Torah on the Misuse of Power (and NC House Bill 2)

MirrorDinah. The Levite’s concubine. Tamar, the princess. They, and the other characters who populate their stories, are our mirror images.

Every one of them became pawns. Two of them were, without any question, the victims of violent sexual assault. Each figured in narratives focused on men securing male privilege and male power.

There are some who may argue that Dinah, whose story is told in Genesis 34, may have consented to a liaison with Shechem, the prince of the nearby city. But no one can argue with Jacob’s silent acquiescence in the machinations of his sons, who insist that Shechem can only marry Dinah if he and the men of his city are circumcised. Jacob’s sons wait until the townsmen are weak and in pain, march through the city and kill every last one of them. Their women, children, and property become Israel’s chattel.

In Judges 19, we read about the Levite’s concubine, who runs away from her husband is eventually reattached to his household. We don’t know how she feels. She does not utter a word in the story and her fate is decided by her husband and father. Her death, too, is her husband’s decision; when an angry mob rushes the home where he is staying he hands her to them to save himself and his host. The next morning, after she has been gang raped, the Levite finds her lying at the door, her fingers on the threshold. Later, he dismembers her body and calls the Israelites to war. Nearly the entire Benjamite tribe is destroyed and another 600 women will be abducted.

King David’s daughter, Tamar will desperately try to convince her half-brother Amnon not to rape her (2 Sam. 13). She will fail. When the searing account of the assault ends and Tamar tries to save her future by convincing him not to cast her out, Amnon will tell his servant to send “this” out of his room.

This past week, my students and I worked through these stories. We discussed common elements: In each, the narrative either gives the woman involved no voice at all, or she is told to remain silent by men when she speaks.

My students offered observations: Dinah’s brothers gain a city’s worth of women, children, livestock and goods. The Levite, who threw his concubine to a raging and murderous mob, lies about his own part in the horror and will never have to answer for his crimes. The war he starts will make his own crimes negligible, forgotten by his fellow Israelites. Tamar’s full-brother Absalom will eventually, after two years, arrange for Amnon’s death, but Absalom’s revenge could be a cover for his ambition: Amnon was, before he died, the first-born son, and heir to David’s throne.

They noticed this, too: In no way do these stories valorize the exercise of male authority and prerogative in these stories. Dinah’s brothers act cruelly. The Levite’s Concubine fills us with horror; the war he unleashes proves what happens when a society has gone amok. The men who circle around Tamar – not Amnon, nor Absalom, nor her father David – all enact and accept her ruin.

These are lessons about what happens when male power is exercised to hide male weakness. These are stories that show us the consequences when women are abused. They are, in every regard, pertinent to our times – obviously, women in this world are not safe from any of the kinds of assaults these biblical narratives describe. Gender neutral toilets

But there’s this, too: Just as in biblical stories, today’s privileged continue to marginalize and silence those whose very bodies they make into vehicles for their exercise of power.

In North Carolina, our state legislature, one dominated by a privileged white majority, has just made it so much more likely that transgender individuals will be subject to abuse and attack. LGBT individuals have been stripped of legal protections. House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act is an act of violence that has been based on a comprehensive effort to silence transgender persons and criminalize them.

Those who supported the bill have been tarring transgender women as potential rapists. Facts don’t matter (they mostly don’t this election year). There is not a single case in the nation to substantiate all the talk about the dangers women and girls face if we don’t control where transgender women use a toilet. Nevertheless, the smearing, searing calumny is voiced.

What does bible tell us? Privileged individuals in our country frequently claim bible as their inspiration. But our texts condemn the manipulation and misuse of the weak in service of the powerful and strong. We do not walk away from Dinah, the Levite’s concubine, or Tamar believing that those heartbreaking narratives are meant to tell us how life should be lived, but how life should not be lived.

Torah holds a mirror to each generation. To look is to know: We must change.

Leviticus (and Voting on the Right )

Voting stickerLast Tuesday, I decided to do my civic duty right after lunch. I stepped into a church I attend regularly – at least, for a Jew. I’ve attended this church for friends’ weddings and for funerals; I also typically give several presentations there each year.

I know the people working the booths, since they happen to be neighbors of mine. It’s a pretty casual affair. There is never a line, which is sad, and always chit-chat about family life and suchlike, which is nice.

I was given my number, which was quite high, considering. I was Voter Number 272. I happily acquired my ballot, went to the cubby, set down my bag, and prepared to be a good citizen.

My choices for president included Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.I stared at the ballot. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so it took me a moment. Then another. By the time the third moment arrived to tap me on the wrist, I had figured it out. Despite asking me my party affiliation (I confess: lifelong Democrat), my neighbors had handed me the opposition’s ballot.

In fact, I had been offered the opportunity to commit voter fraud – perhaps the very first actual case of voter fraud we would have seen in these United States this century. I could make history, right then and there at All Saints Episcopal, just yards away from the sanctuary I had taught in three weekends running the month before. “Voter Fraud Rife in the Tarheel State: Rabbi Arrested.”

Leviticus came to mind. Just a couple of days earlier I had spent an hour making the case for the beauty of the Torat Kohanim with congregants in my Torah study. Each year, as we leave Exodus behind and head into the spring, I wax eloquent over the sheer loveliness of biblical law. “Here we go,” someone is thinking, “she’s going to tell us about the ethical mandates behind whole chapters on corpses, skin diseases, and genital discharges. Again.”

But none of these things were on my mind. Ritual was.

Voting is a ritual with all sorts of important constituent parts. Here, in North Carolina, we’ve recently (and unnecessarily) added a few. Before I voted this March, a woman at the door formally informed me to please take out my photo ID before stepping forward to the table where I would have to recite my name, my address, and my party affiliation. Then I was reminded that phones must be turned off, ballots must be brought to the altar, and there, one must make sure to mark small ovals properly. The closing ritual includes feeding the completed ballot into a machine which consumes the results with a pleasing, whirring noise offered to the gods of democracy, after which one receives a sticker.

Ritual, I am fond of telling my congregants, is how Leviticus embeds values. The well-being offering of Leviticus was to demonstrate joy and gratitude and marked the fulfillment of vows. Priests might bring purification offerings to expiate any of the errors they might have committed, errors that could harm the people they served. Reparation offerings provided a way to get right with community, humanity, and God, Godself. Expressing thankfulness, making sure to be attentive to potential error, figuring out a way to repair the hurt or damage one’s actions can cause – these are values worth embedding in ritual.

As I stood at the voting booth, I thought of Nadav and Avihu. Obviously, I told myself, casting the Republican ballot would have been offering up some pretty strange fire. Sure, I could run Philo through my mind – Philo, who asserted in the first century C.E. that Aaron’s sons had acted out of piety, out of a heartfelt wish to be closer to God. In not voting for certain people and voting for others, I could be acting for the good of the Republican Party. I could be acting for the good of North Carolina. I could be acting for the good of America – of all the world, in fact. I could have voted against the Golden Bull, which is everywhere this year.  Golden calf

Instead, I went back to the table and explained that I had been given the wrong ballot. Utter consternation ensued, apologies were given thrice over, and I went back to my voting altar. I fed in my ballot, got my sticker, and went home.

“Leviticus,” according to one of my commentaries, “is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation… The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression.” But, the writer maintained, this book teaches us that at critical times we need to know that we are “doing it right.”


Halakha as a Petaled Flower – Lessons from Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hand crafting Jewish ritual wear is one of the ways I pray. This week, I am sewing angel tallitot.

When I designed my angel tallitot, I meant to solve specific problems faced by guitar-playing rabbis and cantors; rectangular tallitot often go askew or get caught in guitar straps. And I wanted to see if I could create a tallit with wings.

One night, after a deep conversation with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel about All Things Jewish, I saw the tallit I would create. Those who know Rabbi Hanna Tiferet will understand why the tallit appeared to me in the form of angels’ wings.

tie-dyed tallit front small

I spent some months designing a pattern. But while I drew, cut, and drew again, it was mostly Rabbi Daniel Siegel who kept coming to mind.

When I first started rabbinic studies with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a decade ago, I arrived with enormous enthusiasm, a pleasant singing voice, and modest guitar-playing skills. As someone who had grown up in fairly secular surroundings, I had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. I had next to no experience with liturgy. I knew, as my grandmother would say, “from absolutely nothing” when it came to halakhah, Jewish law.

So when a classmate told me that the tallit I had made back then for my guitar-playing self was not “halakhic,” I felt worse than awful. I felt humiliated by my own ignorance.

My first course with Reb Daniel was at an ALEPH Kallah. I knew from absolutely nothing then. Reb Daniel, on the other hand, was so steeped in all things Jewish that when he sang a niggun in his gravelly voice I felt I was listening to generations – centuries really – of Jewish longing for the Holy One of Blessing.

Reb Daniel never seemed to care about our ignorance and never tried to measure it. He simply wanted to offer us – with both heart and mind – the beauty of Jewish tradition, learning, and text. He wove Chassidic tradition and halakhic intention together with such tender care that the room would shine.

I went to Reb Daniel, who told me to get the tallit and meet him outside. When I returned, he was holding a number of books. He examined the tallit, which had been made with two shawls sewn together. He noted where I’d placed the tzitzit. He began reading, translating and explaining from his various volumes. We went over the issue of corners the student had addressed. Was there, in fact, a limit on the number of corners a tallit could have or was the only question I needed to be concerned with around making sure the tzitzit were placed on the corners farther from one another?

I will always remember the way Reb Daniel walked me through each of the rabbinic texts. I never felt small or ignorant. I felt, simply, like a beloved and respected student.

I have never, ever forgotten the way I experienced my first real encounter with halakhah and the halakhic process. I learned from Reb Daniel how humane and life-giving Jewish law can be; I learned how to recognize its thoughtful purpose.

But most of all, I learned how to teach those who are anxious and frightened because they think they aren’t Jewish enough, don’t know enough. Reb Daniel taught me: Open Judaism up like a petaled flower and your students will be glad to take in the beauty of their inheritance.

So now, Reb Daniel, ten years later, I thank you for doing just that. Yours has been beautiful learning I won’t forget.

P.S. Happy birthday!

Ki Tissa – Freedom Written in Stone

Cracked stoneI was at a local church. It was the third program in a series spanning three weeks. We were exploring texts in which a variety of biblical voices had questioned — even argued with — God.

The first two programs had been heavily text based. The third opened with some time for exploring personal experience before considering the text.

I asked everyone in the circle to settle themselves, breathe slowly for a few minutes, with their bodies resting and relaxed. When they were ready, I gave them their task.

“Think back to a time of irretrievable loss,” I said. “Honor whatever feelings emerge and name them for yourself.”

The room was quiet, at first. Then I heard crying. “When you are ready,” I said, “you can open your eyes. If this is comfortable for you, please turn to someone nearby and share what came up — you don’t need to tell the story, though you may do so, if you like. But please, if you can, tell your companion what you were feeling.”

I set time constraints and made sure everyone had a turn. Then, some spoke to the group.

One man had described how he’d felt as his wife was dying. Bewildered. Guilty for not doing more. Others spoke about despair. Some admitted to anger. One woman said she had never understood why God hadn’t given her the time to speak to her mother, to heal old wounds before death made healing impossible.

After a welter of emotions had been articulated, I handed out the first two chapters of Lamentations. “What emotions do you see described here?” I asked.

They had plenty to offer: Confusion. Guilt. Despair. Anger.

One woman raised her hand. Everything is in God’s hand, she said. Everything. Another participant agreed. God was just trying to teach us; the death of our loved ones was God’s way to help us learn something we needed to understand. Others were not so sure. One woman suggested that God may hope we learn from painful losses, but she didn’t think God planned them for that purpose.

“Maybe God’s plan,” I suggested, “is just for us to act godly.”

This Shabbat we read Ki Tissa, in which Moses persuades YHVH not to destroy the people, but rather to give them the gift of the law. We read that God inscribed the two tablets on both sides, and does so Godself.

Incised, inscribed: charut we read. But the rabbis ask us to read on two levels; they say, read cheirut, freedom. Freedom, our rabbis tell us, is to be found in the obligations we have chosen. The law is an invitation to learn how to act godly. God’s plan is for us to do everything we can to do exactly that.

We fail, of course. We have not eradicated human slavery or meaningless violence. We have neither ended hunger nor protected our fragile planet. Since the time Torah was composed, humanity has managed, in many respects, to make it easier to destroy.

The rabbis also describe what happens when Moses sees his people seemingly abandoning their future, their promises, their hopes of becoming a holy people and a nation of priests. The letters God had inscribed flew off the tablets. The tablets became mere stones. As such, they were too much for Moses to carry. They fell from his arms.

Laws incised upon stone, laws that detailed how freedom was to be found were easy to carry, however hard they were to carry out. Stone without law was inarticulate, heavy, impossible to bear. Rather like Pharaoh’s heart.

I do not think the Source of all Blessing decrees pain in the service of some master plan. I refuse to try and make sense of the meaningless violence human beings commit or the unpredictable and inexplicable anguish of disease and catastrophe.

I do believe — wholeheartedly — that we have been offered vital, liberating obligations: The obligation to respect and honor each other and the earth we live upon, the obligation to act, as best we can, each and every day, in a way that elevates ourselves and others to the highest possible standard.

May our law be our freedom.

Giving Wisdom Its Due – For Rabbi Victor Gross

Sarah at the river

Sarah at the river

I had barely entered the rabbinic ordination program at ALEPH | Alliance for Jewish Renewal when I was asked to perform my first life cycle service.  It was a funeral.

To perform a service for someone you did not know means listening deeply to those who did. Grieving relatives tell you stories of their loved ones, of their loss. You will do your best to understand the depth of that pain while staying centered and clear. Then you will do your best to create a service that will honor the life of the human being you are to help bury.

I learned how to do those things from wise teachers.

“I’ve buried so many people,” Rabbi Victor Gross told me. “I’ve buried friends. I learned.” Then he told me what he had learned. After a funeral, he said, remember to rest and take care of yourself. Honor your renewed awareness of life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

Reb Victor knew (and knows) me well. He told me to stop and create plenty of space between the griefs and the graveyard to my office and classrooms.

“Don’t go back to work after the service,” he’d say. He would tell me to rely on my little family for comfort, to rest in the arms of the Shekhina. I knew he was right. He was offering me wisdom about tender places, the ones that mark the thresholds between life and death (and life).

I did not take his advice.

Instead, after a funeral I would walk out and away and back into my work world. I’d go back to the computer, prepare my classes at UNC Charlotte. I’d read emails from students or congregants, go back to the podium and the lecture hall.

My teacher had given me a holy instruction about the sacred nature of the work I was doing. I did that work with my whole self and then returned, almost without pause, to the expectations and demands of a profane world I believed I could not ignore.

Yesterday, I received an email from Sarah McCurry’s boyfriend, Eric. Sarah was once a student of mine, one I grew to care for very deeply. We kept in touch after she graduated.

Sarah died after nearly one year of life with colon cancer at the age of 24. Her remains were cremated. When she first spoke to me about her illness, almost exactly a year ago, she told me that she had passed by a synagogue just after receiving her diagnosis.

“I thought of you,” she said. “I want you to do my funeral.”

“If it gets to that,” I said, “I will.”

Sarah’s beloved aunt Susie also died of colon cancer just ten months before Sarah was diagnosed. Sarah wanted her ashes to be scattered where her aunt’s had been – in a little river near the mountains of North Carolina where she had played as a child.

In his email, Eric sent me pictures of Sarah walking across that little river, bringing flowers to lay there in memory of her aunt on the first anniversary of her death. He asked if I could perform the service when Sarah’s ashes were scattered there.

Sarah’s family is, as far as I know, Baptist. Sarah did not call herself a Christian, though she learned to commune with angels during her last year of life.

She tried to live the last year of her life fully conscious of each moment she was given to live. She wore bright colors. She sat a good deal in the sun. She loved rain.Sarah at the river 2

Reb Victor, I promise you: The day of Sarah’s service I will turn from that little river, drive home from the mountains, and rest. I will acknowledge my own grief and listen to my body, heart and soul. I will honor life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

I will give your wisdom its due.

You Are The New Day – In Memory of Sarah McCurry, z’l

You are the new day

I will love you more than me and more than yesterday,
If you can but prove to me you are the new day.

Send the sun in time for dawn. Let the birds all hail the morning.
Love of life will urge me say. You are the new day.

When I lay me down at night knowing we must pay.
Thoughts occur that this night might stay yesterday.

Thoughts that we as humans small could slow worlds and end it all,
lie around me where they fall before the new day

One more day when time is running out for everyone.
Like a breath I knew would come I reach for a new day.

Hope is my philosophy. Just needs days in which to be.
Love of life means hope for me — borne on a new day
John David

Sarah McCurry

Sarah McCurry

It will take less than three minutes. Please, before you read this post, listen and look: 

Twenty-two years ago, I taught You Are the New Day to my students in Taiwan. My students in Taiwan called me “Teacher.”

“Teacher,” asked Injade, “What do you think is the meaning of life?”

“Laughter,” I said, “Learning. Love.”

“Teacher’s three L’s” they called them for the rest of the year.

My students sang this song at a university awards ceremony. I think they chose this song because they loved me and I loved them.

Twenty-two years ago, Sarah McCurry was about the age of the little girl in the video you have just seen. Sarah was a student of mine at UNC-Charlotte. Every class she took in her Judaic Studies minor she took with me.

She came from difficult circumstances: Deep, pervasive poverty marked her childhood, for one thing. Other things formed and shaped her – but these are things I could not write about.

During her time at UNCC she grew from an awkward teenager into a young woman who combined conviction and self-assurance with a wicked sense of fun. Dry, dark humor was her forte.

Sarah called me almost exactly one year ago. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. It should have been a wonderful surprise. She called from Texas, where she had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer. She was just 23.

Sarah died in late January.

She decided against chemotherapy and for natural healing methods. Her disease did not offer her much chance for survival – regardless of any choice she made. But she tried to live her life inside each day. She spoke to me of the healing value of rain. She walked mountains. She read books about angels. She wore a lot of green.

Green, she told me, when I saw her last, is Gabriel’s color. Gabriel was her angel.

After Sarah died, You Are the New Day ran, again and again, through my head. When I went to listen to it again, I discovered that I had, for years, been singing it wrong. I had sung the line “when I lay me down at night knowing we must pay” this way: “When I lay me down at night knowing we must pray.”

After Sarah died I sang, over and over, about lying down to pray. Sarah learned to pray – with me and with others – her last year of life.

She kept telling me what she was learning. Slow down, she’d say. Live the life you have. Stop working so hard. Look around you and know this world.

Send the sun in time for dawn. Let the birds all hail the morning. Love of life will urge me say. You are the new day.

Sarah, I will try to heed you. I will try to hear your song.

You are the new day.

Last year, Sarah gave me permission both to write about her and to use pictures of her. I checked each text with her before posting. Sarah, I hope you approve of this one.

Her Work — and Ours

DSC_2260I was at the Ohalah conference shuk, rearranging the kippot that still left on my table, and noting, as I do every year, a marked preference for all shades of blues and purples. Over 200 rabbis belong to Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Our annual conference brings together rabbinic pastors, cantors, rabbis, and students of all three professions for several days of davening, workshops, and programs.

A woman I did not know stopped to look at a kippah I had made from raw silks in soft shades of heather and hunter green. She was wearing exactly the same pale green as I had used in the kippah. She looked at the kippot quietly.

“Is there one calling out to you?” I asked.

There were two she liked. One was aqua, with an applique in the form of a thistle. The other was the kippah of greens. She picked up the one, then the other. She made no move to try on either one.

The rabbinic pastors, rabbis, cantors, teachers and students who stop at Not My Brother’s Kippah to look at my kippot or tallitot are looking for how they want to pray – with exuberance or quiet certainty; with joy or with deep, rich, attentiveness. The kippah each chooses is the one, I have learned, that I made for exactly that person.

The kippah with the thistle was important for my new guest. She works with an organization that has a thistle as its symbol, an organization that aids women who have been abused and enslaved.

I learned about her as she spoke. Finally, I discovered the reason for her shyness.

She was not Jewish. She was attending Ohalah as a conference presenter at one of the many sessions held on interfaith work.

That morning, our keynote speaker, Rabbi Arthur Green, had emphasized the need to respect and honor traditions of other religions. He had also warned, gently, against trying to appropriate them. Though she was attracted to the kippot on my table, she didn’t feel she had a right to wear one. DSC_2266

“You know,” I said, “This is how I feel wearing a kippah. I feel like the hand of the Holy One cups my head. I feel blessed.”

She could imagine that feeling, she said. Still, she would hate to offend anyone. She would not like for people to feel she was doing something false.

“Well,” I said, grinning, “you could always say that a rabbi made you your kippah. It would be the truth.”

To be fair: I’ve known my fair share of people who found Jewish traditions and rituals exotic and interesting, and who adopted those practices in ways that felt, at times, invasive to me. I’ve known what it is to be “observed” for the sake of learning about how Jesus might have lived. I have had to explain why the Passover celebration and its rituals cannot be turned into a reenactment of the Last Supper.

But I have also known what it is to speak to a Christian woman in spiritual direction with me about her deep attachment to the poignant image of a cross crowned by thorns. To speak to her heart, I had to speak in her language. I did not sacrifice my tribal identity. To communicate in someone else’s language is a learnable skill, but it does not make that language your native, natural one.

This minister’s work was the work of all clergy who try to bring God’s compassion into this broken world.

Mysterious things happen at the Ohalah conference every year. I didn’t tell my quiet visitor what I had noticed.

DSC_2264She tried the kippot on. In the end, she decided to buy both.

Then it was time to tell her.

At each Ohalah conference, there is a large, glass bowl filled with many slips of colored paper. On each slip is a name of someone attending the conference. Anyone can choose to take one of those slips of paper. Whoever’s name you choose is whoever you pray for during the conference.

Of over two hundred possibilities, I had chosen her name. I realized that as she was trying the kippot on, when I glanced at her name tag.

I told her; she smiled. Then I blessed the kippot, and I blessed her work, and I blessed her.

A rabbi had made kippot for a non-Jew – still a person who had needed those blessings.

May they aid her in her work. It is also mine. And ours.

Planetary Heartbeats and Rhythms of Life

Ralf playingIt was his first drum. It was a creamy yellow color, a smooth ceramic. It possessed remarkable clarity – each tak and dum sounded precisely, cleanly — at least, when my husband, Ralf, played it.

No wonder congregants shyly admitted to me that they were often mesmerized by Ralf’s drumming hands during services. They watched, listened and prayed to the rhythms he played. Each time, Ralf called the living earth into the carpeted, dry-walled sanctuary.

Dum tak-a-tak. A planetary heartbeat of sorts. A prayer of land and waves falling and rolling against the shore, of wind clapping tree limbs together.

Almost ten years ago, I held a wintertime healing service. One of my congregant’s daughters-in-law was facing a losing battle with cancer. Her children were both under five years of age. There were other griefs brought to that service. Yet we prayed, and healed – at least a little.

I do not remember how it happened. That first, beloved drum slipped off Ralf’s leg and fell to the ground. We looked at the shards, calling immediately to the children to stay away.

Ralf was not consolable.

I wanted to make it good, so I went hunting for a replacement. Within days I found a ceramic drum online with a roughened surface. The Daveed drum got fantastic reviews. Despite the uncertainties – and the expense – we ordered it.

Ralf loved it. I loved it. The congregants loved it. Ralf became far more attached to that drum than his first one.

Almost a year later, we took it to UNC Charlotte where we both teach. We were co-leading a service for the Hillel chapter. As usual, there was a lot to shlepp. Several drums, my guitars, various kinds of equipment. The lecture hall featured heavy doors we had to drag open for every trip from the parking lot.

On the way in, Ralf turned slightly as one of the doors shut. We felt the sound, rather than heard it. The door tapped against the Daveed drum. Hands shaking, we unpacked it. The bottom rim had cracked open.

It does no good to tell anyone that mistakes happen — not when the mistake that person has made feels like an irretrievable loss.

“You wouldn’t blame me like you are blaming yourself,” I said. “Things can be replaced,” I added. “Don’t worry about the money. It’s all right.”

It wasn’t. When I went online I discovered that the drum was no longer being made. I searched, I asked at drummers’ discussion boards. No more Daveed drum. Not anywhere.

Please understand: Ralf’s Daveed drum cracked on November 21, 2008.

Unbeknownst to Ralf, I went online every few months – looking for a Daveed drum somewhere, anywhere, new or used. I would find one for him. I would surprise him.

Searching became a ritual disappointment. I’d see one only to call the store and hear that their website and the pictures hadn’t been updated. That drum wasn’t being made anymore, they’d tell me. Anything else they could help me with?

Seven years of searching, seven years of intermittently recalling the sound of the door, the sadness, the look on Ralf’s face in that darkened lecture hall – it hurt. I gave up last year. I told Ralf that I had been searching and he thanked me. I told him I had stopped looking. He understood.

The first week of January, Ralf and I were working together on a set of workshops for our community. My part was to take everyone through the service structure and to demonstrate how creative, lay leadership was within everyone’s grasp. Ralf’s part was to teach a drum class.

While he was creating handouts, Ralf started searching for pictures on how to hold a darbouka correctly. During the process, he ended up on a website for African drums. I knew the website myself. I had visited it in my own previous searches. It showed a Daveed drum, as it had when I had called, a couple years earlier.  Still there — at least in a picture.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said. “They’ll tell you they don’t make them anymore and all that jazz. They will apologize for not updating the website.”

He called anyway.

The woman he spoke to was surprised to hear him ask about a Daveed drum. She knew them and no, they weren’t being made anymore. But then she paused.

“This is so odd,” she said.

Her supplier of African drums had recently mentioned that he had a few darboukas he could bring with him at their next visit – would she be interested? One of them had been a Daveed drum. The day she placed it on the shelf four customers came in, played it, and left saying they would think about it.

Ralf’s call came in just minutes after the fourth customer had left.

From the kitchen, I could hear that Ralf laughing.  I realized that there was a real Daveed drum at the store. I picked up the spare phone and began blurting out the whole, terrible story.

“You have no idea!” I said. “We can’t thank you enough,” I added.

We have been waiting for this drum to arrive for a few weeks now. We have followed its progress across half these United States. This morning, we saw that it had arrived in Concord, where we live.

For weeks I have imagined how Ralf will look, how those first moments will feel, how the first sounds will sound. I hear him playing now.

Tak tak dum tak-a-tak.

A planet’s heartbeat. Prayers called forth from the earth itself.

Christian, Jew? Definitions in the Face of Death

Ana_Bondzic_Do_not_crossSomeone I’ve never met needs a rabbi. That someone wants the rabbi right away.

The caller ID says it all: the phone call is coming from the local hospital or hospice. The issues, the questions, the fears – they are pressing. Whatever I’ve planned will be set aside for someone I do not know but whose life I will suddenly, mysteriously, share.

This week’s call was about a sixty-two-year-old patient with an obviously Christian first name. His surname is one of the top five most common last names in Norway and Denmark.

But Jews come, after all, in all sorts of forms. The patient was, according to the chaplain, Jewish. He was insistent, she said. He needed to see a rabbi.

I drove to the hospital, found the room, and knocked at the open door. Then, I introduced myself.

“I am Jewish,” he said. He also told me that he believed that Jesus Christ was his Lord and his savior. Jesus had come to earth to give him the certainty of eternal life.

I asked him to tell me more about his Jewishness. He referred to an ancestor of three generations earlier. She was Jewish, therefore he was. He had read that. And he had always felt Jewish, he said.

Then he asked me a question: “What does it feel like to be Jewish?”

I smiled wryly. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “During which century? In which country? Is denomination a factor?” I could tell him what it felt like for me to be Jewish, I said, but it would be both overconfident and ignorant to try and speak for the entire tribe. Not to mention impossible.

He took that in good spirits and turned our conversation to what Judaism had to say about life after death. “I know I would be buried the same day in a plain box,” he said. “But then what?”

I explained that there were different ideas to be found in Judaism about the afterlife and summarized three or four. He listened carefully. Then I asked him to tell me what he believed.

“I know I have eternal life,” he said, “but sometimes I feel anxious.”

“Can you tell me more about that?” I asked.

His surgery had been postponed because of various complicating factors; he didn’t know when it would be done. Sometimes thinking about the surgery made him angry. He didn’t like not knowing. “It’s the human side that makes me anxious,” he said. “The spiritual side knows it doesn’t matter if I die tomorrow or later.”

I asked him to tell me what happened when he felt anxious. He described his heart racing, his hands shaking. We spoke about fear.

“Suppose Jesus was here in the room,” I said. “What do you think he would say to you when you are feeling afraid?”

As we talked, I found myself relying on his cues; when he needed Christian imagery, that’s what we both evoked. When he spoke about an experience wrestling with God in a wilderness, he brought up his Jewishness and I answered from that space.

I needed to honor the person this man believes he is; it was not a time for definitions or boundaries. In such moments, we must simply speak to the individual before us. In such a time, we may simply speak to God.

As I did, praying throughout our conversation that I would stay with the words of the moment, the feelings and thoughts of the person before me. That, in the end, is always the task – no matter who I am encountering.

Death hovered in the hospital room. I do not know if he will visit for real.

“I hope I didn’t waste your time,” he said.

“I hope I didn’t waste yours,” I answered, smiling again.

Who is a Christian? Who is a Jew? For this kind of work, it doesn’t much matter. Who is before me? That does.

Hanukkah Waddya Know at TOO

latkesWe’d lit the candles, eaten a sumptuous meal including latkes, chicken (for the birdievores among us), a spicy bean stew, shepherd’s pie, crisply cooked green beans, and the usual assortment of desserts. We’d sung Ma’oz Tzur, S’vivon, and other Hanukkah songs. A variety of congregants delivered jokes, stories, poetry, puns, and song during dinner. Afterwards, we all collaborated on a cool craft project whose final outcome will be seen at the next Shabbat service, I am told.

Finally, during digestion, a game of “Hanukkah Waddya’ Know.”

I gave each table a minyan of questions. They were to work as a group.

“Accuracy counts,” I said, “but feel free to be creative. The winning table receives a free trade dark chocolate bar to share with each other.”

(Everyone in our community is fully aware that I believe that milk chocolate is an Abomination to the LORD.)

I wandered about listening and observing as everyone got to work. But I didn’t get too close. Otherwise people feel they have to check in with rabbinic authority, and I prefer the etz chayyim hi model, where they do their level best to find out just how much they know and how much fun they can have on their own. Jewish practice should feel like blowing soap bubbles: Start the breath flowing and all sorts of magic will sparkle before your eyes – and heart.Hanukkiahs

One table repeatedly burst into collective laughter, another remained steadfastly serious, and yet another featured individuals experiencing excited “yes” moments evidenced by jumping up and down in their seats. (This is not an easy thing to manage.) After about fifteen minutes, we gathered up the answers, a representative of each table read their answers, and the entire group was asked to declare the winning table.

The steadfastly serious table repeatedly demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of the holiday by answering all questions directly and correctly. Yes, Hanukkah means “dedication.” No, Hanukkah is not mentioned in Torah. Yes, it is the shammash candle that is used to light the others.

You get the idea.

The table of boisterous laughter proved they had a command of the material. They added definitions for “Hanukkah,” indicating that one might associate education, rest, and even grace with the term, depending on how you parse its letters.

When asked to name a popular Hanukkah song, they invented one, using the melody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Their version: “All about the nes, ‘bout the nes, no oy…’ll.” (Nes is Hebrew for “miracle.”)

One member of the seriously-minded table immediately accused this group of being nes-sayers. But the song deserved what it got: Much in the way of appreciative applause by the under-fifty crowd. Some over-fifties seem not to have gotten the joke.

The table with excited “yes” moments were, we all decided, the clear winners of the dark chocolate bar. Here are some of their answers to our quiz questions:

  • What does “Hanukkah” mean? “A weightwatcher’s setback.”
  • What is the right way to light a Hanukkiah? “With fire!”
  • Name something good to deep fry on Hanukkah… “Donald Trump.”
  • How many times is Hanukkah mentioned in Torah? “The same number of times as gay marriage.”
  • What is the significance of the number eight? “It is the number of ways to spell C/hannuk(k)a/h.”
  • How should one publicize the miracle of Hanukkah? (Drumroll, please.) “With a Goodyear Blintz.”

This prompted our percussionist to break out in song: “Someday my blintz will come….”

We may be one of the smallest communities out there in the Southeast. But I would wager we are among the cutest.

At the end of the evening, we exchanged our white-elephant presents and took a few moments for a group blessing. But really, we had already blessed one another – with good will and with humor, with joy and with laughter.

May you all experience the same: Hag sameach, and may your last night of Hanukkah be filled with joy and light and all good things.