I Bought a Hat

IMG_5822We were in New York last week and got tickets for Dear Evan Hansen. We were there for the matinee performance the day they won the Tony for best musical. It was an incredible experience, touching, disturbing, funny, challenging, thoughtful, entertaining. The amount of talent on the stage was intimidating. Forget the voices and the staging how did they remember all those lyrics? I can barely remember the name of the person I just met.

I bought a hat. I’m a sucker like that. I usually do the t-shirt thing but I had left my favorite hat in Iceland a few days before and if you know the topography of my head, you know I need a hat in summer. I saw it during the intermission and buying the hat was part of my internal conversation during the second half of the show.

It’s about how a high school boy who can’t find his place and lives his life trapped inside unable to open a window to the world, singing: “I’m tap tap tap tapping on the glass …. Can anybody see … is anybody waving back at me?” It’s about suicide and how the death of a classmate weaves its way into Evan’s story and turns him into a social media sensation ultimately bringing redemption, flawed, problematic, disturbing but healing never the less. It’s about love, lies and life lived imperfectly.

The audience is young for Broadway. You can see and hear it in their laughter, tears and cheers. Did I say I loved it? Did I say the lying and the moral ambiguities of the plot nagged at me? Most of the New York critics fall in love with Evan. A few zero in on the darker side. One reviewer in Slate calls our hero: “A self-serving fabulist who exploits the suicide of a high-school classmate by peddling a fake connection to the dead boy. The con man revels in the resulting internet fame, which wins him popularity and even the sexual attention of the boy’s grieving sister. What a creep…”

But that’s no creep who wins my heart and wins the Tony. That’s you and me. Reb Nachman said: Falling down is the beginning of rising up. Ok so we don’t do it with as much talent; we don’t have some one to stage our entrances and exits or hauntingly raw music to accompany the lyrics we call conversation. Everyone I know (maybe my circle is too limited) falls and slips as they climb through the waking hours of each day. Our hero is flawed. Our hero lies. Our hero grasps for broken straws to pull himself out the hole he is living in. There is a piece of our hero in all of us.

So I bought the hat and even downloaded the music. Reb Nachman let me. Every ascent begins with a descent.


Alone With Myself

Split - singersWe have no Internet and no cable tonight. A storm came through late this afternoon and somewhere down the line knocked us off our knees. It feels like that; cut off, isolated from the outside world. Lucky I still have a landline not tied to my cable provider (although no one has called – not even a cold “robo” call.) What is happening out there?

I decided I needed to fill up the void with music. I recently started to burn my music onto my computer and rediscovered this music of all male voices from Split, Croatia. Standing in a semi-circle chanting in an open-air rotunda of a fourth century palace built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, the singers voices harmonized and blended,  The depth of their tones echoed and circulated round and round transporting listeners to another time and place. I bought a disk of these 12 men singing acapella in a language I will probably never understand. But they are perfect for tonight as I realized there is so much we don’t understand.

There is so much we really don’t have to. It is ok to be alone with yourself. For tonight I just need the voices of these unknown men from half way around the world to convince me that all is right with my world even if I can’t tune in and or connect. I guess I am having my own version of Shabbat. And it is good, very as God says contemplating creation. As long as I know that every one I love is safe and secure I can cherish this gift of presence and allow myself this artificial cocoon a consequence of failure.

I need to figure out how to allow this to happen without cold fronts colliding with warm humid air following the Gulf Stream north. ( I am not a meteorologist in case you want to tell me that it was really from the Gulf of Mexico, although I don’t know how it got over the Wall.)  I fully admit that I don’t have the discipline to shut off the outside world on a seven-day schedule. That’s on me and not on the institution we call the Sabbath. I’m not built that way.

But I do appreciate Sabbath moments. Like tonight.  As a matter of fact, I am going to light some candles, drink some wine and taste a sinful carb, maybe braided, maybe chocolate.  And when all is right with the world and I am back on line – i’m posting.



The conditions seem to be right for me to try and write again. I am sitting in a quiet spot of the airport and someone just offered me a mint julep to celebrate the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Even though it is missing the bunch of mint leaves, it is a definite boost to my creative juices. And I have the time – 2 hours till my flight even boards and that’s assuming it is on time. But enough of this – although you should also know that they are offering free hot dogs to celebrate the coming of summer.

But that’s not the point – none of it. Yesterday was garbage day at my house. In the process of clearing the “stuff” off the kitchen counter that was to be discarded, I threw away a collection of keys. And of course I realized it after Waste Management had already collected curbside and the truck was long gone. The good news, we are not locked out of anything we know of. These were not keys to the car or keys to the house, they were a pile of keys tangled together, unsure of whose they were or what they opened. Maybe a key to a neighbor; maybe a key to a residence before this one; maybe a key to a locker in a gym we no longer belong to. Even a key to the Temple’s sound system cabinet – all of which gone and replaced, I’m sure.

All day long it bugged me. What is open and what is locked and what is a key anyway? It is more than that metal silver, bronze, multi-toothed instrument which when inserted right side up into a receptacle causes gears to tumble and worlds to open and expand. (I never realized how potentially sexy that is.). It’s like this bourbon that is lubricating my mind. I was kind of “down” when I realized these keys were gone. The stupidity of it all; the gnawing feeling of not knowing what it meant that these doors were closed now; had I limited access to whatever tomorrow might bring. Had I closed openings and opportunities? I want to know I can peek behind the opening and see what prize is behind Door #3 or whatever is the opposite. Or not.

No one knows the future. And the key you hold or the key you threw away won’t open that lock. You can only open tomorrow by living today, by going to sleep tired and waking up to a new dawn, a new opportunity. It is a blessing every moment offers though not a promise of eternal sunshine. It is the very sacred and challenging reality of choosing and choices. What will I do with this new dimension? How will I make it work for me? Not why; not woe; not paralysis of will, but forward, slowly forward, towards wherever Life may take me. Today is the key to tomorrow.

My quiet is gone. There’s this guy sitting opposite me, incessantly making love to his cell phone in Spanish (maybe Italian). I am such a mono-linguist American. I can’t hear anything but him. My inner voice is locked. Where are the keys?


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.

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.



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.