Thursday, December 29, 2005

Friends and family have been listening to me tear my hair over writing these past few weeks. I thought I'd share one example of the things I've been working on. This is a writing I did for the "Recovering the Machzor" class.

Eleh Ezkerah ["these I will remember"] is a traditional reading for Yom Kippur afternoon. It is a long martyrology and traditionally, it is punctuated by a refrain, said by the whole congregation, suggesting that these martyrs died for the sins of the congregation. This theology is out of line with that in the services elsewhere in that day, or indeed, in most of Jewish thought.

I disliked the traditional reading, especially the way that it seemed to wallow in gruesome detail, and have attempted to write an interpretation of it that has less gratuitous gore and a theology that I think is more helpful to modern Jews. See what you think.

Numbered readings are set to be read by anyone in the congregation (by this point in the day, the sheliach [service leader] is losing his or her voice and people are restless or sleepy -- readings by congregants are a good idea.)

Sections in italics are to be read by the entire congregation, together:

1. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:
The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,
The voices of our ancestors, murdered by mobs.
I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars
who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.
Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.
Akiva His flesh was torn off with iron combs.
Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.
Hutzpit the Interpreter asked to say the Shema one more day.
Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s best-known students.
Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.
Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before his murder.
Judah ben Dama is lost to history, except as one of the Ten Martyrs.
Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2. Eleh ezkerah. These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.
“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them
chose death rather than to deny their Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.
The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.
The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.
The Jews of Blois were murdered in 1171 for the blood libel, a vicious lie.
The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower in 1190, rather than convert.
The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,
martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.
They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.
No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3. Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.
All they wanted was to live in peace, but the monarchs of Spain and
the King of Portugal offered them a cruel choice: convert, go to exile, or die.
Many fled, some were converted by force. Many remained secretly faithful
to Judaism. Vast numbers of them suffered cruelly at the hands of
the Inquisition, only to be burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great Jewish communities of Sepharad destroyed:
in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona, in Granada, in Malaga,
and in Toledo Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more.
The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy
and medicine was scattered to the four corners of the earth, driven
underground, and burnt to death in the city centers. Their neighbors
denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. No voice rose
to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4. Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:
I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:
those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre, at the hands of Cossacks.
I remember the slaughter of children, I remember the destruction of families and homes.
I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn. The cruel choice of the past –
Convert or die! – became no choice at all. The time of martyrs gave way
to an even more terrible time, when there were no choices, only death,
only murder, only annihilation. Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries
were the scourge of humanity: no choices. Not only did we suffer, but
other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.
And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.
Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.
Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched.
Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?
There are no words, no meanings, no understandings, nothing to make sense of it.
The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,
burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.
What can we say about the loss of Jewish families,
Jewish minds, Jewish learning?
What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?
And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.
Even today, there are those who deny it ever happened.

But eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

5. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:
I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.
I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save a single Jew.
I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, who went to the camps with us.

Eleh ezkerah: These, too, I will remember!

6. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember. These I cannot forget.
Never again! Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.
I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.
I may not stand by while my brother is starving.
I may not stand by while anyone is homeless.
I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!
These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!

7. Remind us of the covenant of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,
The covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel.

Remind us of the covenant of the ancestors, as You said,
“And I will remember for them the covenant of the ancestors
whom I removed from the land of Egypt in the very sight of the nations,
to be a God to them; I am the Eternal!”

Do with us as You promised us:
“Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them,
neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly
and break My covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God.”

Remind us that we are Your partners in creation and partners in redemption: we are Your People and You are our God.

Have mercy on us, Eternal our God, and help us to act on Your behalf in this world!
We who are schooled in the suffering of the oppressed,
let us remember to act on behalf of the orphan, the widow, the hungry,
the homeless, the hunted, the helpless of this world.

Eleh ezkerah! These we will remember!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This term's coursework has come together in disturbing and wonderful ways; I have spiritual and mental indigestion as a result.

The centerpiece for the term has been a course on Jewish views of Pain and Suffering with Dr. Rachel Adler. We've read widely in there, from the phenomenology of pain to the problem of theodicy, from very traditional views such as yissurim shel ahavah, "sufferings of love," which attributes the suffering of the righteous to the love of God, to the postmodern thinking of philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas, whose experiences in Europe during World War II led him to insights about good and evil too complex to attempt here. (Check on the link if you are interested. Levinas is amazing.) I'm in the midst of thinking through (again!) my own ideas on the subject. Human evil I can attribute to free will, but the agony of individual suffering is harder to fathom if I insist on a God of goodness and truth?

In Midrash with Dr. Barth, we looked at a homeletical midrash from the Pesikta de Rab Kahana, a collection of sermons from the fifth century and earlier. The specific sermon was composed for Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Comfort) that comes after Tisha B'Av, on the text from Isaiah 40, "Comfort, comfort My people." The sermon looked at the verb "comfort", which can mean to give solace, or to strengthen. What is comfort? What comforts? What is NOT helpful as comfort?

In Recovering the Machzor, (a study of the prayer books for the High Holy Days) with Rabbi Richard Levy, we've been reading texts that deal with these issues, too. Some of them have gotten under my skin so deeply that writing about them has been almost a necessity.

In the process of all these classes, I found myself returning again and again to a folder of exegesis of the Book of Job that I've been keeping ever since I attended a program on Job at the Shalom Hartman Institute my year in Jerusalem. There are a LOT of ways to read that book.

The world around me seems like a sea of pain and suffering, sometimes, between the small and large horrors on the news, and the homeless and sick people I see on the street.

In the meantime, I feel like I've had my own little (very little) tutorials in tsuris [Yiddish for "trouble"]. The burglary reeked of "why me?" especially when the burgles found nothing much to steal and decided instead to vandalize my belongings. I know, free will and all that, but my involuntary reaction to it (sleeplessness, fright, depression) seemed downright unfair. Then after my move to a more secure apartment, I had a more serious tutorial in tsuris -- the temporary blindness and severe pain from a freak eye problem.

One thing I am sure about: I agree with Rabbi Yochanan in Berachot 5a-b (in the Talmud) that I do not love suffering, and I do not love its alleged rewards! I agree with Emanuel Levinas that to talk about the sufferings of others as "instructive" is atrocious. My own experiences with suffering may serve to make me more compassionate, I think, if I choose to use them in that way.

So yeah, it's been a busy term so far.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

It's been almost a month since my last post. This fall has been pretty intense: my apartment was burglarized, I moved to a new, more secure apartment, I developed an eye injury that provided me with a week of the Helen Keller Experience: I'm hard of hearing, and losing my eyesight temporarily was educational. Thank goodness for friends and family and a good doc; I'm fine now.

All that minor tsuris notwithstanding, I've been learning a lot in the classroom, too. One class made a particularly strong impression on me. I finished a reading on the Holocaust and asked myself, what have I done about genocide lately? As a Jew who claims to say "Never Again!" --what have I done about Darfur? The answer: nothing. An entire race of people are being systematically wiped out with as much cruelty as possible, and I've done nothing in the past six months.

I'm working at changing the "nothing" to "something." One part of that effort is to let you, my friendly readers know about some online resources for Doing Something:

-- Take a look at the SleeplessInDarfur blog. A woman working with one of the aid agencies in Khartoum is keeping a diary of what she sees on the ground.

-- Check out the American Jewish World Service page on their Darfur efforts.

-- Did you know that our Congress has cut the aid it was going to give to the African Union, the organization with peacekeeping troops trying to mitigate the situation in Darfur? For recent news about Darfur, check the Save Darfur newspage, and the Humanitarian Information Centre for Darfur.

I've written the White House and all my representatives. I invite you to do the same.

Never again.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

This is a d'var Torah [word of Torah] I gave at the Hebrew Union College Minyan last Shabbat. I've included links to explain words that may be mysterious to some of my readers. "Noach" is the transliteration of Noah's name in Hebrew -- say "noah" and then put a little gutteral on the end.



D’var Torah given at HUC Minyan, Los Angeles, November 4, 2005

Parashat Noach reads a little differently this year.

We are accustomed to the familiar tale of righteous Noach, best of his generation, building an ark, climbing into it with his family and a vast assortment of animals to become the second Adam, the first man in The World, Part II.

But Parashat Noach reads a little differently this year.

Since the last time we read it, in Marcheshvan of 5765, we have become a generation to see some terrible things, things reminiscent of the death and destruction in Parashat Noach.

We are a generation who have seen the deaths of 289,000 souls in a monster tsunami.

We are a generation who have seen the destruction of a great city by water.

We are a generation still watching as a record series of giant storms batter the beaches of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, claiming over 1500 lives from Florida to Texas to Mexico and Guatemala, in the islands of the Bermuda and the Caribbean.

We are a generation who are witness to the horrific earthquake on the India-Pakistani border in which 73,000 have died already, and as a result of which countless more will die of cold and disease before the winter is done.

We are a generation who have learned more than we wanted to about killer waves and broken levees and about the limits of our impressive technologies.

For us, it is perhaps all too easy to picture the sight outside of Noah’s Ark, as it bobbed on the waters that covered the Earth:

We can photoshop the picture from things we have seen, this year, on CNN.

When God spoke to Noach, God said, “Aseh l’cha tevat atze-gopher,” -- “Make yourself a box of gopher-wood,”and Noach made himself a box. And in that box, Noach and his family and a good sized zoo were safe from the storm that destroyed the world.

Oddly enough, a box figures into the story for us, too: for many of us, the natural disasters have happened “in a box” –in our TVs, on our radios, on our computers.

When God spoke to Noach, God said, “Kinim ta’aseh et-ha-tevah” –“Make nests in the box.” The word is usually translated “rooms,” but a ken, is, literally, a safe little nest. So I can imagine that Noach, taking his orders literally, as Noach was wont to do, made a floating box full of comfy little nests, little rooms of comfort and safety to ride out the storm.

And again, reversing it all, most of us have sat in our safe nests, watching our boxes, which contain the natural disasters of the last year.

Funny thing, boxes.

In Midrash Tanchuma, the rabbis tell us that the safe little box full of nests became a nightmare of its own for Noach and his family. Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding at odd hours. Imagine the endless feeding, the endless cleaning, the cranky animals.

Some of the animals were dangerous, too: in an angry fit, one lion bit Noach, and he was forever after crippled from that bite. The rabbis quote from Tehillim, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks” (Ps 142.8) and they said that the line refers to Noach’s prayer to be let out of the prison the ark had become, because life inside that perfectly made box had become perfectly dreadful.

We, too, can suffer from box-fatigue: the newscasters are calling it “compassion fatigue”: a tiredness that comes because we have seen too many disasters on our little boxes. It is tempting, sometimes, to just turn it off, or to give up completely. It is tempting to surrender to our tiredness and our own daily problems.

The rabbis, however, do not give us that option. One of their criticisms of Noach was that he did not do enough to help his fellow human beings. He followed orders, but did not try to save anyone else, or even warn them of the impending disaster. Noach, the man whose very name means “comfort” was a little too comfortable: He was content to build his box, to feather his nests, to save his own neck and not much else.

What, then are we to do?

Look again in Parashat Noach: God spoke to Noach, saying to him,

Tzeh min-ha-tevah, ata v’ishtecha, u-vanecha, unshe-vanecha itach…” --

“Go out from the box, you and your wife, and your sons, and the wives of your sons, and bring out with you every living thing that is with you.”

Tzeh min ha tevah – get out of the box! Get out of the box and bring everyone with you!

We are called out of the box, out of the prison, out of our comfort zones,out of our safe little havens, out from the easy way, out into the big, muddy world:

Whether it is to raise funds for reliefor to change the policies of governments.

We are commanded to bring ourselves and our fellow human beings out into freedom.

This week we buried a woman who changed the world by refusing to change her seat on a bus.

Rosa Parks, I suggest to you, was the “anti-Noach”: She was uncomfortable and she made others uncomfortable. Rosa Parks dragged us out of our national comfort zone. And I think that we can all agree that her memory is indeed, a blessing.

We read Parashat Noach a little differently this year, as we work to care for one another, to practice compassion and lovingkindness towards those in our daily lives and those we see on our TV boxes, as we step outside our comfort zones, to do what good we can.

May each of us find our way to be a blessing.

May it be God’s will. Ken y’hi ratzon.

Friday, October 28, 2005

It's almost Shabbat -- what a week!

I moved. This afternoon I returned the keys to the old apt to its owner, and while I think I'm going to miss him, there are other things about the place that I will not miss.

I moved to a new home, near the water. This is the closest I've ever managed to the ocean, and honestly, as close as I want to get. (As someone once said, if you can see the ocean, it can see you, too.) I can smell it, even if I can't see it from my window. Lovely cool breezes.

In the coming week, I have to get back into the routine of school, and catch up on all the work that I neglected while I was moving. Lots to learn, lots to do.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sukkot sameach! Happy Sukkot!

I began the holiday last night at the home of one of my teachers. It had been pouring rain all day, so the sukkah was a bit soggy; we ate dinner indoors. Still, it was a pleasant evening of new friends, sweet challah, and truly awful puns.

I've been thinking about shelter a lot lately, as I pack to move to my new apartment. I'm lucky to have a place to live; there are way too many people in this city who don't have a home.

The L.A. Times has done a series on skid row recently, and the articles are heartbreaking. I am not sure what I can do to help, besides contributing to organizations that serve people on the street, but that doesn't feel like enough.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

"I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness." -- Abraham Maslow

"Only in the present can I act."

Only -- I can't act in the past or future. So there's no point in worrying about them, except to take action in the present to make amends for the past, or to take action in the present to prepare for the future (although that one is tricky, since the future is a variable.)

in the present -- I read once that in the months after the Kennedy assassination, Mrs. Kennedy was inundated with requests/offers for causes she could become involved in, work she could do. She felt confused and overwhelmed, and asked a priest she trusted which she should pursue. "Look in your lap," he said to her (supposedly -- I don't know if this story is apocryphal or true.) What was there? Her children. Since I heard that story, I have sometimes asked myself, "What's in my lap?" and have found it a very clarifying way to proceed. What needs taking care of now, this minute?

can I -- No point in worrying about things I can't do and options I don't have. And no point making up projects for other people, since they are not under my control. What can I? What can I? Where does my power lie? How can I use it?

act -- Thinking is good, but acting gets things done. I should not act without thinking, but if I think without acting, I'm wasting my time, the precious present.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

In less than 24 hours, it will be Rosh HaShanah, and I'll be leading services in Merced. This is my third time leading services for the Days of Awe, and the first time I haven't been in an absolute panic over it.

Right now I'm saying goodbye to the old year, which was full of awful and awe-filled things. If this little blog has gone over the line at some time in the past year, I am truly sorry. My aim is to share some thoughts, and to stimulate your thoughts, but not to cause pain.

As for the coming year, it is full of promise. May yours be a year of grace and goodness, learning and sweetness!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I will never forget my first sight of New Orleans. My parents, my brother, and I had taken a 24 foot motorboat from Nashville down the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Mississippi Rivers, and we pulled into the Port of New Orleans the night of July 4, 1971. Coming through on the river, it was romantic as hell: fireworks over the city, lights everywhere, little bits of music and cheering floating over on the air, gorgeous. After the sinister miles south of Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi started spreading out into BayouWorld and it became very difficult to discern the channel (but alarmingly easy to discern alligators, even in the dusklight) the festivities in New Orleans were a welcome sight.

Then we put-putted into the Port proper, and I got the living daylights scared out of me. A port full of ocean-going freighters is no place for a 24 foot runabout. The wakes of the big ships were like mountains, even in the cautious waters of the port. We'd fly up to the top of one, as if the boat were going to lift off on an early moonshot. Then we'd plunge down the other side, farther and faster than could possibly be a good idea. I was sure we were going to die.

At last we pulled into the lock to Lake Ponchartrain. Ever since, I've thought of the lake as a safe haven, even though it was also an accident waiting to happen. The thing is, New Orleans is all about accidents waiting to happen. It's like Key West, and Macau, and other places where bidness goes on, some of it pretty evil bidness, much of it pretty necessary bidness, and the tourists come and go.

It had that old-city smell, almost but not quite a bad smell, that carried the scent of rotting things, and urine, and secrets. I fell in love with it instantly, and have fantasized from time to time about living there. I've always said, though, that I am too much of a wimp for a New Orleans August: the wet heat, the carnivorous bugs, the threat of storms. I've always admired people who could stand up to a New Orleans August.

I had no idea.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

There are many good places to send money to help in the Southeast, and many good people trying to cope with the many people who were displaced by Katrina. If you haven't already done so, consider sending cash to the Union for Reform Judaism Hurricane Relief Fund or go to the Red Cross website to volunteer and/or contribute.

My high school classmate, Rebecca, forwarded an email to me last week from Father Tim Hurd, in Zwolle, LA:


Katrina did not send wind or water this far west, so we still have power etc. What has happened though is that buses of evacuees are being herded into every nook and cranny of the state. here at St Joseph's in Zwolle we're expecting another 100 or so to arrive at any time. The parishioners and local people here are trying to be helpful and are remarkably and tremendously generous/

The greatest problem/fear: There are at least two kinds of evacuees.
1. Those who left as family units before the storm: they have some sort of transportation, a few belongings, etc.
2. Those who are being picked up along the highways, those who would not/could not leave before, those being plucked up out of the sewage/mess in New Orleans, the stragglers that can't find family, that have nothing, that are totally exhausted, famished, some are vomiting, they're all angry: at God, us, the state, the feds, the sun, the grass,..... this group is really a mixed group. There are crack heads going through the DT's, the people who are HIV+, inner-city thugs, people who are desperately trying to find someone they know/knew.... all mixed in ......suffering, hurting people...

Those are the people who we are being asked to house and are or will be staying here; those are the group from which we'll be getting another 100 or so..... probably for 2 months at least--could be 3-4 months they're warning. Our community here is mostly poor to lower middle class, mostly based on the Timber industry (which is running out of diesel fuel). Zwolle is a simple, somewhat backward town ( imagine a Mayberry/Deliverance cross!?) with hardworking, good people. We're scared, they're scared, everybody's scared....

It seems harsh, but our local law enforcement is begging the state to divert some of them elsewhere. But we'll do whatever we need to do.

I'm tired and obviously leaning to the exhausted side--so forgive please if I seem dramatic to you......
We'll keep going, jump into the unknown (it looks better than the 'known' at this point).
Pray for us, please. And give a prayer of thanks when/if you look in your underwear drawer and see more than one pair........


I wrote to Fr. Hurd and asked him if cash would help, and if so, where to send it. His reply:

Bless you....

Our address here is:

St. Joseph Catholic Church
P.O. Box 8
Zwolle, LA 71486

We've run out of sorting/storage/distribution space for clothes and such and I am trying to find out where to send on those things. I'll try to get back to you with that.

Thank you.

Fr. Tim


It's now Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and I've begun practicing the chants and prayers for the solemn services. One of the prayers, the Unetaneh Tokef, reminds us that we do not know who will live or die in the next year, who by fire and who by flood. As in 2001, those words are particularly sharp this year, since we have just had a demonstration of how unpredictable life can be.

There are lots of different ways to theologize about it, and lots of reasons to be angry and targets for the anger, lots of analysis and lots of words that can be said, but in the meantime people are hungry and homeless and there are caregivers stretched to the brink. I encourage you to join me in finding your own way to help the sufferers. If not now, when?

Monday, September 05, 2005

What good is a federal government that is so slow to react to the peril of an entire region?

Daughter of the South that I am, I have always believed it was a good thing that the Confederacy lost its war. Slavery was and is wrong, will always be wrong, and no amount of romanticism or revisionist history will ever make it even a little bit right.

But I looked at the news this past week, and I wondered: what good is a federal government that is so slow to react to a threat to the lives of such a large segment of its citizenry? I wondered if Jefferson Davis & Co may not have had a point, when it came to one of the issues other than slavery: the fact that to much of the rest of the United States, the South is a joke, an afterthought, a scapegoat. Exactly what is the purpose of this vaunted Union?

Rep. Maxine Waters took a bus to Louisiana to see events first hand, and to rescue whom she could. She represents South Central Los Angeles, and I imagine she would agree with me that the racism and classism we are seeing in this national tragedy are not confined to the South. I just find it hard to imagine that a major city outside the Southeast would be allowed to go for days and days and days after such a disaster. If a hurricane headed for New York City, do you think the reaction would be so slow? When a major earthquake hit Los Angeles in the 1990's, people were not left to fend for themselves for days and days, living in filth and squalor. L.A. has seen its share of riots and looters, but no one seemed to think that simply abandoning the city and bulldozing the site was a solution to anything.

It's no secret that I disapprove of the current administration in Washington. They've bungled this job, just as they have bungled a lot of things. That almost goes without saying.

But I think I'm through being a "good sport" about people making fun of my regional accent, of jokes about the South and Southerners told by people who'd be really, really annoyed if someone behaved that way towards almost anyone else. Quit using the South to reassure yourselves, America, and look into the mirror: African Americans (AMERICANS) and poor Americans (AMERICANS) are suffering because in the minds of too many, New Orleans was a play-city, a joke town, that didn't need the money to pay for the maintenance of real levees.

Even "wealthy" (as in, had a car so they could leave before the storm hit) New Orleanians are suffering, with every thing they have worked for all their lives under many feet of filthy water, and no real idea when they can even assess the damage. Many of the "wealthy" don't have a home to go back to, a job to go back to, a bank account at a bank that is above water, or a clue what they are going to do when they run out of cash or the relatives get sick of them.

My guess is that many of those people sent good wishes, and money, and firefighters, and assistance to people suffering in New York, and Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. I know for a fact they've been paying federal taxes just like the rest of us, on the notion that when they needed the federal government, when they needed the rest of us, we'd be there for them. They paid taxes on the notion that if we can send pork barrels here and there, we can pay for legitimate needs like FEMA and flood control.

I'm sick. I'm angry. Don't you dare make fun of the way I talk.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sometimes I wonder what possessed me to go back to school at age 47. I know that a few of you have wondered the same thing. It isn't easy, it certainly isn't convenient, it isn't cheap, and it is sometimes pretty darn lonesome, since the people I love are several hundred miles north of here.

Today is a day when I don't have to wonder. It is the first day of classes, the day when I am given a pristine new syllabus, full of promise and mystery, and I can see the new things I will learn stretching out over the photocopied pages. It's the day I get a fresh steno book (my preferred notetaking device), a comfortable pen and assortment of markers, and begin to chart the journey into new water. It's the day I walk in with no homework (yet), and pretty much boundless enthusiasm for the work that will weigh heavier by this time next week.

I love the first day of school.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

I love radio, and I listen to lots of it. Radio has been my window on the world ever since I was a kid, sneaking into the den at night to turn on my father's huge AM/FM console radio after everyone was asleep. I'd listen to Havana and Little Rock and other foreign places; I remember one thrilling night when the "skip" was good and I heard Chicago and New York City.

When I am homesick for the Bay Area, I can turn to 740 to listen to KCBS after dark. When I was in Israel and homesick for the United States, I discovered that I could listen to NPR via the internet, and was soothed by Bob Edward's voice. On my drives up the Central Valley, I tune from one tiny religious station to another; I started when "Passion of the Christ" came out and I wanted to know if it was bearing any anti-Semitic fruit I should (as a good student rabbi) know about for my congregation's sake. It wasn't; mostly the radio preachers seemed bothered by the same assortment of historical glitches that were bothering me.

Sooo, a few days ago, as I drove down Wilshire Blvd., I turned to an LA radio station to which I'd rather not give any advertising. Rush Limbaugh was blowing hard, as usual, and I listened to hear what he was up to these days. I don't like Rush, but I like to know what his listeners are hearing. Even for Rush, though, this was a new low.

Rush was trashing Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who had taken her grief and her questions to President Bush's vacation spot. First he implied she's a fake (her protests are "staged") and then he compared her protest to "forged documents," which sounds to me perilously close to calling her a liar.

Casey Sheehan gave his life keeping the oath he took when he swore to protect the Constitution. Cindy Sheehan lost her child. She has every right to grieve, every right to be angry, and our vacationing President should have the common decency to take 10 minutes to say, "Ma'am, I'm so sorry," in a tone of voice that suggests actual sorrow.

Personally, I think she's asking some excellent questions, too. Why *did* we go there? Tha'ts less and less clear, as the administration has virtually admitted with its changing account of what it is: "War on Terror?" "Operation Iraqi Freedom", "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism?"and so on. Best of all, exactly what is the connection between the bloodbath in Iraq and the U.S. Constitution that Casey swore to defend?

And why, if it is so important that we be in Iraq, are we not sending everyone's children, instead of volunteer reservists who have been turned into virtual slaves, stuck in Iraq for long past the time for which they committed? Why are there no young Bushes in the service, if it's so important we be in Iraq?

Why are we simultaneously conducting a war, cutting taxes on the wealthy, and cutting veterans' benefits?

Why, why, why, Mr. Vacationing President?

I'm going to avoid that dial on the radio for a while. I can listen to a lot of stuff and be calmly interested, but I can't listen to that man trash a grieving mother. She's said some things I don't agree with, either, but were I to meet Cindy Sheehan, I would have only one thing to say to her:

Ma'am, I am so sorry.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The stories from Gaza are all over the news today. A soldier talks about obeying his orders, given him by a democratic government in search of peace. A government official talks about "land for peace." Anguished settlers cry and fight and finally hole up in synagogues, only to be carried out by young soldiers. A Palestinian spokesman minimizes the loss -- it wasn't their land anyway. Someone at the UN warns that Israel shouldn't think that this will make up for occupation.

I have never been a fan of the settlement movement, and my first reaction when I heard that Sharon had decided to pull out was that it was high time those people got out of there. I never visited the settlements while I lived in Israel, because I was told by the school that it was unsafe for me to go there. I did have the opportunity to meet and talk with people who lived there, and who believed passionately in what they were doing. Even after the conversation, my convictions were unchanged: those folks had no business there.

This summer, when I saw the orange kippot [skullcaps] and the orange-striped prayer shawls for sale in Jerusalem, to express solidarity with the settlers, I was impatient. In my mind, nothing good could happen until Gaza was empty of Israelis.

Intellectually, I still hold those opinions, but my heart breaks at the photos and the stories on the radio. The settlers moved to Gaza as a patriotic act, and from the day they moved there, it was dangerous. In 1970, they provided a settled buffer against Egypt. They built their homes and their greenhouses and grew organic vegetables; most of the cherry tomatoes in Israel came from the Gaza greenhouses. They were told by the government, and most especially by their hero, Sharon, that they were heroes of the Jewish People.

Now Sharon tells them that they are simply in the way of peace, that they have to move, that they have to start again, somewhere else, in that very unforgiving land. Other settlers in the West Bank are watching, as are the Israelis living on the Golan. Sharon may know where this will end, but he isn't telling.

Meanwhile Hamas hoots and hollers that they've driven out the Israelis, that if they keep on killing and shooting and bombing buses full of civilians, eventually Israel will go away. And some fool at the UN -- I didn't catch his name -- minimized the losses of the settlers and said that this really doesn't accomplish much; it's a step in the right direction, but that's all.

I had to shut off NPR at that point.

Jews are losing their homes, are being carried away from homes they have lived in for 30 years. Other Jews -- young men and women who are their cousins and siblings -- have to do the carrying. This is hideous and horrible, and utterly necessary. Without this move, peace is never going to come.

What I wish is that the other parties, the Palestinians and their supporters, could see this action for what it is. No one has been "driven off" -- a democratic society is making a historic step towards peace. And yes, it is unilateral, but so far I cannot see what the Palestinians have been willing to accomplish via negotiations: remember Oslo? remember Camp David in 2000?

I do not know what the answers are. I do know that while I do not agree with the settlers (on almost anything) I honor their losses, which are beyond my complete comprehension. For their sake, and for the sake of the Palestinians who will have Gaza to themselves, and for the sake of everyone in that region, I hope that this has accomplished something. For now, I just feel sad.

Friday, August 12, 2005

It may be only August 12, but summer is over for me -- I'm sitting in my "office" in Merced (aka Starbucks) back in the swing of my student pulpit, with an email box full of information about booklists, class schedules, and the usual beginning-of-term negotiations.

I feel a little frantic, but good. There's already too much to do, and officially, school doesn't even begin for a week.

This week begins Devarim [Deuteronomy]. The Torah seems to stop and repeat itself, sort of, only with more detail about the laws. September is like that. The beginning of the 4th year of rabbinical school is like that, too. We gather together, we take a deep breath, and we do it again.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

I was on my way home from a shopping trip at "Kanyon Malkha" (the big shopping mall in Jerusalem) in a taxi when some familiar vocabulary came over the radio. There's just been some kind of "event" (involving words with many peh's and tzadee's, aka stuff blowing up) in London as I write this. I still don't know much -- there was something about Shepherd's Bush station, which I initially thought was President Bush, but describing him as a Shepherd [Ro'eh] was just a little *too* weird. Thank goodness for my cabbie-cum-Hebrew teacher, who cleared that one up.

He and I agreed it sounded like "ha terror" and that it sounded "rah" [bad], and "meshuggah" [crazy]. He asked where I was from, and I explained that I'm from California but lived here three years ago as a student. "Ahhhhh! So you understand," he said in Hebrew. "Yes," I said, and we rode in silence for a while, listening to the news on the radio.

When I got to the hotel, the shomer [guard] who has been waving me into the hotel for days now went diligently through my bags. Security has been increased here, just in the space of a cab ride.

I'm writing this now so that friends won't worry. (Seriously, I'm fine. I am having dinner tonight with my friend Ellen.) Soon I will write about some of my other adventures here -- it's been too hard to get to a computer to post much. Suffice it to say that as always, I'm glad I came to Jerusalem.

Monday, July 18, 2005

On this summer's travels, I have grabbed email in some odd places, little internet kiosks here and there. This place takes the prize, though, and is so novel that I feel the need to post about it. I'm in the Old City of Jerusalem, a few yards off the path between the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Cardo (shopping /archaeological area). There are about ten terminals crammed into a little stone closet here, and people are tapping away in assorted languages.

Jerusalem is a different city than the one I remember from three years ago. Business is up, traffic is wild, and even the tourists are riding buses again. The current big conflict has to do with the expulsion of the settlements from Gaza. All over town, you see ribbons in either orange or blue, expressing opinions about it. Orange signifies opposition to expulsion; blue signifies support for Sharon's plan. I've seen more orange in more odd places lately -- seems that there is a new fashion for tallitot (prayer shawls) with orange stripes.

I have my own opinions on this, mostly that Israelis didn't belong in Gaza in the first place, so no orange ribbons for me, and definitely no orange striped tallit! It is interesting that ritual wear has become a medium for political expression.

And then there are the things that do not change. I took a stroll Shabbat evening on King David Street, enjoying the breeze and the dark blue sky. Traffic was almost nonexistent. People were out walking, enjoying the cool air after a brutally hot day. The Old City loomed in the background, reminding us that this is truly the city on the edge of forever.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The summer reading proceeds... I alternate between reading philosophy and psalms, Levinas and poetry. Good stuff; I even understand a little of what I'm reading.

I rediscovered an old obsession this past week, and I think I've reframed it in a way that makes some sense to me. I have been knitting since I was a kid, but I mostly quit when I began to study Hebrew. The two didn't mix, and my priorities were clear.

Well, I'm still studying Hebrew, but I've been watching some of my classmates with a bit of envy as they knitted. I always enjoyed it when they asked me to help straighten out a minor knitting crisis, and always hated handing the knitting back. And a couple of weeks ago, when my son pointed out a knit shop near his home, I ventured inside. Before two minutes had passed, I was fingering alpaca yarn and reminding myself that that stuff is expensive and anyway, with my hot flashes, I don't need sweaters and scarves.

I chatted with the proprietor (a woman who knew an addict when she saw one) and realized I miss the knitting itself much more than I miss the product. She suggested I look into knitting for charities, and I rummabede around on line to find Project Linus. I bought a few fat skeins of bright yellow wool-and-acrylic (washable) and a set of double-pointed needles and went to work. Now the problem is in setting the blasted thing down!

Some sick child is going to enjoy that blanket, all lacy and warm and soft. And my shoulders are a lot looser. I still can't study while knitting -- I'm no multitasker! -- but for spare moments, this will be a tonic for me.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


I could just quit there, with the single word, but then it wouldn't be very good communication, would it?

I'm back home, getting ready to have lunch with one of my kids, sitting in a coffee shop on one of my favorite streets in the whole wide world, and I'm just happy.

So what else is there to tell? Driving up I-5 in the middle of the night is interesting -- the traffic is lighter, and the stars were so beautiful I had to stop a couple of times at dark exits just to open the car window and gawp at the sky. I know there is a Milky Way, but I hadn't seen it in a while.

I stopped for gas at 2:30 am at a station in... oh, gosh, I forget... and chatted for a few minutes with the lonesome kid behind the cash register. We compared ring tones on our cell phones: his latest composition, and my silliest one (that I never use when school is in session or at work, because it really IS stupid but funny.) Then I got back in the Volvo and drove on up the road.

I listened to an old drama from the 50's on the radio: DeForest Kelley in "Fleshpeddler," on Suspense Theater. I have no idea why they cast a guy with a Georgia accent to play an agent from NYC, but it was fun to hear a familiar voice in an unfamiliar role. It was a creepy little story, too, from the same era as "Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits."

I like driving at night, if I can have a hefty nap at the end of it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I found a lovely blog recently, Octogenarian. If you are interested in Israel, Jews in America, and/or common sense, I recommend the writing of this retired journalist. I've already emailed with him to get permission to tell his stories in sermons.

High Holy Day prep is underway at my house, along with a bunch of neglected housekeeping. And if you recall from earlier posts that I was working hard on a paper towards a theology of Jewish Peoplehood, I am happy to report that (1) I finished it and (2) my teacher says it's a good beginning. Sweeter words I cannot imagine. I've already made a list of next steps.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

As I mentioned in the previous post, I attended a training of trainers co-sponsored by Mosaic, The National Jewish Center for Gender Diversity, and the ADL. I learned LOTS at the training -- it was a remarkable experience -- and had the pleasure of screening two documentaries I recommend to anyone interested in GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) topics.

I've reviewed the two films, Keep Not Silent: OrthoDykes and No Dumb Questions on the movie review blog I share with a friend, thumbsupordown. They are both remarkable films, and I recommend them if you are interested in these subjects!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Today is a pause between the Gerecht Family Outreach Institute (a terrific learning experience and a chance to see some old friends) and a training for diversity trainers in Denver, CO, sponsored by
Mosaic: The National Jewish Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Anti-Defamation League. The agenda item for today is laundry, needless to say!

I've also been catching up on the news, and have run across something I want to share, because it does not seem to have gotten much attention. (I've been getting my news via radio from NPR and CBS -- if it isn't on either of those, seems to me it hasn't gotten much attention.)

Have you heard about the Downing Street Memo dated 23 July, 2002? (Clink the link if you would like to read the text for yourself.) Here is the paragraph that made me sit up:

"Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action. "

Those words were written in JULY 2002, by Matthew Rycroft, a British diplomat, after a visit to the U.S.

I, for one, believed in the WMD's. I was really surprised when they didn't find any (after all, I'd gotten the daylights scared out of me in Israel, carrying around a gas mask in case Saddam shot poison gas at us.) I was skeptical about President Bush's motives but was convinced because Tony Blair and Colin Powell and all these other very respectable folks seemed convinced.

It was all lies. The Brits knew it was all lies back in July 2002, before the lies were even made public. This whole thing was planned because our President Bush wanted to invade Iraq.

I grant you, if Saddam Hussein were my head of state, I'd be glad if someone got rid of him. But the lives of Iraqis have gone from one bad thing to another, not from bad to good. Nothing I'm hearing from Iraq suggests that it is a bearable place to live today. Yes, there were free elections, and the people who voted in them took their lives in their hands to go on the street to vote and they STILL don't have a functioning government.

And let's not forget the byproducts: the world has been given a new workshop for terrorists, a new rallying point for Al Qaida and Hamas and all those lovely people. The terrorists have had access to weapons we failed to secure.

Apparently our news organizations don't care. They care about selling you Michael Jackson testimony, and American Idol speculation, and other similar swill. News organizations don't care because they have become profit-driven, or grant-dependent. (NPR does not get off the hook here, either.) They don't care because their research shows that we don't care.

I'm asking you to care. If you don't like being lied to about the war in Iraq, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper (and TV, and so on) and tell them that you care more about the war in Iraq than you do about the latest titillating details from the Jackson trial and who won American Idol. Tell them you don't understand why the Downing Street Memo hasn't gotten more airplay.

If you are a Republican, and think the Downing Street Memo is no big deal, I ask that you care enough to tell your media sources that you care about real news, about our men and women dying in Iraq, about other things that are Real in the world. Tell them that you're fed up with titillating crowd-pleasers on the news. I respect you enough to believe that you don't really think that the bread-and-circuses approach to news is OK.

Write to someone. Raise Cain. Please.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Today I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes: exploring California. For months now, I've been eyeing an alternate route over the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles. Normally I take the I-5 over the Tehon Pass, through the "Grapevine," a spectacular piece of engineering through the Angeles National Forest. It's no small shakes, but after two years of drives to and from Merced, I know that road by heart.

Another, longer way south turns east after Bakersfield and takes Highway 58 over the Tehachapi Pass through the mountains, where the Tehachapis meet the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. The road turns south from there to cut across the western end of the Mojave Desert. That road called to me from the map: it whispered sweet nothings about beautiful mountain and desert views. I had resisted the call for months (classes to go to, services to lead) but today I stopped in Bakersfield, slept until I woke up, and then headed east for Tehachapi.

One unusual glitch: whoever heard of a rainy day in May in Southern California? When I left Bakersfield, the rain was spitting a little, nothing much, but as I ascended into the mountains, I also ascended into the low cloud ceiling and more rain. I was grateful for the bright orange Cal Trans truck ahead of me: I followed that truck through the fog and trusted that its driver knew the road, because I could barely see the taillights of the truck, much less anything to do with the road. I imagine it's a gorgeous road up to the pass, but I've no idea. I'll go back someday and see, I guess.

At one point, I got a little nervous about the road (lots of fast vehicles passing me and the Cal Trans guys) so when I saw a California Historical Site Marker for something called the Tehachapi Loop I thought, "What the heck is that?" and then "What the heck?" and turned on the road to Keene, CA.

Keene is a wide spot in the road with about 400 residents; it was damp as I drove through but people seemed friendly. The little road curved back 3 miles into the brush past Keene's cafe and post office, and I thought to myself, hmmm, was this smart? But it certainly was interesting. All the wildflowers that had been flashing past my window on Hwy 58 were now close enough to touch. The terrain was rough, befitting a place where the Pacific and North American plates have been jamming up against each other for millenia: the only flat ground had been carved out to make a road, to build a house, or to build the railroad through the pass. Everything else was vertical, lots and lots of hills and hillocks, bounding up and down the mountainside, studded with huge rocks.

When I found the brass Historical Marker by the side of the road, I pulled off to read it. Turns out that the Tehachapi Loop is one of the great railroad engineering feats of the 19th century. I looked out over the valley below the road, and there was a loop of railroad. It was nice of the railroad people to leave a freight train sitting there to help me see it. It took me a few minutes to understand what I was looking at, but after some staring through the rain, I got it: the engineers who designed the railroad track had been faced with a problem when they tried to design track to go over the Tehachapi Pass throught this wild, vertical country. In addition to tunnels (through the hills) and bridges (over the valleys) and a circuitous route (around the devilish hills) they needed a way to gain 77 feet in elevation in a single spot, a seemingly impossible feat. That was accomplished by designing a giant loop of railroad track that crosses over itself, gaining the 77 feet. (If you find this hard to visualize, click the link and the diagram may help.)

All this work was done by hand, by Cantonese railroad workers. They called the loop "Walong" which means "Chinese Road" or "Coiled Dragon" depending upon whom you ask. The railroad from Caliente to Tehachapi, including the loop, is a marvel, and a testament to the Chinese contribution to California history. Even now, that track carries over 40 frieght trains a day, and it is one of the busiest sections of rail track anywhere in the world. I was sorry to hear that there's no passenger service over the loop; apparently the bus from LA to Bakersfield is quite a bit faster than the train would have been, which is why there's an Amtrak bus from LA to Bakersfield.

I got back on 58 and saw lots more great stuff: the town of Tehachapi (it's a rail town, with streets labeled A,B,C, and D) and the town of Mojave, where I had lunch. I left the rain behind at Mojave -- it was stopped by the height of the mountains, and when I looked back, I could see a few clouds leaking through the pass, as I had.

I saw the Silver Queen Mine, a huge plant visible from Hwy 14. There's lots of mining up there, silver and gold and borax and goodness knows what else. I saw all sorts of beautiful wild things blooming: brittlebrush , Mojave aster, creosote bush, and Joshua Trees in bloom. The Joshua blossoms have a strong odor; when I pulled off the road to look at a tree to see if those were blossoms or fruit, I got a snootful of their amazing stink. The Mojave is a wilderness with a flavor of its own; the wildness reminded me of the Judean Desert, even though the plants are quite different and instead of Bedouins, the Mojave has test pilots!

The last bit of my detour took me down Soledad Canyon Road, in the Tehachapis. The photos at the page I linked to don't do it justice; it is a beautiful, winding road following a small river and the railroad down the canyon. I saw a lot of interesting geological bits in the canyon, outcroppings of what looked like basalt in one place, and what I think must be the tailings of an old copper mine on a slope above me. (I hope it was an old copper mine -- I hate to think what else might have made that strange green color.)

I'd like to take that route again sometime, armed with a more information and more time. There were a dozen side roads that looked interesting, and some small museums (like the one in Keene) which I hated to pass by.

I told someone recently that I'm a fool for new ideas. That's true. I'm also a fool for an unexplored road. I think those two qualities are linked -- I just love going where I don't know what I might find!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The papers went in on time, just barely. Since then, I've visited Jamie and Aaron in Santa Cruz and come to spend my final weekend of the year in Merced. Summer's here: it's hot today.

I thought I had a lot to say about a lot of things, but the wind's gone out of me. (Mark your calendars.) I'm very tired after this past year. Even after dropping two classes, this term was a heavy load. I spent most of my time working on my theology paper, an examination of Jewish Peoplehood. I kept writing it and rewriting it because I learned a little more with each iteration; I still haven't learned everything I want to learn from that paper, but it's in Dr. Adler's hands now.

I was disappointed with my exegesis of Ruth 3. I thought there was more "there" there, but I couldn't find it. Compared to the other texts on which I've done an exegesis, it looked like a piece of cake, which just goes to show you: very little in the Bible is simple. I found some things I think will be useful for the theology paper (which has now graduated into being either an obsession or a hobby, depending on how you look at it) but I was disappointed with that exegesis.

I restarted my Hebrew journal a few weeks ago; this summer I'm working on Hebrew and Aramaic, honing my skills. Maybe I'm writing the theology paper again, too.

I had the honor of naming another baby last night: Lirit bat Benyamin v'Rachel. I do love naming babies!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I'm coming down to the wire now... three items left on my to-do list, and then Year 3 of Rabbinical School is over.

Watch this space for some serious rambling when I finish it all!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I spent a little time browsing the MAZON website this evening. MAZON calls itself "the Jewish Response to Hunger" and they've got a lot of interesting facts on the site.

These facts about hunger in Israel shocked me:

22% of Israeli citizens – approximately 1,100,000 people – are food insecure.

Of those Israeli citizens who are food insecure, 60% are Jewish, 20% are Arab, and 20% are new immigrants.

According to the National Insurance Institute, nearly 30% of Israeli children – approximately 690,000 – live below the national poverty line.

Over 20% of Israel’s elderly live below the national poverty line.


If you want to do something about hunger in Israel, or hunger anywhere else, check it out. This is another way to include a stranger at your table this Passover.
It's that time of year again: I miss my grandmother.

Mary Fulghum Menefee died in April of 1974. You'd think, after 31 years, I'd be able to handle her yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death) in a calm and collected way, but the truth is that I never know how it's going to hit me. Some years, I just feel sad. Some years, I fall apart.

My earliest memory of her is of sitting in her lap, on the front porch of the house on Otter Creek Road. We were in the big white rocking chair, rocking back and forth to a mostly tuneless little song she used to sing on such occasions: "Loving time, loving time, loving time, loving time..." She had a soft, cushy lap and I liked to curl up in it and abandon myself to the rocking while I sang along with her.

She loved to rock in that chair. Sometimes she'd rock so enthusiastically that at the "top" of the rock there would be a moment of weightlessness, as if we were going to launch into flight and sail over the geraniums and fly off over the hills of Brentwood, maybe to do circles around the WLAC radio tower on the next ridge. She used to tell me that one time, when I was too small to remember, she got a little carried away on the "rock" and we tipped over backwards; she held me up in her arms so that I didn't hit the ground, and I just laughed as if it were a game. I don't remember that, but I believe it. Meme loved to fly in planes, to drive too fast in cars, and I don't see why the rocking chair would have been any exception.

Meme was a religious woman, one of those Irish-Catholic ladies for whom Sunday Mass was an opportunity to say a rosary and talk to the Blessed Mother. She and the Blessed Mother had intense conversations, I gathered, judging from the tightness of her jaw and the way her fingers pinched when she prayed the beads. It wasn't until years and years after her death, at another family wake, that I finally got a clue what all those prayers might have been about. The person who told shouldn't have, so I won't repeat it. I'll just say that my grandmother didn't have an easy life.

She always wanted to travel overseas, especially to go to Ireland, and my grandfather wanted none of it. I had a secret plan that when I was grown, I'd take her to Ireland, but she died before that was possible, carried off by pancreatic cancer. I know it is useless to hate a disease, but I hate that disease: it made her miserable, it destroyed her dignity, and it gave her an awful death. As a good Catholic, she believed that suffering on earth would be rewarded and made right in heaven. I watched her suffering, and at 19, I could not understand. I am not a good Catholic. The only way I can make any sense of that good woman's pain and misery is to say that it makes no sense to me at all.

She's still around. I can see little bits of her in my children, and it is consoling to know that those bright blue eyes seem to be a strong element in our DNA. Mine have faded to green, but theirs are as bright as hers. I think of her when I see scarlet lipstick, or a fancy hat, or when I hear "Ave Maria" played on a violin. I think of her when I set the table with my good china; we picked it out together at the Cain-Sloan Department Store when I was about twelve. She's where I got my stubbornness, and my love of words.

It's that time of year again.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I'm doing laundry tonight, which fragments time and concentration. Instead of working on my paper, I'll blog about it while I'm waiting for the washer to wind down.

I'm working on a project near my heart right now, a theology of Jewish peoplehood. The questions behind it have been bubbling away for a while now.

I became a Jew at age 41. The rabbi who worked with me, who was my midwife into the Jewish People, warned me that many Jews of the world won't accept a Reform conversion. I had noticed already that the Jews of the world don't agree on much of anything, so I wasn't too troubled by that idea. My resolution was that if there was a problem, it was THEIR problem, not mine. I still find that that's a good working atittude: My reality or validity or authenticity does not depend on a poll.

Still, I've had experiences that challenged my resolution. El Al security didn't like my WASPy name or my Irish American face, and my story didn't make any sense to them. (You became Jewish just because you wanted to? What, are you nuts?) I wish I had a nickle for everyone who has said, "Gee, you don't look Jewish." One of the downsides to being a student rabbi is that the snappier comebacks to that one are now very unprofessional and not an option!

On the more professional side, I can quote chapter and verse on the requirements for conversion, and on
the elements of Jewish law that say that with a very few exceptions having to do mostly with marriage (a convert may not marry a Cohen, a member of the priestly families). Jews are Jews, whether they come through the waters of the womb, or the waters of the mikveh [ritual bath, part of conversion.]

This winter, when I read that Franz Rosenzweig defined Jewish peoplehood in terms of "blood," I felt my dander rising again. It's one thing to hear this stuff from an am haaretz [ignoramus], it's another entirely to see it written in one of the great Jewish philosophical texts, The Star of Redemption. Worse, this isn't a slur on the Reform movement, or my rabbi's semichah (ordination), it was a bald statement that if you don't have Jewish blood, you aren't really Jewish. Reading it, I felt angry and repelled -- it looked racist, and it also looked like the undertow to all the comments on my face and name. I asked my teacher, Dr. Adler, about it. "I wondered if that was going to bother you," she replied.

It bothers me. I don't want it to bother me, but it bothers me. It happens that for her class, I am supposed to write a paper in which I hash out some of my own theology. I decided to take this thing on, and wrestle it to the ground: I'm writing a paper about theologies of Am Yisrael [The Jewish People] and specifically, MY theology. I want to know precisely where I stand on this, and my gut feelings of connection to Am Yisrael are as much a part of the data as anything I think about it. I know that nothing I write is going to change anyone else's mind, but that's not the point: I want to be clear in my own mind.

I am a Jew. I've been a Jew since June 17, 1996. My soul feels like it's been Jewish forever (which it turns out, is part of this equation, at least according to some of the theologians.) The question is, exactly what does that mean? How am I a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

This past Thursday there was a gathering of rabbis and rabbinical students at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, in honor of the birthday of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. We were told that it was the largest such gathering in Los Angeles history, with rabbis from all the movements of Judaism, and teachers from the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. I had the privilege of listening to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and then hearing a panel of Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Schulweis, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi David Hartman, and our own rosh yeshivah (head of our rabbinical school at HUC) Rabbi David Ellenson.

All of the speakers were wonderful. I always have the urge, when I see Rabbi Ellenson, to point and declare loudly, "He's MY rosh yeshivah!" but that day, I was grateful to have all of them as my teachers. Rabbi Hartman, particularly, helped me refocus my heart on the rabbinate. It's so easy to get lost in the assignments and the schedule and whatnot -- in the minutiae of filling requirements -- and sometimes it is good to pause and think again about what I am doing and why.

His speech was one I expect to see published someday, and I cannot do justice to it here, but one idea particularly struck me. The Jewish way to mend the world is to create little microcosms of the world as it can be: Shabbat, for instance. We live them the best way we can, and hope that all the participants will carry away a little bit of olam ha-bah (world to come) into the ordinary days and activities of their lives. We start small, and work on the faith that if we do our little bit well enough, it will spread.

This week I kept Shabbat more carefully than I have in a while. I set the table, and had an assortment of folks to dinner. We lingered and talked, enjoyed each others company, prayed and laughed. I woke up with my back out (something about putting the leaf in the table the day before, I think) so I didn't get to services, but it was a lovely contemplative day nevertheless, with phone calls to and from my kids and friends, a day of leftovers and love.

I'm glad that Rabbi Hartman reminded me why I started this crazy plan: I really do want to change the world, and I believe that the best way for me to do it, is to do Jewish. Keep Shabbat, clean for Passover, learn Torah, teach Torah, tune my eyes to see the b'tzelem Elohim -- the image of God -- in everyone I meet. That's why I'm in school, that's what all this is about.

Nice to remember.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Baseball season is about to start!

I love baseball. I discovered it relatively late (in my 30's) and have been an Oakland A's fan ever since. My first game was at Dodger Stadium, a game between the LA Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds.

Periodically, I still thank the friend who took me to that game for introducing me to baseball. She just went to spring training with her partner-in-crime, and wrote a report in her blog that is almost (almost!) as good as being there:

Linda: thank you for baseball.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

I am bone-tired, and I am only halfway home.

My student pulpit is 300 miles north of Los Angeles, and the drive up and back is a challenging routine. The challenge on the way up is to escape LA traffic and get to Merced on time, while taking enough stretching breaks that I can walk comfortably when I get there. The drive home, on Sunday afternoon, is a bigger challenge: I start out tired sometime after noon, and I need to be in class in Los Angeles, with whatever prep is required, by 8:30 am.

Some weeks I breeze right through it. One week a tire blew out, and I didn't get home until Monday afternoon. This is a more typical week, since we had Purimshpiel last night, and more Purimstuff this morning with the kids, and my neighbors at the motel had a baby. I kept waking up, looking for my crying baby, and then remembering that Jamie is 21.

So by the time I got down the road a bit today, I felt my eyelids fluttering. I stopped in one little town for a nap, after setting the alarm on my car and reclining the front seat. The nap helped a bit, so I drove on here to Tulare, where I have a regular stop at the Starbucks, for caffiene and an email break. It's 5 pm, and I've got, oh, I'd say three hours ahead of me, if I don't need any more naps.

The other side of the long drive is that it's full of wonders. Driving up, on Friday, I saw what this winter's monster rains have done to the wilderness lands north of LA. I drove through the sections of the Angelus Forest that burned last year, and saw the charcoal skeletons of trees surrounded by several shades of green, along with carpets of wildflowers. Everything is lush; the vegetation is drunk on rain. The Californian in me thought, "hmmm, large fuel load" (thinking ahead to fire season) but gosh, it's beautiful now.

So far on this weekend I've driven through three different storms, and seen two rainbows. That's a new record for me.


Thursday, March 17, 2005

My upstairs neighbors are very noisy. I know this because they are loud enough to bother me tonight, and I'm hard of hearing. My kids have mentioned the noise to me when they've visited, but usually it isn't a problem. Tonight that TV is really roaring.

Apartment living puts us in each other's faces (or ears) sometimes. Usually I think of that as a bad thing, although tonight I had some other thoughts about it. I remember when I was home-hunting in the summer of 2003, and a friend suggested to me that there was a sweet little house to rent in a great neighborhood. I was categorically not interested -- and a lot of it was that I feel safer in an apartment. As annoying as the upstairs TV can be, it's also a sign that folks are around. The walls are not paper (they're very nice plaster -- it's an old building) but they are thin enough for us to be aware of each other. I like that.

We human beings are social beings; most of us would rather have neighbors to fuss with than no neighbors at all.

Oh, and since it's St. Patrick's Day, a proverb that works for Israel, too: Ní tír gan teanga. [No nation without a language.]

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I turned 50 last Thursday, and it was maybe the best birthday ever. Linda, Maryann, and Aaron came down from the Bay Area to celebrate; we had a dinner party with some of my classmates, and then the next night Maryann and Linda swept me off in a limousine to dinner and a show. We saw Menopause, the Musical, and Aaron, who accompanied us, was the soul of patient, bemused gentlemanliness. [It takes a brave man to sit through that show.]

Birthdays aren't silly, and they aren't just an occasion for teasing about numbers, either. This year, it was reminder for me that I'm blessed with good friends and wonderful sons. I'm happy to be here.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Today was the first day of the last "quadmester" of Year 3 of rabbinical school. My class spent the past two days taking stock of where we came from, where we've been, and where we are going. It dawned on us that things are about to change. After this quad, we'll scatter for the summer. Several classmates are going to Jerusalem for a year. Another is moving to the east coast. The education students are graduating. And those of us who remain will have choices about our classes. We will have electives from here on, and there will be no more of the long days in a room all crammed together.

Those of you who have been following my adventures since Summer 2002 may remember that I wrote from Jerusalem that we'd become like a bunch of siblings. We studied together, we spent most of our waking hours together, and in that first year or so, we squabbled periodically. (OK, we squabbled a lot.) We've logged a LOT of hours together. Somewhere along the line we quit squabbling (mostly) and became more than just a class. We're not rabbis yet, we're at some interesting place in not-quite-land.

I'm coming up on a personal milestone, too: in a few days, I turn 50. I am absolutely certain that the person I was at 30 wouldn't even recognize me today. It makes me wonder what 70 will look like.

I decided in the middle of the last quad that these years will never come again, and that doing the program at a breakneck pace was destructive and pointless. So I'm slowing down, an extra year, to soak it ALL in. This week I mapped out my goals for the next three years, and I'm excited about them. Lots of learning and growing yet to do.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Have you ever read The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart? It's one of the best novels I've encountered in a long time. We were assigned it for our Modern Jewish History course. The teacher asked us to write reaction papers:

Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just opens in a scene I once happened upon unawares, strolling around York, in the north of England. Clifford's Tower still stands not far from the river, empty and padlocked. At the foot of the building there is a little car park, and a small placard made of a formica-like material. It states baldly that in March of 1185 there was a persecution of Jews in York, and that in a lull, the remaining Jews took shelter in the tower, hoping for the protection of the King, protection that never came. Rather than convert or fall into the hands of the mob, they committed mass suicide. The wording was utterly dispassionate; no regret was expressed. I remember that the sunny morning went suddenly airless; I could not move.

In much the same way, I was transfixed by this novel, reading it through a long night in one sitting. It opens and closes in conflagration: in the first chapter, the body of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy is tossed upon the fire, his ashes scattering in the air; the novel ends in a plume of smoke from the crematoriums of the Shoah. The journey from ashes to ashes is made by a series of Lamed-Vovniks, of Just Men, of the Levy family. The designation of “Just Man” (Lamed Vav) is a paradox, a blessing as heavy as a curse. Each generation inherits the blessing and the destiny; each generation has its own grief.

The book manages to convey both the real historical situation of many Jews of Europe through those centuries, and at the same time to maintain the mystical story of the Just Men, and to maintain the mystery around the story as well. In the beginning, Schwarz-Bart explains that there are 36 Lamed-Vovniks, and that “if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry.” (p. 5) And yet this book is titled The Last of the Just! What does this say about our post-Shoah world?

The theological questions are daunting. In the beginning God rewards the faithfulness of Yom Tov Levy by establishing his descendants as Just Men: what kind of reward is that? What kind of God gives such a destiny as a reward? Such questions are raised very gently at first, cushioned by the piety of the early Levys, but they become sharper as the book goes along, just as the cruelty of non-Jews sharpens as the story progresses. The questions crescendo in the dark doxology that closes the story: what kind of God is this, and what does it mean, to praise such a God?

The book has a brief coda: the narrator closes with the feeling that Ernie Levy is somehow not completely gone, but “there was only a presence.” I am left wondering if perhaps the real God in this story is not an exterior God, but the inner goodness of the Levys themselves. “Presence” is the common English translation for “Shekhinah,” the name for the Presence of God in exile. Perhaps, the book whispers, we are looking in the wrong places for God.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The edible Ezekiel scroll (Ezekiel 2:9 - 3:3) explained:

I saw this article on and immediately began imagining what the technology could do for text study.

B'tei avon [Bon apetit!]

Friday, February 04, 2005

I blew most of my blogging time this week on a rant about a movie.

One of the films nominated for the Oscar for Best Film this year is Million Dollar Baby. I reviewed it very briefly in the movie review blog I keep with my friend Linda. I thought it might be the best film I'd ever seen, but it was a short review, because most of what makes it so good involves a plot twist that should not be revealed in a review.

This morning, in, I read an article about the growing controversy about the morality of Million Dollar Baby. I was amazed, because I thought one of the things that recommended the movie was that it was a very moral film, not a gooey postcard, but a gritty, tragic movie about life and choices.

So I wrote my rant and labeled it as a spoiler. I'm still left with a question, though:

If we can't even discuss sin, how can we avoid it? My impression is that the critics wouldn't have been happy unless this film turned out to be a gooey postcard, implying that ultimately if we make the right choices, everyone will live happily ever after.

I have news for those critics: doing the right thing and living happily ever after are not always in a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Sometimes there are no happy choices, just the better and the worse ones. And sometimes, in real life, it is nearly impossible to see which is the better and which is the worse, which is when those of us lucky enough to have an ethical tradition to fall back on have to go to that tradition, and go to any other source of revelation we have, to get the best answer we can get. And even then we may very well not like it.

Phew. It's a beautiful day, and I'm indoors reading Rosenzweig and ranting about sin and movies. I think I'll take a walk.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

I'm coming out from under a week of either a moderate flu or some unnamed viral thing; this has been a weird week. Most of it is lost: all I know for sure is that I dragged myself in to school on Monday to lead services, munched it up only slightly, and then sat numbly through classes the rest of the day. Tues, Wed, and Thurs I was home, mostly asleep, which was a good place to be given the splitting headache, even if I did spend an awful lot of time having creepy dreams.

Now I'm tired, but steadily improving; I am still not fit for running around, but my appetite is back and I have been awake more than asleep today. I will spare you the more graphic symptoms!

I am blessed to have friends who called to check on me, and other friends who took notes for me, and I'll catch up somehow. Right now I'm just up late on Shabbat, and I've been out of touch with the world for a very long time. All that adds up to "lonesome," which is, I guess, a sign of returning health.

We learned a week ago in Codes that in the Shulchan Aruch Rabbi Joseph Caro wrote that on Shabbat, a sick person's suffering is lessened, because it is Shabbat. I asked Dr. P. what it would do to a person suffering with, say, cancer, to hear that he was supposed to feel better because it is Shabbat. He pointed out that context is everything -- that for the 16th century Jew, the Day of Rest could be a relief, simply because you fervently believed that it would be, as did everyone you knew.

This gives me pause to think about colds, flu, and other viral nasties. I am rather resigned in my approach to them (as my father-in-law used to say, if you drink liquids and take vitamin C, a cold will run only one week, while if you simply go about your business, it will run for seven days.) I figure on about a week, I figure it will be both unpresentable and miserable, and that the only thing to do is outlive the scourge. Now I wonder what my viral experience would be like if I believed it was always only a three-day deal!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Tu B’Shevat

Driving up highway 99
I have learned to pay attention to the almond trees.

In January, they are the gaunt witnesses of winter:
They seem to be dead.
There is nothing as useless-looking as a tree in winter.

Secretly, the roots dowse the soil
In search of water,

The tender tips practicing
the alchemy of plants.

In winter, it is easy to forget hope.
Hope is hidden away, under the earth.
Hope is inside the bark, at the green core.

Driving up highway 99
I have learned to listen to the trees.
Winter will pass,
Sap will rise,
Leaf will follow bud
And blossom will follow leaf
Come summer, there will be almonds.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I received this in an email and thought it sounded like a great idea:

Not One Damn Dime Day -- Jan 20, 2005

Since our religious leaders will not speak out against the war in Iraq, since our political leaders don't have the moral courage to oppose it, Inauguration Day, Thursday, January 20th, 2005 is "Not One Damn Dime Day" in America.

On "Not One Damn Dime Day" those who oppose what is happening in our name in Iraq can speak up with a 24-hour national boycott of all forms of consumer spending. During "Not One Damn Dime Day" please don't spend money. Not one damn dime for gasoline. Not one damn dime for necessities or for impulse purchases. Not one damn dime for nothing for 24 hours. On "Not One Damn Dime Day," please boycott Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target...

Please don't go to the mall or the local convenience store. Please don't buy any fast food (or any groceries at all for that matter). For 24 hours, please do what you can to shut the retail economy down.

The object is simple. Remind the people in power that the war in Iraq is immoral and illegal; that they are responsible for starting it and that it is their responsibility to stop it. "Not One Damn Dime Day" is to remind them, too, that they work for the people of the United States of America, not for the international corporations and K Street lobbyists who represent the corporations and funnel cash into American politics.

"Not One Damn Dime Day" is about supporting the troops. Now 1,200 brave young Americans and (some estimate) 100,000 Iraqis have died. The politicians owe our troops a plan - a way to come home. There's no rally to attend. No marching to do. No left or right wingagenda to rant about. On "Not One Damn Dime Day" you take action by doing nothing. You open your mouth by keeping your wallet closed. For 24 hours, nothing gets spent, not one damn dime, to remind our religious leaders and our politicians of their moral responsibility to end the war in Iraq and give America back to the people.

Commercial speech must not be the only free speech in America!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Yikes, yikes, yikes...

ALL my classes are wonderful this term. That's very dangerous. I can easily spend way too much time on any of them.

I realized this morning, as I cleaned the bathroom, that somewhere along the line the Pepsi Generation became the Oil of Olay generation. Yes, I use that stuff. I use an amazing amount of stuff: I remember when soap and water was it, maybe something on my lips to keep them from chapping. Time passes, hmm?

I remember watching my grandmother get ready to go anyplace, and marvelled at the amount of stuff she could put on her face. She'd layer on creams, foundation, powder, blusher, eyeshadow, mascara, and top it off with ruby lipstick and a dab of Calandre perfume. I remember, much later, seeing a film of a kabuki performer getting dressed, and feeling nostalgic, then a little amused, when I realized what the nostalgia was about.

Meme's lipstick was an evidence of her character: NO ONE wore bright red lipstick in 1970. Vogue was all beiges and corals, but not for her. Vogue, in fact, was something to giggle at. We'd look at it to get "ideas" but if you wanted a nice dress, well, go to Cain-Sloan's department store downtown. Cain-Sloan's is gone, and downtown is unrecognizable, but Vogue is still there, and still mostly ridiculous.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

This was NOT what I planned for my week long break (after the due date for the papers.) First of all, one paper just lingered -- I made the mistake (?) of getting interested in it, so I asked for an extension. Then, more seriously, the storms came, the arthritis flared, and my back went out. I think the back going out has something to do with all the unrelieved sitting I'd done on the papers, so it is really is my own silly fault. Next time, more exercises, I guess.

I'm taking a quick break now from my busy schedule of lying prone on ice packs with periodic breaks for physical therapy and Motrin. I've readjusted my food plan so that every Motrin is accompanied by food. I'm trying to be a good kid about this thing. I just want to whine because it was Supposed to be Time Off, but not this Off!

Meantime a monster of a winter storm is whupping up on Southern California. I'm glad I'm not homeless, trying to drive in this mess, or stuck in a car somewhere up on I-5's Grapevine. It could be worse. It could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

This year is getting off to a rough start. The tsunami news is bad, the war news is bad, and right this minute I'm sitting in a coffee house next to a woman who is deep into some sort of altered state. I don't know what to do, except go on with what I'm doing, and I have to say, I'm a little scared of her. I'm scared for her, too -- there doesn't seem to be any safe place for too many people like her.

She's talking to God, and alternating between direct discourse and a monologue about how God makes it impossible to be a good messiah. I was sitting here checking my email when she started, and I truly don't know what to do; every time someone from the shop has approached her, she's been angry with them. So maybe it is best I appear to pay no attention.

LA seems to be full of street people with nowhere to go, lately. They are more apparent in the wintertime when it is cold and rainy because they are out when everyone else is keeping warm someplace. I have no idea what to do for them, and I hate that feeling. I particularly hate it when someone is suffering, as this woman clearly is, and there's not a darn thing I can do for her except possibly scare her much worse than she's scaring me.

"What kind of prayer would be worth praying?" she said, and I must say it is an excellent question.