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.