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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Match.com. 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.

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