Reb Elliot’s Kippah

I made Reb Elliot’s kippah about two years before he knew it existed. I sold Reb Elliot’s kippah to a number of people who did not know they were purchasing Reb Elliot’s kippah.

In fact, the kippah belonged to Reb Elliot — at least, in my mind.

Reb Elliot’s kippah features a delicate embroidery of a snow-white hot air balloon made of dandelions. Or rather a dandelion after flowering, when its seeds can be blown into the air by the lightest puff of wind. (For the curious among my readers: the fluffy white parachute that carries the seeds is called a pappus. This is a delightful-sounding word that ought to be said aloud as often as possible. Try it. It will make you happy inside.)
A pappus,

The seeds and their light, feathery-white supports are intertwined in the pattern, intersecting, and delicate. Just a few are escaping the hot air balloon. I believe an unseen breath, a tender ruach Elohim has sent them wafting into the skies and into some heavenly, unknown realm.

The hot air balloon’s basket appears to be empty, but I know it is not. That balloon is carrying secret thoughts, mystical ideas, and imaginary worlds.

Reb Elliot’s Kippah

Because mysterious worlds are inside Reb Elliot’s head, this is the kippah he should be wearing upon his head. Or so I thought to myself, every time I made it.

Many, many years ago, when I went to rabbi school at the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), I took courses on mysticism with Reb Elliot Ginsburg, Vaad member and head of the Kabbalah and Hasidut Department.

I read hasidut and a little Zohar. I read a lot of work about chassidut and Zohar so I could help myself understand.

I learned to read upside-down and sideways. This was because many of our sources had been scanned by Reb Elliot. But not in nice, neat rows. No, little three or five sentence Hebrew texts had clearly been cut out and placed on the page in wildly diverging directions. Reb Elliot peppered the pages with arrows and comments, often in different colors, too. Sometimes I had to turn the page sideways, even upside down to get to the Hebrew text that was assigned. At least once or twice I ended up in the wrong text.

No matter. That, too, was part of the hot air balloon.

Each week of each course with Reb Elliot meant entering a mental labyrinth of enigmatic passageways.  Sometimes the way seemed barred to me until we met in class and either a fellow student or Reb Elliot showed me the direction I should have taken and had innocently missed.

During those semesters I learned to fly into thought realms that I had believed my pragmatic, academic self would neither understand nor care much for. I learned to love moments when I felt the ruach Elohim in those texts, gently breathing me into mystery.

Reb Elliot doesn’t just teach. He dreams. Then, he flies. You don’t know where you are going until you get there. He thinks a thought and, before you realize it, the thought has started darting about the classroom — Reb Elliot has just set it free to start its own life in the minds of the students who noticed it fly by.

Reb Elliot’s kippah has been in my Etsy shop, NotMyBrothersKippah, for two years or more. It has been purchased, I believe, by lighthearted Jewish souls in the world who would, I imagine, love to know that they are wearing Reb Elliot’s kippah (and why).

Just about a week ago, I showed Reb Elliot his kippah. I was wearing it myself. Then, I asked for his address.

It is time to send him his kippah.

This blog post is, as is likely already clear, dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg.


Our Parents’ Legacies – Our Teshuva

Legacy flameThe scene is terrible, traumatic. Jacob is about to deceive his father with his mother’s help. Isaac, who can barely see, questions Jacob again and again. Is he really Esau? He doesn’t sound like Isaac’s eldest son, but he does smell like him, and his hands are hairy, as are Esau’s. Despite his doubts, Isaac eats the meal. He gives Jacob the blessing he had intended for his firstborn, beloved child.

Esau returns and discovers his loss. Bitterly, he asks whether Jacob got his name due to his naturally duplicitous nature. Ya’akov comes from a Hebrew root that means ‘heel,’ but may also describe the worst sort of sneaky behavior – coming up from behind, crushing the enemy under your heel, circumventing, overreaching. Jacob is, means, “crooked.” Esau cries out in anguish: “Father, have you no blessing for me?”

The Zohar teaches that when a soul is about to be born, it chooses its parents. And then, the Zohar explains, we are to go through life doing teshuva, facing and resolving not only all our failings from previous lives, but even the failings we experience at the hands of our own mothers and fathers.

Truth has been withheld from Isaac before. Surely, he knew. He asked only one question on that long walk to Mount Moria: “Father, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Isaac is wiser now, more inclined to question when Jacob – or is it Esau? – arrives at his bedside. Who are you? Are you really? How did you manage to return so quickly? Who am I really talking to?

Isaac was just a toddler when his elder brother was banished to the wilderness. Ishmael, like Esau, is described as an active, physically adept man – sturdy and fleet-footed. Ishmael will not be favored. Isaac will inherit.

Does Isaac see his brother in his impulsive elder son? Does Isaac feel compelled to do teshuva for his parents, who arranged Hagar’s pregnancy, who are responsible for Ishmael’s creation, who later make certain that it is their Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, that inherits all that his father has?

The child of an alcoholic often grows up to be over-responsible, to assure his or her family’s safety. There will not be unpredictable rages, irresponsible behavior. The family’s safety will be protected. Teshuva for the neglect of the parent becomes a lifelong – and worthy endeavor. The child who has been abused grows up to the same insistent responsibility: There will not be a repeat; her children will be guarded, cared for. No harm will befall them.

Does Isaac, the pawn in the story of his near-sacrifice – the helpless inheritor of his father’s legacy – does this man need to redress the wrong against a brother who did not deserve his secondary status?

Isaac does not succeed. Esau pays the price. But so does Jacob. Jacob, who lies and deceives others will be deceived himself – he will be tricked into marrying the wrong sister, forced to work double time to pay the bride price for the girl he really wanted to marry. Jacob’s own sons will deceive their father when he is old, claiming that their brother Joseph died in the desert when they had themselves sold him into slavery. The job of teshuva goes on, and continues, generation after generation.

We are often blind in the face of our own complicated motivations. But Judaism also insists that the world is created anew each day for a reason. We can make up for our parents’ mistakes. We can make up for our own. Teshuva, return, is a choice.

May it be our practice.


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