Sunday, December 28, 2008

Redefining Wealth

I've become ever so much wiser since I became a grandmother. In the past almost eight years, I've learned so much about how little I know (and "I don't know" is always the start of wisdom), and I've learned to listen carefully to my little ones, because their views of the world always bring something fresh to my life. Sometimes it's just being around them that teaches me something profound.

A few months ago, I was visiting one of the Cohen households in our family, and my three-year-old was having a melt-down. She was looking for her mother, who was busy with her baby brother, and her father was busy with yard work, so she came running to me and scrambled onto my lap. I was only too happy to offer a cuddle and ease her heartbreak (whatever it was at the moment). But as I rocked her, I realized what she'd done. She'd gone from one loving adult to another, and while she couldn't find comfort with her first two tries, she succeeded in try #3. And I realized that true wealth comes with laps. The more laps you can count on to comfort you, the richer you are.

It's long been a truism that money can't buy you happiness. John, Paul, George and Ringo once observed that money can't even buy you love. While those without wealth might echo Tevye's observation that "it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either - so maybe, God, a small fortune?" in truth wealth measured in dollars is an empty wealth. We have only to read the papers (while we still have them) or surf the gossip sites to read about wealthy parents who've given their kids everything but love and stability. Even wealthy people lose loved ones to disease, accident, or violence.

In this bleak economic time, it's become commonplace to consider wealth, since it's become such a rare commodity. Between the 50% downturn in stock value, the failure of so many venerable banking institutions, and the Bernard Madoff disgrace, so much wealth has vanished that we are nearly breathless. Where can we turn?

Those of us who are lucky can find a lap, and if we're even luckier, we have more than one. Now, if you're bigger than a 3-year-old, you might hesitate to leap into someone's lap and start crying on their shoulder. I sure would.

But let's think about what laps are. They're places of comfort. And they're safe. They belong to people who love us unconditionally, who will put aside everything else going on at the moment to comfort us. When we're cold, they're warm places. When we're hungry, they're places where we hear, "Would you like a cookie?"

A truly lucky loved child is one who has a multiplicity of laps. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Family friends they call "aunt" and "uncle." These children aren't spoiled, they're strong, because they feel safe. As I look around the world today, I think that one of the greatest tragedies is that too many children don't have a single lap to crawl into.

And for the rest of us? How lucky are we? How wealthy are we? Perhaps we should start counting the laps in our lives: our spouse? our closest friends? parents? perhaps (if we're very lucky) our grown kids? But here's where we differ from children. We begin collecting laps by offering our own to those we love. We demonstrate our love for those closest to us by saying, "Come, sit by me. I will hear you and I will comfort you and I will not condemn you, and if you're cold, I'll warm you, and if you're hungry - would you like a cookie?" Because unlike material wealth, the wealth of laps grows as we share it.

Charles Schultz of blessed memory wrote a book over 40 years ago called "Happiness is a Warm Puppy." If I had the graphic talent of a Charles Schultz, I would author a new book: "Wealth is a Lot of Laps."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thinking About Home

[Note: this is an effort to reconstruct my d'var Torah to my synagogue's sisterhood Wednesday night. Those who were there might remember things I've forgotten, but such is life.]

Home. It's a subject I've thought about a lot over the last couple of decades. Since leaving my home in Anaheim to pursue ordination, and then to serve a number of congregations on the east coast, I've wondered what "home" really means. I've even written a number of poems, the first titled "Home," then "Home II" and then "Home III," trying to sort out what the word means, objectively, and to me. I'm still not sure I've come to a comfortable place. My head is satisfied, but my heart is still unclear.

This is a good week to consider "home." In the parasha this Shabbat morning, Jacob finally returns home, after 20 years of working for his father-in-law and amassing family and livestock. Homecomings should be a good thing, right? But let's consider: Jacob returns with trepidation - he is still fearful of his brother, whom he cheated badly long ago; we learn his mother's nurse has died, and some commentators believe this is a euphemism for the death of Rebecca herself; Jacob's beloved Rachel dies in childbirth; his daughter Dina is raped and kidnapped; and when he finally returns home, he and his brother Esau must bury their father Isaac.

Welcome home, Jacob.

I suspect many of us have tried to go home, perhaps for a visit to the old neighborhood, and found it completely changed. Or you've changed and it hasn't. I remember a trauma to my old community in Anaheim, and two years after, when I returned from school for a summer visit to my children, I found the congregation still stuck. I had moved on, the person at the center of the trauma had moved on, and the community was still talking about "The Thing." Sometimes you can't go home again. Sometimes you can and wish you hadn't.

But even if you could return home, what would that mean? Where is home? Is it where you live today? Where your books and dishes are? If you've moved a couple of time zones away from your children, is home where you are or where they are? Is home where your memories are, fuzzy as they may be? And if home is where your stuff is, and your stuff is in a warehouse in Memphis, where then is home?

I saw a sign in the window of a gift shop in Ventura a few years ago: Home is where you are right now. OK, maybe that's what it is. And like Hillary Clinton says, "Grow where you're planted." Stop "dreying your kup" - stop making yourself crazy about semantics and just be, in this moment, where you are. Maybe.

Our sisterhood program tonight is about relocation. The women on our panel were all born somewhere else - France, Siberia, Israel, Cuba, Uruguay, Iran. They came here when they were old enough to know they were leaving what they thought of as home. Was that a good thing? Were they fleeing persecution and grateful to be here? Were they happy where they were and miserable here? We'll soon learn. But I wonder: where is "home" to them? Where they were born? Los Angeles? And at what point did "home" change meaning for them?

I must tell you, though, that two years ago I had an "aha!" moment. I had come to this synagogue to observe my mother's yahrzeit [anniversary of her death]. I'd never been here before, and when I came to morning minyan [daily service] I didn't know a soul in the room. But I stood to say Kaddish and realized something stunning - I'd been here before. There was an ark with a Torah scroll in it. There was a ner tamid [eternal light]. The words I was saying, I'd said in communities around the world. And everyone knew where to respond "amen."

We Jews are turtles. Home has become such a transitory notion to us, having been expelled from one country after another, then having had to flee persecution from countries who didn't expel us so much as make the water too hot for us to stay, that we have had to narrow the definition of home. And we carry our homes with us. Our candle sticks, our Torahs, our talleisim [prayer shawls] and prayerbooks and Bibles, our values and our national memories are all portable. And wherever we are, we can reconstruct our homes with the things we brought with us. I live in a house where nothing speaks of my history and memories. Yet, in my room, there's a mezuzah on the door (and I can tell you who gave it to me) and candle sticks on the dresser and a prayerbook and Tanakh [Bible] in the book case. They go everywhere with me. They create my home for me. And the blessing of being Jewish, born of the curse of our constant wanderings, is that we do rebuild our home, wherever we are, as individuals and as communities.

The sign was right: Home is where you are right now.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Do Children Learn About Real Kindness?

Someone asked once whether our kids and grandkids will have the same sweet memories of their childhood as we had of ours. He was reflecting on his New York childhood - stick ball in the street, hanging out on the stoop - all that kind of stuff. The next time I saw him, I pointed out the realities of life in the '50s - segregation, back-street abortions, women "knowing their place" ... but he said that he wasn't talking about the greater world, just the insulated world of a child. And by the time our little group had finished talking about this, we decided that every generation has its own way of entertaining itself, and each generation grows up with fond memories of how it did just that. The details change, but the soft lens of nostalgia remains the same.

That may be so (and I believe it is), but sometimes I look at the world we have given our children, and I mourn my own childhood.

This reflection comes out of a class I taught a few weeks ago, to my fourth graders one Sunday morning. We were talking about Rebecca, Isaac's wife, whom we are told was known for her compassion because she took the time to water the camels Abraham's servant brought with him on his search for a wife for Abraham's son. So I began the conversation with, "Do you know anyone who is kind? What does that mean to you?" And the students all had answers - a parent, a close friend...and we thought about how to define kindness.

OK, so they're fourth graders - 9 years old, maybe? And they're suburban kids, so their lives are defined by school, Hebrew school, other activities, and mom's car. But as I thought about that morning, I realized something was missing.

Had you asked me or my cousins when we were young about someone who was kind, we would have answered, "The woman in Diamond Bakery who always smiles and gives us a cookie." My own kids (I hope) will remember some of the seniors at our synagogue in Anaheim, who smiled at them and always had a kind word for them.

I don't know if kids today are finding kindness outside their family and circle of BFFs. And that's an enormous loss.

Our society today is characterized by anonymity and super-sizing. We no longer go to the local butcher or bakery - we go to the Supermarket (or better - Costco or Wal-Mart). Sometimes we see the same checker twice in a row, sometimes not. The butchers are in the back, you pick up something from the showcase, and you move on. You have no one to yell at, "Take off all that fat!" You might find lots of employees eager to help you find your items, but I think that's less the people than the policy of the store, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's institutionalized kindness rather than spontaneous kindness. It comes from corporate, not the heart.

Our kids don't know what it means to walk into one shop for one item, another shop for another, to hear the owner (because if it wasn't the owner behind the case, it was an offspring) ask after your mother's family. They don't know what it means to run into people on the street (because after all, who walks?) and to stop at a bus stop (bus stop?) for a moment of rest and chat with an acquaintance. Meetings today are arranged. We don't run into anyone any more. Our social encounters are arranged by our PDAs or (for the tech-challenged) our Day-Runners. Further, our kids aren't exposed to people we don't arrange to expose them to. Their lives are very ordered and insulated and planned, and they aren't learning how to be spontaneously kind to a stranger because there are no strangers in their lives.

I mourn the loss of the richness of my childhood (who'da ever thought my childhood was rich? but it was), with its cast of characters from my block, the shopping strip on Fairfax, and the people I saw every day on the bus. I miss the accidental encounter that might have affected the rest of the day - when a boy gets up to let a pregnant woman sit in his seat, or the bus driver is especially kind and patient to an elderly passenger struggling to climb the stairs in the days before kneeling buses. I miss the days when we weren't always the center of every event, when sometimes we were observers and we learned from people we might never meet again. I miss the days when we were truly part of a community, a sweet little world where everybody knew your business and gave you their opinion whether you wanted it or not. I miss the days when every mother was every child's mother, and if you messed up (of course, I was perfect, but so I hear...), your mother knew about it before you ever got home.

How nice it would have been if my students had offered as examples of kindness, "The man who helped the woman with the cane across the street," or "The candy-striper who visited my grandma in the hospital." There's something about the kindness of strangers that always moves me, because it's done without any sense of obligation to a friend or relative (just the obligation of one human being to another). How often do our kids see that? And how did we let our world become so insulated that our kids see only the impersonal on the one hand or the warmth of family on the other, and nothing in between?

What will our children and grandchildren remember when they're grown up? Will they have warm memories of their childhood? Undoubtedly. They'll remember what brought them pleasure. But how sad that what brings them pleasure doesn't also teach them something profound about human relationships.