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.


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