Friday, February 6, 2015

A Ghost of Shtetl Future

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Feb. 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

D.I.Y. Song of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my journey continues.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Parashat Vayechi: Gathered to his People

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Jan. 2, 2015

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

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

The key phrase that jumps out is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אסף ידך

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

לפניו רגזה ארץ רעשו שמים שמש וירכ קדרו וכוכבים אספו נגהם

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

כי–אבי ואמי עזבוני ויי יאספני

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

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

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

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

Dedicated, as always, to Marilyn Keller.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Re-Vision Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Learnings from YiddishLand (Parashat Toldot)

For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”
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

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

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