Monday, June 6, 2011

The Other F Word

George Santayana observed famously that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. It is that observation that makes reading history and remaining up to date on current events so important. Sometimes, keeping up to date on current events can be depressing at least, frightened at worst, but the alternative is to invite catastrophe.

It boils down to connecting the dots. Looking not at individual news stories but at the larger picture, and assessing what that larger picture portends for the future of our country.

Item: More anti-abortion legislation has been passed in the months since the 2010 election than in the decades since Roe v. Wade. Legislatures, both state and federal, faced with mounting deficits and unemployment numbers, have chosen instead to put their combined energies into restricting the right, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, of a woman to chose what happens to her body.

Sub-item: the laws, typically (with some hair-curling exceptions) do not decree abortion to be illegal (can a state make illegal something the federal courts have determined to be legal? That remains for some brave woman to bring suit if these laws are passed – and the prospects for passage are unfortunately very good), only make it damned hard for a woman to find an abortion provider. South Dakota, as an example, has one abortion provider for the entire state, and if you look at your map, it’s not a small state. If you find yourself in the position of needing an abortion, you have to come up with both transportation and lodging fees to get to the provider. Right now, there’s a 24 hour waiting period between checking in with the provider and actually having the procedure. But wait: there’s more. If the legislature has its way, the waiting period will be increased to 72 hours – increasing the number of nights a woman must pay for lodging. And yet more: the provider has only limited office hours, so 72 hours usually translates to a full week between the first visit and the procedure. With many women unable to take a full week to travel across the state and/or be able to come up with the additional fees for travel and lodging, these draconian rules put safe, legal abortion out of the reach of many women. Oh, and did I forget to mention the “counseling” the women have to endure? As if having an abortion is a decision come to on a whim. The arrogance of these legislatures, imposing themselves between a woman and her doctor (and her clergy if she chooses to include him/her) is breath-taking. And yet some states are working to criminalize abortion to the point of incarcerating providers (and some have even considered jailing women who have sought abortions). The clock seems to be turning back to 1900. While people are using up their unemployment benefits and losing their homes, legislatures are targeting women with unwanted pregnancies.

Item: A number of state legislatures have stripped unions of their bargaining power. Some of my Republican friends have observed that while unions once had a place, now they’ve outlived their usefulness. Really? Is salary and health care the only reason to bring management to the bargaining table? What about safety issues? What about length of hours and breaks and lunch? What about the quality of the work environment? If you think that unions are no longer necessary, get rid of them and see how fast municipalities are ready to spring for new safety equipment for fire fighters and police officers without the threat of a work stoppage. No one with budget responsibilities ever spent a cent unless pushed to do so, and if striking gets the money spent to ensure the safety of the work force, then that’s what it takes. And how to mobilize without a union? (Although the rebels across North Africa and the Middle East seem to have succeeded with Twitter and Facebook, but come on. This is America. Do we really need to resort to technology to bring management to the bargaining table for simple requests? Wait – I guess we do now, in too many states across the Midwest.)

Item: Michigan has gone one step further and empowered the state to dissolve the local, legally elected government of any municipality it chooses and to put a state-appointed – what, czar? uberfuerher? director? – over the affairs of the municipality. What kind of country has states dissolving local government? Apparently, ours.

Item: San Francisco, long a favorite city of mine, now has on an upcoming ballot an initiative to criminalize circumcision. And the most troubling part of the text is that there is no exemption for religious observance. We Jews of course circumcise our boys on the eighth day of life, and Muslims circumcise their boys before puberty. These are religious obligations. Even in the darkest days of Prohibition, accommodations were made for wine used for ritual purposes. This initiative goes way beyond the boundaries of liberal how-can-you-mutilate-your-babies mentality. The most frightening part? Check out this link. If you think, as I did a week ago, that this is just foolishness from people who want to leave circumcision to their boys when they turn 18, read about Foreskin Man (I kid you not) and look carefully at the graphics. The art work in this “publication” mirrors some of the worst of Nazi propaganda in the dark days before the implementation of the Final Solution.

So how do we connect the dots?

Look around. What’s going on in our country? We are still in the throes of the worst financial crisis in 80 years. Unemployment as of yesterday went over 9% nationwide, far higher in many states (including here in California). People are frightened, and when people are frightened, they look for scapegoats and easy answers.

What’s “the other F word”? Fascism.

Fascism, as in the hatred of the Other, the mistrust of the Other, and the circling of the wagons while attempting to build a society that’s ordered and predictable. Women know their place. Everyone looks like us (read: white and Christian). Law-breakers are dealt with mercilessly. People who follow laws informed by non-Christian faith traditions are suspect and must be controlled. Unions are the expression of the people and therefore must be silenced. Only a strong central government can be trusted to take care of its people (even, as in the case of personalities like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin, they don’t even have their history straight). Rights get to be restricted. And if you say something wrong long enough, people will begin to believe it. Like “death panels.” And “our black president was born in Kenya.”

Change is frightening. Having a national leader that doesn’t look like “us” is frightening. Instability is very frightening. And the way to deal with change and instability is to impose more and more tightening laws that invade people’s personal lives, imposing the ethics of one faith tradition onto those who do not share that faith tradition.

We hear so much about the right to bear arms. What about the part that says that the government shall make no law regarding the establishment of a religion? Or do we just pick and choose which part of the Constitution we hold sacred and which part is disposable?

Do we rewrite history to make it fit our contemporary notions of safety and order? Or do we study history as it is, in order truly to preserve the safety and order of the society we have built over more than two centuries?

We need to connect the dots. We need to stay awake. We need to speak out, to support the good people of Wisconsin who continue to sit in at the state capital, to support Planned Parenthood, 97% of whose budget goes to providing contraception advice and free mammograms and Pap smears to women who can’t afford to get them elsewhere. We need to keep in mind that no – NO – federal funding goes to providing abortions through Planned Parenthood, so those who wish to cut their funding (and some states have already succeeded) are not reducing the number of abortions in their state; rather, they are limiting women’s access to preventive health care.

Attacks on unions. Attacks on women’s health. Attacks on religious freedom.

Are we going to remember history? Or, God forbid, will we allow it to be repeated?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Lens of the Liturgy - 3

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).


The Third Benediction – Religious Identity

ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני ישראל

Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who made me a Jew.

There is much to be written about this brakha. I have met with so many people who were in the process of conversion, either about to begin their study or about to be immersed in the mikveh, and over and over again I hear the same thing: I’ve always been a Jew. This is just making it official.

This conviction suggests a truth to be found in our brakha: that religious identity is part of our make-up as much as height, eye color, and sexual orientation. Of course, we might then question those who profess no religious belief, or those who are conflicted about the existence of God and how they might worship that God. Are they denying their essential spiritual identity?

I can’t address those important questions. What I do know is that the Jewish tradition speaks of the pintele yid, the Jewish spark that is found in the Jewish soul. No matter how assimilated the family, how unidentified the family, somehow that tiny spark finds a gentle breeze to blow on it and fan it into a flame. How it is that some have that spark and others do not is a quandary of a mystic nature, and I am far too unqualified to address it here.

What our brakha tells us, however, is not that we acknowledge our Jewishness but that we are grateful for our Jewishness. We remain Jewish not to deny Hitler a posthumous victory but because being Jewish is a wonderful, exciting thing, for most of us a delightful accident of birth, and our obligation is not to run from it but to find reasons to say this brakha with joy each morning.

But what does all this have to do with parenting?

When our children are born, we watch with delight as they blossom, from tiny infant to toddler who learns “No” very early and enjoys pushing the envelope, to adolescent who raises pushing the envelope to an art form. Along the way we watch talents and interests emerge. Who will this precious gift of God be? What will he or she be? How will our child contribute to the community? What sort of partner will we hope he or she finds – what characteristics do we want to see encouraged, which ones balanced with someone complementary?

We worry about the friends they choose, the schools they attend, the extracurricular activities they participate in. Have they accumulated enough activities to impress the admissions committees of the colleges they’ve chosen?

We set curfews for them, give them rules, let them know what’s expected of them as members of our family.

And yet for so many parents, encouraging religious education is merely a means to an end: the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. And even among those parents who opt for a celebration of their child’s coming of age within Jewish tradition, the spectrum varies from day school to supplementary school to a tutor and a private service, with the party being the most important element of the day.

We want our children to be functioning members of society, but too many of us feed our children’s intellect while starving their souls.

I must tell you that when people learn I’m a rabbi, whether they’re Jewish or not, they feel comfortable sharing incidents or whole themes from their childhood dealing with their religious upbringing – or lack of it. I remember one young man who shared a dinner with me and members of my first congregation many years ago. He reflected that both his parents had been raised as Protestants, but different denominations. Each of them had had parents of differing denominations as well, so that by the time he arrived on the scene, there were maybe six different ways of worshipping Jesus in his family. His parents’ strategy was not to offer him any of them. It was clearly too complicated for them, too much of a mine field to traverse, so they gave him a terrific secular education but never addressed his soul. He said to me, “I want to think about God, but I don’t know how think about thinking about God.” I suspect (although I can’t be sure) that if he’d told his parents that, they would have been puzzled at the least.

I also remember an interfaith couple that, like many, decided to give their daughter both Catholicism and Judaism. She was converted by my predecessor and then the next day she was baptized. Her education consisted of Hebrew school on Sunday and catechism on Saturday. I finally told her father that she needs to be given an address for her soul. I would rather, I told him, see her go to church regularly with her mother and know she’s being given a consistent religious education than be taught two very different paths and be expected (a) to sort them out by herself and then (b) choose, essentially between Mom and Dad.

I was asked once as part of an interview for the post of senior rabbi at a Midwestern congregation, “Rabbi, how do you teach God to children?” I told them frankly that we don’t teach God to children. Children are born far closer to God than we will ever be. Their souls are new and freshly given by the Holy One. We should be asking them what they know about God.

What happens from birth to adulthood is the channeling of that belief by how the adults in their lives talk about God (or not). Furthermore, belief in God is only part of the conversation; the rest of it has to do with how we worship the God in whom we believe, how that belief translates into behavior and the search for community. Simple faith is a lonely thing unless you have others with whom to worship, and with whom to sort out what God’s will means to you. For us Jews, that means family and community with whom to study Torah and build communal institutions so that we can follow the path our tradition has defined for us. Having a child, then, means not only committing to a lifelong (yes, it really is lifelong) endeavor of educating and training and civilizing (I’m thinking of those toddlers and adolescents again) and constantly reassuring with unconditional love. It means before they’re born sorting out what God means to you, what your faith community means to you, and finding a place in that community where you are comfortable and can feel joy. Then, when your children are born, they can watch you participate in your community’s events and celebrations because they’re meaningful to you. Children know very early what’s important to their family, and they perceive very quickly that religious life is irrelevant if it’s only “for the children.” I was thinking the other day of my first Hanukkah as a married woman. We’d moved out of state for my husband’s education, and I spoke to my parents, excited about having lit our new hanukkiyah for the first time. “Oh, we didn't light ours,” my mother said, to my astonishment. “You’re not here so it’s not so important.” Of course, in hindsight, I realize that that first year their only child was out of the house was a big adjustment for them, but at the time I couldn’t believe that all those years, my parents had celebrated Hanukkah only for me.

I’m slow, I guess. Other kids pick up on things much more quickly. One of my fifth grade students once observed that sitting in a sukkah for a week was a negative mitzvah because “nobody does it.” In his home, at least, there was no sukkah. The synagogue’s sukkah wasn’t “real” because after all it was the synagogue’s sukkah. I tried to explain that thousands of Jewish families around the world (including mine) used their sukkot every year, but he wasn’t convinced.

How can we say our brakha every morning with joy, affirming our awe at being part of this remarkable people? We can study Judaism just as we studied whatever texts we needed to study to pursue our profession, recognizing the truth of the brakha “thank You for the obligation of making Torah study our occupation.” We can live Jewishly by bringing Jewish practice into our homes and our lives. We can study with others to learn what makes Judaism remarkable to them. And in this way we become role models for our children.

When we do recite that brakha, let’s use it to remind us to do all we can to encourage our children to come to value being Jewish as much as we have learned to be.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Have More Problems Than We Even Knew We Had

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the birther phenomenon. Many commentators, including Rachel Maddow, have labeled it for what it is: racism. Somehow we have to delegitimate this president without actually saying out loud "A black man can't do that." So we cast aspersions on the details of his birth. Shameful enough.

But I think there's another phobia going on. Let's think back to the 43 presidents who came before Mr. Obama. Yes, all men. All white. Yes. But there's something else about them. What were their names? Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Johnson, Madison, Jefferson (I know, they're way out of order), Jackson, Taft, Wilson, Truman, Bush (x2), Clinton. Do we see any commonality here?

Every one of these names can be traced back to the British Isles. Only three presidents (by my reckoning) had names that were non-Anglo: two Roosevelts and Eisenhower. And two of them were war heroes (TR in the Spanish-American War, Ike in World War II) and the third had extensive experience in state politics, had a connection to an earlier Roosevelt, and was endowed with great charisma of his own. By the time FDR ran for the White House, "Roosevelt" had become less a Dutch name than a good American name.

And you can count those presidents with non-Anglo names without going to a second hand.

As I was ruminating on the birther phenomenon the other day, I wondered whether the same grief would befall a president whose father had been here in the States on a student visa from, say, Spain or France. The candidate would look like all previous candidates (read: white) but the name would be foreign and the story would have been the same. Would the birthers in this country have been more accepting?

At first I sputtered "Of course!" But then I began wondering. The story goes that when Pierre Mendes-France ran for the office of president of France in the 1950s, this Jewish candidate faced the ire of his conservative opposition, who announced that their candidate was "a *real* Frenchman," this despite the fact that Mendes-France's family had been in France for five centuries. Apparently, according to some, you couldn't be in France long enough to be "real" if you were Jewish.

So then I started thinking about a President Ramirez. Or a President Chen. Or (God help us) a President Al-Fasi. The closest we came was Vice President-almost Joe Lieberman. And if Al Gore had won the election in 2000 and Lieberman had decided to run on his on in 2008, he'd have had a good uphill climb that had nothing to do with politics.

We have more problems in this country than simple racism. We are a country of xenophobes. We are distrustful of anyone whose name places him or her outside the British world. And so it seems that our president has two strikes against him. In his own words, he's a "skinny black guy with a funny name." And that funny name causes a certain population in this country as much difficulty as the color of his skin.

When you think about it, this mistrust of people with funny names is ironic in a country that prides itself on being a melting pot. We are Latino and German, Polish and Russian, Jewish and Irish and Chinese and Vietnamese and Indian and Pakistani. Many of us came here with names unpronounceable and unspellable by the immigration authorities at Ellis Island. Some of us had our names changed, others just tweaked the spelling so our neighbors could greet us each morning. There is no such thing as a native American (except for those known as native Americans) in the same way there are native Frenchmen (or Frenchwomen), native Brits, native Russians. We are not ethnically homogeneous.

And yet we are suspicious of people whose names are clearly different. (And of course that "Hussein" in the middle of his name didn't earn him points with many Americans.) There would have been those who would have whined about the president's birthplace if his name had been Washington or Jackson or Powell or any other name rooted in the British Isles. But how much easier it is to get attention when the names spoken during the oath of office on January 20, 2009, were so foreign sounding.

We have a long way to go in this country. Enough people displayed common sense in 2008 to get beyond the name and the color of skin to make a decision based on Dr. King's "content of his character." But the fact that the birther issue will not go away tells us that these people with too much time on their hands have touched more than one exposed nerve. It's bigger than color. It's that Mr. Obama is different - Different - in so many ways that he can't possibly be really American. And in that opinion they demonstrate how little appreciation they have for this country, for what makes it great. It is precisely America's diversity that is its strength, and what makes our president remarkable (political choices aside) is how well he represents that diversity.

And as long as people can complain that Mr. Obama is illegitimate, and polls can reveal that a disturbing percentage of the voting public agrees, we will have more problems than racism to overcome.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Liturgy - 1

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The First Benediction - Making Distinctions
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who gave the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night.

What an odd benediction! Why on earth would we be worrying about roosters? The language, of course, is symbolic - back before alarm clocks and the plethora of technology that wakes us up in the morning, there was the local rooster, crowing often before dawn, to get our day going. We depended on that guy, to be sure we were awake in time to say the morning Sh'ma, so that all our obligations could be fulfilled at the proper time. We were, therefore, thanking God for putting mechanisms in place in the natural world to help us fulfill our obligations to God.

So what does that have to do with parenting? I like to think of the benediction as making a statement about the ability to tell the difference between black and white. If, after all, a mere rooster can tell when the sun is up far enough to announce the new day, why can't we make distinctions?

I'm thinking in particular of the choices parents make when disciplining their children. When we are in the midst of a behavioral crisis, the last thing we are able to do is step out of our confrontation with our son or daughter and consider just what we are doing. To my way of thinking, knowing the distinction between day and night, in parenting terms, is knowing what to "go to the mat for." How can we tell the difference? How can we know when to smile and let it go, and when to put our foot down? How do we deal with tantrums? When do we just let it go, and when do we apply the time-out? There are no easy answers, but the asking of the questions is what's important. A rooster may know the difference between day and night, but after all isn't the presence or absence of light fairly obvious? Making distinctions in how we respond to our children's behavior is far more difficult.

I don't have any wisdom to impart. What I do have is the experience of raising three rambunctious sons and watching (at this point) two of them raise their own children. I also have the experience of watching my friends' children and grandchildren, and of having to bite my tongue on a regular basis, sometimes, watching certain behavior, thinking, "Why are you allowing that behavior?" and other times, watching other behavior, thinking, "Is this really so terrible?" There are parents who are afraid to say no, afraid to set limits, afraid their children will hate them. And then there are parents who feel the need to control every one of their children's choices. Neither of these kinds of parents has figured out the need for distinctions. Neither of these kinds of parents has fully embraced the idea that parenting is very hard work, and that the work isn't only about laundry and finding the right schools and keeping the kids in clothes and shoes. The real hard work comes with understanding what's expected of us as disciplinarians. We know we need to be consistent in our approach, but consistent how? Always saying no? Always saying yes? And is "consistent" the same as "always"?

There is, of course, another difference between parenting and listening to that rooster. God put in place in the natural world a mechanism to get us going in the morning so that our obligations may be fulfilled. I'm not aware of any mechanism in the natural world for knowing instinctively when to allow and when to say no. Making the decisions about how to raise our children to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults is the toughest job we will ever take upon ourselves. But maybe if we begin our day with the morning benedictions and we recite that first benediction with mindfulness, with kavanah, we can focus our thoughts each day on the need to make distinctions in the way we confront each foot stomp, each NO!, each tantrum, each attack of one sibling on another, and most important, each challenge to our authority. And maybe just the awareness that we have choices at each step of the way, and that the choice we make in the morning may not work in the afternoon, can be the first step in raising our children right.

Jewish Parenting Through the Lens of the Liturgy - 2

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The Second Benediction - The Yin and the Yang
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני בצלמו
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who made me in Your image.

I have for a long time understood this benediction from a parenting point of view as turning our focus on each of our children as they are, not as we would wish them to be. Whether we have one or ten, some kids are just as we would have wished, others aren't. Some want to follow in our footsteps, others have no interest in our life's work. Some remind us of beloved relatives, others of relatives we would rather forget. We project so much onto our children, from the moment of birth (whom does the infant remind us of?), that sometimes we forget that we are dealing not with a reflection of someone else's character or dreams or goals but with an unfolding gift from God, created in the divine image, with dreams and goals of their own. If we are made in God's image, so too are our children - and our job is not to create them into our image but to encourage the God-given talents they possess so that they may blossom into their own rendition of the divine image.

That's been my understanding for many years. Today I have another understanding to add.

A careful reading of the Hebrew in Torah will remind us that there are two basic names for God, found in our sacred text and in our liturgy: Adonai and Elohim (rendered eloheynu - our God - in prayer). The rabbis of our tradition puzzled over these two names, deciding that like any name, these terms have come to teach us something about the God they describe. The entire first chapter of Torah refers to God as Elohim. It isn't until after the beginning of chapter two, when the first week of creation is finished and we turn to the more detailed story of the creation of Adam and Eve, that the name Adonai appears. Why this distinction, the rabbis ask. And of course they have an explanation.

God has two overriding qualities: the quality of justice and the quality of mercy. In the first chapter of Torah, the world is created in a rather removed way: God say "Let there be..." and there was. Creation happens with words, not by interaction with the creation. Everything is orderly. Each day has a purpose. And God is Elohim. So this then is the expression of God as Judge, and meter-out of order and logic.

Comes chapter two, and God - Adonai this time - gathers earth from the four corners of the world and shapes a person. Shapes a person. Hands-on. Breathes the breath of life into the person's nostrils. Breathes into the person's nostrils. This is an involved God, and a God that is dealing in an on-going way with people, those creatures with the free will chip. And so the name of God is Adonai, an expression of the quality of mercy, since without mercy, those people would not long survive. Remember that the first limit God imposes is that Adam and Eve not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And the first thing they do is eat the fruit. The threatened punishment? Death. But of course we know that the punishment is mitigated, and the forebears of humankind suffer only expulsion (and we can use "only" in relation only to death - there is nothing pleasant about expulsion). In order for God to maintain a relationship with God's creation, God must be a God of mercy as well as a God of justice.

The rabbis relate a midrash asking why both qualities were needed at creation, and they reply: In order for the world to remain in existence, there must be mercy, but a world with only mercy and no justice is a world of chaos.

And this midrash brings us to the second understanding of the benediction thanking God for having created us in the divine image. What does it mean for us as parents to be Godlike? To maintain both qualities, of justice and of mercy. This observation dovetails nicely with yesterday's post, but I need to expand the notion a bit.

What does it mean to be a parent of justice? It's not just about sharing and figuring out who gets the last piece of cake. It's about rules and the maintenance of rules. It's about expectations: clean your room, brush your teeth, say please and thank you. In those families where it is a custom, saying the Sh'ma before going to sleep. Teaching children obligations and limits and then expecting those obligations and rules to be remembered and observed. Developing a Torah of your own family and holding it sacred. For every parent that believes that children should be free to do as they choose, go to sleep when they like, have Twinkies for breakfast, there are legions of parents who will attest to the fact that children need structure. They need to know what's expected of them, because then they know that someone loves them enough to help them grow up to be responsible adults.

So then, what does it mean to be a parent of mercy? It means listening to your child. It means that when a child says "no," there are two roads in front of them: they can be listened to and perhaps be accommodated, or we can insist on the behavior we required and at best continue to beat down a child's natural independence, or at worst, watch a melt-down. I remember a little girl once who didn't want to wear a dress her mother had bought her. The interchange escalated with blinding speed - "wear it!" "no!" Finally, someone asked the child why she didn't want to wear it. (After all, was this only a fashion statement?) Turns out there was something in the design of the dress that was scratching the child. A quick repair by her mom made the dress acceptable.

Do we listen to our children? Do we ask why they are upset, or is it just too expedient to expect them to follow our directive? Some rules must be followed - bedtime, tooth-brushing, simple manners - but other directives may be perceived as being arbitrary (and as a mother I can say honestly that some directives really are arbitrary), and our quality of mercy must rise so that we can hear our children's complaints and questions. We may end up still insisting on compliance, but at least the child has been heard, and that is an important building block of the child's self-esteem. As I observed yesterday, taking the time to really hear your child takes time and patience, neither of which are usually in great supply when parenting, but they are critical to the task at hand.

Two ways, then, that we as parents can demonstrate to God our gratitude for having been created in the divine image: we can celebrate each child for their reflection of the divine, however that reflection appears, and we can be Godlike ourselves in our relationship with our children, reflecting both justice and mercy as elements of our love for them.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tishri versus Nisan

In my previous post, I contemplated the true beginnings of the festival of Passover, and my good friend Joel Bassoff observed that just as it begins before it begins, so too does it go on past the eight days on the calendar: how long do we still find matza crumbs on the couch, in our beds, under furniture...? I replied that a high school student of mine had a similar observation about Yom Kippur. I asked why the day is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Besides the fasting, what makes it so different from other Shabbatot? This particular student made some great observations: that it's longer than a regular Shabbat, not only because we finish eating before sunset so it's more like 27 hours long, but for spiritual reasons as well. We prepare by seeking forgiveness from our family and friends in the days leading up to the holiday, and when it's over we feel the effects of our pursuit of forgiveness by the lifting of the burden of guilt we may have been carrying around with us for months. We feel God and our loved ones have forgiven us, and our soul is unburdened. That comparison between a long Shabbat (Yom Kippur) and the Festival of Matza that goes on forever prompted me to think some more about the two sacred benchmarks of the Jewish liturgical year.

The obvious truth is that both are concerned with food. Yom Kippur is concerned with worrying about what to eat before the fast, and what to eat after the fast, and all the things we can't be eating during the fast. It's all about food and the lack of food and (hopefully) the appreciation that when the fast is over, we will have the blessing of a laden table and probably family and friends with whom to share the bounty. Passover of course is also all about food. We may worry about what to serve at Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving and Shavuot, but the preparation for those holidays doesn't come anywhere near all the preparation and concern for legalities we face at Passover time. Not only do we have special foods from our family traditions, but there are dishes we prepare because they allow us to feast without transgressing the requirements not to have any leavening on our table. We have to buy everything for Passover, down to the mayonnaise and ketchup. The flurry at the markets is intense. Sometimes I think we have to force ourselves to think about the real meaning of the festival, the liberation from slavery with the goal of forging a new nation with ethical obligations and lessons to teach the world. It's too often all about cleaning and shopping and cooking.

And that of course is unfortunate. The emphasis on food is so great, greater than at any other time of the year, that we lose sight of the spiritual components of the festival. But perhaps we can learn something from this emphasis on food.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is to stand in a supermarket or a local neighborhood kosher market (even worse) and amid all the noise and tumult of the last-minute shoppers, try to evoke words of mindfulness. But I'd like to suggest a kavanah - words of intent - next time we begin our Passover shopping: Master of the Universe, Guardian of my soul, how am I nourishing my spirit as I rush to prepare to nourish my family's bodies? At this time of year, when we are so worn out with the preparations for the festival, it is so easy to think about only the kind of food you can chop or puree or bake or roast. Of course it's unreasonable to expect someone already overloaded with work to find time to meditate on liberation as the festival approaches, but once the holiday is here, do we consider how we nourish our souls? The rabbis speak of ridding our souls of hametz by ridding ourselves of arrogance and self-importance. But what about the haroset, the yummy mixture (varying in composition depending on where in the Jewish world you are from) that is supposed to mimic the mortar with which the Israelites built the cities of Pharaoh? What sweetness do we bring into our lives? What renewal do we allow ourselves as we contemplate the parsley, symbol of springtime? What hope for the future do we nurture, as we look upon the roasted egg (meant to represent the generic festival sacrifice in Temple times, but seen by my eldest as representing the next generation of a chicken - he observed once when he was about 13 that the egg is the next generation of the Jewish people, always present on the seder plate)? When we think about the shank bone, do we think about where we will find the strength to face whatever challenge confronts us?

How do we nourish ourselves at this time of year (and going forward)? We are taught that after we break the fast on Yom Kippur night, the first thing we are to do is set the foundation of our sukkah. We are not to dwell in the past, on the sins we had to confront during the Days of Awe just ending - we are to look to the future. We are to prepare for the joyous festival of Sukkot. In the same way, if we look at Passover just right, if we take the time to nourish our souls as we do our bodies, we can also find ways to prepare for the future. And wasn't that really the Israelites' problem all along? That they spent so much time looking back at the false security of Egypt that they couldn't face the difficulties of moving across the desert to the Promised Land?

Both times of the year are about letting go, looking ahead, and finding strength to face the future.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Does Passover Begin?

I've been thinking a lot about liminal moments. My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, spoke about these moments as thresholds between one stage of life, or one moment in the liturgical year, and another. Breaking the glass under the huppah ends the single status of the people under the huppah and begins their life together. Lighting candles ends the workday week and begins Shabbat; extinguishing the havdalah candle ends Shabbat and begins the workday week. Liminal moments.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about when sacred time begins, and I don't think it begins with the lighting of candles. In particular, when exactly does Shabbat begin? Does it begin when we buy our hallot? Does it begin when we pick something lovely to wear to synagogue, or when we decide who our Shabbat guests will be or what the menu will be? Sacred time begins long before it really begins.

Passover is around the corner - as I write this, on Sunday, the first seder is less than 24 hours away. Most of the shopping has been done (although there's bound to be something we've forgotten at the last minute) and all the cleaning is done and the hametz has been sought and found and put outside to be burned tomorrow morning. All the pre work has been done. The house is gleaming. We're all very satisfied.

And so I believe that Passover has already arrived, in its own way. And my question is, when did it really begin?

For the last few years, because of my living arrangements where making Passover is difficult, I've taken advantage of my children's gracious hospitality and moved in with them for the week (plus a day or so in the beginning to help cook). My daughter-in-law told me today that for her, Passover arrives when I show up with my suitcase. (Bubby as Mary Poppins - I'll accept that.) Her revelation was prompted by my reaction to her putting out a tablecloth that she keeps for just this week - when the table was covered, it was Passover.

When I was making my own seders, the first dish I made each year was the haroset. No good reason, but it was quick, didn't require cooking, and it was quintessentially Passover. Matza ball soup and stuffed chicken and brisket and even matza farfel kugel can appear on the table pretty much any time. But haroset says Passover in a way nothing else does.

But it's not the haroset that says Passover has begun. It's finding the special dishes that were my mother's, bringing them out, and wiping away the tears that return every year as I do. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying the shelves doesn't say Passover - finding the little brown teapot and the cranberry glasses and the old dishes (older than I am) that don't even make a complete set, and the stemware (ditto) - that is what Passover is. I unwrap these treasures and the holiday has begun.

So - when does Passover begin for you? At what moment do you know that the holiday is really coming? Is it when you see the boxes of matza on the supermarket shelves (sometime before Purim)? Is it when you dig out your special holiday recipes? Or when you plan your guest list? What unique moment tells you that Passover is around the corner?

Re-Thinking Passover

Ask any Hebrew School student and they'll tell you what Passover is all about: liberation from slavery. Once we were slaves and now we're free, and the Haggadah tells us that we are obligated to think of ourselves as though we ourselves left slavery in Egypt. The rabbis teach many important lessons about the exodus narrative: that when we stood at the Sea of Reeds, the waters would not part until one Israelite had the faith to walk into the water; that the slavery experience was educative, so that we would experience being Other and would hold onto that awareness no matter where we go as a people, no matter whether we are Other or the majority culture; and repeatedly we are told to take care of the vulnerable in society "because you were slaves in Egypt." Remember, says God, that I cared about you not only because you were My cherished people but because you were vulnerable. Remember that I care about the oppressed, that I want them to be cared for, and if you recall your experience under the burden of slavery you will remember to care for the oppressed wherever they are, because I care about them as well.

Lots to think about this time of year, along with the shopping and cleaning and cooking.

But I think that within the scope of the cleaning and the cooking and the moving dishes and pots from here to there, only to move them again in a week from there to here, there is another very important lesson to learn from the exodus experience. We are not in control.

Remember that we suffered 400 years as slaves. Finally, God says to Moshe, "the cries of your people have reached Me." We were liberated when God chose to liberate us. Of course, the obvious response is, what took God so long? And my answer is, I wish I knew. But that's the point. Liberation happened, not in our time but in God's time.

Then we moved out into the desert and began the trek from Egypt to Eretz HaKodesh (the Promised Land). A pillar of smoke and fire went before us to guide us. When the pillar settled, we made camp. When it lifted, we broke camp and moved on. I think the breaking up and setting up of camp is what we are emulating this time of year, and while keeping a second kitchen, maybe in the basement, so the moving of equipment is not necessary, is a great energy saving idea, it allows us to miss the point - kind of like kosher for Passover bagels and muffins. You can make them, but how do you remember it's Passover? It's precisely the packing and moving that puts us back in the desert.

And we didn't move when we felt like it. We moved when the pillar moved. What was the impetus to move? Who knows? But when the time came to break camp and move on, women packed pots and men gathered the animals, and children and the elderly were put on goats and in carts, and the whole multitude moved on. For 40 years, we were not in control. We had a sense of our goal, but not of how long it would take nor what precisely the route would be. We had no Auto Club to help plan the most direct route. We depended on God's direction, and that and the manna were all we had.

Not much has changed. We are not in control, not really. A Yiddish proverb says, Man macht und Gott tracht - We plan and God laughs. When and whether we find our life partner, when and whether we have children, how successful our professional life will be - much of this is in our hands, but much is not. How quickly things come to pass, how fast we progress along our life's path, how readily we perceive the truths around us - much of all this is not in our hands. And we are frustrated and impatient and want things to be different.

At this time of year, as we imagine ourselves as having left Egypt with Moshe and the mixed multitude, perhaps we should also be thinking of how impatient we were as we moved across the desert, and how little of that trek was in our hands. (Come to think of it, the only part of our lives that's in our hands is how we react, and as I recall, the Israelites whined for 40 years, so much so that God decided not to allow the generation of the exodus to enter the Land. So much for the efficacy of kvetching.)

All is in God's hands, the rabbis teach us, except the fear of God. The point of that expression is that viewing God with awe is our choice, but the first part is equally important: how we respond to our lives has only one effect, and that is to define the quality of our lives - are we content, are we stressed, are we angry, are we at peace with ourselves? Putting ourselves back on the desert might teach us an important lesson in patience and looking at life from the long view. Israel got home. And so, eventually, will we.

Hag same'ah - may you have a sweet and kosher Pesah.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Our Society is Built in Our Classrooms

I'm sitting and listening to a conversation on NPR with a professor who's written a book on the state of higher education today. He talks about trying to teach English to people who are simply not interested in the subject but who have to take the class because it's required (writing, literature, what we used to call English 1A back at UCLA). He suggests that people are being required to get that BA for whatever job they need (the BA is the new high school diploma), even if what they're learning isn't really relevant to their job goal. For the first time, I joined the conversation and posted the following on the moderator's page:

I think the issue is far broader. Our society has changed so dramatically since I was in college in the 60s. We have become far too practicality-oriented, and we are no longer teaching critical thinking. The lower-division basic education we were all required to take before our major work taught us to synthesize, to weave together all the studies we struggled through. Today it's all about getting the degree and getting out to work. The more critically we think, the better citizens we become. I'm not impressed with focused degrees like MBAs. I'm more impressed with the breadth of a person's education, and kids (and schools) don't get that. It's a terrible loss to our society.

The moderator actually read most of my post on air and then the speaker disputed my point, that teaching critical thinking has been tried and it just hasn't worked.

I wanted to weep.

I do believe that we have become far too goal-focused in our society. We don't know how to think. The victory of Tea Party candidates and the belief that the health care overhaul is bad - BAD - even though it's great that this or that provision has proven really useful all point to the inability of many people to listen carefully to what politicians are saying. For a politician to rage at his supporters that "it's not about jobs and the economy, it's about stopping the federal government from funding abortion" even though it's long been prohibited for any abortion provider to receive federal funding for that procedure, and for his followers to cheer as though the man is saying something radical is simply unacceptable. Where is the voice declaring that he's nothing more than a demagogue?

A liberal education would provide people with the ammunition to think back at people who claim that the founding fathers eliminated slavery, would teach people that nothing is black and white, and anyone who tries to divide people into neat us versus them camps is pandering and to be suspicious of that person's motives. Allowing young people to grow up without the ability to think critically produces an electorate (if they even bother voting) too easily led. I remember one of the teaching units back in English 1A where we watched television commercials and looked at print ads and were asked to explain what the ad writer had really meant. What's the hidden message? What fear or need were they addressing? It was enlightening.

Are our kids being challenged? I had a professor of history when I was a freshman who delighted in bursting bubbles every chance he got. We brought all our preconceived notions to class and he destroyed them on a weekly basis. We fumed as we left, but we learned to think, if only to decide that he really had been wrong after all.

Who's teaching our kids to think? And more to the point, what are the expectations in our homes? Are our parents still asking "Did you ask good questions today?" I've engaged in so many debates with my own kids, some that have given me headaches, but at the end we had both grown, both been pushed to look at the issues differently. Are the parents of our school children and college kids also expecting their kids to be challenged intellectually? Or only to get a degree and then get out and go to work?

The liberal education used to be the gold standard. Then back in the 60s, kids started to rebel and say that it was irrelevant. Over the decades, we've repeatedly tweaked our thinking, and education has become less prescriptive - what do we want the society to look like - and more descriptive - let's teach kids what the society has decided is important. How do we build a society if all we're doing is giving people the entry ticket into the job market and calling it a college degree?

Monday, March 21, 2011

In Praise of Daffodils

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils
[And] oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Thus, William Wordsworth. When I first met Will, I was a junior in English at UCLA and I fell totally in love with his poetry. My personal bucket list includes a trip to England's Lake Country, to walk where he walked and, if I'm lucky, to see the clouds of daffodils that so moved him.
Once upon a time, part of my Shabbat preparation was to stop at a local market and pick up a bunch of flowers for my table. Whatever the weather, I loved to see the flowers brighten up my dining room. The challenge each week was to choose which vase I would use: the pretty blue one my future daughter in law gave me for Hanukkah one year? The green one that had held flowers from a dear friend? A glass one I'd picked up while trolling through an antique shop on one of my vacations? Choosing just the right vase was a part of my Friday preparation that was pure delight.
I almost never bought daffodils. I seldom saw them for sale. There were astromeria, that I dearly loved, because they lasted forever. There were lilies, tulips in season, everything but daffies. But I didn't care, because I had a patch of daffies in my back yard. They bloomed riotously every spring, and what I loved about them was their absolute joy at having blossomed. "Look at us," they seemed to yell from the ground. "We're here, we're happy, and our sole purpose is to make you happy." OK that's a little egocentric, I suppose, but they never failed to make me happy. They just kept blooming, long after I'd have thought they would be dead, and you could almost sense their eagerness to keep their beautiful golden heads straight up, proud of their role in my life.
In the years since I left that house and that community, I've missed having daffodils around. And with my budget barely leaving room for food and gas, I've given up on fresh flowers every Friday. It's a shame, because how beautiful the table would look with fresh blooms, but with my income reduced and all my vases in storage, what's the point? My Friday night table looks so different anyway - no special kiddush cup (but a nice wine glass), traveling candle holders instead of my mother's candlesticks...not having flowers seems to make sense.
Then I went to Trader Joe's last week, and to my delight they were selling little bunches of daffodils. You couldn't even see the blossoms because they hadn't opened, and a bunch could be had for a mere $1.99. That I could afford.
The vase? Don't be shocked when I tell you I've saved the blue holder from the 7 day candle I lit when my Aunt Gert died a few years ago. It's been in a box, waiting for use, and I dug it out on Friday, filled it with water, and immersed the cut ends of my daffodils-in-waiting into the vase.
It's taken a few days. But as I sit here, I can take absolutely mind-expanding delight in looking at a bunch of daffodils, fully open, smiling at me and enjoying the knowledge that they are bringing me joy.
Trader Joe's probably won't have those daffies all the time. Too bad. I love looking at them. I love the sunshine they bring into my life, especially when it's pouring outside. I love their exuberance.
Will loved to walk on the hills of the Lake Country and watch the waves of daffodils bobbing in the breeze. I used to love to look out my window and watch my daffies nodding in the New Jersey sunshine. What a gift to be able to enjoy my little handful of daffies now, for as long as they can keep themselves alive.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Torch Passed and Reluctantly Accepted

When someone dies before their time, we rage and weep and wonder at the justice of it all (or rather the perceived lack of justice). Even when someone dies in old age, we aren't ready to let go (I'm reminded of a comment to the L.A. Times coverage of the death of John Wooden last year, "I know that everyone dies, but I was hoping in his case there'd be an exception"), but when that person is young, and filled with promise, and has already made an enormous contribution to the world, and has perhaps even touched us personally, we simply aren't ready to let go.

Debbie Friedman died this morning. Some of you reading this may not know who she was, so allow me a few lines to try to explain her.

Debbie Friedman was a musician, but she was more than that. She was a God-touched musician, a singer of achingly pure voice, a composer of heart-breaking melodies (and sometimes less heartbreaking than rollicking: "I am a latke" has entered the repertoire of all Hebrew school music teachers for Hanukkah enjoyment). She changed the nature of Jewish liturgical music, from the somber cantor-centered arias to guitar-accompanied, sing-along music that raised the souls of everyone who heard her and joined in with her.

She was a presence way out of proportion to the size of her person for perhaps three decades. Jewish conferences of Jewish professionals would feature her presentation, and even if the largest room available had been booked, there was inevitably standing room only, seating in the aisles, standing in the halls outside the doors. Everyone longed to be near her, to hear her music, to be healed by her songs and touched by her words.

It is inconceivable that she has died.

The Jewish world is rocked by her loss, and we struggle to face a future filled with what she left us but without the promise of her new music to come. There will be no more new music.

But here's what I believe. I believe each of us has been put here for a purpose. Some of us figure out what that is. Others never do. Still others trip over the purpose, do what we are meant to do, and then move on, never knowing how important our act was.

Debbie was meant to lift us. She was meant to infuse our souls with strength, the spices of havdalah at the end of Shabbat that would last across the week. She was meant to show us possibility, what Jewish music, what Jewish worship could be like. She was meant to open the door just a crack and give us a view to a different place.

She did that, and having done that, she was called home.

But now comes the real challenge. Having shown us what was possible, she passed the torch to us, to expect more in our services, to invest ourselves in our services, to reach out to others and with whatever gifts God has given us make of our congregations true communities.

When I have officiated at a funeral and accompany the family home to help them light the seven day shiva candle, I often quote the Proverbs that teach that God's light is the human soul. I reflect on the candle and note that the soul of the loved one we have just buried has been extinguished, but before it was, it lit sparks in each of those who loved them, and it's up to those that person left behind to keep those sparks alive.

If that is so for a person of modest reknown, known to family and dear friends, how much the more so is it so for someone like Debbie. She lit sparks of joy and God-love in each of us. Her fire has been extinguished, but our job has just begun - to keep those sparks alive. Sing her music. Create music of our own. With words or melody, reach out to God, express the fear, the joy, or the hope that within us. It's not just about singing her songs. It's about singing our own.

Y'hi zikhra barukh - may her memory be a blessing.