Strange Connectors

2002.05.02

After covering the fire training Sunday, I came home and showered before writing out the sermon/message I was asked to deliver at that afternoon’s annual interfaith Service of Remembrance, sponsored by one of the local hospices. They do a lot of important work, and I’ve written stories about their events every year I was a reporter. Everyone I talk to describes them as “angels of mercy who take over your house and help you more than you’d ever imagine.”

One year, they asked me to represent the Jewish community at the remembrance service by delivering the kaddish. The next year, they asked me to speak a few words at their annual tree-lighting ceremony in Sonoma Plaza (after I had written about one of their client families). Here is what I said this year:
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D’var Aveilut – 28 April 2002

Today I’d like to tell you about one of the scariest things I ever did.

I write for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Two years ago, I also began assisting Rabbi Bridget Wynne in her duties at Congregation Shir Shalom here in Sonoma. I think religion and reporting have the following in common: both can make us pay close attention to the world in order to help people make sense of it.

Jewish tradition describes two early stages of mourning, respectively called aninut and shiva. Aninut describes the period between death and burial; shiva encompasses the first seven days after burial, when grief is the most intense.

One of the traditions of shiva to hold the three daily worship services at the mourner’s home, so that they can say the obligatory prayers without having to go out. Judaism is mostly a religion of law, so any community services are required to have at least 10 people, called a minyan, in order to be legal. From a psychological perspective, this also means that, in a shiva minyan, the mourner is never alone.

Last autumn, one of our congregants, Gail Lutolf, died after a long illness. Our rabbi conducted the funeral, but wasn’t available to lead the shiva minyan. So she asked me to do it.

At this point, I had led a variety of services, but never in a house of mourning. But this is one of the things I have pledged my life to do. So with a pounding heart, and a sense of being in way over my head, I drove to Gail’s small but spacious house off Arnold Drive and knocked on the door.

Up to that point I had been arguing with myself over the most appropriate way to conduct the service. I mean, I knew the liturgy inside and out. But I didn’t know what to say to the people inside. What words of wisdom or comfort could I offer? For one thing, I’m not very wise, and for another, words aren’t all that comforting. For this reason, Jewish tradition teaches us that when we visit a mourner, we don’t say anything – we let them say something first, if they want. But when I knocked on the door, that all sounded trite to me — and all I could feel was afraid.

But Gail’s family – her husband, brother, mom, sister and assorted relatives – welcomed me warmly into the house. Some of our fellow congregants were there, too, to help make the minyan. They didn’t seem to know any more than I did what we should be doing. So we did what we thought best – we got out the prayer books and began the service.

I had never met Gail. And after the service, I didn’t speak – I listened. I learned a lot about her that night – her love of dogs and people, of writing, of her husband and family. Her infectious laugh and broad sense of humor. What sort of impression she made on the world of those who knew her – and what sort of hole remained when she left. By turns, we all laughed, and cried, and sat thoughfully, and then finished the service and said our goodbyes. When I went back the next night, it was like meeting old friends. And when I left again, I felt that I too had lost a friend – one that I had never known.

Let’s take a moment to look around the room.

We may not know each other, but we all have something in common. All of us have been touched by someone who isn’t here any more. We can see it in each other’s eyes, hear it in each other’s breathing, and know it in each other’s hearts. We don’t need to speak it in order to know it – we just have to be here.

In that way, I think the lives which touched us individually also touch us as a community. We learned something from these people – we carry them with us wherever we go – and whether or not we’re aware of it, we pass a part of them along to everyone we meet.

As I said, I never met Gail Lutolf. But she taught me two valuable lessons about connection.

The first is that, like an endless chain of relay racers, we are the link between those who came before us, and those whom we ourselves will leave behind. We stand in the center, holding hands with the future and with the past. And this is true whether or not we see it.

The second is that those links are easier to spot than we may think. In fact, they’re as close as the person sitting next to us – if only we learn how to listen.

Trial By Fire Trainer

2002.04.30

The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see or hear anything. And on top of that, I could barely breathe.

My knees and hands already hurt from the rough steel floor. The hose I was helping to drag weighed a ton, despite that the two other guys in front of me knew what they were doing and were holding up their end better than I was. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet smacked against the top of the airtank cinched on my back, forcing me to look at the floor or squat back on my heels. But I was previously told to stay as low as I could, so that didn’t seem like a good idea. In any case, my face mask was halfway fogged up, so all I could see — and that dimly — was a dull red glow at an indeterminate distance ahead.

The man closest to me, who had previously told me to stay an arm’s length behind him, turned his head in my direction. “Flaghhh! Flagghhn!” he shouted above the muffled white noise of fire and smoke generators and the clicking whine of my airtank.

“What? I can’t hear you!” I replied.

He gestured me forward, then put his mask close to mine. “Flagghn toff the fire!” he said urgently, and crawled forward.

I scooted forward along with him, crawling past a sheet of flame under the stairs to my right and toward the further glow which resolved itself into an upward-licking fountain of fire boiling up to and against the ceiling.

The man in front of him aimed the hose nozzle at the fountain. Through my soaking leather gloves, I felt the canvas tube jerk softly as he opened the nozzle, sweeping it in an arc parallel to the floor.

My breathing became labored and painful. I felt like I was trying to suck the whole airtank into my mouth with each desperate breath. My chest hurt and I fought the urge to claw the constricting mask from my face.

“I can’t breathe!” I shouted.

No one heard me.

I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me. He leaned toward me, a caricatured shadow against the leaping flame behind him.

“I can’t breathe!” I repeated.

I’m not sure what happened next. I think he managed to hear me, and communicate my distress to the man in front of him, then pointed behind me. Somehow or other, I found myself crawling toward the door by which we’d entered, keeping my right hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get disoriented. The safety officer opened the door for me, and I stood up and outside in one motion, trying calmly but desperately to reach the fresh sweet air millimeters away on the other side of my protective headgear.

Succeeding with careful dignity, I inhaled deeply and walked over to sit down on a low brick wall edging some bushes behind the Valley of the Moon main firehouse.

It was 8:30 a.m., Sunday, April 28, 2002. I had just had my first real taste of structural firefighting, and I felt like a wuss.

Cut to a month or so earlier…

When I first returned to the Index-Tribune and was heartily reacquainting myself with the “fire guys,” I was discussing what I’d missed with a longtime and close contact who had since become the training officer for the entire Valley fire service. He’s one of the local “old-timers” hereabouts, one of four or six with whom I used to chat (frequently and happily) and who exude the quietly confident competence that’s particular to people who have done what they love for so long that it’s first nature to them. The annual Valley volunteer fire academy was just starting up, and as I love to write the stories behind the stories — especially about the fire guys, who before Sept. 11 were commonly perceived to be doing nothing all day except waiting for the alarm to ring — I asked him if there would be anything particularly interesting to tell people about.

“Well, we’ll be having the fire trailer come down here,” he said. “How do you feel about putting on turnouts and an SCBA and doing some live fire training?”

I replied as I usually do (and as he and everyone else in the Valley fire service expects) when a similar suggestion is made.

“Cooooool!” I breathed. “When?”

The arrangements were made, and we spoke again a day or two beforehand.

“Should I bring my yellows?” I asked, referring to the wildland turnouts (Nomex protective clothing), emblazoned “PRESS,” which I wear when covering big grass fires.

“No,” he said. “Structural firefighting is a whoooole different ballgame.”

Something in the way he said that sent a tickle of apprehension through my brain. He asked me if I was claustrophobic and if I’d ever done any scuba diving, then when I said “no,” asked if I felt okay about using a SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus, or airtank and mask) with only five minutes’ instruction.

“Yes,” I said, wondering what I was getting into. Then he asked me for my shoe, pant and jacket sizes, and said he’d also get me some gloves and a helmet.

I arrived at the VOM station around 8 a.m. to find a couple of dozen men standing around the main engine bay in various states of firefighter undress, checking airtanks and other equipment and making small talk. My contact introduced me to one of the fire captains (we both felt we’d met before, but couldn’t tell) who proceeded to suit me up and briefly train me in the art of how to stay alive and breathing inside a burning building.

First I tried on the boots, then the jacket, then took off the boots and jacket so I could pull the boot-tops up inside the pants and put both on in two smooth motions. This is why the protective gear is called “turnouts” — you keep them at the foot of your stationhouse bunk so that when you turn out to answer the alarm at 3 a.m., you can slide into the boots and pull the pants up to your waist, slipping the suspenders (yes, they’re red) over your shoulders. I donned the coat, slipping my thumbs through the loops in the ends of the sleeves which keep the sleeves from riding up and exposing bare arm-flesh to the flame’s tender kiss. Everything fit me as though it had been tailored. I told the firefighters that my wife wanted to know if I could borrow the turnouts for the evening, and they laughed heartily and knowingly.

Next, a white Nomex hood went over my head and bunched down around my neck. The breathing mask went on, held by netting and straps and surprisingly forming a tight seal despite my short beard. Then the Nomex hood was pulled up over my neck and the top of my head, slightly obscuring the edges of the faceplate which had already begun to fog slightly.

The fire captain explained the workings of the SCBA tank — how to turn it on, how to connect it to the mask, how to disconnect it without losing any of its 20-minute air supply. After a quick run-through, we left the bay and walked toward the Mobile Live Fire Trainer parked behind the station.

This was a huge blue semi trailer with a six-foot by eight-foot hut sitting on top, which I later learned was one of the simulator’s three rooms — the upper “bedroom,” connected by internal stairs to a “kitchen” and “hazmat storage area” (think “paintcan-filled garage”) below. Propane jets and peanut-oil burners provided the fire and smoke inside the non-flammable trailer. As explained by the man in charge of the simulator, the captain and I and one other firefighter were to be a team which would go inside the “house,” crawl past a burning wall to knock down the fire in the hazmat area, pull back, climb the burning stairs to quench the bedroom (after passing our hands under the “bed” to check for “victims”), then reverse course downstairs and douse the kitchen.

As narrated at the beginning of this piece, I didn’t do so well. But our team was one of several cruising through the simulator in various rotations, so I vowed to do better on the next session. (The captain and other firefighter, who had completed their rotation without me, graciously told me I wasn’t at all a wimp and asked me if I wanted to be nozzleman on our next attack. I told them I’d think about it.) Meanwhile, I had caught my breath, and walked around doing my reporter thing, talking to some people I knew and a few I didn’t. (I always enjoy that part, and sprinkled with the interviews were quite a few “Welcome back!”s from people I didn’t know I had missed when I was away.)

The next rotation was a slightly different scenario: We were to climb an external ladder to the bedroom, carefully enter it (“There’s a foot-and-a-half drop that’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful,” warned the trainer), knock down the flames against the far wall, then proceed down the burning stairs, make a hairpin right into the corridor leading to the garage, douse the garage, then double back into the kitchen and put out the fire there. The captain asked me again if I wanted to be the nozzleman, and I heard myself saying, “Sure.”

I climbed the ladder, connected my airtank to the face mask, and stood waiting while the other members of my team flaked out the hose on top of the trailer. Now that I had been through this already, and had learned of the simulator’s fool-proof safety features, I was a bit more prepared. I realized that my earlier breathing problems weren’t caused by panic so much as ignorance — I had never used an airtank or been in a situation where I had to regulate my breathing, so I took steady, deep breaths as we prepared to go inside.

I pushed open the door to the burning bedroom, stepped over the edge and crouched low on the deck, clutching the hose and nozzle with my right arm and hand while my left grasped the nozzle-release lever. Take that, I thought as I opened the hose.

The water blasted into the base of the flame-wall on the other side of the room. “Sweep it!” came the muffled yell from the fire captain behind me. I slowly swept the nozzle from side to side, quickly dousing the fire.

Wow, I thought. That’s pretty cool.

“Down the stairs!” shouted the captain over the omnipresent din.

I crawled forward and paused at the brink, seeing flames licking a foot or two below me. “Just go ahead!” he shouted, barely audible.

I slowly descended the stairs, dropped to hands and knees, and, waved on by the safety officer sitting in the corner, turned right 180 degrees and dragged the hose with me.

This time I paid attention to my breathing, which while still labored was a lot less difficult. Approaching the flaming garage like Charles Atlas’ reborn 98-pound weakling returning to face the beachfront bully, I braced against the wall to my left and opened the nozzle.

“Closer!” shout-whispered the captain behind me.

I scooted a bit closer, directing the water jet toward what I thought was the base of the flames slightly above the garage floor. But I couldn’t see through the thick smoke! I could see my hands holding the hose, and I could bloody well see the fire, but the water jet might as well have been invisible. I swept it back and forth anyway, but nothing happened.

The captain’s hands reached around me, pulling the nozzle sharply upward. I saw the flames billow back against the aqueous intrusion, nodded, and swept with gusto. The flames flickered, hung on for about 20 seconds, then went out. Gotcha, I thought, shutting off the nozzle.

Then a fresh sheet of fire broke out about three feet above the first, washing the ceiling in lambent scarlet. I swore, then attacked it in calm fury.

When that enemy had been routed, I swore again when the lower bank re-ignited. But I grimly set to the task a third time, wondering if this was one of the unpredictable conditions faced by firefighters when they’re doing this for real.

Slowly, I became aware of a burning sensation at two points on my left cheek. With alarm, I realized it was the metal buckles on my face-mask straps beginning to heat up. If they don’t get any hotter, I’ll be okay, I thought. Uncomfortable, but okay. I continued spraying the burning garage wall.

They began to get really hot. Painfully so.

DAMN IT! I screamed to myself. Here we go again. I continued sweeping the garage wall, and when it was finally out, I motioned to the captain. “My face is burning,” I shouted calmly, tapping my face. “I think I need to leave.”

He nodded, then shouted “Back out and up the stairs!”

I didn’t know he meant that literally. The flames extinguished, I dropped the hose (breaking rule #1, as I learned later) and turned my back on the now-smoking garage (breaking rule #2), headed down the corridor, climbed the stairs and went through the bedroom to the sunny Sunday morning outside.

Postscript: As I told a couple of longtime fire service contacts before I left the VOM station, “I’ve been covering the fire beat for three years, but I don’t think I really understood it until today. It’s one thing to know this stuff from the outside — it’s quite another to be engulfed by it. And even though I’ve pretty much understood why you guys do this, I didn’t understand how. Thanks for shooting my personal learning curve through the roof!”

Yids With Lids

2002.04.25

A recent poster to soc.culture.jewish.moderated was soliciting opinions from full-time kippa wearers for a paper she’s writing. I contacted her, and submitted the following responses to her questions:

: Why do you wear a kippa?
I began wearing a kippa full-time about two years ago — it’s 98% part of my ever-deepening religious observance, and 2% politics. I started to become a “progressive ba’al teshuva” while working as a newspaper reporter, and took to wearing a kippa all during Shabbat. It felt too weird to take it off, so I wrestled with my commitment to Jewish tradition as well as to not spooking or distracting my sources. Then, in March 2000, a Jewish Petaluma businessman’s truck
was graffiti’d and set afire. Not being a big believer in community
invisibility, I donned a kippa and have been wearing it ever since.

: What does your kippa look like? How did you choose it?
I actually have about a dozen. Some are too small, which I discovered only after wearing them as “garments” instead of occasionally at services. I might wear eight or nine of them on a regular basis.

I favor the kippa sruga — crocheted or knit — to the velvet or suede
varieties. I have a plain black one I wear while “on the job,” since I have dark brown hair and the black kippa isn’t very noticeable. But the others are of various colors and patterns. I’m vain enough to want to coordinate them with what I’m wearing, even though most of them don’t match my somewhat limited wardrobe. I do have two blue ones which I alternate for Shabbat, and a red-white-and-blue one which I reserve for Election Day and the Fourth of July.

As for choosing them, it was whatever was available at the local Jewish bookstore/Sisterhood giftshop/online Judaica store when I stopped/clicked through.

: What meaning does it have for you? What message, if any, do you think it communicates to others?
For me, it is a constant reminder that there is Something bigger than I am, as well as an ethical standard of behavior to which I should adhere at all times. Not being others, I couldn’t tell you their reaction. However, I have been aproached by more Jews than I can remember who are glad to see a “landsman” when they least expect it! I have also explained the laws of kashrut to an Egyptian man one morning at my local coffee shop, and discussed the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic readings of Genesis with the Samaritan manager of a nearby 7-Eleven. I have yet to encounter any animosity, G-d forbid, although I have had encounters with philo-Judaic types who want to tell me how awful the matzav is and how they stand with Israel because Jesus said to. I smile and thank them.

: What impression do you form of a stranger wearing a kippa? Does it matter what the kippa looks like?
My first reaction is usually, “Hey! Me too!” I’m not hip enough to the
subtleties and nuances of kippot to be able to do more than that, although I’ve noticed that most neo-mystical vegetarian types go for the really big, loosely crocheted kippot.

: Do you feel any (special?) connection to a stranger wearing a kippa? Would your answer be different in Jerusalem vs. Podunk, USA?
I think I do, at least in a first-impression, superficial way. As I’ve not
yet been to Jerusalem but live in Podunk about an hour north of San
Francisco, I’ll have to plead insufficient data. I bet it would be, though.

: How do you feel about non-religious Jews who don kipot on certain occasions (e.g., in synagogue, at a brit or a seder)? Is it respectful? Hypocritical?
Something else?

Personally, I think it’s kind of sweet. It’s hard for me to imagine it being hypocritical or disrespectful.

: What are your (kippa-related) opinions that I haven’t asked about?
I guess the only thing that comes to mind is that I am much, MUCH more careful with what I say or do when I’m out in public. It’s very interesting to wear one’s identity on one’s head — to know that someone’s first impression of me potentially isn’t “affable, brown-haired guy” so much as “JEW.” It has also made me more aware of the ways in which I am apt to (mis)judge others based on personal appearance. Much like life, wearing a full-time kippa is a continual learning experience!

Awwwe

2002.04.22

Another reason why married life is wonderful–

Last night, as I was getting into the shower and my wife was getting into bed, I decided to open the bathroom door in order that Ann & I would “be closer.” (After 14 years, we still don’t like being in separate rooms.) I opened the door just as Ann’s knuckles rapped softly on it.

“Oh!” she said in surprise. “I was coming in to ask if I could open the door so we could be closer.”

Substitute Rav

2002.04.21

While our chicken dinner is marinating in mmmm-good Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce, and before I pop it in the oven:

Friday night services went pretty well, I think. As I am not yet proficient enough with the Reconstructionist siddur to lead a service straight out of it (despite that I am aspiring to be a Reconstructionist rabbi), I — with the rabbi’s blessing — dusted off my “Erev at the Improv” service and set forth to Cotati.

People seemed to really enjoy it! There were about a dozen people there, including one man with whom I’m sort-of acquainted and want to get to know better (he too bothers his wife with endless optimism that Hashem’s plan is unfolding as it should, whether or not it’s personally convenient for those of us caught up in it.) I kind of blew the penultimate verse of the Aleinu, though, but no one seemed to mind.

There was quite a bit of participation, and some nice reactions during the dvar. Here it is. I think it’s kind of lame in parts, but I think I’ve learned a bit from it:

Dvar Torah - Shabbat Achrei Mot/Kedoshim 5762

A friend of mine once told me something so simple, yet profound, that I wish I'd thought of it first. He told me that all of the world's religious teachings boil down to just four simple words: "Don't be a jerk." (Except that he doesn't use the word "jerk.")

In many ways, this week's Torah portion tells us the Jewish art and science of how not to be a jerk.

We actually have two parshiyot this week, so I'll be more specific: we're lookking at the first part of the second parsha, Kedoshim, which is chapter 19 of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. The parasha begins with G-d saying to Moses, "Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai eloheichem - You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy."

"What is meant here by 'being holy?'" asks Richard Eliot Friedman in his new Torah commentary. "The chapter that begins with this statement stands out because, perhaps more than any other in the Torah, it merges major commandments of so many different sorts. It includes most of the Ten Commandments, sacrifices, justice, caring for the poor and the infirm, treatment of women, of the elderly, food, magic, loving one's neighbor as oneself, loving (a stranger) as oneself.

"If one had to choose one chapter out of the Torah to make known, it might well be this one. The strange mixing of so many different kinds of commandments may convey that every commandment is important. Even if we are naturally inclined to regard some commandments as more important than others, and some commandments as most important of all, this tapestry presses us to see what is important and valuable in every commandment, even commandments that one might question."

This can be illustrated by a recurring pattern: Twelve passages conclude either with the phrase, "Ani Adonai eloheichem - I am Hashem, your G-d" or simply "Ani Adonai - I am Hashem." Six of these passages are notable because they concern things which could only be known to the person doing them, like swearing falsely, insulting the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. But they also concern matters of the heart - loving others as we love ourselves, for example.

What can this mean? Why the continual "Ani Adonai?" One interpretation is the parental, "Because I said so." But another interpretation is this: Even when there's no one else around, we're around.

That means the Shechina, the Presence of G-d, is around, too. But only when we pay attention.

Like the uncertainty principle of Reb Heisenberg, Torah is telling us that we affect the Universe by observing it. Perhaps in the same way, we also affect the Universe by observing mitzvot.

But our parsha teaches us that observation is only half of the equation. The other half is discipline and practice. Kedoshim teaches us to do both ritual and ethical mitzvot - but implies that they're only mitzvot if we are aware of them as mitzvot. In other words, if we refrain from hatred or pay the plumber on time because it's the right thing to do, we're behaving ethically. But if we keep in mind that refraining from hatred or paying the plumber on time is an expression of our relationship with the Divine, then we transform our ethics into mitzvot.

In this sense, we can potentially transform anything that comes our way into an awareness of Hashem - or, if we prefer, an awareness of the underlying unity of all things. I like to think it's a little like playing soccer: Our goal is the net of awareness. Life passes us the mitzva-ball, and our job is to knock it into the net using our heads and feet. Our heads to think and feel - and our feet to walk in the way the mitzvot lead us...

Shabbat shalom.

Chinning the Bar

2002.04.15

One of the reasons why I love my wife so much is that our conversations range from the silly to the serious.

On the silly end are our discussions about the secret lives of animals: their tea-parties, nutritional choices, and the songs they sing to their children. But these are mysteries which cannot be discussed here.

At the other side of the spectrum are the serious conversations about life, perception, Judaism, socialization, etc. Many of these latter talks will no doubt leak onto this website, since they provide me with an endless pool of inspiration for my future rabbinate. Thus:

Last night, we attended a concert in Marin County featuring our favorite female a capella group. Their performance was preceded by a talk by a woman who has made it her life’s work to translate Biblical and liturgical works into more lively and gender-inclusive forms.

I thoroughly enjoy her translations, and support her thesis that tradition holds a place for creativity, but took mild exception to her statement that the ancient liturgy doesn’t speak to modern Jews. As modern Jews who love ancient liturgy, my wife and I couldn’t help discussing this on the way back to Sonoma.

What we came up with was this: Almost by definition, there will always be a tension between a religious tradition and the individual practitioner thereof. Essentially, in many ways, the tradition will both challenge and validate the individual practitioner.

There seems to be a tendency among modern spiritual types to reject challenge in favor of validation — whether because of bad childhood religious experiences, or perceived “patriarchal” theologies, or self-centeredness, or something else.

Challenge is what makes us grow as individuals — forcing us to live outside our heads and predilections. Validation is what tells us that we’re doing okay. In (what I define as) a “true” spiritual path, one cannot exist without the other — unalloyed challenge is restrictive, while unalloyed validation can foster delusions.

I personally love the challenge of ancient liturgy as much as I love the challenge (read: the “ugly and difficult parts”) of Torah — because life is often ugly and difficult, too. The challenge for me in seeing “kedusha Torah” (sanctity of Torah) is the same as seeing “kedusha chayyim” (the sanctity of life). As a good and holy friend of mine says whenever anything awful happens to him, “It’s all part of the training.” (Which once prompted another friend of mine to reply, “I don’t know what kind of ungodly catastrophe Mark’s in training for, but I’m going to his house when it happens.”) But not everybody wants or welcomes a challenge — many prefer to ignore the ugly parts and focus on the “good.” But that’s bubbe meise (nonsense) — if we don’t recognize the ugly, how can we transform it to the beautiful? And isn’t that what partnering with Hashem really entails?

Of course, I realize that I am generalizing somewhat, even though I’m basing the above on direct observation. But I think that one challenge in building a 21st Century rabbinate is going to be the ability to validate while challenging — to use Reb Shakespeare’s words, “Trick into learning, with a laugh.”

Peace Through Superior Prayerpower

2002.04.12

Well, the “shalom service” was either very wonderful or very weird, depending on whether you want to think about it quantitatively or qualitatively.
From the former perspective, it was weird because — either despite or because of or having nothing to do with advance email-list publicity by my rabbi and I — only two members of our congregation showed up. Also in attendance were some very dear, longtime friends of Ann’s and mine from our RenFaire tribe and a woman and a couple who needed, in light of the matzav, to be with other Jews and happened to find out we were having a service.
Qualitatively, however, it was very profound. We did the straight Erev Shabbat I service from our Reform siddur, and I never heard such loud and earnest davening. The d’var shalom went over pretty well (I’ll post it after this entry); people really had a need to share their fears and hopes. Mostly, we spoke about how wrenching it is that Jews are fighting Jews as a community well as within our own hearts. We also spoke about how none of us want Psalm 83 to be a part of our personal or comunal theology. We all cried a little, as is natural when speaking from the kishkes. Afterwards, we laughed a little too. Everyone was profoundly grateful for the chance to come together. And I am, as always, profoundly grateful to Hashem for allowing me to enable that to happen.
That quantitaive vs.qualitative thing … Despite my firm belief that people should only come to services if they want to, I freely admit to a bit of disappointment that more people didn’t attend. But more importantly, perhaps, is what a difference it made in the lives of those who did attend.

Here is my d’var shalom. When I delivered it, I expanded a bit on my own personal feelings:


D’var Shalom – Erev Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5762

Last December, our religious-school director Susan Jebrock and I attended a meeting of Jewish educators in San Francisco. The lead speaker was a rabbi named Avram Infeld, a big macher in Israeli educational circles. He’s an amazing speaker, one of those larger-than-life characters straight out of a Leon Uris novel or Zorba the Greek.

Among other gems, he told us always to teach value-laden terms in Hebrew, not English. “What does ‘tzedakah’ mean?” he asked us. “Charity,” we answered. “WRONG!” he thundered. “Charity is what you give because of how it makes you feel! Tzedakah is what you give because it’s the right thing to do!”

The word “shalom” has nuances that don’t translate well into English. More than simply “peace,” it carries connotations of “wholeness,” “harmony,” and “integrity.” Shalom isn’t so much a lack of war as what you get when everything is in balance, with no wobbling.

That’s what’s so important about the word “shalom” – since it also means “wholeness,” it necessarily contains the opposite of “peace.” But only in balance with everything else.
We are the balance point where it all comes together.
But to bring it all together, and do that as seriously and sincerely as we can, we have to clearly look and listen to both arms of the balance.

I’d like to read two psalms right now which apply to the matzav, or current Israeli-Arab situation. Both are about as different as they can be.

- Psalm 83. This uses some obscure references, but rather than excerpt them, I’ve left them in for sake of the meter.
- Psalm 122.

I’ve read those tonight partly because they illustrate two ends of the tunnel we seem to be in, and mostly because I myself have been wobbling between those two extremes, on an almost hourly basis, for the past several months. You are the first people to whom I’ve told this other than my wife. I am not used to or comfortable being filled with rage and vengeance; I don’t like it one bit. Hatred and anger do not come easily to me. I prefer to take the bigger view, the view that shows us how to keep human beings from fighting over nothing and everything at the same time. I prefer balance to wobbling.

That’s not always easy. Talking about it makes it easier. Being listened to makes it easier still.

If anyone wants to say anything and would like us to listen, now would be a good time. I only ask that we refrain from discussing political solutions, and stick to airing our fears and hopes – starting our sentences with “I feel” instead of “we should” or “they should.” Remember, the Talmud records the losing opinions, too, since we can learn from them and may reconsider them as times change. We don’t yet know what the losing opinions are in this situation – so let’s try to value and respect these differences, even those that may remain unspoken.

Most of the last part — “I only ask … fears and hopes” and “Remember … remain unspoken” was written by my rabbi. She’s better at saying that sort of thing than I am. I closed with two poems by Yehuda Amichai, “I May I Rest In Peace” and the following “Appendix to (Isaiah’s) Vision of Peace” (translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt):

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

Meeting Himself Coming the Other Way

2002.04.12

Sometimes, to take a step forward, it’s necessary to take a step back.

I’m sitting here having lunch at the desk I occupied for three years as a city, fire, religion and state developmental center reporter. The Sonoma Index-Tribune rehired me on March 26 as a city, fire and police reporter after my replacement resigned and they were stuck without a reporter. I accepted the position on the understanding that my schooling wouldn;t suffer, and that I wouldn;t be around to fix the news if it broke between sunset Friday and three stars on Saturday.

So much for the facts…

It feels REALLY WEIRD to be back here again. Good weird, though. I feel connected again. Important. Not ego important (“look at me everybody! I’m the big man in town”), but NEEDED. Alive. As though what I do matters.

Some of that may or may not be related to the male requirement for status which sets in around 40 years old, which I became on March 22. Mostly, I think it has to do with how my mind grinds itself into mush if I don;t have something to feed it.

Well, back to work. Time to type up the police report.

Fringey Blue

2001.11.14

from a pre-Blogger blog

Tzitzit under blue jeans feel like nothing, and yet feel like everything.

They feel like nothing because the four-cornered cotton garment to which they’re attached is extremely light. I forwent the type which snap or stitch under the arm, since a) I didn’t think it necessary and b) we’re having a slack financial tide right now (meaning that the basic style is less expensive). The tzitzit, intricate knots which remind us of mitzvot (sacred obligations) like strings wrapped around our souls’ fingers, look a little like yellow spaghetti. The serape-like garment to which they’re attached fits nicely under my shirt, although tucking it into my pants is a bit tricky — I prefer wearing them under an untucked shirt, where they can dangle free.

But this is where they “feel like everything.” I wear a kippa full-time, and have for nearly two years. But that’s not a mitzva, it’s a custom. It publicly identifies me as a Jew, and forces me to be on my best behavior when I’m around other people. It’s also something of a conversation piece: I’ve explained kashrut to a curious Egyptian man at a morning coffeeshop, compared the Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the first verse of Genesis with the proprietor of a local 7-Eleven, and been greeted by more Jews than I can remember right now.

Tzitzit, however, are different — they’re a mitzva, something we’re supposed to do according to Torah. However, in my life, they’re something strictly between me and G-d — a quiet reminder, not an advertisement of piety. (Sadly, in the circles in which I travel, I think they’d be perceived as an advertisement of a different sort.) I’ve only been wearing them for five days now, and already I “feel more like a Jew.” That’s pretty weird to see myself writing that, since I tend to see “Jew” as something you are and do, not something you feel. But I guess that’s part of the mystery of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do and we will hear,” or — loosely translated a la Ivan Stang — “Laugh. See?” It’s what our ancestors replied when Moshe Rabbeinu said that G-d had some instructions for them [Exodus 24:7].) There are things we do which define us to ourselves. For me, “being a Jew” and not wearing tzitzit, or laying tefillin, or praying every day, or studying Torah, or seeking to be my best and see the best in others, feels to me like “being an American” but not voting. Grasping the shell of the thing but not savoring its essence. Tzitzit are definitely of the essence. (At least, for me. Others, G-d willing, will have a different view of the notional constraints within which to conduct oneself Jewishly.)

We’re either “on the bus or off the bus,” as the now-late Ken Kesey once said. Given that, the question isn’t “How many people can we take with us?” but rather “What will we share with each other along the way?”

Haiku 911

2001.09.11

IT’S ALL DIFFERENT, NOW.
But as the smoke palls the sky
The flowers still bloom

Why We Teach

2001.04.24

from a pre-Blogger blog

Conversation with a 12-year-old bat mitzva candidate, who I’m tutoring by probing the meaning of the prayers:

Okay, read me the first part of the Sh’ma in English.

“Hear O Israel, the Eternal is G-d, the Eternal is One.”

Okay… what’s that mean?

“Well, G-d is one.”

What else?

“Well, that monotheism is something Jews believe in.”

Okay. But what does it mean to you?

“I think it means that, in a way, that we’re all Abraham, since Abraham was the first Jew, and the first person to know that G-d is One or that there’s one G-d. So, every time we say the Sh’ma, it’s like we’re saying that for the first time, and understanding that we’re Abraham.”

…..! Well…. ah…. what responsibilities does that give us, if we’re all Abraham?

“It means that we all have to treat each other honorably, and with love. But since we’re none of us perfect, and can only do the best we can, that’s what we have to do — the best we can.”

Rockin’ at the Beit Tefilah

2001.04.03

from a pre-Blogger blog

What happens when you turn back the clock 2,000 years to add creativity to Jewish worship? Erev at the Improv, that’s what — an experiment in structured liturgical spontaneity which, happily, was enthusiastically embraced by the 30 or so people attending this evening’s service. (SIx or seven of them also embraced me afterward, in fact.) I’m absolutely blown away by this, still, at this writing.
Simplistic background: Around the beginning of rabbinical Judaism, we didn’t have standardized siddurim (prayer books) containing a bunch of standardized prayers. What we had, rather, was a standardized structure on which, jazzlike, prayer leaders would improvise a service — e.g., a Friday evening service in Alexandria, say, and one in Rome or Jerusalem would all have two blessings before the Sh’ma prayer — one for creation of the world, the other for the revelation of Torah — but the specific wording of the blessings might be different. Over many years, though, and partially motivated by political conflicts between rival Jewish communities, favorite prayers — “The Top 40,” if you will — were collected and edited into the modern siddurim we use today.

So… armed with this knowledge, acquired from a recent Ritual Committee meeting; inspired by a congregational call for more creative communal worship, and enthusiastically encouraged by our very cool Rabbi, I assembled and wrote a six-page service using structured improvisation* — just like the Good Old Days.

The evening had one rule: Nobody could say anything unless they phrased as a blessing: a sentence beginning with “Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are You, O G-d), Who…”

And the results were wonderful. It took about five minutes for everyone to catch on to the basic idea, but once that happened, yeehaw! People were really getting into it — Jewishly speaking from the gut about what they found most important in life. “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has let me feel my granddaughter’s hand in mine.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given us new things to find every time we study Torah.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given me a community to support me in my time of need.” And so on into the evening — a steady flow of “Baruch atah Adonai,” punctuated by reflective silence.

Three post-service comments stood out: “I didn’t know any of this was supposed to mean anything.” “What I liked was that it was creative, but completely Jewish.” “Can we do this again?”

And so we shall — on May 11. Wheee.

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