pretty, but pretty hard to accept.

Still, Isaiah has some advice that might speak to us. He says:
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
(Isaiah 51:1-2)
And there is something here. Which is, when you are without landmarks, and it feels like there is nothing to steer by, look back to your roots. When the path ahead is dim or unimaginable, turn around and look back at the path where you came from. If nothing else, it will be familiar. Re-orient yourself with what you know. When you see yourself plowing ahead in a panic, stop. Breathe. Inhale some of the good stuff at your source. Is there guidance there? How to handle loss? How to mourn?

Yes, there is. Our rock, that Jewish rock that we were hewn from, gives us some guidance. It says there is a name to this experience and if you name it then you can see it and you can be seen. Avel. That is the name. You are a mourner. We are all mourners. And seeing each other that way, seeing ourselves that way in these hard times, allows us to give each other some extra space. It allows us to give ourselves some extra space. To look at others with compassion, to look at ourselves with compassion. To care for ourselves the way we'd care for a dear friend who has suffered a loss. What might we say to our bereaved selves? Take time to breathe. Eat ice cream. Take a walk. If we are still going to have something to say or something to do to make this world better, we need to be careful and cared for so we can play our part and play it well. So, avel, take some special care of yourself.

And, one other piece of guidance. That quarry, that Jewish quarry we were dug from, that old tradition that seems to go back to Sarah herself, suggests that when we are in mourning, we say Kaddish. When we feel the pain of loss - the death of loved ones or a respected icon or innocent people far away or even the death of a long cherished hope or belief - we honor that loss with a Kaddish.

So in this summer of grief, say Kaddish. Not a symbolic Kaddish but a real one. Even if you don't know what the words mean. Even if you don't know the words at all. Think how this Creation is bigger than all of us. And notice that through all this loss, you are not gone yet. You are still here and that is your heart that is beating and beating.

Yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam.




Thank you to Ellen Atzilah Solot for pushing the point this week that it's not just me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Mother's Words (and Stuff)


It's seven months today since my mother died. Her death, and this passage of time, are always on my mind. I replay her stroke over and over in my head, and the weeks after. Some of the intensity of these memories has dulled in the intervening months, as you might expect, even though I don't want them dulled. Then this month my sister and I began the arduous task of revisiting our mother's home, our childhood home, and beginning to sort through the things that are all that's left now that Mom is gone.

When our father died 14 years ago, the loss was tremendous, but not structural. That is, the house and the family remained intact. There was a chunk missing, but nothing crumbled. But losing a second parent disintegrates the family system. The family I came from is gone. My sister and I are close; we are linked to each other horizontally along the family tree. But there's nothing above us. And where there once was something, there's now only stories and stuff. A house full of stuff.

I've been cautious about writing too much about this. We all have losses; and terrible things are happening in the world right now demanding our attention and compassion. No one needs to listen to my droning on about my mother. But still, this week seemed right to yield a bit to the temptation. Because this week we begin reading the fifth book of Torah: Deuteronomy, in Hebrew called D'varim. It begins, Eyleh had'varim asher diber Moshe el B'nei Yisrael... "These are the d'varim that Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel."

This book is made up of the d'varim, (which we will, for now, translate as "words") that Moshe spoke. It is a great and lengthy speech given to the people on more or less the eve of the prophet's death. In it he recounts the people's journeys and struggles and the laws they were given, as well as offering a generous helping of advice of his own. This book being titled as the "words of Moshe" is in its way ironic, since all the words of Torah are, in our tradition, those of Moshe. Or those of God given through Moshe. And even here, Moshe is, in our imagination, doing the overall transmission, as he does for the rest of Torah. So in D'varim, as if in an iterative loop, he is now telling the story of his telling the story.

So why this second telling? In Greek it's called Deuteronomy, the second law. But it's not a different law or even just a recap of the law given in earlier books. It's a rerun of all the travels and traumas, a final summary, a postcard from the wilderness sent into the future. Is Moshe modeling something about how you make sense of a journey? You retell it, using d'varim?

But d'varim is a squishy and surprising word in Hebrew. It's root, d-b-r, as a verb typically means "to speak." As a noun, davar (plural: d'varim) means variously, and with fairly equal distribution, "word" and "thing." What is the connection between a "word" and a "thing?"

When I was an undergraduate in linguistics, we were taught a theory, unpopular at the time or at least unprovable, called the Whorf Hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf, in his work on what was termed "linguistic relativism," made an argument that language was essential and precedent to thought. That we cannot think about things for which we have no words. Language defines the categories through which we perceive, well, everything. The academic world, protective of its ability to think above all else, frowned on this idea. Sure, language helped you express ideas cleverly, clearly, but ideas were primary, and not dependent on having language to name them.

But there's been a resurgence in this kind of understanding as we grasp more about the brain through neurology and neuro-linguistics. The prevailing science now suggests that language itself builds brain pathways, forges connections between disparate islands of understanding within the brain. When language is lost, so are things. The ability to connect observations into complex thoughts; the ability to see oneself as separate from the whole are wiped away. Things lose their thinginess. Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes about the stroke she suffered 18 years ago, in which a left hemisphere brain bleed left her languageless. And in her language-free state, she was like an infant, without distinction between her world and the world. Without thoughts to trouble her, without thought even as to the passage of time.

So as far as perception and meaning are concerned, words and things turn out to be intimately tied up with each other. Words are the stuff of things.

My mother died without words. Like Bolte Taylor, hers was a left hemisphere bleed, depriving her of useful speech for the last five weeks of her life. She did not seem to lose her receptive language, or not all of it. She revealed an awareness of her surroundings, a recognition of people. She could respond appropriately with facial expressions to stories being told or greetings being relayed. She would roll her eyes at the mention of someone whose mention would normally have brought about the rolling of eyes. She would laugh at jokes, not just as a reflex to tone of voice and other social cues (as some of the more cynical doctors suggested), but even at subtle jokes delivered in impenetrable deadpan. For this reason she didn't seem as far gone as Bolte Taylor initially was; she wasn't in some pre-lingual state of Oneness with the vast universe.

Mom was present. She seemed to understand. But she couldn't create language. She could, in a garbled way, provide a missing lyric to a Gershwin standard; she could sort of speak along with the shema. She could give forth words when the giving forth of words was a rote act. But she couldn't use those utterances to communicate. It was as if understanding was on one island in her brain and language was on another, and there was no bridge between them. So while she might squeeze your hand lovingly, if you asked her to squeeze your hand to signify yes or no, her ability to squeeze your hand instantly left her.

Before her stroke, my mother was rarely at a loss for words. She read, she wrote emails, she mastered Facebook at age 80. She learned to read Hebrew over and over beginning in late middle age, never satisfied with her progress. Nonetheless at 79 she chanted Torah for the first time on Yom Kippur in Cotati, California; a beautiful piece of Parashat Nitzavim that I'd assigned her, saving the closest-to-home thought for her, ki hamitzvah hazot - "this mitzvah is not too wondrous or remote for you." She was frequently on the phone with her friends, or her cousins, or her cousins' children, or her grand nieces. She lived in the telling. Her primary way of relaying information was through the story of how she received the information, reenacting the dialogs involved in that process.

She, like me, was full of words. Kind words, as a rule. But words.

She was also not at a loss for things. And this part sometimes distressed her.

In 1958 my parents masterminded a move out of the city of Chicago. They would become suburbanites, transplanting to the Village of Niles which, though it abutted Chicago's northwest side, was still "the country." Otzinplotz.

The developers offered three home layouts. My parents chose the ranch house with the full basement. They chose the brick color and the window size too. They chose the paint and the flagstone and the trees.

The basement of the house in Niles soon became a "thing." It stopped being invisible architecture and asserted itself. First off, it was a dozen steps below ground and, it seems, situated below the actual water table, or at least the water table on stormy Chicago summer nights, when too many inches of rain in too few minutes would cause the Village sewer pipes to fill and overflow and back up into any structure stupid enough to live at that depth. My childhood, my parents' empty nest life, and my mother's old age were all punctuated by basement floods, wiping out whatever was unlucky or unimportant enough to be caught on a low shelf.

The natural rhythm of floodwater was, in fact, just about the only culling system ever deployed in that basement, whose vast holdings of untouched items continued to grow over time. I think of Bellatrix Lestrange's violently self-replicating vault contents in Harry Potter. Or another generation could think of Fibber McGee.

My parents were very central in both their families. They were beloved and trustworthy, and they were the people with the big unfinished basement. What this meant was that as generations died, whatever of those people's things remained unclaimed would end up in our basement. Silverware. Photo albums. Fur coats. Scrapbooks. Financial records. Sheet music. Never absorbed into use, but held in suspension. An additional burial. A genizah. And not just the personal effects of the dead. Relatives who moved out of state would consign to my parents' basement whatever keepsakes they didn't have room for in the moving truck, only to "forget" them there permanently. Meanwhile, my mother, who hated to entertain, whose anxiety dreams always involved company coming over unannounced or not having enough food to serve on Thanksgiving; my mother would receive gifts over time - wedding, anniversary, business gifts. Trays, punchbowls, coffee service, chip-dip sets. Beautiful items that would mostly stay in their original boxes in the basement, in the hope that there would never be enough guests in the house to actually necessitate their use.

Over time, my sister's and my childhood things took up residence down there as we went on to college and our adult lives. Papers, drawings, scout projects, school assignments from kindergarten through high school. Bicycles, furniture, board games and enough papier-maché to keep you fed for a good post-apocalyptic month. Add to this my parents' business records. And my grandparents'. And my great grandparents'. And then the items of pure sentiment - cards. Birthday cards, anniversary cards, Jewish new year, Christmas, get well and, the hardest to part with, condolence cards and memorial books for a variety of relatives. All these found their way into boxes and onto shelves.

My mother became helpless thrall to this sea of stuff. She was a museum guard, entrusted with keys but no instructions, then abandoned indefinitely by the rest of the staff. My mother saw the burgeoning basement as her failure. If she were a stronger or better or different kind of person, the past would never have accreted in such an aggressively physical form.

But it wasn't her fault. It was too great a responsibility for any one person. She was the vault keeper for over a century of family history. Nothing could be discarded guiltlessly; everything demanded a curator's eye or a historian's. Not for economic value, although certainly there were and are many collectibles sitting there still. But for some other kind of value. For the lives that these things represent; for the stories these things still have to tell.

Mom was not incapable of throwing things away; she just couldn't throw away stories, especially other people's stories, her loved ones' stories. And the basement became the repository, the library of all of those stories. All the words from those now-silent voices. And so, in her helplessness, if once in a while she unconsciously shelved a box or three too low and - surprise! - they were wiped out in the next flood, who could truly blame her?

Over the years my sister and I begged Mom to move to California. But she didn't want to give up her life in Chicago, her friends, her house. Of course if she moved west, she could have flown back and seen her friends with the same frequency with which she now saw her children and grandchildren. But I think the house held her; particularly the basement. She was someone who enjoyed the active retelling of the past, and I think she could not imagine its erasure, which is how I believe she saw the task of clearing the basement out.

Since she's died, there are no more words from her. And she didn't get her final chance to recap her story, like Moshe did. Not yet, at least. But even without words, there are the things, oh the things!

The basement full of memories - her memories, our memories, and the memories of other people long gone - memories about which we can now only speculate. In beginning the ambitious work, my sister and I have morphed from being liquidators to being curators. Every item has its story, every thing is a word. Our job is to release the story from the prison of physical form; to let it return to its existence in the world of word. We call each other over from opposite sides of the basement. "Look at this." "Remember this?" "Was this Aunt Hattie's? Aunt Anne's? Whose?"

Where we don't know the story, we guess. And in some cases we can only shrug.

My sister commented on the childhood papers and the greeting cards. She said, "You put these away thinking that some day you'll revisit them. And now that's what we're doing." On Mom's behalf, on Dad's, on our grandmothers' and grandfathers' and great aunts' behalves, we are revisiting them and trying, through the din of silence and years, to hear their voices one more time. Some of those voices might make it to this page. And others, well, if they just make it once more to my ears and my heart, that will be have to be enough.

Eyleh had'varim. These are the words. These are the things.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Revenge, Anger and the End of Wisdom

Thinking about Parashat Mattot - July 17, 2014   

Revenge and more revenge.

The widening spiral of pain, anger and retribution broke new ground today, as a passenger plane holding 295 travelers was shot down over Ukrainian airspace by a country or faction still to be identified. The downed flight, covered on the TV news as luridly as one would expect, was instantly triggering for me, as I imagine it was for many of us - transporting us back to our 9/11 horror, watching repeating footage of explosion, irresistibly pressing us to imagine a horrible death, in an act of terror, at altitude. All this getting mixed up with actual sorrow for actual people who actually lost their lives today.

The attack against the plane was the latest volley in a long history of Ukrainian-Russian tension that bores straight back through the Soviet Union and out the other end, for hundreds of years preceding.

If this had been the only new, violent escalation, dayenu, it would have been more than enough. But as we watch this out of one eye, the other remains fixed upon Israel, and the dance of revenge playing out in there. Today Israeli forces are launching ground attacks along the borders of Gaza, in response, of course, to the Palestinian missiles flying toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, those in retaliation for offensives that were themselves in response to the murder of three Jewish boys. Which, in someone's mind, was revenge for something before that, which was itself revenge, and back and back and back. Ping pong ping pong ping.

The failure of diplomacy to be of any meaning in either of these conflicts launches me, personally, into a state of despair I haven't felt in a while.


Of course I was also primed for it. Just last weekend, the husband and I rented and watched, by poorly timed recommendation, the chilling Cold War drama, Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda as the President of the United States, in a bunker, on the hotline with the Soviet premier, trying to keep the world from coming apart as an American military jet inadvertently and irretrievably heads to Moscow to drop its nuclear payload. The hopelessness and powerlessness seared into the celluloid of this film, and the image of a world where not even good intentions can save the day, much less bad ones, have haunted my sleep for days, before any actual plane got shot out of the sky. Not that I need fiction to enhance my experience of these very real events, but learning that the plane crash was revealed to Putin while he was on the phone with Obama felt like a bit of mocking deja vu.

So I did what I do. I turned to this week's Torah, which often serves for me as a kind of Tarot - what is the insight that this week's cards can bring to the silently articulated question of escalation, revenge, and hopelessness?

Alas, it is a really bad week for this exercise. Our Torah portion, Mattot, is itself about revenge. God commands Moshe to exact a full revenge on the Midianites for having participated with the Moabites in luring the Israelites into sexual misconduct and idolatry. This is meant to be Moshe's last task before he can at long last be gathered to his ancestors. The Israelite soldiers - our soldiers - go and deliver the Midianites a complete defeat. They kill the five Midianite kings, who are specifically named, much as the five daughters of Tzelafchad were repeatedly named in last week's portion and again later in the Book of Joshua.

The kings are killed at swordpoint, and so is Bil'am ben Be'or. You might recall him as the donkey guy, the prophet through whom came the beautiful paean to the Children of Israel, Mah tovu ohaleycha Ya'akov, mishk'noteycha Yisrael: how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. He delivered that blessing, but apparently only as a puppet for the ventriloquist God of Israel. Because those words do not seem to mitigate what is considered by Torah and by rabbinic literature to be his irredeemable wickedness - the whole seduction/idolatry thing seems to have been Bil'am's idea. Torah makes a point of saying Bil'am was killed by the sword. Rashi explains that Israel and the other nations swapped strategies in this; while other nations lived by the sword, Israel lived by the word - prayer and praise. When Bil'am gave his mah tovu blessing, he had intended words of curse, and was willing to use the Israelite toolbox - words of power - to do so. And so in punishing him, Israel used the toolbox of his nation, exacting vengeance with the sword's sharp edge.

In any event, the Israelite soldiers get back to the camp having killed every last Midianite man under the rule of the five kings, and bringing back as prisoners the women and children. Moshe, accompanied by Elazar the High Priest, goes out to meet the returning warriors. Moshe is incensed that the soldiers left the women alive, particularly since seduction of Israelite men by Midianite women was the mechanism by which Israel was led astray, according to the story, having brought both moral compromise and outbreak of some disease into the Israelite camp. And while I'd prefer to stop the retelling right here, with Moshe's anger, where really it's bad enough, it did not stop here. Moshe cajoles the soldiers into killing the women, as well as their sons and many of their daughters.

Now, you and I were not there. Sinai maybe, but this moment no. I have not lived in a war zone. I have not been the victim of military attacks. I'm not a Holocaust survivor nor the child of survivors. My inability to imagine what such a complete desire for revenge feels like is a blessing, it truly is, and, alas, a rare privilege on this earth. But still, even we lucky ones might have some wisdom to impart to those who are spinning in the gyre of hatred and revenge. But what?

At last, a breath of air is provided by Rabbi Yehudah Löwe in his Torah commentary, Netivot Olam. Löwe is the Maharal of Prague, the 16th Century commentator known folklorically for creating a golem to protect the Jews. He is no stranger to the threat of violence. Here he retells a piece of midrash to explain why, Moshe having scolded the returning soldiers and pressing them to complete the revenge, it is Elazar the priest, not Moshe, who then begins to articulate Torah to the soldiers regarding how to divide spoils of war and how to purify themselves after having engaged in warfare. This is puzzling to the sages, because it is Moshe who is the archetypal lawgiver, the primary conduit for Torah.

The midrash brought by the Maharal is that in his anger, Moshe is able to give commands of destruction, of violence. But he is unable to articulate law, or wisdom, or prophecy. The Maharal quotes the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in Talmud (Pesachim 66b):
Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. If he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him: [we learn this] from Moses. For it is written, And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host etc. (Numbers 31:14); and it is written, And Eleazar the Priest said unto the men of war that went to the battle: This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded Moses etc. (Numbers 31:21), whence it follows that [the wisdom/laws] had been forgotten by Moses.
There is nothing surprising or new here. But it is nice to have it articulated not just as world wisdom, not just as common sense, but as Torah. In anger, the wise lose their wisdom, prophets lose their vision. We all know this and are grateful to Talmud, and then Rabbi Löwe, for articulating it. This is the price of anger, even if the anger feels justified.

And this is what we are seeing all around us. Anger begetting anger, revenge begetting revenge. So that wisdom and vision are displaced.

I am not a politician. Or a historian. Or a diplomat. I can't stop wars or reduce tensions, nor can anyone that I know. But we can all feel supported by our own tradition, including even the bloodiest moments of Torah, when we say to leaders on all sides, that revenge is revenge. You may choose to engage in it or, we pray you may choose not to. But do not try to pass it off as wisdom. Do not try to pass it off as prophecy. It is neither.