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.

Rumpled Colleagues In Truth

2001.03.25

from a pre-Blogger blog

Attending a dinner for the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, as a co-recipient of their annual James Madison Freedom of Information Award, I’m in the presence of real journalistic heroes: men and women quietly doing their jobs in order that their fellow-citizens can be better informed about their world. Some of those people, like the person who enabled us (by which I mean, my former employer and myself) to write the stories which lead our reception of the award, are bigger heroes: someone who risked a job (and security) in order to do the right thing — by blowing a badly-needed whistle.

As this is an online scrapbook, here’s my half of the acceptance speech (after my ex-boss introduced me by telling everyone that I had quit the news biz to attend rabbinical school):

“They say this job will drive you either to drink, or religion. I seem to have chosen the latter…
“When I was a kid, I was crazy about Don Quixote: knight-errant, defender of justice and the innocent, tilter at windmills which he thought were fierce giants.
“As a result, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I never thought I’d do it while working as a reporter.
“But when we first broke our story, after years of anonymous — but unproven — allegations that all was not well at SDC, my wife sent a bouquet of flowers to my desk, with a note: ‘You knew they were giants all along.’
“In a different way, this award says the same thing. The quest continues. Thank you.”

The evening is inspiring. It’s enlightening. It makes me really, really miss the news business. But it doesn’t make me miss it enough.

The Name’s Panim … P.A. Panim.

2001.03.14

from a pre-Blogger blog

One of the cool things about being a teacher is watching the students connect the dots I sprinkle, as happened Tuesday.

Our previous class touched on Shabbat observance, and my kids expressed disdain at the possibility of avoiding work (“That would mean you can’t even move a muscle to blink your eyes!” one complained). So this time, I showed the difference between the scientific definition of work (force applied over a given distance) and the Jewish definition (stuff which Torah says we did to build the Tabernacle). We were reading in unison a list of the 39 prohibited labors (melachot), such as dyeing, tanning (“Do you mean like making leather, or lying on the beach?”), combing raw material (“You mean like your hair?” “GROSS! I’m not going to not comb my hair!”) lighting a fire, etc., when one of my students said it was all too much for her.

“There’s too many rules, and I don’t see how you can keep them all or even any of them without being afraid to break one,” L said. “I don’t see why you have to keep all of these just to be a Jew.”

“Aha!” I said. “I hope everyone was listening to L just now, because she made a very important point. This was exactly the point made 200 years ago by the original founders of the Reform movement — the group of Jews with whom our congregation is affiliated.”

“Well, then, I want to be a Reform Jew,” L said to a classmate, F.” “Me too,” F replied.

We then got into a delightfully intense discussion about the Reform stance vis-a-vis observance of mitzvot (sacred obligations) and minhagim (custom), but one which I leavened with a careful respect for those who adhere to a stricter standard — as well as pointing out the joy of trying on various mitzvot before rejecting them all wholesale. (“Billions of people on this planet live perfectly happy, productive lives without saying the Shema twice a day,” I reminded them. “So the question isn’t, ‘What happens if I don’t do that?’ but “What will my life be like if I do?’”)

A good way into this, F asked me with characteristic directness, “Are you Orthodox?”

I wasn’t surprised by her question, since the kids know I wear a kippa (skullcap) full-time and daven shacharit (pray every morning). “Actually, no,” I replied. “I’m just a plain old Jew, who thinks the mitzvot are important enough that I want to keep, or at least try to keep, as many as I can. There are a few that I just flat won’t keep, but I’ll try to understand those too.

“Of course,” I added, “that’s just me. I also think those are decisions that we each have to make for ourselves. But we can only do it by learning as much as we can.”

There was a pause while this was digested. Then F asked, “No, didn’t you say you were some kind of, ‘Reorganized,’ or something, Jew?”

“OH!” I said, remembering our earlier class on the differences between Jewish movements. “Reconformodox?! Yeah — that’s actually kind of a joke. It stands for Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox. I sort of invented that *, because I think all the movements have something to teach us: whether it’s Orthodoxy’s sense of tradition, Reform’s emphasis on the individual, Conservative’s flexibility, or the Reconstructionist devotion to meaningfulness.” To my surprise, they all made me spell that so they could copy it into their notebooks. L turned to F and said, sotto voce, “I think I want to be a Reconformodox Jew.”

“Me too,” F replied.

The Eternal Refrain: Hello World

1980.01.01

“FEAR NOT, BUT TRUST IN Dollinger
For he will fetch you through.”

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