“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.
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.
Tekiah! I was whole.
Shevarim I grew scattered…
Teru’ah …even shattered. Teki’ahgedolah And nonetheless: I again knew moments of wholeness.
Just last weekend, my husband, Ralf, and I were out at an office supply store, buying little gifts for my congregants. When we came home, Ralf checked, as he does several times a day, a website with breaking news. There’d been a shooting at the home improvement store around the corner, just minutes away from where we had been shopping. No details yet.
The next day, I wrote a column for the Charlotte Observer’s Neighbors section for my region. I’ve written my column, “On Common Ground” for seventeen years.
I wrote about CVAN, the Cabarrus Victims Assistance Network. I’ve written about CVAN regularly over the years – it is a respected institution in my home town, one which has helped battered women and their children start lives afresh for two decades.
I quoted statistics – in particular, the sad fact of how many women are killed at work by partners and husbands. I sent off the column.
I learned the details of the shooting two days later.
Zoua “Vivian” Xiong, 25, mother of three, was killed at the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store. Police say that her husband, Por Ye Lor, 31, shot his wife during an argument. Then he killed himself.
Next week, my own husband will lift our five-foot shofar and sound its cries at our High Holy Day services. I will sing out the sounds of wholeness, pausing, breaking, recovery.
The sounds of the shofar are the calls – and the cries of our soul. So taught the seventeenth-century Rabbi Isaac Horowitz.
First, the shofar calls out to us first in affirmation, with the long whole note of tekiah, a clear and simple blast. Tekiah reminds us of our wholeness; it makes the sound of shleimut.
Shleimut comes from the same root as the word shalom. We associate shalom with peace, with safety. When are we most peaceful, safest for everyone around us? When can we care for a troubled world? When we ourselves feel whole.
We all know what it is to lose our center, to find ourselves scattered and upset. Shevarim, the shofar’s second call, is a broken sound. The shofar sighs. It pauses three times, in sadness and regret. We have lost our balance.
Teruah, the alarm, comes next in a rapid-fire series of nine or more sharp notes. We hear the sound of shattering, of destruction. A note has fallen into pieces. So, too, our hearts.
Finally, in a redeeming moment, tekiah g’dolah. The shofar calls us back. The extended, long sweet note, the one that fills us up again, heals our pain. The deep and primal sound of tekiah g’dolah insists: Despite everything, we can be whole again.
What are our lives if not an endless recurring cycle of wholeness and brokenness? We feel strong, purposeful, filled with hope. We do not anticipate the blow, the terror, the loss. But it comes. We meet with hypocrisy and cruelty. We encounter the lying tongue, the slanderous talk, the small-minded daily evils human beings inflict on one another.
Perhaps fate strikes. We lose a beloved, the doctor has bad news.
Or maybe it is the simple and daily act of living in this world that breaks and shatters our peace. We open the paper or turn on the news and (can we avoid it?) face the pain of countless human beings living in despair, without jobs, without dignity, without homes, without food. We read of a young woman, only 25, with three children, murdered at work.
Living gives us pause because so many are dying without cause.
How can we mend? How can we find peace and wholeness again? What endures all the ills of humanity, the pain we inflict and the pain we feel?
If I glance out my office window to the right: I look into the light of the five-fingered green leaves of my gumball tree. The heart-shaped leaves of the redbud at the far left of the yard fairly flow off the branches. The thin, long willow oak leaves just ahead make lacy patterns against the sky. There is peace in the shape of nature that will outlast me.
I look out and I pray. I pray the broken sounds and the scattered ones. I pray out shattered, piecemeal horrors and griefs. I list all that I can think of, all that weigh upon me. I ask for help.
For myself, I ask: May I hear all the cries of the shofar, of the souls around me in some way each day. May I do something this day that counts for wholeness. May I find a way to sound a soft but sure tekiah g’dolah. May my work mirror that primal, healing sound of the shofar’s sweetest call.
For the world, I ask for wholeness, shleimut. May we reach out and not turn away. May we love. May we choose life, not death.
Last week, Jews marked our annual commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem set afire, and Israel’s leaders exiled.The text of Lamentations is our assigned reading on Tisha B’Av.
It is a text of anguish.Each of its five poems shatter equanimity; they refuse to offer easy answers.In its opening chapters, Daughter Zion, who represents God’s abused people, accuses God of murderous abandonment.
Years ago, I wrote a lament in honor of women who have been cruelly and brutally mistreated.I dedicated it to a woman who had told me her story, who had crawled out from under the weight of eighteen years of domestic violence.
In the day just before Tisha B’Av, a woman told me of a friend who had been sexually abused by her father.The day of Tisha B’Av, in a small congregational study group, women spoke of suffering they had known.I knew the backstory in each case.
I have grown into my middle aged life hearing laments from too many women, laments that have their source in the emotional and physical and sexual mistreatment they have known from men.
There is much to lament in our world.There is too much to lament in our world.
Yet we must lament, to honor our sorrow and our pain.We must lament in order to have a prayer at healing.
Yet, I longed last week, as I do again and again and again, for a world in which no child is harmed, in which every woman is safe, in which each man is at peace.I want humanity to be simply good.I refuse to lose my childish confusion; I insist that kindness cannot be so very hard. Generosity should be as easy as smiling.
The rabbis say that one good deed so gladdens our souls and spirits that after the doing of a mitzvah, we will want to do another right away.
Ritual. We studied it, we practiced it, we analyzed it. Great ritual, we were taught, creates lasting memories, stories that live for years. Learning to create ritual was part of my rabbinic training, and my teachers were awesome architects of the same.
Naturally, one wants to live up to one’s teachers.
Last week, a young woman in my congregation went before a beit din, a panel of three rabbis to complete her conversion to Judaism. Big ritual. Huge.
I prepared with care for her beit din and for her mikvah, the ritual immersion that formally completes the process. I had a beautiful tallit at the ready, a prayer shawl in all her favorite colors. Between her beit din and the mikvah, we would go out to dinner and before our meal I would lovingly lay the tallit on the table. She and her three witnesses would tie the tzitzit, the ritual fringes at each corner. The tying would be a spiritual practice and gift. We would wind and knot threads with our blessings and hopes. It would be heartfelt, prayerful, lovely.
I imagined myself naming each Hebrew letter of the tetragrammaton, and demonstrating how our loops and knots made it possible for us to tie God’s unpronounceable name into each fringe. “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, YHVH,” I would say. “Each letter is paired with a number, each number breathes a sound. Think it, and you’ll hear it: The unpronounceable name ends in a whisper.”
Then we would travel to a nearby lake, where a family had kindly offered us the use of their dock for the young woman’s mikvah. We would recite blessings I had crafted especially for her. Women supporting each other, co-creating a ritual we would all remember the rest of our lives.
What is it they say about the best laid plans?
One of the women got lost finding the restaurant, which had failed to turn on its neon signs. I talked her back to the right intersection on my cell phone, standing on the corner, jumping up and down and waving both arms frantically. When she got out of her car, a stream of unprintable things emerged from her otherwise calm and pragmatic person. Then I called the last woman who is chronically late to everything.
“ETA?” I asked.
“I don’t know where I am,” she answered.
I repeated my routine, hoping no one would recognize the small, hopping woman on the corner as the rabbi of Temple Or Olam.
Later, I laid out the prayer shawl in the near empty restaurant on an empty table. I began leading us through winding and tying. I asked the women to silently weave their prayers into the tzitzit. Ahh, I said to myself. This will be wonderful. Sweet. Transcendent.
“Whatcha all doing?” asked a curious staff member. “That’s puurrty,” she added, pointing at the tallit. “What’s that?”
While I was explaining, one of the woman got her threads twisted up and started joking about being handicraft challenged. Then the food arrived, and I had to find a way to keep the tallit from getting immersed in balsamic vinaigrette.
Later, we piled into one of the cars to make the drive to the lake. It was only minutes away. We got lost almost immediately – despite Google maps. There were many u-turns and a close encounter with a car with flashing blue lights.
Finally, we found the house. We climbed out of the car and began traipsing over the lawn, which, despite the terrible drought, was both very long and very wet. Sprinklers? Condensation from the lake? Suddenly, the young woman told us in a small voice that she was actually terrified to get into that lake and that she hated nature and that there were bound to be live things, including fish, in the water, and that the lake bottom would be nasty and muddy, and and and.
The other women attempted to comfort her.
“You’ll be all right,” said one.
“It will be fine,” added the other.
Our young woman kept describing the horrors that awaited her. We rounded the house and walked toward the pier, the small flashlight in my hand shedding insufficient light. We were nearly at the water’s edge.
“Omigod!” our young woman squealed. “What is that?”
“Omigod,” whispered someone.
“Omigod,” I said, in utter disbelief.
All of us saw it, despite the dark. Between the small flashlight I was carrying and the lights from the house, we couldn’t miss it.
A bobcat. He stood stock still, staring right at us.
Gingerly, we walked half backwards onto the pier, hoping the thing would go away.
“Is it still there?” one of the women asked.
“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell.”
It will go away, I told myself, as we all made our way to the end of the pier. It will go away because we are making a fearsome noise. Dear, Holy One of Blessing, I prayed internally. We’re not so good with this much nature just now…
It has gone away, I told myself, as the young woman climbed into the water.
We heard a splash.
“I saw that!” she cried out. “There was a fish jumping over there!”
She began frantic movements in the water to scare away the fish.
“Go away!” she called out. “Go away!”
She was thinking of the fish. I was thinking of the bobcat.
We raised a towel, the young woman took off her bathing suit, and I pulled out laminated sheets with our brachot. Three of us crouched around the laminated sheet and the little flashlight. One of us stood with her paper copy illuminated by her cell phone. (Later she told me that she was stealing herself to kick the bobcat into the water if it attacked. I don’t know what she was thinking. This is a woman with weak ankles, and I am not sure she could kick a nerf ball, much less a snarling, though smallish, beast. And another thing: How do cats feel about water?)
I asked everyone to breathe deeply. Somehow, we regained our sense of place and, after nervous giggles and anxious interjections from our young woman, we read our blessings in turn.
Before her final immersion, we blessed her with the fearlessness of Ruth. “Our people is your people,” the women read together. “Our God is your God. We are standing together at the mountain of Sinai, ready to receive the gift of Torah.”
She slipped back into the water a last time. She emerged. We chanted the Shema and the Shehechiyanu softly in the moonlight, and wrapped her in the towel and the tallit. We walked back down the pier and sighed with relief; we did not see the bobcat.
We got lost all over again going back to the restaurant parking lot. We laughed and mazeltoved and drove home.
There was, I admit, some residual anxiety on my part. When I got home it was nearly midnight. Nevertheless, I asked my husband, Ralf, to google pictures of bobcats. “Yes, it looked like that nasty, scary one right there!” I said.
“Were its ears forward?” he asked.
“I… I think so,” I answered.
“Then you were fine,” he said comfortingly. “When you don’t see their ears, that’s when you have reason to be on your guard.”
“But I was already scared!!!” I protested.
Our son, Erik, gave advice from his survival training course. Everyone should group together so you look like one large entity to animal in question. Spread out your clothing so you look bigger, and back away slowly…
“At least,” he concluded, “I’m pretty sure that works with elephants.”
The next morning we all received this email from the young woman we love:
“Don’t worry everyone, found out this morning it was simply a statue in the backyard to SCARE THE GEESE!!!
Out of control!
Thanks again for being there last night. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I had dreamed of this beit din for a long time. For weeks, I had imagined us at the pier in sweet darkness, women alone and prayerful, conscious of our strength and our joy.
The real world played tricks on my dreams. There were so many emotions I never imagined. Aggravation and impatience at getting lost again and again. Unexpected and unknown fears. Giggly and giddy lightness.
“This is one crazy mikvah story,” one of the women said.
It was late last night. I passed by my son’s bedroom.
“Hey, Mom,” Erik said. “Did you know that some men can breastfeed?”
“Naaah,” I said. “Come on.”
Erik pointed to his computer screen. He was reading an article on male lactation.
“Good grief!” I said. “Talmud was right!”
“There’s a story in Talmud about a man who breastfeeds,” I said.
Erik scanned the screen. “Yes, it mentions that here.” He began reading: ‘There have been countless literary descriptions of men miraculously breast-feeding, from The Talmud to Tolstoy, where, in Anna Karenina, there is a short anecdote of a baby suckling an Englishman…’”
“Nice!” I said. “Talmud gets a passing mention and Tolstoy gets a whole paragraph! Talmud is far more interesting than Tolstoy!”
At this point my husband, Ralf, turned round the corner and speculated on whether I had been drinking something I shouldn’t have. I admit it: My congregation gives me grape juice for leading Kiddush, as I will get quite silly after consuming two tablespoons of Manischewitz. And yes, I know that Manischewitz is not wine. But it does count as alcohol. Really. Well, at least for small children and me.
The Talmudic text in question (Shabbat 53b) makes for interesting reading. In it, a poor man’s wife dies, leaving him with a nursing child. He can’t afford a wet nurse. A miracle occurs and his breasts “open,” allowing him to nurse his own child.
The rabbis, as always, proceed to discuss the matter. Rabbi Yosef exclaims that the poor man must be a great guy, a real mensch. That explains the miracle. Rabbi Abaye is of the contrary opinion. The fellow must be a real schlemiel. Otherwise, divine intervention would have focused on helping him find a job so he could afford to pay a wet nurse. Instead, he got slammed with a solution that did the humane thing by keeping the kid alive but could only have afforded major embarrassment. (Men are not encouraged to be women in the Talmud…).
Rabbi Yehuda insists that it’s pretty hard for heaven to change the fate of a man when it comes to job searches and a lousy economy. Rabbi Nachman concludes the discussion by stating firmly that a miracle did occur no matter how you shake it, but that one must admit that the guy did not get gainfully employed. Lack of employment isn’t so good in any age.
You gotta love Talmud. You really do.
You can find more about male lactation in rabbinic texts. Genesis Rabbah (30:8) features the rabbis speculating on the weaning of Queen Esther after both parents died. Mordecai is a prime candidate for male lactation and the survival of his niece. It’s good to have a loving family.
There is a scientific explanation for male lactation. You can read all about the hormones that can cause men to get happy and produce milk. I have also learned that extreme stress combined with strenuous physical activity and a shortage of food can cause male lactation.
Hmmm…. Poor guy + hungry baby = extreme stress. Tada!!! Male milk! I mean, why not? That’s exactly what happens to women!
“I kinda wish more men would lactate,” I told Erik and Ralf. “Some of these rabbis seemed to approve of the idea – why didn’t they pray for more such miracles? Then women could have gotten to do all those men things so much earlier in history. Women rabbis in the Middle Ages! I can see it!”
“I am not sure there’s a direct correlation,” Erik said slowly. “Lactating men doesn’t lead inevitably to women on the bima. And we’ve had women in the pulpit for years and their menfolk have not been bursting out with milk. At least I am sure I haven’t. Dad?”
Ralf had left the room. Probably, he had better things to do.
You learned something from all this, I am sure. Put War and Peace away. For entertainment, just read the Talmud.
One must be at least a little meshugah to study history.
Historians suppose themselves to be in search of data, evidence they can use to (re)create something of the past. Instead, they find themselves mere interpreters, functioning with limited vocabulary and with incomplete understanding.
If a historian doesn’t sense why his or her work is inadequate, never fear. A rival historian will be sure to explain. Pointing out others’ failings is called scholarship.
I don’t want to be scholarly just now, even though my summer reading (call it “Classic Volumes in Biblical Research”) is pushing such triggers big time. The stack of books currently on my kitchen table feature gold lettering and many thick pages. Such books have authority, magisterial language, and stains on their book covers. I used to balance books such as these on my head when I studied ballet. They were excellent tools for demonstrating poor posture.
I spent a part of July reading one of the great books of biblical studies, Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, published in 1878. Wellhausen is mostly known as the father of the Documentary Hypothesis, which quite correctly posits that Moses did not author the whole Megillah, that a number of hands and agendas can be discerned in the Torah, and that these various authors can be ascribed identities as southern or northern or priestly or pre-or post exilic. (The exile referred to here is the one that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, not one of the other multitudinous exiles in Jewish history.)
Here is what Wellhausen is not so remembered for: The actual thesis of his master work.
Wellhausen argues that ancient Israelites reveled in a personal relationship with God. Along came the big bad priests of the post-exilic period and replaced spontaneity and individualism with fanatical devotion to law and the practice of the same, sucking the very life out of that old time religion. Ezra, Nehemiah, and their ilk were followed by the equally small-minded and legalistic Sadducees, Pharisees, and rabbis of later eras. The priests were, according to Wellhausen, unimaginative, dogmatic, opinionated, mechanical, cancerous, and parasitic. Read Leviticus.
Wellhausen’s tome makes for exhausting reading, and not just because there are hundreds of pages of contempt for the priests and the Priestly Code. It is exhausting because it smells of the nasty polemics of centuries. Judaism was and is a dying religion of a narrow-minded, legalistically inclined people who are preoccupied with form, not feeling, with trivial details of ritual rather than grand connection with the divine.
Well. Slander and cliché are hardly unknown in academic circles.
I must also admit it: Julius Wellhausen’s work is brilliant, imposing, overarching. There is plenty to be learned from it, even now.
I know, too, that he was born into a culture that most often dismissed Judaism and Jews as petty, grasping, small-minded, and parasitical. Teaching contempt of Jews is a typical practice in Europe from early church fathers on.
To what extent can I blame men and women who were the products of centuries of intolerance toward my people? I too am a product, and I carry assumptions and prejudices of my own time. Where does my right to judge, to evaluate, begin and end?
There’s this, too: In significant regard, historians are actually explaining themselves. Wellhausen hated all ecclesiastic authority and praised any hint of spontaneous and individual religious expression he could find in Hebrew Bible. He valued myths and tales that revealed a deity who talked and walked with humanity.
In this regard, what Wellhausen loved, I also love. What he sought, I seek.
I like to revel in texts that express the all-so human longing for what is sweet and loving, transcendent and ineffable. If you look in Torah, you can see the reflection of that longing slipping through the verses, framed even by the words of slaves. “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me?” Hagar asks, wonderingly (Gen: 16:13).
The Torah’s authors marveled at existence. Each of their authors attempted to make sense of a mysterious and magical world that deserved reverence and awe.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said,
Don’t calm your friend in the time of his anger and grief.
And don’t comfort him when (his loved one’s) corpse is placed before him. Pirke Avot: 4:18
My mother-in-law, Evelyn, was a Protestant.
She was born in the Ore Mountains of Germany, a region known for the production of colorful nutcrackers and Christmas carousels powered by the heat of slim white candles. Typically, the carousels carry the lightest of singing angels, and, of course, a nativity scene. When Evelyn gave us such a gift, she carefully and delicately chose only the tiny deer, trees with balsam wood curlicued into branches, and folk figures for us to place on its discs. Evelyn knew tact.
The Ore Mountains are known for other handicrafts, including feather-light bobbin lace made with dozens to hundreds of individual threads. Evelyn taught herself the craft after her family escaped the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.
One of her most exquisite works was an altar cloth for her church. I saw the piece when she was visiting and we went shopping for linen to match the snow white border.
The lace was patterned with hearts. Inside each heart was a cross.
Evelyn died last summer after what was supposed to be a routine operation to lance a cyst that had grown near her heart.
For many years, and as often as we could manage, I sent my husband, Ralf and our son, Erik to Germany to visit Evelyn. We didn’t have the resources to go as a family. The spring before she died, I had started squirreling away money in secret. I wanted to surprise my family – and Evelyn – with plans to visit the following year. I’d even started checking potential dates of departure to see how air fares compared.
There were years when I had lived just two hours or so from Evelyn. Then, we saw each other often. In those days I would bound up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, beating her own son to claim a first hug.
I loved Evelyn as, I think, Ruth loved Naomi.
We were two utterly different natures. I have never known how to sit still unless I am reading. I want a lot from the world, though what I want mostly concerns understanding and human decency.
Evelyn was calm, quiet, and expected little.
“You are always dreaming, Barbara,” she once said. “Why dream about things that might not come true?”
“Why not dream?” I asked.
“I never do that,” she said.
Perhaps Evelyn couldn’t dream because she had been born into Hitler’s Germany, a land that had made nightmares real.
Evelyn loved our Jewish family with grace and understanding. She came to love our congregation, too, and never failed to ask me about the members she had met when visiting America.
“How are the Kingbergs?” she would ask, and I would tell her that 86-year-oldArthurwas still getting up at the crack of dawn to garden while 86-year-old Ruth Kingberg continued to begin each day by lifting small (but significant) weights.
“Greet them for me,” she would ask, and I would. “Tell them I hope they are well.”
Evelyn had a voice like a girl’s. Some of my sweetest memories are the stuff of clichés: Evelyn, singing as she scrubbed the pots in her cramped kitchen; Evelyn singing old folks songs about chimney sweepers and winter snows and high mountains.
Once, for fun, we sat together and sang “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shalom Aleychem.” It was just weeks before Erik’s bar mitzvah, where she sang right along with the rest of us. She learned new songs and prayers quickly, no matter the language and regardless of faith.
In recent years, she began making me lace Stars of David. I sewed them onto kippot and gave them to my closest friends.
I have two such stars left. I do not think I will be able to give them away.
Jews have many exquisite and life-affirming rituals around mourning. We don’t demand that mourners “move on.” Instead, Judaism creates avenues for making memories, for holding our loved ones to us after they are gone. During the first, wrenching week of shiva (seven), we sit with mourners. The rabbis remind us not to try to comfort the bereaved but simply, kindly, to listen. The mourners will naturally, inevitably tell stories about their beloved one, and in the telling, make a blessing of the loved one’s name.
At the end of the week, the mourners are taken outside to walk around the block, to find their feet and the earth beneath them, to try to rejoin the world of the living. Their steps may be reluctant ones.
During shloshim (thirty), the month following the burial, the community acknowledges that mourners are still relearning the way of the world. Jews say Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months for parents, children, even, nowadays, those whom they simply loved beyond measure. At the close of the first year of mourning, we hold the first of many annual yahrzeit services, where we pray in honor and memory of the one we have lost. We light a candle that burns for a night and a day, tell stories, join with others for comfort and remembrance. At annual festivals we recite memorial prayers in honor of our loved ones.
For Evelyn’s yahrzeit we will, among other things, go to the American mountains she loved. There, in the Blue Ridge Mountains we will lay out things of hers. We will remember her and be blessed by our memories. We will recite Mourner’s Kaddish and El Melay Rachamim.
Before me will be the lace Stars of David, their blue and white threads woven by my patient mother-in-law. In my mind’s eye I will also see the altar cloth of hearts and crosses. Her hands made symbols of both our religions.
Grief, like love, transcends all boundaries. Both exist in respect of persons; neither is limited by differences.
Shortly after Independence Day had come and gone, my son, Erik and I left the relative cool of our home and dared to endure the dreadful heat of midsummer in the South to go on a series of purchasing-related errands.
This was a chore. Erik and I dislike shopping for just about anything except odd spices, variants of dahl, and music.
We especially detest having to buy small and stupid items, like plastic organizers. On the other hand, these things are often necessary. The recent rediscovery of bagged buttons had inspired me to sort the same. Now, I needed a plastic organizer.
So we waited until other errands of similar ilk presented themselves. They did so on a day that measured 100 degrees in the shade.
After sweating, cooling, shopping, and sweating, we ended our excursion at a local hobby center. Upon entering, we were greeted by large orange objects, which turned out to be stacked plastic pumpkins.
I noted that it was not yet mid-July.
“Halloween is just around the corner!” Erik said cheerfully.
I made a face, muttered to myself and we pressed on. We discovered the wall filled with said plastic organizers, and bought two.
On the way out, we were greeted by large stacks of silvery balls. I stopped short.
“Oh, look!” Erik said. “It’s the Captain Picard Christmas ornaments!
The packages were labeled: “Make it so! Christmas ornaments.”
“What the…?” I said. “I am reading this right, right?”
“It’s July!” Erik announced. “But it’s Christmas! Make it so!”
“Stop talking in exclamation points. You sound like a listserve I subscribe to. Every email has at least three exclamation points for every five sentences.”
“A hostile listserve has been spotted. Unsubscribe, captain?” Erik asked.
“Make it so!” I replied firmly.
We pressed on toward the checkout counter.
As the cashier rang up our purchase, Erik and I watched a second cashier unpacking Christmas ornaments. She held one up for our cashier to admire. It was a metal strawberry, coated in the sort of paint that was meant to evoke chocolate.
“That’s another one I’m going to try and snag,” our cashier said.
“Uh huh,” the other woman agreed. “Makes me hungry.”
I tried not to look at Erik. He appeared to be making the same effort. We left the store.
“Wow,” Erik said. “Makes even us Jews want to put Christ back into Christmas.”
Honestly. I thought I’d read it all when it comes to Jews.
Teaching courses on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust (as I do) forces one to wade through centuries of muck. In the first century C.E, the noted Greco-Egyptian grammarian Apion accused Jews of, among other things, holding some random Greek personage hostage in the Holy of Holies, fattening him up with delicacies and dainties, slaughtering the poor gent, and serving up his remains to the multitude. Shades of Hansel and Gretel.
Or, perhaps, a precursor to the blood libel that emerged in the thirteenth century. In that story, and versions thereof, Jews kill Christian children in a mock reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, draining the child’s blood so that it can be used to make matzah for the Passover celebration. Little known fact: A blood libel accusation was made in our United States of America as late as 1928 in upstate New York. Better known fact: The blood libel is alive and well in the Middle East and some parts of Europe.
And how’s this for a twenty-first century twist? Jews are actually Nazis, and a Star of David can morph into a swastika. There are cartoons out there showing you just how it works.
We will not regurgitate all the things that have been said and written. You can find them in many other locations, if you must. It’s all old news, really. And new news, I am sad to say.
Here, however, is a recent addition to all these various calumnies: Jews of ancient times worshiped lizards.
It is true. Not that Jews worshiped lizards, of course, but that a living, breathing person has alleged such a thing.
Said person made this statement on an exam in my course on Hebrew Bible. I do not remember who wrote such a thing. I blocked out the association of lizards and any particular student immediately after grading. For one thing, I have a lot of students each semester. For another, it seemed important to me not to remember which of my dozens of students had made such a claim. I was afraid that I would not be able to look said student in the face if I made the association.
Student raises hand.
Dr. Thiede: “Yes?”
Student: “Is there going to be a study guide for the next exam?”
Dr. Thiede: “Omigosh, aren’t you the student who claimed the ancient Israelites worshiped lizards on the last exam?”
(For the record, I send out detailed study guides before each exam.)
Aside from the mad hilarity said statement caused me then and now, aside from the fact that I occasionally wonder what I might have said in class to induce my student to connect ancient Israelites with the worship of lizards, aside from the fact that I am likely suffering some post traumatic stress after reading said exam, I ask myself: To what end do I mention this at all in any forum?
There is a reason, actually.
There is no hope for a world in which we do not know more about each other. We cannot create peace and lovingkindness among peoples on the basis of our present colossal ignorance. Education matters because, as I keep telling my students, it has the capacity to make you a better person. You can become a whole lot more humble when you have a smidgeon of an idea about how little you know about anything. You can become less judgmental, less inclined to seeing everything through the narrow field of your own experience.
You can learn, and by learning, learn to care.
That’s what this drash is about, actually. That’s what every drash should be about.
The Hebrew word “drash” means to seek, to inquire. Ask. Wonder. Reflect.
Do your thinking with drash, not dross. Have the energy to strip yourself bare of assumptions. Why are Jews still be circumcising their sons? People are asking that question – and they aren’t just gentiles. Is God really “in” everything (and does that include the cow manure)? Why do we keep repeating a prayer that insists that God will choose who shall die by sword and who by fire each year at High Holy Days when most Jews don’t believe any such thing?
Look here (if you like). Adrenaline Drash will do its best to live up to its name.
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