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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Passing on Paradise for Love on Earth

We’d sung happy songs and deeply moving prayers. We welcomed Shabbat in with Feelin’ Groovy and were moved (again), when our second oldest member, Ruth Kingberg, beckoned in the angels of peace by singing Shalom Aleychem. Mi Chamocha featured our new cowbell. Veshamru, the high and slender sound of the recorder.

Time for the drash, the story, the reflection.

The subject: Parsha Lech Lecha – particularly, Genesis 15. The content: Night visions, dreams, predictions, a covenant.

In the first of two nighttime encounters with the Divine, Abraham mourns his childlessness. God knows how that anguish haunts Abraham and makes him a promise of children. God commits to the Divine promise by invoking a ritual well-known to the Ancient Near East (though strange to us).

In that ritual, animals were sacrificed and the parties to the contract would walk between their divided parts. Should they violate their agreement, the punishment would be dire: They would end just as the animals beside them: cloven in two.

In this night vision, God Godself is the one who passes between the animal parts. It is God who must keep the promise. Abraham is merely to believe in it.

In the second night dream, God comes upon Abraham to foretell his descendants’ future. They will be enslaved for four hundred years before knowing freedom again. It is a dark vision, a vision of horror and pain.

Two visions, two dreams, two futures: Life with children to follow, to keep the memory of one’s short existence on the earth alive, to carry a good legacy. Then, the knowledge: We cannot make our children safe from the real world they belong to.

Whoever we love, whether attached to us biologically or not, these are the beloveds we long for, the souls we want to make safe. Those two night visions – the one of hope and the other of dread – they are both, in essence, about the power of human connections on this earth. They are about love.

That night, I also told a story about Adam and Eve. In that tale, they find life outside the Garden of Eden difficult, challenging, and painful. But when God offers them the chance to return to the Garden they flatly refuse – even though they are both old and exhausted from years of labor. They cannot bring themselves to leave their real lives behind. Not before they must, anyway. They refuse to leave their children, their memories, and their earthly experience for the happy forgetfulness of paradise. They reenter the real world, the world of earthly love.

I asked my congregants to imagine they stood before the gates of the Garden of Eden. Would they enter? Would they, too, refuse? If the latter, what was it that held them to the earth, to the real world?

Everyone had a card and a pen. They began writing.

After the service, one of our children showed me his card. He had written his name on the top: Caleb Malin. Next to it, he had drawn a Star of David, a tiny Torah scroll and, finally, our Temple Or Olam logo, the fiery letter shinn. Below he listed all the things he could not leave behind:

My dog my Parents my brother my gram my PaPa my Granmuther my ante my uncl my rabis my cusens my Grandfather my ont.

“Caleb,” I said, “this is absolutely beautiful!”

“Those are all the things I won’t leave behind,” he said. “Can I draw a picture, too?”

“Please!” I answered. “Let’s go find you another card.”

Later at the oneg, Caleb came by to show me his picture. I read the card again. “Caleb,” I asked, “I didn’t know you had two rabbis. Who is your other rabbi?”

“Mr. Ralf!” he said.

I laughed.

Mr. Ralf, of course, is my husband of almost thirty years. At every service, Ralf plays a range of instruments, from the darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum, to recorder, to (most recently) the cowbell.

Ralf has a calm and quiet soul. For seven years, he has done one task after another for our congregation, from creating earlier websites to designing our monthly Shmoozeletter to maintaining our data base to schlepping all the instruments and musical equipment and our Torah to every last service and to every last bar or bat mitzvah. He has comforted congregants and made them laugh. He is a beacon.

No rabbi could do more.

I cannot bear the idea of leaving Ralf behind. Were the Holy One of Blessing to offer me Paradise, I would refuse it – even if the cost was that I would never see it at all and would have given up, say, one little minute with Ralf.

God would not ask such a thing, I think. God would know that my longing is to be with Ralf, with my beloved family and friends as long as I can be, just as God knew that Abraham longed for those he needed to love to live – Ishmael and Isaac. The real world, with all its pain and sorrows, with all its frustrations and disappointments, contains our dreams.

Perhaps there will come a time when I am ready to go. Maybe I will feel that way someday, though it seems so impossible to me now.

But if and when God or Paradise beckon and welcome me, may they do so only after I have made it clear that my dreams, like Abraham’s, were about the love I bore for those I loved while I was on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Stand By Your Blessing

 “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
Pirkei Avot / Sayings of Our Fathers
5:22

Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing in the Torah,” is an annual love fest demonstrating our abiding affection for the challenging, beautiful, sweet scroll of our stories.

We have a special tradition for Simchat Torah at Temple Or Olam. As we roll the Torah back to the beginning, I ask members of our congregation to stand by the column of their choice in the book of Genesis. Then I look. I scan the column for the blessing they have chosen, though they have no idea where it is.

To be frank, I don’t either.

Nevertheless, some of the letters shine and glisten at me; some words emerge from the parchment. The letters of Torah turn and turn and turn again. I read them: They are telling me something about the soul before me.

This past year, a young man in our congregation stood before a dry text indeed. One person begat, the next did the same. I read the series, despairing of message or purpose. Shem begot Arpachshad who begot Shelah who begat Eber. Sixteen verses later, I read the final lines introducing Terah and his sons: Avram, Nahor, and Haran.

I started grinning.

“What?” asked the young man.

I looked up at him. I’ve known him for many years, and watched with increasing joy as he has taken one firm step after another toward this year’s planned beit din. There, I know, three rabbis will surely and joyfully acknowledge what we in our congregation already know (he’s Jewish!).

He had chosen the column that introduces Avram’s birth.

What did Avram do? Take his heart in his hands and journey towards a different life. What is this young man doing? He is taking his heart in his hands and journeying towards a different life.

I went along the table. A young teenage girl stood by a column that began with Sarah’s invitation for everyone to laugh with her, to share her joy at the miracle of Isaac’s birth. This young girl, I know, was born only after many long years of painful waiting and hoping on her parents’ part. “You are a particular blessing,” I say. “Ask your parents to tell you the whole story sometime if they haven’t yet.” Her mom is standing nearby. She laughs. Like Sarah?

I moved to a congregant in her seventies who has recently been celebrating her freedom – after many decades – from a certain family member’s demands. She pointed to the scroll, to the passage that describes how Joseph’s family sold him into slavery. “That’s my story,” she says, when I tell her.

Torah is so rich I could probably find something in every column for every congregant. Laws of probability, coincidences – you can throw them all at me while I try to explain how magical it feels to discover Torah within the souls of my congregants.

Torah is terrible, rich and frightening. It is tender and it is violent. It is often perplexing. It is real. It is human.

Maybe this ritual of ours is really about how much I love my congregation. Since I know the people of Temple Or Olam, I can read their stories in the ones before me on the scroll. Sarah and Jacob and Joseph are Stacey and Nick and Susan.

The unfurling parchment is ancient and magical.  I turn it, and turn it, and turn it again, looking for those I love, those before me, those about me.

We are black letters on white parchment, the strokes and lines of a human endeavor, of human striving. Everything is in that.

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Until the Heart Breaks

When I was a child I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang until my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. I’ll sing
Until my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
A psalm.
Yehuda Amichai

What do we long for?  For connection.  For safety.  For love.

Why do we sing? Because we hope. 

Tonight, Yom Kippur begins, and with it, a day when we sing from the midst of our broken hearts.

We have accrued dross and weight that is unbearable – how can we throw off the miseries we experienced – much less committed this past year?  How can we forgive ourselves, feel we have the right and the chance to try again, to start again, to believe again?  Teshuva, return — we pray for it.

From the depths we must call out, from the knowledge and the full recognition of our failings.  There must be a way to waken, to see the world clearly.  We belong to this world.

More importantly, the world belongs to us.  We are responsible.

When has night given way to morning?  The rabbis say:  When you look into the face of the person who is beside you and you can see that this person is your brother or your sister, then the night has ended.

When you have learned that everyone is particular and yet connected to the source of life itself, to the earth we live on, to the people who share it with us, the morning has begun.

May I sing the song of my people with commitment and joy.  First voice.

May I sing the song of humanity with hope. Second voice.

May I sing all things divine, for they are everywhere around me, in the faces of those who walk beside me, in the souls of those I do not know, in the footprints of the creatures who hide in the trees. 

I’ll sing until my heart breaks.

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