Passover Falling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s April. I almost forgot even though last night on Jimmy Kimmel they were doing April Fool’s pranks. I guess it didn’t stick because it was my second choice, having changed the channel from Colbert when he put his face behind the grill and began his “midnight confessions”. All these late night talented comedians and commentators are part of my bedtime ritual like the evening “Shema”. Some of the time I put the TV on a 30 minute automatic shut off mode; on good nights, I just trust I can fall asleep without their white noise.

I remembered it was April this morning when into my inbox Knopf flew the first in a month long poem of the day for National Poetry Month. I love the anticipation of these emails, knowing full well that they are a challenge and an opportunity to see the world differently, to feel the world obliquely, to be present uniquely inside the heart, mind, “kishkes” of the author. Like my late night television personalities, with whom I am not always in sync, I often don’t succeed in understanding the poets and their motivations. But that’s Ok because for me it’s all about reaching, stretching, wrestling.

Passover or part of it almost always falls during poetry month. Passover actually doesn’t fall. A fall is almost always accidental and there is nothing accidental about Passover. Not if you know the holiday and all the preparation it demands depending on your comfort level with leaven. I take my own advice about leading a Seder purposefully seriously. So yesterday I was tinkering with using the website Haggadot.com that gives you the tools to create your own personal Haggadah with clips, resources and templates from traditional to contemporary to humanist to atheist – you name it. This morning I counted up how many copies of the same Haggadah we own to see if the number matched with a how many people we’ve invited to the Seder. (What’s wrong with sharing?)

For me, Passover is an intricate and complex poem. The words, questions, songs, symbols, rituals all point somewhere other that where we are. The story we tell is ever old, ever new.   The bitter herbs we dip grow in gardens near and far. The wine we lick off our fingers numbering ten suffers ancient and contemporary deaths. The open door brings a breeze of fear mingled with hope. The questions we ask ultimately lead me to faith. The God we invoke, praise, entreat a God of yearning, freedom, aspiration.

This puzzle we call Passover is much like the mystery we call life. It is a journey from unknowing to knowing and back again. It is free men and women becoming slaves, wresting a journey to a promised land of liberty only to be stuck in a desert of fear. It is trusting we can get out of the narrow places and into the wide starry darkness of eternity. It is believing nothing is accidental.

Passover doesn’t just fall.

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The Hidden Haman

first-they-came-forMaybe it is time to reread Nathan Englander’s, book of short stories: “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”   Not that the book is a formula for what you do when Jewish Community Centers and Day Schools receive bomb threats. But given the events of recent weeks, I am beginning to think about the Anne Frank conversation.

In Englander’s story, the Anne Frank conversation is a four-person exchange. It comes after a lot of drama and a little bit of pot. What would you do if they came again? Who would you trust to hide you? Is there a righteous gentile in your neighborhood? (Sorry Mr. Rogers).   It is mind boggling to me that the news brings this story back to life. And when I say ‘news’ I mean real hard facts, not fake news or alternative facts.

This is how the internal conversation begins for me: Is this all an isolated phenomenon, although the answer is in the first paragraph of the Wall Street Journal article. “This is the fifth wave of such incidents this year.” I need someone to speak up; I need someone to tell me that my government cares about this; I need to know I can trust that law enforcement is putting appropriate resources into this. I need to feel protected or it is time to take action in a different kind of way and turn the ADL into the JDL.

There I said it. To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn turn. Is it our turn here in America? Is Anti-Semitism a new fact of life and this is the beginning of a different reality or this is the same reality that was always underground and now has been given permission to surface?  And what is it with Jewish cemeteries. The Jews in there are dead already. Is that the ultimate in hatred – they can’t be left to rest in peace?

Some of us saw this coming when they started attacking and burning Mosques. Some of us heard the thunder when in the last Presidential campaign words were used as swords. Some didn’t want to believe it could happen here. When Harry Golden said: Only in America, we heard: Never in America. I want my congressman to go to my local JCC and affirm there is no place for bigotry against any minority of religion, color, language, or culture in this America. I want my President to demand an investigation. I want the Jews in his inner circle to tell him: These are my people; this is my pain; find the hidden Haman wherever he may be.

I always thought the Book of Esther was fiction like Englander’s Anne Frank story. I’m afraid not.

Confession

 

if-now-nowHere’s my problem. I can’t think about anything else to write about except what is happening to our country.  How scary it is to live not knowing if you are at the beginning of a “new and improved” era of fear and repression. I had a meeting the other night at my house of a group of people looking for effective ways to make their voices heard and make a difference in the political climate of confrontation and name calling we seem to be inhabiting. The people in power right now believe that they can bully us into silence and by the sheer weight of their tweets paralyze us from acting. They disparage everything I was taught as pivotal to the great American experiment of democracy.

I think the game plan is to set up a series of scapegoats whom we can blame and undermine our faith and trust in the very institutions that make this country work. With all their pious posturing at prayer breakfasts with heads bowed, they are chipping away at what is the secular sacred system set into place by our founders. I know I am venting and you really don’t need this from me; it is on the news all day long.

I actually think we all need something different.

At the meeting, I made a confession. I made it in the singular but I am betting it could easily be communal and plural. I have lots of political positions and plenty of partisan opinions but it has been years since I have carried a sign and physically joined a rally. I’ve made donations to political causes; I’ve voted in every election; I’ve signed petitions (I can feel myself getting defensive). But rarely did I call my representative in Washington; I have never gone to a town hall meeting of my senator or congressman. And I am not alone; I know it. Lots of us are caught in the daily rounds of our living and it is hard to get us to move off our own personal dime. Newton taught us: “An object at rest tends to stay at rest”. It needs a push.

This political climate has been my push. I have called congress; I have a sticky note on the bottom of my computer with their telephone numbers. I have emailed; I have gone to one rally so far. It’s not hard; it just takes doing. And if you don’t know where to start, try this article from the New York Times: “A Low Tech Guide To Becoming More Politically Active”. Here’s one of their suggestions: http://phonecongress.com/ Click on it – it will guide you through finding your representatives and what to say about specific issues.

It is time. It is up to you and me. No more waiting, watching. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon: You don’t have to do it all, but if now now – when? And if not me, who?

 

 

 

 

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

leonard-cohen

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.