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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Harvesting the Story

If you're looking for my Kinsey Sicks farewell, click here. 


Parashat Vayera, 5775

Haven't we talked about this story enough? About Abraham and Isaac and the mountain and the knife and the stories before and after? We rehearse it year after year. It's a scarring story, situated amidst a series of scarring stories.

But the reason we talk about it every year is because this is the harvest. Every year we harvest the same crops in the same order, arranged according to the seasons. As the days get short and a whiff of winter night penetrates the longing-filled warm days, we go out into the fields of our stories and we harvest Vayera. We pluck Abraham at his tent, welcoming visiting angels, right off the vine. We harvest a bargain with God. Fire, brimstone and a pillar of salt. The miraculous birth of a child named for laughter is now perfectly ripe for us. The exile of a handmaiden and her son to near-certain doom, and their surprise salvation. On the ground, heavy, unwieldy and tangled as a pumpkin is a test of the obedient Abraham proctored by a trickster God; a test with no clear rules and no clear winner, bringing in its wake the death of a mother, the lifelong guilt of a father, and the shattered innocence of a child.

Every year, under this harvest moon, we haul in the same crop. And every year we try to figure out what to do with our mixed bounty. Do we boil till soft or stew till chewy? Do we carve it like a jack-o-lantern, yanking out its innards and leaving just a hollow smile? Do we simmer it on the stove with many, many cups of sugar until it gels? Or this time do we let it sit and rot, thinking to be done with it already, only to see that it nonetheless becomes food for something or other and, tended or not, in-tended or not, its seeds live on to sprout again for the next cycle around.

This year I honored the harvest by making my first marmalade ever. While America imagines its autumn as epitomized by squash and acorns and other earth-tone yield, in my garden the Meyer lemons are bursting into their third or fourth ripeness of the year, the color of a canary and bearing a scent sweet as springtime. I skinned and boiled 10 of them, alongside our synagogue's etrog, to see what it would be like to have jam made of four ingredients: fruit, water, sugar and symbolism. This particular wizened etrog is a tough messenger, a shaliach, from Israel, arriving at our doorstep like the emissary of a false Messiah, announcing to the remnant of Israel the dawn of a new age. It is a symbol of hope, of the longing of our hearts, and it also has an edge of bitterness, like all who dare to hope experience at some point in their lives. It is a bitterness that is the price of the very practice of hope, but not an argument against it. Because maybe even if today's redemptive idea fails, tomorrow's might prevail.



So I took spring and fall, hope and bitterness, sweetness and causticity, and let them bubble together in the pot, browning and caramelizing and softening till I had a candied symphony of flavors and intentions. Our world's complexity, spread on toast.

Vayera is also a harvest with some toughness and bitterness. There is some sweetness, but also a taste of sulfur and salt in the middle. This portion is in some ways an anti-acquired taste. Stories we swallowed whole as children become increasingly unpalatable as we get older. The exile of Hagar, the destruction of Sodom, the binding of Isaac. Our forebears and our God don't come off well. Even the seemingly empowering moments - Abraham getting the better of God in a bargain over the lives of Sodom: if there are but ten righteous people the city will be saved - turns to a feeling of cheat when we realize that God the omniscient certainly knows that ten just people cannot be found.

Still, every year we haul in this crop and we peel and slice and chop and stew and stir. Sometimes we look for ways to make it okay. But drawing meaning is not the same as making something "okay." Our texts are challenging and we can be grateful to the rabbis of antiquity and to our long and uncompromising oral history that these texts were not cleaned up, but instead arrived in our scroll with all their beauty and ugliness. They challenge us; they might embarrass us; they could trigger us - and it is hard for a story of a father with a knife not to be triggering. They might resonate with our personal or familial traumas or our political struggles. But we can be grateful these are not the feel-good stories of Disney. And while we can turn to midrash - or create our own - to make the moments of violence or unfairness in the stories seem somehow fairer, maybe that is not always our job. Maybe our task is not to sweeten but to integrate these stories, just like we are required by this life to integrate all of the bad and the beautiful things that happens to us and around us in this world, and to use those experiences as the soil from which the next thing can grow.

Maybe this year the key is not what we collect in our baskets but who we collect them with! After all, you can make marmalade alone, but you can't do the whole harvest by yourself. You need bodies. People walking side by side through the rows, each person carrying and sharing their own experience and their own stories. Maybe this year we want to be listening to each other's stories. After all, I hear the Abraham story every year. But have I heard your story?

What if we were to hold Vayera in our consciousness while discussing each other's experiences of violence or of trial? If we were to think of Abraham while hearing each other's stories of being tested? If we were to feel Hagar in our bones while hearing each other's stories of exile and estrangement? If we were to hold Sarah in our hearts while we talk about trying to parent in a world that is unlike the world we grew up in, not knowing when to create a safe space by being soft and when to clear it by being savage? If we were to imagine the destruction of Sodom while learning about people's desperate and creative work to avert environmental disaster? If were to hold Isaac before our eyes while we listen to people's stories of personal survival. If we were to do these things, if we were to hear each other's Torah this year, how might the Torah we've received on parchment come alive in a different way and spur us on to new connections and insights and energy?

We don't hear enough of each other's stories. We are used to hearing "stories" that are obviously rhetorical devices, told by every politician running for office. We are used to seeing "stories" on TV or film that are inventions, that make the challenges ahead of us seem more benign, more amusing or more hopeless than they need to be. Visionary activist Caroline Casey would call these toxic mimics of story.

But real stories. Stories told by people who are not like you. When was the last time you heard those? Stories that are hard to hear? Stories that feel shameful to tell? How might we grow beyond our expectations if our roots can reach out that far?

So this year, how about we harvest each other's stories as well. And let's cook 'em all up together: the bitter and the salty and the sweet too, and let's see if they can sustain us. Let's see if they can fuel us to a better future than the one we're careening toward right now, than the one we're experiencing now.

It seems we are not just heading toward disaster; we are in active disaster - for our species, for the rest of the species on earth, for the earth that birthed us. But as Caroline Casey reminds us, "some seeds only sprout after cataclysm, flood, fire, ordeal." Just because there is hard stuff ahead doesn't mean there isn't something better coming.

I'm tired of feeling frightened of the future. I'm tired of hopelessness. The game isn't over yet.  There's a new generation already arriving, ready to get down to work. So let's start talking.

And who knows? Next year's harvest might be different for us all. And it might be delicious.

Shabbat shalom.


I am grateful to Michael Lerner, Oren Slozberg and the gorgeously dedicated and creative people at the Commonweal Fall Gathering for trying to make me think bigger this week. It's a start.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Moment Everything Changed

B'reishit & Noach: Light, Cain, Abel, Babel

If you are looking for my Kinsey Sicks farewell essay, click here.


 There is so much for us to grieve now,
So much lost that we will never see again.
And yet so much still arising
That we have only begun to dream.

Larry Robinson


And then there was light.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, that long blaze of road stretching from Sacramento to LA. In the dark you are hypnotized; you are a rocket shot through the blackness of space, flying on instruments. But as the sun rises there is suddenly land stretching out, east to the horizon, west to the hills, south to the pinpoint where the road disappears. During this drought time, the color spectrum at dawn ranges from this brown to that brown, but with every possible shade of brown in between; and all washed in chilly blue that only later gives way to the yellow tones of day.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, and I was slapped across the kisser by the simple privilege of sight; the privilege of being privy to so much detail from such distance. I could see with complete casualness where it was rocky. Where there were orchards. Where the crop had been cleared and where it hadn't come in. A million bytes of data about things far beyond my physical reach, all taken in in an instant.

My mind wandered, as it only has permission to do on long road trips. I wondered how sight even came to be - evolutionarily speaking - since it does seem kind of miraculous. The advantage  and value of sight as we know it are obvious. But what about whatever came before sight, in earlier evolutionary stages? What was the advantage to those first "simple" organisms floating in the primordial soup of having a sensitivity to the light of the sun? You'd think it would be a distraction, even a danger. If you're feeling sunlight, don't you run the risk of drying out, immobile, on a rock? Could that in fact have been the advantage of evolving sensitivity to light? Enhanced ability to flee it? So how did it happen that some simple organisms - the ancestors of plant life - discovered they could use light to cook up their food? And at what point did our ancestors discovered that where there was light, there was also a good chance of finding those plant-y creatures to eat?

So somehow vision evolved. And then, somewhere along the way since, sight emerged (for us at least) as not just a means of scoring dinner, but as a way of appreciating the landscape ahead or a loved one at hand or a Leger on a museum wall. That interests me. The emergence of human qualities that no longer strictly serve an evolutionary purpose. Appreciation of beauty. Getting swept away by music. An involuntary laugh at a really good punch line. When did these things happen and why? What was the moment when we, somehow, became human? What was the moment that it all changed?

Fast forward half a billion years from the primordial pond, and we are in the car, zooming down Highway 5. The 17-year old and I end up talking in ways that only car trips permit, eventually turning to the things that interest us most when we're together, especially language. He is interested in obscure and dying languages, and some of them have been my bread and butter as well. We note the success of Indo-European languages, which cover all of Europe except for mountainous holdouts, and which reach east through India and Pakistan. We speculate about the migrations that carried language from place to place and the sequestrations that allowed them to differentiate from each other. In Genesis, the disunion of language is the punishment and cure for hubris. Progress on that tower we were building in our godlike ambition ground to a halt when the architects, contractors, bricklayers and lunch crew could no longer understand each other's babble. And in that moment, everything changed.

But in the non-biblical world, language differentiation has hardly curbed human ambition. We mistrust and misunderstand people whose language - including their symbolic language, their religious language - is different. Inter-lingual, inter-ethnic, inter-religious hostility rages on with a continuing force that no optimistic, universalizing Esperanto can assuage.

Languages do migrate with nomads who speak them into new vistas, while looking for better hunting and fishing. But language is also imposed. And the most successful Indo-European language groups, like Romance and Germanic and Indo-Iranian, dominate not because of their poetic genius and clever turns of phrase, but as the imprint of conquest.

In the car, at 70 mph, we wondered about conquest at such a large scale that continents could become uniform, for short periods, in their possession of a common language. Those moments in history when someone near what would become London and someone near what would be Bucharest could have had some meaningful chit-chat in Latin, if only they'd had phones with which to do so. Or this moment, when our continent and much of the world are dominated by the language we speak, even though that will inevitably gave way in time. But in any event, we decided, the birth of global conquest was the moment everything changed, from a linguistic point of view.

But then, we thought, thinking backward, what was it that triggered such conquest? It couldn't have happened without sophisticated weapons, we reasoned. So what would that be? Iron age? Bronze age? The time when we first fashioned WMDs: swords, spears, daggers. This development seemed to us to be an outgrowth of the techniques used for making housewares and farming implements. So from those items to weapons required a moment of beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, and that moment turned us from farmers, miners and smiths into generals and foot soldiers. Human history changed in that moment.

Looking back further, it seemed to us that we couldn't have had any mining of ore at all before we had people to spare to do the mining and learn the qualities of minerals and invent the forge and the tongs, the latter being an implement whose origin seemed so far fetched to our ancestors that Pirkei Avot, our earliest book of Talmud, speculated it was created by God, since how else could one forge tongs without having tongs with which to do so? In any event, we couldn't have had metallurgy without a human society in which some individuals could be spared from the task of gathering food. So that would be when? The neolithic revolution of maybe 12,000 years ago? In that revolutionary moment, many of our ancestors exchanged their nomadic life for a settled agricultural existence, as they learned that they could manipulate the environment around them. Not just find plants but grow them; create irrigation; domesticate animals for easy food. Invent pots so you could add soup to your kabob-and-berry menu. Settle into villages and then towns and then cities. In a city you could have a whole guild of people spending all their time thinking what to do next with a lump of copper.

This agricultural revolution - depicted in Daniel Quinn's mind-bending book Ishmael as being encoded in Torah through the story of Cain, the farmer, killing off Abel, the hunter - had not only the effect of enabling the growth of military power, but also providing a solid reason for it. Until there were human settlements in which resources (animal, mineral and vegetable!) could accumulate, there wasn't a reason for invasion. Why conquer people who have nothing to take? Agricultural life meant that a population could grow and, conversely, that in hard times, there would be more people suffering. So taking other people's stuff - homes, settlements, goods -  through conquest and tribute became insurance against the collapse of your kingdom, or at least of your kingdom's lifestyle.

So yes, that agricultural revolution in neolithic times. That was certainly the moment when everything changed. Humanity, civilization, the world; all became unrecognizable.

Sitting over 8:30 am pea soup ("breakfast of champions," cheered the waitress) at Pea Soup Andersen's in Santa Nella, I wondered how it came to this. From the bright idea of planting a seed or taming a wild sheep for its milk or digging for shiny rocks in the ground to a mock-Danish tourist stop with a fake windmill, serving travelers careening in cars from one end of a water-drained state to another. And how this came to pass in really a relatively short period of time - in the last 12,000 out of sorta-kinda 200,000 years of anatomically recognizable humans, and the merest blink of an eye since we were all swimming in the pond. What was the pivotal moment that sent us down this track? This long arrow of highway, this path of human history from which there are no easy, safe, peaceful, universally agreeable exit ramps.

It's easy to foresee doom ahead, and in this era of continued invention, we look for the thing that will save us. It will be technology. It will be renewable energy. It will be water desalinization. It will be the reintroduction of extinct species of animals. It will be something like we've had in the past, but bigger, or shinier, or cleverer. And that will be the moment, we let ourselves imagine, that everything will change.

Poet and environmental activist Larry Robinson gave me some hope the other day when I wasn't looking for it. We sit on a board of directors together for an organization committed to social change and paradigm shift, and we were doing a visioning exercise that involved speaking in a voice other than our own, whatever voice happened to come to us. Larry turned to the group and said something like, "People didn't always see the ripple effects of what you were doing." We asked who was speaking. He replied, "I am your grandchild. I'm speaking to you from the future." We all gasped; this was unexpected. And then he continued. "The efforts that you made in that time - and I won't tell you if they were successful in the short-run or not - were nonetheless important in and of themselves. They modeled how to negotiate a world that is in flux and transition."

And then there was light. The mood in the room changed - ten adults suddenly filled with hope and gratitude. Ten adults suddenly seeing, or re-seeing, that they are part of a flow of change, a flow to which everyone, every thinking, caring, intentional person, can contribute. Even if the solution is not instantaneous, the solving is ongoing.

We love the misleading clarity of milestones, we humans. How many books have been written about 10 (or 11 or 101) inventions that changed the world? But as appealing as it is to point to moments and to see them as discrete, identifiable points of change, aberrations against a backdrop of stability, things aren't that way. Every moment is the moment in which everything changed. This moment right now is. And this moment. And this. And this one too.

The tasks ahead are daunting. Hayom katzar v'ham'lachah m'rubah, says Pirkei Avot. The day is short, and the work is formidable. But don't panic, says the text. Lo aleycha ham'lachah ligmor. It is not your duty to see the work to completion. Still, lo atah ben chorin l'hibatel mimenah, the fact that the job is overwhelming does not mean you can opt out. You are not free to opt out, says the text. Which might be a comment about responsibility: you must step up to the plate. Or it might be a comment about inevitability: you are part of change, you are the change, whether you desire it or not.

And while this doesn't make the problems of our planet any simpler to solve, it at least makes breathing a little easier for me, because I'm breathing in some hope. We are not responsible for achieving the outcome, just setting the trajectory. I am reminded of once hearing Rabbi Marcia Prager translating the word torah as meaning "trajectory," from the Hebrew root yarah, to shoot. So this is our Torah, to keep setting and re-setting the trajectory in the time that is given us. We have no choice but to do so. And I, for one, am more reassured than I am anxious when I think, with each act that I carry out, with each choice that I make, with each turn on the highway, that this is the moment that everything changed.

Martin Luther, a notable changemaker, spoke about the ongoing process of change that is the nature of this existence. I am grateful to Rachel Naomi Remen for introducing me to this wonderful passage:
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness;
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it;
the process is not yet finished, but it is going on.
This is not the end, but it is the road;
all does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."
(Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, 1521)
Satisfied, we paid for our soup and pocketed the change. Still in the promising light of morning, we climbed into the car and pulled out onto the road, taking the southbound entrance into the future.


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 his 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 queens. 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.