Visioning the Godly in True Blue

Studying Torah begins and ends with a sweet realization: These texts reveal new truths at each reading.  The ancient authors of Torah knew that creating multiple possible realities was the very purpose of storytelling.

Last week, our congregational Torah study group occupied itself with Parsha Mishpatim, which includes the famed Book of the Covenant.  The Book of the Covenant, so scholars, likely began as a separate law code which was later integrated into a larger narrative composed by several different writers.

Personally, I think we’d be better off naming our writers “schools,” since the respective strands of text were themselves subject to internal revision before they were all redacted and re-redacted in later centuries.  But scholars are notoriously wedded to their terminology.  Hence, they call them the J,E,P, and D-writers, nodding in the general direction of a fifth R-writer for “redactor.”  In this case, the E-writer (I’d say E-school) is given credit for assimilating the Book of the Covenant into the E-narrative in Torah.

Has everyone fallen asleep?

Please don’t.  The fact that ancient Israelites wrote and retained different versions of certain stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are the paradigmatic example) is proof positive that there was no one authoritative account for all Israelites even in the old days.  Some of Torah even “corrects” other parts.  Example?  Just check out the way the pashal lamb is, according to Exodus 12:9, to be roasted.  The same pashal lamb is to be boiled, according to Deuteronomy 16:7.  Chronicles 35:13 offers an ingenious resolution to the apparent dichotomy: The lamb should be roasted after being boiled.  The Chronicler was bothered by discrepancies in the two earlier accounts and reconciled them with a brand-new recipe.

Our ancient forbears preserved variant traditions even when they contradicted each other.  That fact grants us the right to our multiple interpretations: Torah is a flowing, changing, living thing because both then and now the people of that book understood their narratives, their law codes, and their ideas to be subject to change.

That, I believe, is a very good thing.  It has all sorts of wonderful implications.  We can (and have) put women in the rabbinate.  We can (and have) included GLBT Jews as members of our clergy.  We can…

Well.  The study group spent some quality time looking at the laws of the Book of the Covenant.  We discussed how the law code aimed to protect property, land, and justice.  Ancient Israelites were warned not to accede to a majority opinion rather than tell the truth.  If required to give testimony, they were reminded neither to favor the wealthy nor the poor.  There’s a lot in Parsha Mishpatim that can make Jewish folk proud of their ancestors.

There’s a lot to struggle with, too, just as ancient Israelites must have done.  Take the literal possibilities of “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21: 23-4).  There is no example in Tanakh of this law being applied, which strongly suggests that our ancestors didn’t take this passage literally even way back then.  Still, my Torah study group sadly noted the ways Exodus 22:17, “You shall not allow a witch to live” was used in later centuries to justify persecution and murder on a grand scale – in some time periods, against Jews.

At the end of our time together, I asked everyone to look again at the final passage of the parsha.  Moses, the text tells us, ascends the mountain together with Aaron and his two sons, and seventy elders.  There they see the God of Israel, under whose feet is the likeness of a lapis lazuli stone surface, the very image of the sky in clarity and purity.  Miraculously, God did not raise God’s hand against the all-too-human beings who dared appear where divinity could be seen.  Instead, the Torah tells us: “They beheld God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).

Most English translations of this passage do not do the Hebrew justice.  The verb used here for “seeing” is formed from the root chet-zayin-heyKhazah does not mean, simply, “see.”  It implies visioning.  A khozeh is a seer.  A khazon is a vision.  Those who were on that mountain visioned God, envisioned God, or had a vision of God.

Afterwards, they ate and drank.

I asked our study group to recall a time when they experienced Godness of some sort, to re-imagine a moment of divinity so powerful it simultaneously commandeered and sustained everything around them, including themselves.

We are mere mortals, despite (or perhaps because) of our dreams.  Must visionary experience inevitably give way to the everyday realm of assiyah, of doing?  Must we eat and drink to remind ourselves of our mortality after an encounter with immortality, after entering the realm of atzilut?

Or did those who beheld God take in the vision by drinking in the experience, by nourishing themselves with the divine so that they could be changed utterly, body and soul?

God’s feet, the text says, rested on a foundation of sapphire.  Sapir recalls, for the Hebrew reader, a word made of the same essential letters: Samech-pey-reish is a root used for “counting,” “relating,” and “writing.”  A sofer is a scribe.  A sefer is written text, a book.  The linguistic presence of these near homonyms in my mind made me ask the others: Was God standing on our story, on the narratives we have revered and struggled with for centuries?  The Tanakh is, after all, the foundation on which we build and rebuild our understanding of Godness.

So we ended our discussion where we began: The Book of the Covenant, the law, the Torah, the Tanakh – it is sourced in many voices, many readings, many possibilities.  What is godly stands, in significant measure, on that fact.

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To be… to live…

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

It happened at the first service I attended after my father’s death. I sang along with the others and heard my dad – instantly, singing harmony.

I don’t know how to explain that musical memory. By rights, I shouldn’t have it. I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish home with rare and brief bouts of synagogue attendance. I had about three months of Hebrew school, all told, and my bat mitzvah was potchked (Yiddish for “pasted,” “fiddled,” the product of messing around) together at the last moment. I was given a tape from the rabbi singing my haftarah portion and accompanying blessings without the slightest hint of inspiration or joy.  After I memorized it, we had a perfunctory service in the basement of a local elementary school. The temple was then under construction. I have no real memory of where the congregation was meeting otherwise (surely not that dank and terrible basement?) because we almost never went to services.

So why, to this day, can I hear my father singing certain prayers alongside me in that oh-so Ashkenazi accent with every kamatz the dialectical offspring of a marriage between “ah” and “oh”?

And why is it that prayer comes naturally to me as long as I am singing? Other avenues have been known to fail me.

When did I make that unspoken agreement with the Presence-Sweetness-Mystery that as long as I could sing I was oh-so-surely at God’s service, especially when I often think that making God a noun is about the deadliest thing we humans can do to religion?

I don’t understand it, really. I don’t know why I feel healed and whole when our congregation’s lay cantor, Angela Hodges, magically spins harmony over and under any melody I sing. I don’t know how my husband, Ralf’s, percussion becomes the heartbeat of the earth itself in all its manifold variations at every service. I do not know what is coursing through my feet and hands. I can’t explain why music and Hebrew and the two intertwining makes me feel like the world is clean and clear whether the prayer is joyous, plaintive, or thankful.

To be truthful, the sound of prayer is in most every song I sing. It’s something about longing and joy, I suppose.

It made no sense, I suppose, but I feared the effects of my recent thyroid surgery on my voice more than I feared a cancer diagnosis.

My history is riddled with relatives who battled cancer. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My aunt survived premenopausal breast cancer and thyroid cancer and lived until her nineties. My sister, Suzie, died young after a virulent premenopausal breast cancer exploded in her right breast and ripped through her body in less than a year.

Cancer took Suzie’s own extraordinary capacity to find a harmony to any melody I sang away so violently that I thought I’d never know what it was to sing together like that with anyone ever again.

To sing – and to dance – is to be. That has been true for me as long as I can remember. To be, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

I can’t imagine how I would live without singing. If living is holy, then singing is one of the sweetest manifestations of holiness I know.

My surgeon took great care to spare the nerves to my vocal chords. He is proud that he was able to protect my voice so beautifully. There appears to be no change in timbre or quality.

Today he told me, “I was just glad to hear there was no cancer.”

He reminded me, of course, what was important. I do know what mattered most. I do.

Still, I hope to be forgiven for my gratitude for the chance for a future in which I can sing all my prayers in my own voice. I will sing my thanks for life itself. I will sing my hopes for a world that is clean and clear.

I will sing, for that is my own holy blessing.

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Jewish Renewal, II

Maybe a bunch of Jews are longing for sweet and crazy-joyful celebration of who they are and what they do (and what God might have to do with all that). Or perhaps lots of people just find red boots fascinating. Another possibility? Jewish Renewal readers are out there just waiting to see something more about their own movement available on the world-wide web.

My posting on Jewish Renewal’s red boots produced more reader comments and more subscriptions to this blog than any other I’ve written – including the one on male lactation in the Talmud.

I mused about this some as I heard my Inbox bing and bing and bing again with comments and subscriptions and suchlike. Clearly, I had hardly begun nourishing the longing out there for Stuff on Jewish Renewal. I like to cook, after all, and I know that a good meal includes more than the main course.

My favorite dessert is dark chocolate mousse. I make it frequently. So, for a little textual dessert…

Jewish Renewal is an evening of Shefa Gold chants. One verse becomes the rich exploration of soul, of the Holy Breath that sustains our lives. Rabbi Shefa’s melodies and harmonies become mantras to live by; their beautiful repetition engraves them on the heart. Her Torah commentaries stretch the spirit. In them, she gives her readers the right to honor their own knowledge, their inner Torah, and to see it revealed in texts written thousands of years ago.

Jewish Renewal celebrates spontaneity, an in-the-moment approach to prayer as well as attention and intention to our deep roots and history.  Spontaneity: At Temple Or Olam’s Shabbat services I will happily sing in rhyme about the folks walking through the door, the children dancing in our midst, or matriarch Ruth Kingberg’s loving hugs.  Whatever is happening is a happening thing.

Here are the deep roots of Jewish tradition: We know that our relationships and friendships are about godding the world toward a meshiachzeit we long for, a time of real and lasting peace.

I like to sing about that, too, and my liturgy gives me age-old ways to do just that.

Jewish Renewal is the way our mashpi’ahs (spiritual directors) begin reflecting, considering, and even crafting healing rituals when they identify yearning for shleimut, wholeness. It is the way Rabbi Burt Jacobson brings us to Baal Shem Tov text study by beginning with meditation. It is the way we soak ourselves in the richness of tradition and Torah, the liturgical year and the practice of Shabbat.

It is the kippot on my congregation’s welcome table at every service.

I began making kippot years ago, and started mostly with pretty head coverings for all the girls of our congregation. I love to sew as I love to cook. Pink and purple and blue, beaded and braided and trimmed – I added some every year. I began finding little animal appliqués and made kippot for our toddlers. Ducks, alligators, donkeys, giraffes. I started making some for my colleagues and friendswith rich colors, with sparkles and beads and flowers.

I’d sewn blessings into each one.

God knows, we need blessings. We are wounded and small in so many ways, cut off from our own richly attired texts and traditions

How do we connect with a language we don’t understand but still use to sing our prayers? How do we find meaning in all the acts that seemed inexplicable to us in our youth? In what ways can we nourish our Judaism while enriching the world?

By renewing our understanding, our connections, our love of who we are, where we have been, and where we must go to make this world the one we hope and long for. We of Jewish Renewal can and long to do just that among fellow Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists and all the rest of humanity who are in pursuit of that thing we call a better world, a world renewed.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.

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Can You Teach Jewish Humor, And If So, Why Not?

It wasn’t my idea, I admit. A colleague of mine at UNC-Charlotte overheard me bemoaning the task of teaching our department’s Judaism course. Said colleague occasionally has to teach the general course on Christianity. He sympathized.

For one thing, he and I fully agree: There is no such thing as either Christianity or Judaism — not the way we are wont to believe, anyway — until about the fourth century CE. More about that later.

For another, no matter how you shake it, either topic is unwieldy, difficult, and a pedagogic pain. Do you teach festivals? Liturgy? Scriptures? Great thinkers? Which history do you emphasize? Whose?

“Why don’t you choose a particular theme?” Mr. Colleague suggested. “How about Jewish humor?”

“Mel Brooks,” I said.

“Woody Allen!” he added.

“Moshe Waldocks,” I rejoined happily.

“Who?”

“The co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” I said. “Funny guy.”

“Ah,” Mr. Colleague said.

I was excited. I collected jokes to tell at the beginning of each class. I practiced them at home. I invited my students to tell Jewish jokes. I assigned Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, stories and films, and The Year of Living Biblically. I thought we’d have a blast.

Not.

It was awful. I’d tell a joke with perfect timing. My students stared at me uncomprehendingly. They did not understand why Mel Brooks made fun of Adolf Hitler. They did not understand jokes about blood libel or pogroms. Actually, most had never heard of a pogrom.

I’ve been wondering ever since about my failed attempt at finding an entertaining way to teach Judaism. I’ve mused while bemused. Why were they so lost, so unsure why the material was funny? After all, Annie Hall was a great hit. There just aren’t enough Jews in These United States of America to explain the profits Woody Allen has raked in over the years. In despair, I began wondering how my students would have reacted to a series of “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. Maybe, I thought, they are so oppressed by our lousy economy and the debt they are racking up in pursuit of an education that there’s nothing they would find funny these days.

Segue – though not, actually.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my surgeon’s office, getting bad news. The lumps on my thyroid we’d been watching for more than a year had apparently demonstrated significant get up and go. One had grown by twenty-five percent. I had tried to avoid the knife, but it seemed pretty clear to my surgeon that my bumpy thyroid was going to have to go.

My surgeon is a Really Nice Guy who is, as locals say in Concord, North Carolina, “from around here.” He is tall, fit, and clean-cut. He is thoroughly pleasant, has a lovely and light southern accent, and is a wonderful listener.

He reminds me very much of an older version of Chip Hilton, the beautifully moral figure of the adolescent boy novels I read as a young girl. (I was a tomboy in my youth. I read all of my older brother’s Chip Hilton novels. Touchdown Pass, Fourth Down Showdown, Strike Three.)

“So,” I said, “how long will it take me to recover after you slit my throat?”

“Barbara!” he said.

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s my heritage talking.”

I thought it was funny. I doubt my surgeon agreed. Like my students, he looked at me with a mixture of shock and confusion.

How do I explain this to happy, white, and – let’s face it – mostly Christian Americans? Jews are schlepping around a lot of ugly history in which Jews were oppressed, suppressed, and repressed. These facts of our lives were, in many respects, the least of our worries in the old country.

One way to deal with persistent powerlessness is to devalue power. If I pretend the knife is a joke, I can conquer fear. If Mel Brooks can make fun of Hitler, he (and we) can understand how to live after the Shoah which decimated our people.

I needed to teach misery first, I decided. Then I could teach Jewish humor.

So this semester, my students are learning a lot about European Jewish history. Oppression, suppression, and repression figure in that history. Then they will read The Dance of Genghis Cohn, a novel in which a Jewish man is executed by a Nazi. The Jewish fellow, a third-rate comedian by the name of Cohn, becomes a dybbuk and merrily haunts his executioner. The Nazi learns, in the process, various Yiddish expressions, how to cook kosher meals, and how to observe Jewish holidays. It’s hilarious.

Jewish humor is, as Cohn says, a “way of screaming.”

Or coping. Or understanding.

This time, around, I hope my students will get it.

Here’s why. Maybe if we all got it, future generations of Jews will happily content themselves with lighter forms of humor.

And they’ll want to know, too: Why did the chicken cross the road?

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Jewish Renewal’s Red Boots

What is Jewish Renewal?

It’s a question I get as soon as folks realize that my rabbinic identity doesn’t fit in the usual boxes. I am neither a Conservative, Reform, nor a Reconstructionist rabbi.

I was ordained almost exactly a year ago, by ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. My congregation is affiliated with Jewish Renewal.

Jewish Renewal is not a denomination. We like to say that we are post-denominational. Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors work in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of shuls, from Conservative to Reform to Reconstructionist to independent (like mine).

What is Jewish Renewal?

It’s so very hard to describe something that ranges from starshine to sunshine, something that sparkles and sings and calls on the deepest spaces and places of the soul while making you laugh with recognition.

That, I wish I could say, is Jewish Renewal.

Instead, I typically offer an academic summary: Jewish Renewal seeks the deep knowledge of Chassidic tradition and strives to reconnect that tradition with contemporary Jewish practice. Jewish Renewal understands halakha, Jewish law, as a constantly evolving creation to help establish the most humane and ethical of life practices.

Jewish Renewal will joyfully embrace music, meditation, chant, yoga, and storytelling in the practice of Judaism. Jewish Renewal reads Torah as our deepest challenge and our most precious gift.

Or I say: Jewish Renewal is about learning the why and not just the how. It’s about plumbing the very depths of why so that we can hear our private and godly voices of truth.

I know, I know. Get concrete. Offer an example.

Early in January, I was attending the annual Ohalah conference, which brings together Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors from diverse parts of the world.

When we pray together, there is a joy and an intimacy that belies and transcends the conference hotel rooms.

We sit in circles or get up to move and dance. We pray all at once together or in the spontaneous creation of a kind of complicated twenty-part madrigal. It’s awesome, actually.

As are the Velveteen Rabbi’s red boots. They are the example you need to understand Jewish Renewal.

Here’s how I came to understand that fact.

I was attending a Shacharit service. Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel was leading our prayers – softly, gently. Rabbi Hanna Tiferet specializes in making a safe space for those who show up to daven with her. It is never about her; it’s all about our collective, kind intentions. It’s lovely.

As we davened, I looked across the room. Chaplain David Daniel Klipper was singing and tapping his foot. If he’d had a drum, he would have been playing. The Velveteen Rabbi, a.k.a. Rachel Barenblat, with whom I was smicha’d (ordained) last year as a rabbi and this year as a mashpi’ah, a spiritual director, is smiling at me.

I smile back. I look again.

It’s the boots. The red boots. The red boots with laces.

Rabbi Rachel’s red boots are a bright, energetic statement. They are beautiful and carefree, much like the mood in the room. They are a strong, rich red. They look solid and soft at the same time. Walking in them, I imagine, must make Rabbi Rachel feel strong and purposeful, ready and wide open for life itself.

Later, after davening, I am standing by Rabbi Rachel in the food line for breakfast when a rabbinic student comes up to admire her boots.

“They must be a bear to take off, though,” the student says.

Rabbi Rachel smiles.

“They zip!” she says brightly.

Over my oatmeal and scrambled eggs, I think about the way in which ideas and traditions and texts are laced together in our conference sessions, our classes, our prayers. Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan pulls together Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and the spine of a snake. Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg puns on the Hebrew er, for awakening, to “err” so that he can walk us through a look at snoozing and waking on a consciousness level.

How do we modulate our awareness, he asks, holding the ordinary and the holy, the flowing and the parched periods of life, the knowledge of presence and absence in one container?

I think about the five years of Renewal classes and conferences and the intimate and wide-ranging davening. I think about the way Renewal taught me that Judaism was not represented by large buildings and grand sanctuaries. Judaism is not a complicated form I could never grasp, a list of rules I could never master.

I could learn why. I could reach for the depth to be had in each letter of each word. Olam means “world” and “universe” and “eternal.” And it means “hidden” and “secret.” When I address God by saying Ruach ha’Olam, “Breath of the universe,” I take in the knowledge that however one thinks of the divine, there is something magical in the way that breath moves us, sustains us and keeps the whole world alive.

Breathing is life is divine is eternal is a mystery.

Ideas, texts, tradition – Jewish understanding laced together in a sweet web of life so clearly that I could unpack the teaching as easily as I could unzip a boot.

I learned these things in Jewish Renewal, from teachers whose hearts are rich and deep and playful. Like Rabbi Rachel’s boots: Red, soft, solid and joyful.

This is now my foundation; I walk in Jewish Renewal’s ways.

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A Holly Jolly… Hanukkah?

I made a terrible mistake last week in my Hebrew Bible class.

The course is actually called “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.” “Old Testament” comes first because most of our students have never heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” The latter is a respectable academic effort to avoid sectarian bias in naming biblical scriptures. Calling the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament” assumes said scriptures existed only to give rise to the New Testament. For Jews, this is a pretty perilous proposition. It makes them grind their teeth.

Jews call their texts the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim. The Torah includes the Five Books of Moishe. These, in turn, are also known as the Chumash, Hebrew for “five” and/or the Pentateuch, which is Greek for the same. Neviim is Hebrew for “prophets” and Ketuvim is Hebrew for “writings.” The former includes prophetic texts and histories like Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The latter includes, among other writings, Psalms, Proverbs, the books of Esther and Ruth, Lamentations, and Job.

Academic types call all this stuff of ancient times the Hebrew Bible because the vast majority of the texts are written in Hebrew. A very small portion is written in Aramaic, which can look and act like Hebrew, but isn’t. The name “Hebrew Bible” is neutral. It makes no sectarian statement. It has no religious connotations.

Religious connotations, as I tell my students, are inadmissible in a secular classroom. “This class,” my syllabus reads, “assumes a scholarly attitude to religious beliefs and texts. We will look at religion scientifically as a historical phenomenon. We are not here to talk about personal beliefs, or to make moral judgments about the text. This is not the setting to deal with our own views on God or spirituality; the setting for that is a nice, comfy chair with some good coffee, and maybe a Danish.”

Or a bialy.

But, hey, I was in a silly mood last week. It was our last day. The students were about to take a final exam in which, among other things, they would have to explain intertextuality at work in Numbers 22 and Genesis 22. (That meant comparing the seer Balaam, who converses with his donkey, to Abraham, who doesn’t seem able to talk to his own son.)

I decided to let down my hair.

“Let’s sing some Christmas carols while we wait for everyone to get here,” I suggested brightly. “How about ‘Winter Wonderland’?”

You would have thought I had announced that the final was going to cover Sumerian hymns, insist on intimate knowledge of Ugaritic, and test knowledge of ancient Persian governance. There was a loud and raucous outcry. There was an “Occupy UNC-Charlotte” spirit adrift in the room. The peasants were revolting.

“Whoa,” I said. “Wassup? I was just trying to bring a little seasonable cheer into the room.”

I teach many students who have to work their way through college. A good many informed me in no uncertain terms that they had been forced to listen to Christmas carols since Halloween as they bagged motley plastic goods. They were mortally, thoroughly sick of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy.”

Some may have heard “Silver Bells” as many as fifty times in less than six weeks.

They threatened to gag, upchuck, or make rude noises if I so much as jingled a bell or decked the hall.

I demurred, of course. The room assigned for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible last semester is already dark and dank. It has no windows. The artificial light, as Shakespeare would have said, sucketh. We had studied in a version of Sheol all semester long, the gray and wretched place everyone lands after death according to Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t matter if you were naughty or nice in life – that’s where you go when you kick off. It’s like a nursing home with tenure.

Had said students done as threatened, the next group to trudge in would be met with gory smells and sights unbecoming to the student body. Any of them.

Sadly, I handed them their final exams. I watched them stress and worry, gnash their brows and furrow their teeth.

I mightily resisted the temptation to cheer them up by dreaming about a white Christmas – a song written by a Jew, by the by. I did not conjure up the image of old Frosty, who could have been Jewish. (He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Max – incessantly cheerful, that man and oy, the shnoz). I most certainly did not think of Scrooge. He evokes terrible associations and clichés about, well, Jews.

Instead, very softly – very softly indeed, I hummed a song that could not possibly offend anyone.

“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay…”

P.S. Chag sameach to clay-handling readers!

P.P.S.  A list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs Written or Composed by Jews is provided for general edification below, as is a link to explanatory materials.

  1. Silver Bells
  2. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  3. Winter Wonderland
  4. I’ll be Home for Christmas
  5. Let it Snow
  6. White Christmas
  7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  8. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  9. A Holly Jolly Christmas
  10. Sleigh Ride

http://www.interfaithfamily.com/arts_and_entertainment/popular_culture/The_Jews_Who_Wrote_Christmas_Songs.shtml

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Eternal Light, Love Everlasting

I am sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through a cardboard box piled with papery contents of my old desk. What I keep will go into the new and beautiful desk in our repainted office. It is my first real wood desk, claw-footed, with drawers that slide, buttery and smooth.

I pick up a handmade Valentine’s card. The letters inside are rounded, large and childish. He took care, my boy. Some words are missing capitals; others have been given them unnecessarily. “I love you Dear mom and Dad Erik.” Was he five or six when he wrote this? I did not date it.

Sorting through a small stack of Erik-things, I rediscover a love note my little boy received from a very blond Jessica in first grade. I remember her bangs and blue eyes. I suspect my now twenty-year-old son does not remember her at all.

I find and I find. I find letters from my husband, Ralf, reminders of my good luck. I find a postcard picture he bought me of a lovely Rodin sculpture. A naked woman curls over and into rock as if it were sand welcoming her every curve.

I pick up notes scribbled in the night. One describes a dream. It is only partially coherent, like all dreams. I find laminated Torah blessings to lend to my students when they come to my house to study with me.

I finger finely-made bookmarks given to me by well-meaning friends. They do not know that I stuff Kleenexes or junk mail into my books to mark my place when I am interrupted in the process of reading, my heart’s joy.

I pick up the paperweight I made as a very small child for my father. It contains a picture of me dressed in a pink leotard and tutu. I am about as old as Erik was when he wrote us the note that lies on the counter nearby.

I reread a column I wrote in 2005: “Why become a rabbi?” In it, I explain that studying is an act of prayer for me. Then I point out that the love of learning is not enough to warrant becoming a rabbi. But people, and the love of people does. The rest of the piece describes the people of my little congregation. My descriptions are tender.

Then I find a picture from 1967.

I know this picture well. I have rediscovered it intermittently – repeatedly – over the last fifteen years.

My teen-aged sister sits on a flowered sofa. I sit on her lap. She is smiling in this picture. I wonder (again) at the miracle of that smile.

Suzie hated having her picture taken. When she died of breast cancer in 1996, she was only forty-two and her youngest child just three. No one could find a picture for the obituary – Suzie routinely turned away when a camera was clicking. In the end they found one of the two of us together, my arms wrapped around her. My son was not yet born. Neither was her youngest daughter.

Naturally, they cut me out of the picture.

In the picture from our youth, Suzie’s arms are wrapped around me.

The past is a source of longing and a well of anguish. Old wishes bubble into my heart. If only. If only we had known sooner. If only she had lived. How would it have been to share stories of our children into an old and fragile age?

In the dark of the year, sorting and cleaning and making sense of my history again, I find my husband’s love letters and our son’s first Valentine’s card and my sister’s picture.

Love and love and love. It lives ever on despite our frailty, our mortality. Grief does not die, either. No wonder: It is wedded to love, an expression of it.

I miss my sister.

Perhaps we celebrate festivals of light and hope in the dead of winter because the darkness outside reminds us of shadows inside.

My child is grown. I am a lucky woman – loved and free to love altogether, wisely, I hope, with the sweetness of years.

I miss my sister.  It is not too long after her birthday, and almost Chanukah.

The tiniest flame of a little chanukiah candle casts widely, unexpectedly in dark windows. I anticipate the first night, each succeeding night with ever more candles burning, shedding light. I will put a chanukiah in every room, in every window that will hold one. I will sit before the tender flames, remembering my losses and holding hands with my joys.

I will open the drawer of my new desk and find Erik’s note there, and Suzie’s picture and the postcard of the Rodin sculpture Ralf and I loved.

The light of love is eternal, everlasting.

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The Key to the Treasure is the Treasure

Sita Singing in the Rain, Copyright Nina PaleySita Sings The Blues is a full-length feature film produced by Jewish superwoman artist-cartoonist Nina Paley (available for free download at http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html). In the film, Paley mines an ancient Sanskrit epic to retell an archetypal story: Devoted woman gets done by the egocentric man she loves.

The narrative of the epic (Sita and Rama love, lose, and love again only, in the end, to lose big time) is Paley’s comment on her own ex-husband-bum’s behavior, but the film is ever so much more than that. Envision diamonds and rubies and sapphires, golden tiaras and cascades of silver filigree. Sita Sings the Blues is so dazzling you simply can’t take it in in one go.

The key to the treasure is the treasure, as John Barth’s Scheherazade points out in Chimera. The key to Sita Sings the Blues is not – appearances aside – the wild display of color or the imaginative jazz soundtrack, but Paley’s willingness to ask questions, to provoke her audience. Sita and Rama are not All Nice, and their actions cause pain and suffering – even death. The shadow puppets who narrate events also comment on the epic, noting the difficulties with standard interpretations that paint the hero and heroine as paragons of virtue. One narrator points out that Sita’s demands cause a terrible loss of life for those who would save her (she’s a bloodthirsty woman, the narrator exclaims). Another counters immediately: “Don’t challenge these stories!”

When I visit churches to speak about biblical texts, when I unpack them in university settings, I often find folks in the pews or students in my classroom growing nervous. I ask questions, and they proffer the formulations they learned in Sunday school, interpretations that will reconcile difficulties.

They’ve been taught these readings as if they were the text itself. But the interpretations they offer are often designed to obscure contradictions, to paper over ambiguities, to create more comfortable characters and a reassuringly omnipotent deity. They don’t want to challenge God.

I don’t think God would fear the challenge, though.

The God of Tanakh is compassionate and mothering, tender and loving. But YHWH also bumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. God complains. God worries. God roars.

YHWH is a moody deity, even murderous.

In Exodus 3-4, God entreats Moses to agree to take on the mission of saving his people. Almost immediately after Moses finally sets off for Egypt, God launches an inexplicable and vicious attack on his prophet. Of course, there are many readings attempting to make sense of this bizarre passage, including the claim that Moses is threatened with death because he has failed to observe an important Jewish ritual. (Just guess which…)

But seriously, now. God first commissions Moses for a really big job, and then, in the middle of the night, reminds him of forgotten obligations? This particular divine reminder comes in the form of a direct assault on Moses’ life.

Seems just a tad over the top, no?

Interestingly, it is Moses’ wife, Zipporah, who figures out how to propitiate the deity. She takes a flint and manages to circumcise their son — in the middle of the night, no less. Tanakh is dark in places.

It’s also hilariously funny.

Take Genesis 2:5 – 3. In the entertaining second version of How Things Worked (Genesis 1 tells the story of creation quite differently), God creates Adam, decides he needs a helpmeet and parades a slew of animals before him for inspection. Turns out, our presumably omniscient deity is a bumbling yenta.

Imagine the scene: God and Adam just hanging out, being guys together, checking things out.  Both are strangely unaware that chickens and porcupines are not appropriate playmates for the recently created man-person. Woody Allen would have a field day with this material. He should, actually.

Adam, so the rabbis say, tries out each and every creation God produces. But the plumbing isn’t compatible.  No “fitting helper” was found. The rabbis conclude: “Adam attempted to have sex with all the beasts and animals, but his sexual desire (knowledge) was not cooled off by them” (see b. Yevamot, 63a).

You can imagine the response of my students and church audiences to rabbinic interpretations of this sort.  You can imagine their response when I point out that our Bible is – at least sometimes– awesome burlesque.

What I love about Tanakh and, in fact, any great literature, is the refusal to offer pat answers, to make life’s questions easy. The whole point is to challenge these stories, to ask questions, to wonder, to laugh out loud. Curiosity is a good thing – a great thing. No religious tradition should be without it.

Sacred stories can and ought to bear challenges of all kinds. That’s what keeps them alive.

It’s the questions that give us the rewards we seek. The key to the treasure is the treasure.

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Hundreds of Kardashians

Image from tackyweddings.com1 cup laughter
1 cup joyful tears
1 cup solemnity
A dash of the wholly unexpected
A pinch of utter zaniness

It’s a recipe for a perfect wedding.

I learned this recipe after officiating at a number of weddings this past year.

One featured a bride wearing a powerfully red dress. Her groom wore a kilt. The procession was accompanied by bagpipes. Another wedding I officiated took place in a horse arena (beautifully decorated, I must add) and featured my son, Erik, playing a Chassidic tune on his accordion for the wedding processional and a bluegrass band taking over for the dancing bit.

Just last weekend, I helped out a tad at the wedding of two devout and loving Christians.

The bride and groom were former students of mine – in fact, they had met in my class “Women in the Hebrew Bible” at UNC-Charlotte. Leah is an engaging young woman with a great gift: She is original. Steven is thoughtful, gracious, and gentle.

Both are all about tikkun olam. They work steadily and consciously to change the world in all manner of ways. When they got engaged, they asked if I could be part of the wedding.

I got to meet the gentleman who was responsible for the lion’s share of the  ceremony just moments before the ceremony began. Dennis Teall-Fleming serves the Open Hearts Gathering (http://www.openheartsgathering.org). After a few minutes of conversation, I knew that Dennis was not the sort to read prepared text or drone on at the couple and their guests. I breathed a sigh of relief. I dislike when officiants drone.

Dennis opened the ceremony with one, simple word. First, he looked out at all the folks who had gathered under the dark, nighttime sky.

“Mehwidge…” he said.

After the laughter died down, Dennis announced that he had just learned a brand-new way to measure time. “One Kardashian,” he explained to all assembled, is the same thing as saying “seventy-two days.” This is the exact length of time that celebrity Kim Kardashian managed to stay married. More laughter.

Dennis had been married over sixty Kardashians, he said, and he was hoping that Leah and Steve would be blessed with many Kardashians of their own. (I started calculating in my head. My husband, Ralf, and I have about 150 Kardashians to our credit. Golly.)

As we both spoke about this couple’s commitment to the world around them, their passion for social justice, their willingness to love, their eyes – and the eyes of their guests – grew shiny.  We had our cupful of tears.

Then came the dash of the unexpected.

I had been told that Leah and Steven wanted to read their own vows. When Leah looked at me in panic because Dennis had moved to the next part of the
ceremony, I turned to him.

“We forgot something,” I said. Then I boldly announced that that the couple would now be sharing the vows they had written to one another.

Leah looked at me in utter confusion. I looked at her in utter confusion. She  explained.

They had fully intended to read them – but only to one another. Leah had thrown me that first anxious look because she thought Dennis and I had forgotten to give them a chance to kiss.

I promised Steven and Leah that they would surely get to kiss. More laughter.

“I am afraid you will not be privy to Leah and Steven’s vows, after all,” I said. “As we all know, it is the prerogative of the bride and groom to keep secrets from even their most beloved friends and family. Of course,” I added, “those who want to pry may do so… after the ceremony.”

Folks chuckled, Dennis played along nicely and we went back to blessing the young couple before us.

A cupful of solemnity.

The starry night sparkled over our heads. I stood before and with people who believe differently than I do. And yet, I am certain that holiness exists wherever commitment and love are found. The sacredness of life itself is revealed to us in such moments, no matter who we are.

We stretched out our arms. I sang in Hebrew; Dennis rendered in English that ancient and timeless prayer.

Y’varekh-khah Adonai v’yish-m’rekhah.
May God bless you and keep you.

Ya-er Adonai panav eilekhah vi-chunekah.
May God’s face shine upon and God be gracious to you.

Yisah Adonai panav eilekhah v’yasem lekhah shalom.
May God smile upon you and give you peace.

Then, finally, the kiss. Leah and Steven turned to their friends and families and the music began playing. We laughed as they raised their arms in triumph and walked down the stairs to the Star Wars theme.

A pinch of utter zaniness.

It’s a good recipe if you want to begin your life together with all the things marriage needs. Marriage certainly needs solemn commitment over the long haul. But zaniness and the unexpected have to be part of the mix, too; no one knows what life will bring. Couples have to know and cultivate humor – there is always a need for more laughter in this world. Tears will be part of your years together. Hopefully, most will be of joy.

This is my wish and my blessing: May the loving couples of the world be blessed with a good recipe.

And hundreds of Kardashians.

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Bagels on Steroids

I confess. I have an addiction. My husband, Ralf, is paying (literally) the price for it. In fact, he supports it – with aplomb, no less.

I am not a candidate for typical addictions. Smoke of any kind seizes my lungs if I am within thirty feet of the smoker, and makes me hack and gasp. Thus, any kind of smoking substance is, as they say in Merry England, right out.

I will get mildly tipsy after two sips of any kind of wine (even Manischewitz). Everything I encounter will become suddenly, terrifically funny. Thus, I don’t bother with wine. I have a serious nature about the world and do not intend to find it funny. Absurd, yes. Funny, no.

I don’t particularly like the taste of beer and I overreact to simple drugs given to infants. I don’t like imbibing things that are likely to make me sick. I have too many things to do to be sick.

Most importantly, I need very little stimulus to feel extravagantly happy.

I will dance about the kitchen to (I know, I know) the soundtracks of old musicals. Ripe bananas sliced, frozen for about an hour, and then whirred in the blender with a little soy milk will produce what I call “banana ice cream.” Slurping down said product will absolutely make my day (particularly if it is the dessert to spicy Indian dishes). If my cat, Beowulf, deigns to sit on my lap while I type, as he is doing just now, I will find that all is much righter with the world than I imagined.

Still, I have an addiction. Not surprisingly, it is a Jewish one.

I confess: If I go more than two weeks without a bialy, I will become grumpy and sad. I will complain about the lackluster bagel everyone thinks of when they free associate the words “Jewish” and “food.” I will cast aspersions on those who eat the tarted-up versions with chocolate chips and cinnamon, whether the consumers are Jewish or goyish. The only bagel I care for is pumpernickel, and it cannot compete with a bialy. It makes a substitute, but a poor one.

Google “bialy” and you will find, in addition to the ubiquitous Wikipedia article, texts like this: “Outside of New York City, the bialy is little known. A bialy is similar to a bagel, in that it is a round, chewy roll.”

Fie!

A bialy has chutzpah; a bagel is just a Jewish version of a biscuit. A bialy is never merely a creation of egg and flour and water – a plain bialy contains (thanks be to the Holy One!) onion and garlic. A bialy has a wonderful well in the middle. Toast a bialy, let a generous pat of butter melt in the center, tear and dip pieces of the bialy from around the edge until you are left with an oniony-garlicky-buttery center for the perfect final mouthful and you know something of the world to come.

A bialy helps stiffen your resolve, fill you with the warmth and joy that strengthens body and soul before heading out into a world where Things Must Be Done. A bialy is a perfect end to the day of Things Done, warm and cozy and nurturing.

A daily bialy is as good as a mother. It is comfort and love and support, all rolled into one.

I am convinced that Jews were making bialys back in Egypt. No wonder a week with matzah is so traumatic.

My husband, Ralf, enables my addiction, may the Holy One of Blessing bless him. He will drive all the way down to the Queen City of Charlotte at regular intervals with the sole purpose of buying me a crate of bialys.

The last time he went, the store owner tried to introduce him to a Charlotte Lubavitcher rabbi who was standing at the counter just behind him.

“His wife,” the storeowner explained to the rabbi, “teaches at UNCC in the Department of Religion.”

The rabbi nodded.

“She is the advisor of Hillel…”

“Was,” my husband put in.

(Ralf didn’t want to make me responsible for the current state of affairs with our Hillel group. When Jewish students throw parties with cheese and pepperoni the advisor may get a rash of angry parental emails.)

“She is… she is…” the store owner said.

Ralf knew where the friendly store owner was trying to go and knew why he was having trouble going there.

“Yes,” he said, “I am the husband of the rabbi of Concord.”

Then he smiled sweetly at my Orthodox colleague, grabbed the crate of bialys and headed out to the car.

He came home and packed almost the whole crate into the freezer. When I arrived some time later that day, I found that he had left a bag on the counter to defrost. He had even taken one out of the bag to make sure it was soft and ready for toasting upon my arrival.

“God bless you a million times,” I said.

“Would you like a bialy?” he answered.

 

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