Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My friend Emily DeVoto has a marvelous blog, The Antidote: Counterspin for Health Care and Health News. It is exactly what it sounds like, a critical take on health and health care news. On Nov 30 she posted something that I thought I'd pass along: Something's Fishy.

The gist of it is that while it's good for our health to eat fish, some fish are being over-fished for their survival. That hardly seems fair, and beyond fairness, long term it could be really bad news. Her blog entry includes a PDF with a neat little fold-out thingie for your shopping bag that tells you which fish are your best buy from a survival point of view (ours and theirs.)

The good news, as far as I'm concerned, is that anchovies are still on the menu. I realize that may not thrill everyone, but I'm happy. Sardines are good, as is carp. The "big three," shrimp, tuna, and salmon, are more problematic (for more info, read her post and the PDF.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

It has taken a week for the news from last week's election to sink in: we are going to have a Democratic Congress. I thought I'd be ecstatic if that happened, but now I find I'm just sort of tired and cautiously optimistic.

There is so much to do to repair the damage of the last five years, and I do not envy the new Congress that has to do it. The national budget is hemorrhaging of red ink, Iraq is Terrorism Central, we have (in the words of Colin Powell) "broken it and bought it," and still the bodies keep piling up in Baghdad. The rest of the Middle East is festering, our allies are looking at us sideways, wondering if we can be trusted, and we've repudiated the Geneva Conventions, for crying out loud. Meanwhile our ports are vulnerable to attack, but my eye drops never go near the airport without a Ziplock baggie.

The world hasn't felt this dangerous to me since I knelt with the rest of the second graders in the hall at Overbrook School, praying that God would keep Castro from firing off those nukes at Miami. The difference is that this time I feel like we've mostly done this to ourselves.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: terrorists. Even there, I'm sorry, I am not going to let my government off the hook: why didn't we hunt down Al Qaeda when we had them cornered in Afghanistan? Why did we squander every bit of the international goodwill after 9/11 on this stupid mess in Iraq? Why was Iraq deemed more important than the real threat of nukes in Iran and North Korea? Why have we run this so-called "war" without any sacrifices at home, with tax cuts and lattes all around?

And why, why, why do we keep calling the terrorists "jihadists" which is, to their ears, like calling them "the guys in the white hats"? Do our news media and our government not understand that when we do that, we are affirming that yes, indeed, we're the Great Satan?


As for me, I am still praying. This time I'm praying for Nancy Pelosi and the other new leaders we've elected, praying that they will be wise and prudent and will not blow their precious political capital on dumb stuff like revenge. I'm praying that they will find a way out of these various messes. I'm praying that they can hang onto their souls while they do it.

In the meantime, I shall get back to my homework.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's Motsei Shabbat -- the evening after Shabbat -- and I am enjoying the afterglow of a lovely day. I attended services today at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, CA. Behind the large 60's synagogue is the tiny "Little Shul" from the 1890's. It is a haimish [homey] little place, and I felt instantly comfortable there.

Rabbi Harry Manhoff presided, but most of the service was led by a young woman from the congregation, and the Torah was chanted by several adults from the shul's Hebrew program. Very impressive!

The rest of the day was spent eating good food and chatting with friends at home. What could be more perfect?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

In "Freakoutonomics," in the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait writes:

"Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled."

This is serious, serious stuff and I recommend the entire article. Income inequality in this country has grown steadily in the past few years, and the rate of increase has skyrocketed recently. Chait points out that one of the ways we see this is in the economic dissatisfactions of the middle class: despite the fine performance of the economy on paper, those gains have gone to the most privileged in our country. Meanwhile, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class have gotten nowhere at all, and prices have done what prices do in a roaring economy -- they've gone up.

Another item I recommend: Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It's an interesting view of the woman and the time: the ferment in the streets of Paris is visible only on the margins, an occasional downbeat reference almost lost in the sybaritic consumption, opulence, and sheer silliness of Versailles. The opening scene says it all in shorthand: a servant tends to Marie's toes while she languorously drags a finger through the icing on a cake.

Marie knows that she is a woman whose primary function is as a symbol and a womb: she is there to cement a bit of realpolitik and to bear heirs for the Bourbons. In the meantime, she is free to enjoy herself within the rules of the Versailles court, which means that the only part of her that enjoys much freedom is her purse. Goodies insue, until the revolution comes and the party is over. The movie ends then, allowing the viewer to contemplate the situation without the distractions of the prison and the guillotine.

I've seen some interviews in which Coppola says that she was interested in the idea of the teen monarchs, able to do as they like. Maybe so, but the movie also stands for me as a warning to those of us who enjoy prosperity in days that are not prosperous for everyone.

Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." The movie and several other accounts portray her as a nice party girl who did the charitable things expected of her, and who shopped and consumed for fun. She loved her family, was a good mother, and was not much sillier than anyone else around her. A generation earlier, we might not remember her at all. We remember her and her luckless family because they didn't realize that privileges can be revoked until it was too late.

In a country where "
the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled," we cannot afford to be so blinkered. Wake up, America: get your fingers out of the cake -- smell the republic burning.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I have put some new materials up on the website: this week's Torah study and Hebrew lesson, a guide to saying and writing blessings, and a poem connected with the Nachamu, Nachamu exhibit.
This Wednesday, Nov. 1, the exhibition "Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" will open at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. I had the privilege of being one of the rabbinical students in the midrash class that participated in the process with the artist, Victor Raphael, and the further privilege of introducing the artist and part of the work at the school's Opening Day, on August 20, 1996.

This is the speech that I gave that day, and the picture to the right is one small part of the installation in Room 105. If you are in or near Los Angeles, I strongly recommend you come to HUC and see Victor's work; it is transcendant.


What do you get when you combine one teacher of midrash, eleven rabbinical students, and a world-class multimedia artist?


How do you put windows into an HUC classroom without blowing holes in the wall?

The answers to those questions lie behind the copper-clad door of Room 105.

Last year eleven unsuspecting students signed up for a one term class on “Homeletical Midrashim” taught by Dr. Lewis Barth. We did not know that we were embarking on what would become a year-long project, indeed, that four members of the class would be ordained before the work was complete.

The class studied the 16th Pesikhta of the Pesikhta de Rav Kahana, a 5th c. collection of midrashim. Pesikta #16 is a homily on the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami” [Comfort, Comfort My people]. About two weeks into the course, Dr. Barth told us that this was not an ordinary midrash class. Donors Nancy Berman and Alan Bloch had offered HUC the commission of a work of art. Our task was to learn Pesikta #16, and then teach it to an artist named Victor Raphael. He would then create an interpretation of the midrash, a major work of art, for permanent installation at HUC Los Angeles.

In the process, we learned and taught midrash, but we also learned about the nuts and bolts of working with an artist on a commission from an institution. Victor came to our class to teach us about his work process, a fascinating multimedia journey involving digital photography, computer-based techniques and hand-painting in gold and metal leaf. We made a presentation at the Bloch and Berman home, to teach the midrash to them and to Victor, following with a discussion of the structure and imagery of the homily.

Some months after the class was officially over, we met again with Victor to see the work in progress and to help with some of the decisions about the artwork. Victor, Dr. Barth, and our class met with Dax Clark to look at the project from the point of view of building maintenance issues.

Over this time, the initial “work of art” became instead an installation that would, we hoped, transform one of our HUC classrooms into a space for sacred study. Another anonymous donor made it possible to upgrade the lighting and the wall-covering.

This midrash class was an education for all of us. It is our hope that the result of all this work is a worshipful study space, a room that offers comfort and inspiration for both teachers and students. The images are grounded in Jewish texts, and they emerged from a conversation among many different members of the Los Angeles Jewish community: Nancy Berman, Dean Barth, our class, Victor Raphael, Dax Clark, and others.

The title of the work is,

“Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl.”

Now, I would like to introduce the artist who has carried out this remarkable work, who worked with us so patiently and generously: the artist Victor Raphael:

Victor was born and raised in California, earning a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. His artwork has been collected by numerous private and public institutions, including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and exhibited internationally, from Denmark’s Museet for Fotokunst to Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Please welcome our artist, our friend, our companion, and teacher, Victor Raphael.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Today was the sort of day I hoped for when I applied to rabbinical school.

I rolled out of bed at 6, and by 7 was rolling out of the garage, on my way to pick up a friend I drive on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We chatted happily, arrived at HUC, and I spent the entire morning studying Ezra 9 and 10 with Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, the hot-button chapters on intermarriage. We "turned it and turned it" and while I am not yet willing to say I know what those chapters say, I do feel safe in saying that the ways I have understood them in the past are quite wrong.

I wished Pearl good luck with her senior sermon and hopped back into the car, driving north to the San Fernando Valley to my internship. On the way, I stopped for a bite of lunch and quickly scanned the Los Angeles Times. (One thing I love about Los Angeles: not since I lived in Chicago have I lived in a city with a truly great newspaper. Even with the recent cuts, the Times is bliss for this confirmed newspaper junkie.)

The Home was all abuzz with preparations for the dedication of a new building, and the residents I serve were a bit buzzy by association. It was a good day for the student rabbi to come and hold hands, and listen to stories, and sing a prayer or two. I stopped for a bit to chat with the activities director, to share concerns about a couple of residents and to see how she is doing.

Then, when my hours there were done, I hopped back into the car, and (the one blot on the day) I joined the crawl of traffic back down Hwy 405 southward. Normally I stay in the Valley and study until the traffic breaks up a bit, but today I had a shiur [lesson] at my Ethics teacher's home, so there was nothing to do but get in the car and try to arrive on time.

It was well worth the annoyance of the drive: Professor Arthur Gross-Schaeffer is a rabbi, an attorney, and a CPA as well as a distinguished ethicist. He outlined for us his methodology for dealing with ethical questions, an elegant system. Beyond the content, though, it was a pleasure to be in the room with a man of erudition, holiness, and humor. I sincerely hope this isn't the last time I study with him.

And now here I am, pecking away at my laptop in the Starbuck's on Venice Blvd (it stays open late, and it's on the way home) since I don't have a high speed connection at home. I'm very, very tired, but equally happy. I learned a lot today.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This past Shabbat I led services at the Jewish Home for the Aged. My affection for this congregation grows every time I attend services with them.

During yesterday's service, one gentleman snagged me during hakafah [the parade of the Torah around the congregation] and reminded me, sotto voce, that I needed to announce Rosh Chodesh [the beginning of the Hebrew month.] Oops, right, Cheshvan starts Sunday. So, when I returned to the bimah, I thanked him for his reminder and stopped the service to backtrack briefly to announce the coming New Moon.

After the service, a woman in the congregation took my elbow at the oneg [snack after services, literally, "delight"]. "Rabbi," she said in heavily accented English, "We should have out the Torah when we bench Rosh Chodesh." Ahhhh! Right. I thanked her, and said that I would do it differently next time. Then she paused and looked sharply at me and said, "I haf not embarrassed you, I hope? I don't want embarrass you." I assured her that I am a student, I am still learning, and I am grateful for kind corrections like hers. And indeed, she made a point of speaking to me about it privately, quite a trick in that setting.

Now you may be thinking, oy, does this go on all the time? And the answer is, yes, it does. I am quite competent in leading a typical Reform Shabbat morning service, but this is something a bit different: at, JHA, we daven [pray] out of the old Conservative siddur [prayer book] and do a very traditional service. I worried terribly about it when I got ready to lead for the first time. I was going to make mistakes, I knew it. I hate making mistakes.

And I definitely make mistakes, and they let me know about it. The surprise has been the gracious, generous way that these old Jews give me their criticisms. They speak from the heart, in the spirit of teaching, and there is no meanness, no "gotcha" in it. They honor my dedication to the rabbinate, and I honor their years and deep knowledge.

The knowledge base in the congregation is diverse: at least one person (a woman, no less) studied for several years in yeshiva in Europe until the Germans invaded her country and the yeshiva was destroyed, with most of her classmates. The gentleman who reminded me about Rosh Chodesh seems to carry an internal Hebrew calendar with all the complex details. At the other extreme, some know the prayers only by rote. All have decades and decades of Jewish living under their belts, though, and I am absolutely sure that every soul there knows things I need to learn.

Mitzvot [commandments] are a relative matter, I find. I am there to visit the sick, to honor the generations older than myself, to help those who need a little help, to pray, and to assist in the performance of mitzvot. They, for their part, have found a mitzvah to perform too: they are teaching the next generation -- me.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I spent this past weekend up in Oakland, soaking up the good home vibes. Linda met me at the airport, and the boys and Cheryl met us for dinner. Saturday morning Linda and I went to services together.

Sukkot is over, but I am touched by the degree to which my home and family are a "sukkat shalom," a shelter of peace, for me.

Now I am back at school, trying to figure out whether I'd be better off doing a Talmud project using Word or Excel, no kidding. I may have become proficient in Hebrew, but I'm still fighting with my software!

Oh, and NEWS! Fridge Door Torah is now up and running on my website. It's a program for learning Torah and prayer book Hebrew at home, as a family. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible." -- George Burns

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There is nothing in the world that makes me as angry as Jews trashing other Jews.

What set this off? Nothing much, really, mostly casual comments I heard in half a dozen different places over the High Holy Days. It seemed that everywhere I went, all of us were absorbed with two things: how much the world seems to hate Jews, and what a shanda those other Jews are. There's always a bit of chat about those orthodox Jews, those Reform Jews, those Conservative Jews, those uneducated Jews, those Israel-no-matter-what Jews, those Israel-hating Jews, those fake Jews, those bad Jews who aren't kosher enough, those other Jews.

News flash, landsmen: we can't afford this stupidity, this baseless hatred between Jews. You, with the catty little comment about those other Jews, and you, with the juicy bit of gossip about a particular bad Jew, you and you and you: shaddup already. We have enough enemies, we don't need to be our own enemies.

I know, I know, there are historical roots, a nice way of saying that we've been doing this mishegoss for a long, long time. Ezra was furious with the people he found in the land, many of them distant cousins (dare I say, Jews?) The Macabees weren't just fighting Greeks, you know, they were fighting with other Jews. The Sadducees and the Pharisees and the Zionists and the Essenes and goodness knows who else were squabbling about the right way to be Jews, and before you know it, the Temple's in flames and Jews are the new slave labor du jour for Roman public projects. Much as we hate to admit it, the history of the modern state of Israel has been scarred again and again by hatred among Jews. The rabbis of the Talmud believed that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and yet we do not seem to learn.

I'm not talking about disputes for the sake of heaven, those arguments recommended to us by the rabbis of the Mishnah. It is good to sit down and try to parse out just what we should be doing about kashrut, or what is the just and ethical and Toraitic way to act in a given situation. It is good to struggle with the texts and the Law, to dig and drash for understanding. And it is no surprise that sometimes, when five of us sit down to drash, seven or eight possible good opinions come from such a discussion.

But where is it written that once we notice that we do not agree, the next thing to do is to get out the knives? So many mitzvot, so many commandments, stand between us and the bad behavior: we are commanded not to gossip, not to embarrass, not to kill. We are not to tell lies, including half-truths, we are not to pick on strangers, including, I would argue, the Jews who are strange to us.

We are a mere 2.5% of the U.S. population. We are an even tinier 0.22% of the population of the world. We need one another.

I'll do better if you'll do better. Better yet, let's do better together.

End of rant.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!

My new year began with services just outside Angels Camp, CA, a beautiful little town in the foothills of the Sierras. The Motherlode Jewish Community invited me to lead their Rosh HaShanah services. We davened, we ate, we studied, and we had a good time getting to know one another. I wish them (and you, dear reader) a sweet New Year.

I also had the pleasure this week of attending a meeting of the Jewish Welcome Network at the East Bay Federation offices. JWN is a group of Outreach professionals who meet from time to time in the Bay Area. It was good to reconnect with old friends there, and to hear about their successes and challenges. I am delighted to become a member of the JWN.

I have been thinking a lot lately about Outreach, specifically about Rabbi Alexander Schindler z"l [may his memory be for a blessing]. Rabbi Schindler was the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) when he challenged the Union to be more welcoming of converts to Judaism and to interfaith couples. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, in a very brief exchange in a hotel elevator during the UAHC Biennial in Orlando, FL. My temple president had pointed him out to me earlier, explaining who he was. When I realized I was riding an elevator with Rabbi Schindler the next day, I gathered up my courage and stammered out, "Rabbi Schindler, you don't know me, but I am deep in your debt. I became a Jew only a few years ago, and I'm told that I owe the welcome to you." He looked at me with eyes like bottomless pools, smiled gently, and put his hand on my head. The elevator dinged, the door opened, and he walked out. I rode up to my floor in a daze.

I can't tell you exactly what took place in that exchange. I felt transformed by the experience, charged to do something, I didn't know what. I had no idea that in two weeks, I would receive a call from the UAHC, offering me the opportunity to come in and interview for a position as Regional Outreach Director for the Central Pacific office. I had even less of a notion that after six months in that job, I would be filled with a desire to study to become a rabbi.

Rabbi Schindler died only a few months later, and we are much the poorer for the loss of his vision and guidance. I am just so grateful that I was privileged to meet him, that once.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Year 5 of of HUC has begun for me. Officially, I am a 4th year student because I will not be ordained until 2008 (b'ezrat HaShem, with the help of God). But some 5th year things have already happened: I have given my 5th year sermon, and, well, it is my fifth year in the school.

I'm very excited about my classes. I'm taking Jewish Ethics with Dr. Rachel Adler, Intermediate Talmud with Dr. Joel Gereboff, American Jewish Community with Dr. Bruce Phillips, and Ezra/Nehemia with Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. This year I will be a Kalsman Institute intern, but since those plans are not yet final (my interview with a possible supervisor is tomorrow) I will wait to share any details.

I've already got more homework "than I can shake a stick at," as my grandmother used to say, and all of it is interesting.

More later!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's finished! I just completed the first round of work on my professional website, It has a photo, resume, sample sermons, all that sort of thing.

It is still rather bare-bones, but there is enough there for now. I've still got two years of school, after all!

Monday, May 22, 2006

I'm tired to the bone, and too wound up to sleep.

Today (well, yesterday) was my last day as the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA. We had Family Education -- something that scared me silly when I first started, and became my favorite part of each weekend there. Parents and their (mostly small) children gathered at one home, and we learned about a holiday or concept, talked, shmoozed, hung out, had fun, and made something to take home. It scared me, initially, because my experience with teaching had been in traditional age-segregated classrooms, and I wasn't sure what to do with an age range of 6 weeks to 12 years and their parents. As with many things, it was less complicated than I tried to make it: mostly it was a time for Jews to be Jews. The children became buddies and the parents enjoyed each others' company. In a place where each child is likely to be the only Jew in his/her class, that kind of community and identity forming time is priceless.

The weekend began in Oakland, on Thursday, with two conversions, gentlemen who had been studying with me for two of the last three years. We went to the same mikveh [ritual bath] that my rabbi had taken me to for my conversion; it was a powerful experience for me to bring my own students there. The rabbis who served on the beit din [rabbinical court] are both friends and mentors to me, and on a purely private level, it was a sweet morning for me, as well as a beautiful day for our new Jews and the community.

Friday evening we had services, as always, in the music room of the Methodist Church. I was late, the only time I've run late, because I had had dinner with a family in Gustine, CA, and the drive to Merced from there took twice as long as it should. Every decrepit farm truck for miles around assembled to putt-putt their way east on Hwy 132. I finally gave up and enjoyed the scenery, after trying to use my cell phone and discovering that T-Mobile hasn't covered that bit of nowhere just yet. The slough brimmed with runoff from the Sierras, and all the scrub was bushy and bright green. Vineyards were luxurious with new growth. It was a great, frustrating ride.

The service itself was a nice one, a simple one as usual. Our two new members did hakafah [processed the Torah around for kissing and admiration] and the aliyah [Torah blessings] and after I finished reading, one was our hagbiach [lifter of the Torah] and the other our golel [roller and dresser of the Torah.] I did that on the spur of the moment, talking them through it, but I think it may become a regular part of the process for me, teaching the new Jew how to properly do Torah honors. They did wonderfully.

The weekend went that way: we followed the usual routine, with the addition of a party on Saturday night, and I had my first taste of how it is to say goodbye to a congregation I have served. At Family Education, this morning, we talked about Havdalah [the ritual that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week] and talked about beginnings and endings. Then we did a special Havdalah, to mark the end of the "old rabbi" (eeeek, that was me) and the "new rabbi" (another student, who will arrive in the fall.)

Then I drove north and west, up towards Oakland, my fourth year at HUC finished at last. I am grateful for all I have learned, and for the people who honored me by inviting me into their lives. But I am really, really going to miss the children.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Done!! Over!! Baruch Hashem! [literally, Bless the Name!... but it could also be translated, WHEW!]

I've passed Codes (the Shulhan Arukh class that was so challenging) and I think I did well on both the Talmud finals, oral and written. My Hebrew and Aramaic skills are dramatically improved. Best of all, I've learned so much this term that if I made of list of it here, I'd bore you to death. This has been a very fruitful term.

I have a few details to deal with: a graduation ceremony, some tests at the doctor's, cleaning my apartment. I am looking forward to getting serious on the thesis, which has been in mothballs during this oh-so-interesting term. The good news is that I feel capable of getting at the texts that I need without so much help from translations. I've scheduled an appointment with one of the librarians to learn how to get the most out of a wonder called the "Bar Ilan Responsa" software -- a thingie that will allow me to search the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Midrashim, and a bunch of other texts. It is a powerful tool but I had avoided it because I was intimidated; well, no more!

I'm looking forward to having a little free time in which to catch up with current events; the snippets I get on NPR during my morning drive are more tantalizing than anything else. What on earth are folks in Washington thinking? Why hasn't the Enron trial gotten more coverage? Will the Democrats ever get their act together?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I confess it: I'm avoiding study, just for a moment. For the last several days, I've been completely immersed in preparation for an oral exam on the beginning of Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud, a scenario for my Codes final, and the study of a lot of Jewish legal history for the in-class finals. It is all good, and it is all going around in my head at high speed.

Provided that I don't panic and freeze, I should be all right. Whatever happens, it will all be over by Wednesday noon.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

At the Jerusalem campus, they say that the spring routine is "Purim, Passover, and Packing." Purim and Passover are past, and in L.A. I don't have to pack, but my fourth year is nearly over.

I have one week of classes, and finals. Then, b'ezrat Hashem [God willing] I will put on a black gown and "march" on May 15 to receive the degree of Master of Arts of Hebrew Letters. Some of you may be saying, "oh, good, she's done!" to which I reply, with a sigh, well, no.

We get the degree at this point in the program. There are two more years for me before ordination. At the moment, I can't think past May 10, the day of my last final exam.

Before then, I will lead a service at school, chant Torah at school, give a presentation, take four finals, (two in-class, two take-home), prepare two candidates for the culmination of their conversion process, and, um, I forget.

This week I was sad to hear about the death of Rabbi Gerald Raiskin. I worked with Rabbi Raiskin several years ago, and knew him as a kind man and a gifted teacher. He served Peninsula Temple Sholom in the Bay Area from its foundation, and I know the congregation will miss him very much. The Jewish world is poorer without him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pesach sameach! (Happy Passover!) (in a few hours!)

I'm "off" for two weeks of the holiday, if having multiple papers and other things to prepare is "off" -- at least I'm with family, and the work is all interesting. Northern California is like "Seattle with palm trees" -- rain, rain, and more rain -- I've never seen it rain like this in April, and neither has anyone else.

One bit of lovely news is that the congregation I serve as student rabbi, Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, now has their website online.

Hard to believe I've already been there three years. My final weekend there will be May 19-22.

Meanwhile, I'm taking a break from Pesach preparation to check in here, since it has been a month since last I posted. This has been an intense term in a different way: I've studied a lot of text, seen my skills improve dramatically, and learned a lot walking the floors of UCLA Hospital with Father Tom Clerkin, one of the chaplains.

The farther I get into the practical training part of my studies, the less I can say about them, which means less to write about here. I take confidentiality very seriously, of course, and if it seems that I say "almost nothing" about what goes on at the congregation or, this term, at the hospital, it's because it is better to say nothing than to get too close to something confidential. What I can say is that I love this work, love it more than words can say anyway.

It is a privilege to be invited into people's lives at moments of stress and crisis, as well as at the ordinary moments. It is a special trust to accompany someone on a journey of sickness, or to traverse a bar mitzvah with a family. I have had the pleasure of working with several people studying for conversion, whose earnest searching has been a special inspiration.

Meanwhile, at school, there are the texts, the sinews of the tradition, tying one generation to another. This term those have included Talmud 4 and the Shulhan Aruch and its commentaries (with a few side trips into the Mishnah Torah to satisfy my own curiosity.) I know more about what the sages say about sick people, and dead people, and mourners, and the marriageable, than I did a few short months ago. And I'm almost done: two weeks of Pesach, one week of classes, one week of finals. Then graduation (Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters -- very cool.)

Then two more years of study. I can't think about that now.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

This past week or so has been a week of challenge.

Robert Fulghum wrote a book he titled, "I Knew It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It." I confess that I have not read the book, but I love the title. I love it even more after 3 1/2 years of this rabbinical school adventure.

Yes, I knew it was on fire when I lay down on it. I sensed that rabbinical school would be the challenge of a lifetime, and the cautious encouragement I received from friends and mentors confirmed my suspicions: rabbinical school is not for sissies.

However, I had done other things that are not for sissies. I'd given birth twice without chemical assistance. I got my master's degree in half the time usually required, because that was the time I had. A pair of muggers tried to grab my bag on the streets of Chicago, and they regretted trying. I've run my own business, and turned a profit as a working artist. I got my kids out of a house that was falling down in an earthquake, and rebuilt the house afterwards. I pride myself on a certain degree of toughness, and I loved it when one of my sons referred to me as a "titanium magnolia."

Truth be told, I'd gotten a little bit overconfident. The secret behind all those things that I'd done well is that they all played to my gifts. Rabbinical school is another sort of adventure entirely; it plays to my vulnerabilities. I'm shy, I'm insecure, my hearing is not good, I have learning quirks that make languages with different alphabets difficult, and I have mobility issues. None of these things are assets for a rabbinical student.

This week it was the language stuff. I do not question that I need the skills that are so difficult for me to acquire. I know that with enough effort I can take my skills to higher and higher levels. I've been blessed with a Hebrew tutor who is a genius with special-needs students, and with friends and family who cheer me on as if this were an Olympic event (which is what it feels like.) By week's end, I was already seeing improvement. By term's end, I trust that I will be where I need to be, if I keep working.

Certainly, the main purpose of rabbinical school is to train rabbis. I trust that by the time I am ordained, I'll well and truly be a rabbi. But even now, even just 2/3 of the way into it, I like what I see when I look in the mirror: I see a woman who who loves Torah enough to struggle for it, who is tough enough to be the dunce in the class. I see a woman with a lot more compassion than she had at the beginning. Last but not least, I see a woman who can read the Shulchan Arukh out loud with fewer mistakes.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Today I gave my 4th year sermon at Hebrew Union College. The text is chapter 16 of the book of Exodus:

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Ahad HaAm’s famous words are borne out in this week’s Torah portion.

We read about our ancestors, a raggle-taggle band who had a miraculous escape from one of the mightiest armies on earth.

Six weeks into freedom, their food ran out.

Dalia just read us the verses in which the children of Israel grumble that they wish they were back in Egypt.

According to the Ramban, they had been living on leftover matzah from Passover for six weeks.

They went berserk.

They turned on Moses and Aaron, as they had done before and would do again, and God responded with mercy, a promise that there would be a meal of quail that very night, and that the next morning, bread would rain from the sky.

The bread, however, came with instructions: one omer each, no more and no less, with a double portion on the sixth day. On the seventh day, Shabbat, no gathering, and no cooking: just eat the extra portion from the sixth day.

And that is how our people learned to keep Shabbat: they tried to look for manna on the seventh day -- and there wasn’t any.

They learned to gather the second measure of food the day before, and to keep it for Shabbat.

God did not merely command us concerning Shabbat: God provided lessons, forty years of lessons, every week in the wilderness:

Sheshet yamim tilketuhu, uvayom hashvi’i, Shabbat, lo yihiye bo.
Six days you will gather it; on the seventh day, Shabbat, it will not be there.

Our people were sustained in the wilderness by a miracle food that appeared six days a week. On the seventh day, they learned to rest. Granted, later there would be harsher lessons, when some people refused to learn: Their lives ended violently, but the metaphor remained: Jews cannot survive long without Shabbat.

Nowadays Jews live in a different kind of wilderness. We live scattered in diaspora, shuttling between work and home, our families flung far and wide. If we are students, there are lessons to learn, papers to write, internships to attend; if we are teachers, there are papers to grade, meetings to attend, research to do. For all who work in the world, there are jobs and bills and taxes to pay, appointments to keep, groceries to shop. There are all the small, time consuming annoyances: the car that needs service, the doctor’s appointment, carpooling and sitting in traffic.

Just as the ancient Israelites were starving for food, we are starving for time.

The idea of Shabbat seems as crazy and counterintuitive now as the idea that bread could rain down from the sky.

How can we build a "palace in time," as Abraham Joshua Heschel so famously called it, when we have no time to spare?


Who ever said that Shabbat would be made of spare time?

Shabbat is the prime time of Jewish life, it is the heart and soul of our tradition!

We have measured our weeks with it ever since the wilderness, and remembered it under the darkest of circumstances. Our day of rest and connection is what set us apart from all other people in ancient times: we alone were truly free one day in seven.

Its oddness and inconvenience today is our witness to the world that human beings are not merely born to work: we are born to live, and to love, and to learn.

Shabbat is the great treasure of the Jews, and today it is an endangered treasure.

We look at our overloaded schedules and think, I just don’t have time:
I struggle with the keeping of Shabbat, especially when I am at my pulpit, and I imagine that many of you do, too. And in that respect, we are exactly in the position of many of the congregants we serve: ask the average Reform Jew if he keeps Shabbat, and he’ll tell you that doesn’t have the time.

It is up to the leaders, folks, up to us, to make Shabbat the priority that it must be.

Unlike our ancestors in the wilderness, who did not know what Shabbat could do for them, we have the benefit of thousands of years of hindsight:

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

We know that Shabbat will keep us, if only we can figure out how we are going to keep it.

And IF we keep Shabbat, we can teach it by example: we can guide this generation of Jews, keeping them safe and connected through the wilderness of "no-time."

Jewish families can rediscover the pleasure of a meal together, of seeing friends at the oneg Shabbat.

Shabbat could enfold our interfaith families! Shabbat honors and supports every member of the family; it is the ultimate welcome.

There is time, on Shabbat, for everyone at the table, for a game of Scrabble, for prayer, for lovemaking, for serious conversation, for silliness and stillness and all the things we are too rushed and tired to enjoy, the rest of the week.

How shall we keep Shabbat?

We have all the resources of the tradition at our service, those and the good sense that our Reform forebears bequeathed us.

I challenge us here at HUC to an honest conversation about Shabbat, a conversation that goes beyond guilt or competitive piety, a conversation that asks, What works? What doesn’t? What does it mean, to rest? What do we need from a Shabbat service? What is a waste of Shabbat? How can we both keep Shabbat and serve our congregations? How can we help one another keep Shabbat?

Shabbat is God’s lovely gift to the Jewish People, a gift we sorely need.

There is a folk tradition that if all Am Yisrael were to keep Shabbat one week, all together, it would bring the messiah on his mule through the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

I don’t know about that, but I do believe that if enough Jews would keep Shabbat, week to week, it would transform our communities. I believe that the joy of Shabbat could re-enliven our people beyond our wildest dreams.

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Let us talk, let us plan, let us dream.

Let us keep Shabbat!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

I ran across this quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt today, and thought I'd share it:

Great minds discuss ideas.
Average minds discuss events.
Small minds discuss people.

Next time I'm tempted towards lashon hara (gossip) I'll keep that one in mind.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I try to pay more attention to found objects than to lost ones, in general, but a news item today made me sad:

The Merritt Bakery in Oakland succumbed to fire yesterday morning. I'm glad no one was hurt, since it sounds like the fire happened very quickly, but I am sad that the old place has been damaged so badly. The food was certainly not haute cuisine or health food, and the service was occasionally quite strange, but it was always friendly and warm.

I've drunk a lot of Diet Coke in that place, usually chatting away with my sons and their friends, catching up on their lives. It's in the part of Oakland I think of as home, and was a grand meeting-place for soul food lovers, blue hairs, and family gatherings. I'll miss it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

I hate tule fog. It's pronounced "tooley" fog and according to this article, takes its name from tule reeds that grow in low creekbeds in Central and Northern California. Tule fog happens in the same sort of places one might find tule elk, which are considerably more entertaining than the fog. I have spent some very happy hours quietly admiring the herd of tule elk up in Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, one of my favorite spots on earth.

Back to tule fog. It's a thick soup of low-lying fog that rises during the night and then lingers, sometimes all day, in low-lying areas. It's a California thing -- it is different from Monteagle Mountain fog in Tennessee (another creepy species of fog) in that it is a low-altitude phenomenon, and in that it is so completely separate from whatever is going on around it. It can be a nice sunny day in California, but if you go to a tule-fog spot, and it was cool last night, there will be a wall of tule fog. Driving into it is like transporting into an episode of The Twilight Zone -- am I still on earth? Does that semi behind me remember that I was up here? How quickly dare I slow down? Do I recall exactly how far ahead was the ancient Pinto with the traditional explosive rear end? Questions like that prey on the mind in tule fog.

The drive up to Merced this past weekend was plagued with tule fog. Today, though, has been gorgeous, crisp and clear. I'm writing this from the LaVal Rd. exit just north of the Tejon Pass on I-5, tanking up on a bit of caffiene before I charge over the top. KVPR , my trusty NPR friend for the northern part of the drive will suddenly disappear from my radio -- in fact, pretty much everything will disappear from my radio for a while. The Tejon Pass area isn't real wilderness (for one thing, an interstate highway runs through it, for another, there are a bunch of little towns hidden up here) but it is rugged enough that it cuts one off from civilization quite thoroughly. There's a 25 mile stretch with no gas or services, just beautiful glimpses of chaparral and secret valleys with a glimmer of a lake or two.

At night it's just dark, lit up by headlights and taillights. Traffic is usually pretty heavy, and I think it must look pretty amazing from the sky, a ribbon of red and white light winding for miles through the pass.

I'll stop at one of the nowhere exits up there, the ones with no lights to mess things up, and check out the view of the night sky. It is clear and windy and cold tonight up here, perfect for stars, and no tule fog anywhere.