The Soul Marathon – From Rosh Chodesh Elul to Simchat Torah

marathonIt is challenging — a beautiful, spiritual marathon of sorts. Rosh Chodesh Elul to Simchat Torah — over fifty days of soul traveling punctuated by six major spiritual transitions: Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. We begin in the deepest modes of reflection and we end in an extravagant, no-hold-barred celebration.

Most Jews I know pick and choose from among the various chagim of the season. Few make it to each major service of the Days of Awe. The majority in my neck of the woods have never heard of Shemini Atzeret, others, at Sukkot do little more than enjoy the projects their children bring home from Religious School. Is there energy left to dance with the kind of abandon Simchat Torah deserves?

Given my own life, spent spinning between congregational obligations and those of the university, the Jewish liturgical year is nothing short of grueling during the fall months. This past year was no different. I sang the last notes and led the last prayers on Yom Kippur and went to bed early. The next day, I drove off to the university where I work to lecture for fully six hours in classrooms of various states of mustiness. The end of the day after Yom Kippur I was in bed so early I practically skipped dinner.

What were they thinking, those ancestors of ours, when they packed all these festivals together and turned these fifty-plus days into a training course for our souls?

They were thinking about beauty.

This is beautiful: The fragility that the Days of Awe induce is given a fragile space to unfold. In a sukkah, itself a tender reminder of the temporary quality of all existence, we sit with our rebirth, our new beginnings. I ask my congregants to reflect on their spiritual lulav, the fruit of their soul harvest from the High Holy Days. How will we embody our new self-awareness, transform it into a conscious practice in the months to come?

Rabbi Elazar Ben Tzadok says: It was the custom of the Jerusalemites for a person to leave his home with a lulav in hand, to go to the synagogue with his lulav in his hand, to read the Shema and to pray while holding the lulav, to place it on the ground while reading the Torah or reciting the blessings of the kohanim, to visit the sick, and to console mourners, while holding the lulav and, on entering the beit Hamidrash (for study)…

It would be so easy to simply return to how everything was – recreate and reestablish lulavthe same old habits from last year, the same old failings. But Sukkot asks us to take our spiritual lulav with us, live what we have learned, practice what our souls preached to us as the gates were closing at Neilah.

Shemini Atzeret brings the lesson home.

When, after the long festival of Sukkot, the children of Israel are ready to resume regular life, God says, ‘It is difficult for me to part with you. Tarry a while longer. Stay another day.” Hence the name Shemini ‘Atseret, for the word ‘atseret means ‘to tarry’ or ‘to hold back.’

God calls us to wait, to stay, to pause before “regular life” resumes. And the very next day we will roll our Torah scrolls back to Bereishit, and join the Holy One in a celebration of beginnings. The dance we dance deserves unmitigated joy; we are new, we are hopeful, we can love our Torah and all the challenges therein.

From reflecting on who we are as individual souls during Elul we conclude our High Holy Day season by reflecting on our collective story. We come out of ourselves, into our communal identity, and, strengthened by renewed awareness of both, reenter the world. It’s challenging, of course.

But beautiful.

Whispering… With Trees

orange treeOnce upon a time, when the earth was bare, when no grasses filled the field, water swelled and rose until, finally, it found release, a place to flow out and over the earth.

Waters of life gave life. A human was born and the breath of life came into this human. With this breath, Targum Onkelos says, humanity was granted speech: “And the Lord God created the human of the dust of the earth and breathed upon the human’s face the soul-breath of life and, [then] the human had a spirit for speaking.”

A garden grew of the water and the earth, a garden Torah calls eden, “pleasure.” In the very center the Holy One placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

Imagine these not as two separate trees but as one — one singular tree of life and wisdom. Our Torah is both, so Tanakh tells us. Etz hayyim hi, Torah is a tree of life to those who uphold it (Prov. 3:18). Rabbinic tradition has long identified Lady Wisdom, who describes her own presence at God’s side when the world was created (Prov. 8: 22-30) as Torah.

Wisdom is the source of life. The two are bound together.

In Genesis 2:5, we read: When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted… Genesis Rabbah tells us that that while the first three words of the second creation story may seem to read “no shrub was in existence” we should understand the passage quite differently:

No one to converse with, siakh, in the field (Gen. 2:5). All trees converse (mesikhim), as it were, with one another. Indeed, one may add, all trees converse with mortals; all trees [were] created to provide fellowship for mortals (Gen. Rabbah 13:2).

The rabbis translate siakh not as “shrub” or “bush,” though that seems natural enough given the context. Instead they read its homonym, also formed from the three-letter root sinn-yod-chet. Multiple possible meanings present themselves, including “to ponder, to reflect,” “to concern oneself with,” “to meditate with thanks and praise,” “to talk, discourse,” or even “to whisper.”

In Genesis Rabbah, humanity wakes up, breathing into a world that will include whispering, speaking trees. In another rabbinic vision, the tree of life is a canopy for knowledge. Life is the source of wisdom. The two are bound together

In the Garden of Eden, in every one of its recesses, there are eighty myriad species of trees, the least of which is more beautiful than all varieties of spice trees. Sixty myriads of ministering angels sing sweetly in each recess of the Garden. The tree of life is in the center, and its foliage spreads over the entire Garden of Eden. The tree has five hundred thousand kinds of fruit, each differing in taste; the appearance of one fruit is not like the appearance of another, and the fragrance of one not like the fragrance of another. Clouds of glory hover above the tree, and from the four points of the compass [breezes] blow at it, so that its fragrance is wafted from world’s end to world’s end. Under the tree sit disciples of the wise, explaining the Torah. Each of them has two canopies, one studded with stars and the other with the sun and moon. Between each pair of canopies there is a curtain of clouds of glory. Beyond each canopy there is Eden, in which are three hundred and ten worlds. (Yalkhut, Bereishit)

Our story may have divided one ancient story of one tree into two. Humanity has relied on binary categories to organize the world, sets of opposites and oppositions. Male and female. Black and white. Heavenly and earthly. Material and transcendent. Spiritual and religious. Them and us.

But we all know that such oppositions confuse rather than clarify. We all know that there is no such thing as race and that we are all related. We all know that we can’t place people on the opposite sides of any category and call it quits. We all inhabit and travel on a spectrum where our culture, our color, our gender, our age, our education, our everything may shift with time or inclination.

This world – and humanity itself — is made for fluidity, not for rigidity.

Imagine we had created our stories with wholeness, rather than separateness and separation. Imagine we had created all our stories and all our human histories by the light and guiding image of one tree to converse with, a tree of wisdom and life.

Then, go outside into the created world. Whisper.

From Regret to Joy – A Yom Kippur Journey

Flame_Apophysis_Fractal_FlameAlmost exactly fifteen years ago, my father-in-law, Willy, took a decided turn for the worse. Willy’s wife, Evelyn, had nursed him for over five years, hardly leaving their apartment except for necessary errands.

That fall, my husband, Ralf, was getting ready to leave for Germany to guest lecture at the university in Ludwigsburg. Just two weeks before Ralf was to leave the United States, Willy was hospitalized. Because of his father’s illness he planned to go to Hagen, first, where his parents lived.

Ten days before Ralf’s departure, Evelyn, called to let us know that Willy had become unresponsive. He did not recognize anyone, even his own wife. He could not talk. Still, Evelyn told us, he might come out of his present state.

We knew Ralf would be leaving soon. We assumed we had time.

Evelyn called five days later. Ralf wasn’t home; he was at UNC Charlotte, teaching. Willy had just hours, she told me, not days to live.

“It’s too late,” she told me.

I began making calls.

First, to a travel agent, to get Ralf on a flight that night. Then, Ralf’s colleagues, who would need to take over his final classes at UNCC. Then, finally, when I knew he had finished teaching, I called Ralf at his office.

“Ralf,” I said. “Willy is dying. Come home right away, honey,” I added. “You have a flight out of Charlotte tonight at 7 p.m.”

“I’ll never make it,” he said.

“Yes, you will,” I said. “Everything is taken care of. It’s all arranged. Colleagues will teach for you next week. I’ve started packing your suitcase. Come home.”

By the time Ralf was home, all he had to gather up were any academic materials he needed to teach in Germany.

“I can’t focus,” he said. His hands were shaking.

He was at the airport that night with half an hour to spare. I calculated the flight time to Frankfurt, the train trip to Hagen, the taxi drive home, the trip to the hospital. What were the chances that Ralf could make it to Willy’s bedside before he died?

I don’t know what role chance played. I do know that when Willy saw his son, his eyes cleared; his face came alive. It was the first time he had responded to anything or anyone for many days.

Later, Ralf joked with his father and told him, “This will teach you to stop smoking.” Willy managed to lift an eyebrow and breathe something like a laugh.

He died that night.

Ralf came home a few weeks later, after taking care of the funeral, the paperwork, and his mother. He had to drive twelve hours each weekend to and from Ludwigsburg where he was teaching and Hagen. He did all this with pneumonia in both lungs. There was no time for his own grief.

He was quiet and calm when he returned. When I asked him how he was feeling, he would say that he was all right. It wasn’t, after all, as if we hadn’t expected it.

Two years later, I walked into our kitchen to find my husband leaning over the counter, his hands covering his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it,” he said, looking up. His face was drawn. “It’s ridiculous. So long afterwards.”

Then Ralf told me. The night Willy died Evelyn wanted to leave the hospital. Ralf wanted to stay. It was very late; she had practically lived in that room for days. Ralf was torn between his exhausted mother’s exhaustion and the look in his father’s eyes.

“I can’t forget his eyes,” Ralf told me. “Pleading.”

For two years, Ralf had punished himself for leaving his father, following his mother out the door, and driving her home.

We arrive at Yom Kippur filled with regrets. If we had only had more time. If we had only said these words, not those. If only….

Give us a few moments to reflect on the past year, and we will recall the priorities we ignored, the hopes we did not honor, the needs we repressed. Yes, we failed to do all that we longed to do.

How might we honor the regrets of the last year? They came straight from our hearts, which are now sore and wounded. How do we free ourselves from the weight of “might have” and “should have”?

Our regrets come from our longings.

Let us discern our heart’s longings. May we know compassion – from ourselves and from others, and from the Holy One of all Blessing, who, our Torah tells us, once promised us blessing simply for appearing at the Tabernacle to ask for it.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy. (Leonard Cohen, Psalm 19)

May we turn from regret to joy: Joy in the offer of forgiveness and understanding. Joy in the opportunities ahead to live a life of love and hope and kindness.

May we know the boldness of joy.

Breathe, and Act: Save Syrian Lives

In the morning you shall say, “If it were only evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If it were only morning!” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see (Deut. 28: 67)

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died 500 meters from the Greek shoreline. His five-year-old brother, Ghalib, died with him, as did his mother, Rehan.

Seven and a half million Syrian children, inside and outside Syria, are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Two million are living as refugees. These days, Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world if you happen to be a child. Syrian children

If you saw the pictures of refugees packed into a train in Hungary, desperate and hungry and without a modicum of food or water, or the images of Syrians lying packed side-by-side on the floors of Hungarian prison cells and, if you happen to be Jewish (or just plain human) – you might be finding it a little hard to breathe.

All the images we are seeing now, images we have been seeing for some time, are pictures that are familiar, terrifying.

Some have known that terror.

Alyth Synogogue was founded in London during the 1930s. Many of the first congregants were refugees themselves, fleeing Nazi Germany.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is the synagogue’s rabbi. Recently, he published an article in The Guardian entitled: ”In the spirit of the Kindertransport we want to extend a warm welcome to Syria’s refugees.”

The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) program of 1938 and 1939 saved about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi gas chambers.

Those children are now elderly. Some went with Rabbi Goldsmith to a meeting at Parliament – together with young Syrian refugees.

One million Jewish children died in the Shoah. There was little to nothing done by the Allies to save them.

But these men and women, among the very few who were saved, are convinced that Great Britain can act on behalf of Syrian families, and help rescue Syrian children.

Here, in America, there are Jewish institutions trying to open our doors to Syrian refugees. One of them is HIAS (once the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), the oldest voluntary resettlement program in the world. Some of our grandparents were the beneficiaries of the work of HIAS did around the turn of the twentieth century.

On September 4, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed HIAS President and CEO Mark J. Hetfield on All Things Considered. “We have 200,000 dead in Syria,” Hetfield said. “We have people fleeing not once, but twice from the conflict.”

But the United States and many countries in Europe, Hetfield added, are assuming a “business as usual” approach to the crisis.

The United States, he pointed out, managed to take in 200,000 human beings during the 1980 Indochina boat crisis with absolutely no infrastructure in place. So far, we’ve offered safety to some 1,800 Syrians.

We might as well be offering Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly insists that his country does not want Muslims in his country, a warm handshake and a pat on the back.

If we go on like this, we can certainly expect to see the bodies of more children washed up on Europe’s shorelines.

Or we could do this instead: We could look for each and every opportunity to act and to give.

This High Holy Day season, every dollar we offer HIAS will be matched. We can sign petitions. We can insist that our representatives open the doors to Syrian refugees. We can ask presidential candidates where they stand and we can insist on specific and detailed responses.

This morning, during Torah study at Temple Or Olam, we remarked on the way in which Parshat Ki Tavo depicted the kind of horrors we were seeing in the media. In the text, they are a threat; for Syrians, those horrors are real.

We know what happens in an indifferent world to those no one wants to save.

None of us believe that what we are seeing in this refugee crisis is God’s work. But since God created both weal and woe, humanity has been given the chance to choose: We can make either into reality.

We can act. We can save lives. In the memory of Aylan, Ghalib, and Rehan Kurdi, let us do exactly that.

Our Stories, Their Stories. Again and Again.

ruth and arthurs crownWe could see the soft, sad ending – the announcement of Moses’ death from where we stood. Across the room, inscribed in strong, black strokes against the white parchment, was a moment of joy and triumph – the Song of the Sea. Stories stretched out before us, reminding us of those we carried, connecting us with tales of another, ancient time.

Our Sefer Torah was almost wholly unrolled on a long line of tables set diagonally across the sanctuary.

I had brought blue, medically approved plastic gloves – the kind that would not shed any powders on our beloved scroll. I had sponges, given to me by the scribe we’d worked with since our inception, Sofer Neil Yerman. I had handouts that described unusually large or small letters we might find as we worked.

We were ready to clean our scroll, to prepare the parchment — and ourselves – for High Holy Days. We sang Shehechiyanu. I blessed our labor, demonstrated how to use the sponges, and we began.

As we brushed down the gorgeous, shining columns, the scroll brightened visibly. Our own stories came back.

“This is where your daughter read from the scroll,” I told two parents, pointing at the first columns in B’midbar.

As I brushed over the Song at the Sea, I looked at the crowns dancing across the scroll. When we received and dedicated our scroll, Neil had led us in decorating the passage.

Three crowns stood above the first two words of the Song. The first was drawn by Ruth Kingberg, together with Neil, just months before she died. At the time she could barely stand, but when we told her we would bring the scroll to her home, she dressed herself beautifully.

Ruth was, for a decade, the matriarch of our community. I have her ceramic child’s teapot and creamer in my china cabinet. They were the only toys Ruth could smuggle out of Germany when she escaped the Shoah on one of the last Children’s Transports (Kindertransport) to England.

Next to her crown, her husband’s. Arthur, too, survived the Shoah by getting out of Germany just in time. His path to America was a hard one, beginning in China, then ending up, during the war, as a slave laborer in the jungles of the Philippines. At ninety-one, he still has the leech marks on his legs.

A third crown was mine.  It joins Ruth’s and Arthur’s together.

One of our younger members, an artist in his own right, found the extra-large vav in Leviticus 11:42, in the middle of the Torah. That vav is found in the middle of the Hebrew worcleaning the Torah 1d for “belly” (gachon).

The belly of Torah, the center of our being, the core of our Selves. Here, the letter that says “and,” the letter that links all behind it and all before it together.

Just as our stories do.

I looked to either side. To my left, the story continued on through Vayikra, B’midbar, D’varim. To my left, Sh’mot and B’reishit. Stories in every column. Stories of past simchas, stories of Jewish lives lived together in our time, in past, ancient times of long ago.

The scroll binds them all together. It tell us all our stories. Again and again.

Silence, and the Wor(l)ds That Emerge

View of JordanIn just weeks, the scroll will be rolled to the last column. We will turn the last page in the Chumash. The cycle will end and this year, too, will die.

Moses ascends Pisgah and looks into the future. I have let you see the land, YHVH tells his prophet. But, YHVH adds: v’shama lo ta’avor – you shall not cross over there. Consider: These are God’s last words to Moses.

Should we be silent? Moses is.

The text offers us nothing; not a word attends to the state of Moses’ soul. We read only this, in the very next verse: “So Moses, the servant of YHVH, died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of YHVH” (Deut. 34:5).

From a broken heart?

Torah tells us no more. But we search the white spaces in between the spare, fiery letters. From the silence, come the words — a plethora, in fact. In our legends, in our midrashim, in our imaginations: Moses argues, insists, even begs. He is eloquent.

He quotes Torah against her Creator. Look, Moses says, I suffered through all of Israel’s woes until the Israelites finally came to believe in you, until they finally understood all your precepts and teachings. I worked and took care of them. I taught them Your law. And then, Moses adds, wasn’t it You who said: “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets” (Deut.24:15).

Do as You tell us to do, Moses says. Pay me for my labor. Else You have become a fraud. God does not relent.

More words, more eloquence. Master of the Universe, Moses says in legend, at least let me enter the promised land as a mere beast of the field, a bird of the sky. I’ll eat grass, drink water as any creature of yours, but, please: A living one.

Our legends find words in silent places, silent spaces.

Moses beseeches the world to entreat the Holy One for mercy. We, too, would like to beseech God on Moses’ behalf. We, too, do not want this end. But neither heaven nor earth, nor mountains, nor sea can alter the decree.

Archangels Gabriel and Michael are sent to take Moses’ soul, but they cannot bear the idea. They resist. Only Samael goes; he had been waiting for the opportunity all along. Moses fights off Samael, but the battle is exhausting. After that final struggle, Moses understands. He must cede the future to others.

Now, Moses can only beg that he will not die at the hands of the angel of death.
These are the right words. The Holy One promises: Moses will be attended by God, Godself.

Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Moses, close your eyes,” and he closed his eyes. “Put your arms over your breast,” and he put his arms over his breast. “Bring your legs together” and he brought his legs together. Then the Holy One summoned Moses’ soul, saying, “My daughter, I had fixed the time of your sojourn in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years. Now your time has to come to depart. Depart. Delay not.”
She replied, “Master of the universe, I know that You are God of all spirits and Lord of all souls. You created me and placed me in the body of Moses one hundred and twenty years ago. Is there a body in the world more pure than the body of Moses? I love him, and I do not wish to depart from him.” The Holy One exclaimed, “Depart, and I will take you up to the highest heaven of heavens, and will set you under the throne of glory, next to the cherubim and seraphim.”
In that instant, the Holy One kissed Moses, and took his soul with that kiss.

There is peace, a transformation, a different world awaiting the soul of the prophet. This year is dying. It, too, will be silent at the end. We long for a new beginning.

May we will be silent, so that we may find wor(l)ds.

Let us cross over. Let us live. Transformed.

Finding Meaning — Four Decades Later

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea,
which cannot be measured or counted;
and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,”
they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God (Hosea 2:1).

I thought it was a bad mistake.

Over forty years later I wondered whether it was meant to be that way. If so, why?

More than four decades ago, I was given a tape and the text of the haftorah that accompanies Parshat B’midbar: Hosea 2: 1-22. I had no idea what I was chanting. I did not know the rabbi, whose raspy voice I listened to every day. I never met with anyone – not the rabbi, not the cantor, not a teacher. Not a single soul spoke to me about my bat mitzvah, its purpose, or the significance of anything I was doing.

I chanted a text I didn’t chose, that had no relationship to the actual time of my birth, and which I could not claim as my own. Hosea was an accident; my bat mitzvah was scheduled for administrative convenience.

In my bat mitzvah dress.

In my bat mitzvah dress.

Still: I loved Hebrew letters and was thoroughly entranced with the melodies of haftorah trope. I studied until I had each word note-perfect. Words I did not understand took root in my body. Decades later, I could still sing my haftorah.

I had sung it with sweetness, with devotion. I was unschooled and untaught. I was also mysteriously and inexplicably attached to Jewish cadences; a fact I would, even now, be unable to explain.

Decades later, I discovered what I’d actually sung. I cringed.

In this text from Hosea, Israel is humiliated and punished for her transgressions. God is obviously male, and violent. Though He promises to take Israel back despite her sinful behavior, His language is that of an abuser. Punishment, then gentle solicitation. Threats, then tender pledges of everlasting love, of certain commitment.

My birth parsha was Acharei Mot. For a long time, I wished someone had given me the choice. I would have liked the  text from Amos, which some Jewish traditions read with Acharei Mot. I would have wanted to sing about the God of many peoples, a God who not only acted to save and redeem Israel, but the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans, too (Amos 9:7).

I’d go back to Hosea each year and do battle with my own reactions. I’d sing the verses in my head and the sound would transcend the meaning in a way that felt simultaneously beautiful and wholly unacceptable.

I could remove some verses, understand them as a transcendent form of foretelling, as a truth-promise I wanted to believe in. After decades of teaching classes on the Holocaust, the opening verse, in which Hosea promises that the people of Israel will someday be innumerable as the sands of the sea, evoked consciousness of our loss.

It also evoked hope: a primal wish to see a people healed and whole.

But I never could get around the feeling that I should have chanted Amos, not Hosea.

This past summer, I sent in the second piece I am writing for a ten-volume series on Jewish spirituality. The first was on Mourner’s Kaddish. The second was on Havdalah. As I was finishing the Havdalah piece, I noticed that it was quite close to the word count of the Kaddish piece.

The Havdalah piece focused on the practice of magic in Jewish history and tradition. It centered on Queen Esther’s arrival in the siddur for just such a moment as Havdalah is – a liminal, enchanting time.

I believe in magic.

I sent the work off to my editor and told him that I had included a spell to make sure he liked it. Later I explained: There were exactly 4171 words in both pieces.

My editor wrote back, and told me that 4171 was the exact gematria for a particular verse in Tanakh.

Hosea 2:1. If this is your pasuk, your verse, he joked….

I wrote back to say that it might well be “my pasuk.”

Now I must ask why.

Still Waiting

Sonia Handelman Meyer

Sonia Handelman Meyer – Waiting

She called her photograph “Waiting.”

A man in a fine hat and light suit sits in elegant pose, one leg folded across the other, his jacket resting on his shoulders. His eyes are difficult to read. He is waiting.

The man next to him is bent over, his head resting in his palm. Despair? Exhaustion? We can only guess. He, too, waits.

An elderly woman, her head bandaged, looks over her glasses. Her newspaper rests over her legs, the Hebrew letters running across the page in successively smaller rows.

They are all immigrants. They are all waiting for their interviews at the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.

The picture dates back to the years just after World War II. It was taken by Sonia Handelman Meyer, then a young woman in her twenties.

Sonia was a member of the New York Photo League, founded in 1936. Its members documented conditions among migrant workers, homeless persons, and the unemployed. Their pictures exposed racism, poverty, and the use of child labor.

I met and interviewed Sonia, now 95, for a story I was writing for The Charlotte Observer. Her work will be going on exhibition in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, this August.

It is now many weeks after I met Sonia. But I keep looking at her pictures.

I look at the little girl on the stoop in Spanish Harlem, her face smudged. Her eyes are hard to read.

Meyer_Children in Vacant Lot, Harlem

Sonia Handelman Meyer – Children in Vacant Lot, Harlem

I look at the five African American children playing in the rubble. There is nothing green or natural to break up the gray and desolate landscape.

Sonia would walk through poorer parts of New York, she told me, snapping one or two pictures at a time.

The results were – are – incredible.

“Love” is a photograph of a young African American couple standing on a stoop. He is casual, debonair. His whole body leans toward the young woman, whose small smile glows.

“Beautiful Boy” is a picture Sonia took while documenting conditions at Sydanham Hospital, the first interracial hospital in New York. The child looks up from his hospital bed, his hair tousled. Beautiful. And waiting.

Sonia Handelman Meyer - Beautiful Boy

Sonia Handelman Meyer – Beautiful Boy

Sonia took pictures at an anti-lynching rally in 1946 after four African American sharecroppers – one seven months pregnant – had been lynched in Georgia.

She took pictures of poor teenage boys.

She took pictures of conditions that seem familiar to us because we are still permitting the same inequalities, the same poverty, and the same injustice. Her pictures are ours.

“I was a radical in the forties,” Sonia told me – and, she added firmly, “not only in the forties.”

Then and now, people were not willing to see the injustice that surrounded them.

“We were living in a city, in a country,” she remembers, “that had come through a terrible depression and a horrible war: Supposedly we had won. But people were still hungry, looking for work, still unhoused.”

The League lasted until it was shut down by the government in 1951, labeled a “subversive organization.”

Sonia married, had children, and put her pictures in shoe boxes. Her work might have been lost to us. Her son, Joe Meyer, insisted on giving them back to the world. They have been part of a major exhibition on the New York League at the Mint Museum of Charlotte, and now, her pictures are coming to Cabarrus County. They will take up every last room in the Old Courthouse in Concord between August 17 and October 10.

Sonia especially loved to take pictures of children. They were, she says, “most vulnerable. Most beautiful.”

We live in a world in which children have yet to be granted the right to live safe and healthy lives.

We are all still waiting.

Jewish (and Married)

Everyone Loves a Jewish GirlThis just in: After decades of teaching and writing about Jewish history and texts, after delivering interfaith programs on All Things Jewish, after studying to become a rabbi, and after about twelve years leading the same Jewish Renewal congregation the world has finally discovered that I am Jewish.

“The world,” I admit, is an exaggeration. Most of the world doesn’t know me or care to, either. I don’t blame the world for this fact; it seems reasonable enough.

But curiously, I appear to be well worth contacting for one slivered subsection of the planet – the realm of online dating sites.

It all began last year, when I began to receive advertisements for I decided there had to be a kind of cyber-contagion at work. My twenty-something son had registered for a dating site of some kind or another (don’t remember the name; only that it was free).Dating online 3

Thiede is not a popular name, so I assumed that his last name had been cyberly synced to mine. Kinda the way Facebook takes a list of your friends and then suggests more friends via connections with your friends.

As fall progressed, I received additional solicitations. Eharmony made its presence known. Deleted. AsianDating checked in, promising me many pictures of beautiful Asian people. Indeed, the site’s homepage features a young, smiling Asian woman holding her long hair up on one side, her eyes flirting and expressive. Over her picture we read: “Find Your Asian Beauty.”

I deleted the email.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself looking at a new email invitation – this time from ChristianMingle. The relevant homepage is almost wholly taken up by a white heterosexual couple embracing sweetly in the light. She appears to haveChristian Mingle jumped into the male model’s arms despite her spiky heels. Light is flowing into the room from an open door. Headline: “The Power of Two: United in Faith and Purpose.”

If I signed up, I read, I would be given “tools to create God-based relationships.” I would be able to access Christian chat rooms, instant messaging, photos, Bible verses, and more.

I need ChristianMingle in order to access Bible verses?

I wondered whether the site’s definition of “God-based relationships” included those formed by members of the LGBTQ community.

I deleted that email, too.

I am married. Happily so. For over three decades. I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea – at least not the human ones.

After deleting such invitations for many months, I finally realized that there might be married people on dating sites, and that such sites knew such things and didn’t care one whit about my marital condition or anyone else’s. They would bother me until the end of my time here on this earth.

I asked my husband, Ralf’s opinion on this matter.

“Well,” Ralf said, “I understand that a dating site that was designed to help people commit adultery has just been hacked. Tens of thousands of names were on that site.”

“Yikes,” I said. “Tens of thousands of people must now be in a terrible state of shame.”

“Or not,” Ralf added.

I called my twenty-something son and blamed him for the influx of such invitations. It was his fault, I said, and he could just stop dating right now and spare me the trouble of deleting all those emails.

“Mom,” he said, “I don’t think I caused this. And don’t you want grandchildren some day?”

I do. I told him he could go back to dating.

Privately, I wondered about the fact that the cyberworld seemed determined to hook up a married woman with somebody – anybody – but most definitely not a fellow Jew.

Last week, the world finally found out I was Jewish. At least dating sites did. I finally received a solicitation from JDate.

I smiled. But I deleted that email, too.

Sing to Pray, Tell the Truth: My Meeting With Rabbi Darío Feiguin

Rabbi Darío FeiguinI love chanting through a service in nusach. There is something mesmerizing, meditative in gentle repetition and subtle variations on musical themes. But sometimes I have known a rabbi or cantor to focus more on demonstrating proficiency than channeling sincerely. Authenticity, though, is not ensured by maximizing the Hebrew and minimizing the time it takes to deliver it.

Our prayers are rich in meaning. Our prayers have a purpose. Even when I know my congregants cannot themselves translate the words I am chanting, I believe that if I daven the words from my heart, my cadences, my emphasis and my pauses will help them feel, even understand the kavanah of the siddur. I don’t always have to intermix English with Hebrew, or provide an introductory explanation. Music is a medium for heart and soul.

We pray while singing, and our tears tell the truth.

I went to Costa Rica this past July and relearned this lesson from another rabbi. I was there, in part, to daven, drash, and teach at Congregation B’nei Israel in San Jose. Rabbi Darío Feiguin and Ileanah Carazo, a former student of mine, had invited me. Ileanah is now preparing for the rabbinate through the ALEPH ordination program. She also serves on the B’nei Israel board.

B’nei Israel is beautifully served. Rabbi Darío savors prayer. Kabbalat Shabbat was a joyous and musical collaboration. The next morning, Rabbi Darío led Shabbat Shacharit almost entirely in nusach.

Most of the congregants likely could not translate the Hebrew of the prayerbook. Yet, Rabbi Darío used his voice to give over the longing, the hope, and the joy that is embedded in the siddur. He did not reduce nusach to a drone. He did not cloak it in a monotony it never, ever deserved. He did not rush. He did not go on automatic. He treated each prayer gently, honoring the words like the divine poetry they are.

In listening to him lead, wholly and simply, I came to know his heart. His davening brought tears to my eyes.

A congregation served by such a rabbi is a congregation that can welcome others. It is a congregation that is willing to be nourished by a stranger because its own rabbi is a teacher who values learning in whatever form it might take.

We were at the close of B’midbar that week, and I had been asked to lead Torah study. I knew there were many students of Judaism in the room, people coming home, returning to their tribe. There were also members of the shul whose Jewish ancestry could be traced back for many generations.

But they all possessed an inner Torah, I said, as we began our session together. They all possessed Torah wisdom.

We studied the last year in the wilderness together. We spoke of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. We reviewed the events that led Moses to rage and the people to apostasy.

“We have, each one of us, known a year of pain,” I said. “What wisdom, what inner Torah did you learn from a long period of struggle?”

Darío’s wife Yudi, a woman of energy and ebullience, had tears in her eyes. She spoke of family, community, safety. Another woman cried openly, and spoke of courage. One man spoke of learning how to feel worthy again.

“The Torah,” I said when our time drew to a close, “is our mirror and our oracle. It shows us who we are and it tells us who we can be. To read the Torah is to understand ourselves, our community, our purpose. Read Torah, and become a holy people.”

It was Darío who now had tears in his eyes. Why? Rabbi Darío loves his work, he loves Judaism, and he loves Torah and God.

Congregants led by a rabbi who can touch hearts can open their own. Congregants led by a rabbi who can teach will be able to hear. A rabbi conscious that each word chanted, each word read, each word studied can provide Torah to the world is a rabbi who can change lives. Darío is such a rabbi.

Rabbi Darío stepped forward, thanked me, and led the davening. In nusach. With devotion.

We prayed while singing, and our tears told the truth.