A Cold Day in January

Barack Obama Sworn In As U.S. President For A Second Term

 

I have rewritten this piece over five times. Part of me want to mount the barricades in the last scene from Act One of Les Miserable and wave a proud flag of courage. Part of me wants to be reasoned and cautious and believe that “this too shall pass”.

My mother who had lots of health and life challenges used to ritually intone those words. She meant that every experience has a purpose – not all of them too our liking, but all of them are meant to be instructive and all of them have the potential to help us grow. It does not imply that everything will turn out the way we want it to; it does not mean that there won’t be challenges ahead of us. It means that there is a kernel of truth in all that happens to us and all that happens to us demands us to act.

So I am struggling with how to act as this Inauguration week breaks. I am back in front of a black and white TV. In my mind it is cold and the wind is blustering, biting into the sweet promise of the next four years. Not that all of the Presidential promises were sweet or that the person being inaugurated that day was the President of my choosing. There were those whose platforms filled me with skepticism and concern. But this time it isn’t only the platform. It is the very essence of the man, at least the one who shows up on my color HD screen. On my Facebook feeds my friends are telling me this moment is different. It is not just concern and skepticism; it is a game changer and we need to mobilize and be prepared.

I am trying hard not to panic. I will go to those pre and post inauguration gatherings but not to mourn; not to despair. I am going to try and use some of the lessons I learned in the Jewish spiritual discipline we call Mussar which suggests to us that how we react to the stimulus around us act as a mirror into our souls. So, I am looking at January 20th as a mirror with the Capitol as a backdrop. Who is the me reflected in the image? What does it say about my feelings and actions? I am pasting a sticky note on that mirror, (a blue one) with the word “trust” in Sharpie black. I am talking about trusting yourself and the process that things will work out the way they are supposed to. Don’t take that as a recipe for passivity.

I am going to double down on the way I approach the political process. More donations to the causes I believe in and see as threatened; more active engagement with those who supposedly represent me. I am now in the loyal opposition and it is challenging. It is scary. I wrote the week after the election that we would have to wait and hope that the office would make the man. We don’t have to wait much longer. The man has remained true to who he was. It is time for us to trust each other and ourselves and reach out hand in hand to restore and preserve a more compassionate America.

 

 

 

Chrismukkah

candy-cane-menorahOne source says that this is the first time in over fifty years that the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas coincide. The Jews are excited. Maybe even more excited than when Hanukkah and Thanksgiving came together in 2013. That’s when two women from the Boston area coined the phrase “Thanksgivikah.” Of course “Chrismukkah” is even older than that. It comes from the once popular TV show “OC” when Seth Cohen coined the phrase to reflect his interfaith upbringing. In 2004, the phrase “Chrismukkah” was one of Time Magazine’s words of the year! That same year the New York Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis issued a joint statement condemning the union of both holidays.

So is this good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? Of course, you probably already know the answer. It depends on where you are coming from on the spectrum of particularism vs. universalism or where you find your comfort level when it comes to symbols and rituals that morph over time and sometimes actually reverse the course of their original meaning. This much is clear to me: Unless you live in a walled city with no Internet or TV access this syncretism is inevitable. What we can do is try to keep faith with the essence of our message and make it as relevant as possible.

We are not the first to struggle and question this holiday that begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The codifiers of the Talmud record a fascinating rabbinic discussion that begins with the words: “What is Hanukkah?” As if they didn’t know; as if they weren’t already teaching about how you light the lights associated with the holiday; as if they hadn’t read the Book of Maccabees. The discussion takes place somewhere in the second century. Roman rule is repressive; military options against the oppressors have been exhausted; the Temple is in ruins; two revolts have been quelled. Enter the miracle of oil. Enter a new narrative for the military victory. Enter the words from Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” Enter a redefinition of Hanukkah.

Personally, I am not a fan of miracles.   So the oil doesn’t do it for me. I like the light. I love adding a new light every evening. I love seeing the candles increase in power. I feel their warmth building night after night till they fill up all the holes in the Menorah and it is complete or so we think and so we say. But it is never complete. There is always a darkness out there that needs our light. I believe the miracle of Hanukkah is that we are the ones who fill the void, chase away the shadows, shower stars on the year’s longest nights.

This is where Hanukkah and Christmas find common ground for me. The baby born on the 25th brings hope. The lights that celebrate his birth remind me of the dedication of the Maccabees that the tomorrow we hope and pray for will not happen by itself. It takes grit and striking a match to kindle candles of caring. All these presents we wrap in red and green or blue and white are beautiful extensions of our reaching out to each other.

Jimmy Kimmel said the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas is that Christmas kids get all their presents on one glorious morning. Hanukkah kids get them spread out over eight nights. I’m not entering the debate as to which is better. This is what I know.   The best gift we can give each other is the present of knowing it is up to us to make the world brighter. It is up to us to elevate holiness and joy. It is up to us to care, give, love. And faith? I have faith that someday we will get it: We are in it together – that’s the miracle.

 

 

 

Winter Is Coming

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Winter is coming. I mean that literally. We spent Thanksgiving in the mountains of Western North Carolina and I had to use the defroster this morning to de-ice the windshield. As the days grow shorter, the leaves have returned to the earth. The sun is weaker; the night darker; the stars brighter and the trees declare there is strength in standing tall and firm against the shortened day.

Winter is coming. I mean that figuratively. It is the motto of the House of Stark in the Game of Thrones. The Lords of the North listen to the warnings that ride the whirling winds constantly vigilant of what might be coming. They know from darker days what can happen. How the laughter and the light can turn; how the life and love and liberty we presume to be inalienable can be snatched and taken. It is a time of watching, waiting, preparing, assessing: Are dark days coming?

Almost every email I receive from a variety of progressive, inclusive, liberal organizations I have supported in the past are warning me. They tell me that now more than ever, I need to donate to their cause. I hear their plea. The signs are less than positive and that is coming from this writer who the day after the election wrote give the President-elect a chance. The office just might make the man. And it might. It’s just that almost every appointment seems to confirm our fears. It’s just that we are correctly sensitive to images of white men raising their arms in prototypes of “Sig Heil” salutes. And I want my President whether I voted for him or not to condemn what that represents in the boldest, strongest, virulent form. It’s just that it hasn’t, yet – made the man.

Or I am not convinced. I don’t want to think it’s the end of the world, as we know it. After all lights are twinkling in the malls and shopping centers. Cars are being driven south in caravans a pilgrimage to the sun. We are doing everything we can to light up the dark. This waiting is hard.  It is not like other times.  Can’t just go through the day thinking the news will take care of itself. Had an email from a friend: If “they” set up a national registry for Muslims, we should all declare ourselves Muslim. I worry it is Vienna 1936.

It’s so easy to project the worst. We Jews do that well. Winter is coming. Time to get dressed for the cold.

 

That’s How The Light Gets In

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I am not a music critic; I am not a poet. I feel totally inadequate to the task but I also feel compelled, obligated. I owe it to Leonard Cohen. His music has touched me so deeply and so often. So this will be from the heart but if you want a really complete and savvy commentary on Leonard Cohen try the professionals at Rolling Stone or your favorite source.

His words and music found a way into a deep part of me, even when I didn’t understand all the lyrics. But I could feel the pain; I could touch the sadness even the occasional despair. Lots of people describe his music as dark; I won’t argue. But I find an honesty there that resonates with me. It is an honesty that speaks about the limits we all struggle with: time that is finite; joy that is always incomplete no matter how satisfying and filling; longing, yearning never fully realized.

And yet I believe he lived his life abundantly and copiously, never afraid to search for more, for spiritual truth, for the physicality of love in Chelsea hotels and famous blue raincoats. I envy the courage to walk, run, crawl, climb whatever path opens before you. Conventions be dammed. Expectations be trashed. Bring it on.

I love how he fused his Judaism with his world and his work. No pandering or pampering, you had to work to get it. So many of his songs a midrash on Biblical themes, heroes and villains. I think of him as a true “cohen” – a descendant of ancient priests, a grandson of Rabbis. He stands on the generations that went before him: outstretched hands, fingers formed in blessing, shrouded by a prayer shawl of Hallelujah choruses, too powerful to look at, too holy to touch. I think life was like that for him.

For one of my birthdays, Eileen took me to his concert in Vegas and arranged for him to send me an autographed copy of his newest collection of poetry, “Book of Longing”.   It gives you a good sense of who he was and is (for me). Try this on

“Anyone who says

I’m not a Jew

Is not a Jew

I’m very sorry

But this decision

Is final.”

So filled with contradictions, so flawed, so stretching for perfection, so inventing and reinventing himself, his art, his music, his words, he lived profusely. That brings comfort and allows me to image him now in the light, for in his words: Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

 

 

Red Seeds of Anger

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We played bridge the other night and one of the times when I was dummy, I found myself at the kitchen sink opening a pomegranate and wondering if that is the right verb. You cut an apple; you peel a banana; you slice a peach or a pear. At any rate; I was knee deep in pomegranate juice hoping I wouldn’t stain my shirt as I was pulling and pushing out the succulent seeds hidden and tucked into the off white membrane. There were so many seeds; Jewish tradition counts six hundred and thirteen, each one corresponding to a Mitzvah, each one urging us to bring harmony and goodness into this world.

The juice was ruby red like the map of the United States on election night. By the way, you deseed a pomegranate; I just googled the instructions. It says to do it in a non-reactive bowl under water, minimizing the chance for permanent damage. That of course is my fear: that the seeds of anger and hatred that have been sown by the bitterness of the political campaign ending with a November surprise will stain our country. That the sweetness of the juice that surrounds these seeds will never realize their potential to do good and cleanse us with their anti-oxidant powers.

Am I being irrational; am I being an alarmist?  I feel I am allowing my disappointment to cloud my thinking but then again it is not all up to me. It is up to our President-Elect. Donald Trump will be our 45th. We have been in this business of electing presidents for over two hundred years. Some have been builders; some have been healers; some have inspired us; some have changed our very direction; some have been place holders; some have taught us to dream; some have shepherded us through times of terror and danger; some have disappointed; some have surprised. Time will tell.

You may call me naïve but until proven otherwise, I am choosing to have faith that the office will make the man. I apologize if that sounds a little condescending. He certainly understood the mood of so many in our country who were “done” with Washington. He certainly tapped into their disappointment, their anger and fear. He saw the unhappiness and unrest that the rest of us dismissed and ignored. So he is smart and savvy. He has proven that he has the ability to galvanize people in ways we never imagined. He has demonstrated that he understands America better than we do. Shame on us!

I am also choosing to hope that he will find a way to unite us. There is no place for triumphalism here. (OK – you can have your five minutes.) But what the election showed us is a fractured country. What the election showed us is a deep-seated anger. We need to heal. We need to come together. We need to mend. We need a government that governs and is of the people, for the people and by the people. That is our task and that is my prayer.

 

 

We Went to Africa

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“We went to Africa.” Is that my sentence or is that an echo of Meryl Streep reciting some variation of those words at the beginning of the movie “Out of Africa”. It was as beautiful as the movie, at least the parts and parks we went to. People said to us it was a life changing experience. That’s a little too hyped for me. But it was amazing; it was unique; it was unlike almost any other travel experiences I have had. I keep going back to the pictures and reliving the moments again and again.

We actually went to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Technically we were also in Zambia but that was only at the airport and the most compelling memory about that was the $50 per person fee to get a Visa and have the privilege of walking across its border. We were there at the end of their winter; they were waiting for the rains; so out in the game parks and national preserves, the predominant colors were different hues of brown. That is until dusk and the setting sun transformed the browns into shades of orange, yellow and gold.   The beige was now cream and the dust kicked up by the tires of the range rover became warm specks of a fading day that was filled with awe.

That is awe like in splendor; not awe like in fear. But there were a few times, when we asked our ranger: Just how close to those lions do you think we should we be? “Keep your hands inside the vehicle; speak softly; don’t stand; don’t move quickly,” he answered, “You will be fine.” That is awe like in Jacob waking from his dream and realizing: “How filled with God is this place and I, I did not know it.”

Yea, it’s religious. These animals in their natural habitat, where they are the residents and we are the visitors, are inspiring. I mean that word as in take your breath away. Whether it is a lone bull elephant standing next to a water hole in an almost dry river bed throwing dust on his back to keep from getting sunburned or a giraffe’s head just peeking out of the trees, its spotted body fading in and out of the canopy, perfect camouflage. A leopard climbing down from its perch and sliding through the tall grass of the Delta, appearing and disappearing at will, with not a sound except the rustling blades.

They teach us humility. Not how small we are; but our place. We are not alone in this world. It does not begin and end with us. We are part of something bigger, greater, more complex and more splendid than we ever imagined. We have been given an amazing gift; how awesome our responsibility.

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There was a new moon last night. In my sky it was bright white, a sliver of its fullness, floating against a black sky. It was warm with promise. It spoke of what is yet to come. It came at a good time, reminding me of what is real and what is not. It was the Elul moon of preparation.

Yesterday we spent the day packing. Or to be more accurate, yesterday we spent the day unpacking and repacking. The guidelines for the trip are “duffel bag, no more than 24 inches, no frame, small wheels”. We will be gone for a good portion of September so what to take, what to leave behind; what to carry forward, what to assign to the unnecessary pile. But unnecessary is such a grey word. What if it is colder than we anticipate; what if it rains; what if the mosquitoes are out in full force (unlikely this time of year)?

Prepare for every eventuality? Not in 24 inches. (I know people who are really good at this, I admire their decisiveness.) Or is it trust? What we call in Hebrew – bitachon. Trust that they can weather almost any eventuality. Trust that they are prepared.

There’s that word again. Prepare; fortify yourself that you are ready. Ready for a new moment, a new year, a new experience, a different way, a new path. Switch gears. Engage the clutch. Gradually let it out and find that sweet spot where when you press the gas, you move forward slowly, smoothly, gliding through the unknown, like last night’s moon.

I promised myself that today I was zipping them up. It is hard to carry when it’s open.
Things just keep falling out. Gotta make that leap of faith. Done. Done. Done.
But you know, I know, it’s never done, just finished for now. Thank God we can begin again. That’s the season you know; that’s the blessing of last night’s moon.