Saturday, April 30, 2016

Time and Time

היום שבעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד בעמר
Today is seven days--that is one week--of the omer
מלכות שבחסד
A day of leadership in a week of loving kindness

Pesach ends at the seventh day of the omer.
We mark the day and from now on, the week as well.
A reminder that there are different ways to measure time.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Words of Wisdom

היום ששה ימים בעמר
Today is six days of the omer
יסוד שבחסד
A day of foundation in a week of loving kindness

This morning, on what is said to be the anniversary of the event, those of us gathered to mark the 7th day of Pesach stood and heard the story of the splitting of the sea. We symbolically walked through that tunnel of water, and sang a song of joy.

My joy was increased by seeing Mira Shelub, a wonderful woman in her 90's, looking as she has for the 15 years I've know her--elegantly dressed with a beautiful smile, warmth radiating from her soul. You can't help but be drawn in when you're in her sphere. She's also an incredibly bright, wise, and strong women, whose family was able to escape to the Polish forest when the Nazi's came to exterminate the Jews in her town. Mira joined the Jewish partisans, waging gorilla war on the Nazi's while creating a community structure to help keep so many alive. She has made it a life mission to share the stories of those times, reminding us all of the importance of resistance.

On this day of foundation in loving-kindness, I share these words of her that certainly fulfill that intention.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Knowing what, and how, to ask

היום חמשה ימים בעמר
Today is five days of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

An integral text in the seder is the mention of the how to deal with the four "sons" - the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know what to ask. Discussing and interpreting what these children and the answers we give them mean to us today is incorporated into most seders. You can do a search and find much commentary from a plethora of sources--and should, if you're interested, because I'm not going to discuss that here :)

I bring them up because when I saw this post from a 2008 count, the child who does not know how to ask popped into my head. I've come to see this as the need to teach our children, but we shouldn't forget that it's also about communication. Being on the same page; speaking the same language. Overused phrases, perhaps, but in our cultural lexicon for a reason.

During a discussion with the producer of the editing project that has taken so much of my energy this week, I was taken to task about parts of the work I did. It wasn't that the work was bad, it just didn't conform with some decisions that were made by the production crew--decisions that I knew nothing about. Peter, the producer, asked me why didn't I call him with questions on what to do. My answer was that I didn't realize the questions needed to be asked. It comes down to a breakdown in communication.

There are many times in both our work and personal lives when communication between two people or within a group becomes stalled. We seem to focus on our individual answers when a better path would be to look for the questions--those to be asked and those not asked. Peter couldn't understand why I didn't ask certain questions--it was clear to him the questions needed to be asked. My response was that without certain information, I had no reason to know what questions to ask.

Peter and I are good friends and have worked together for many years. At this point we know how to get through these difficult "discussions" and resolve any conflicts to the benefit of our project and our relationship. But this reminded me of the questions I ask each morning at the start of minyan:
"What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Adonai, before You?"
These are questions that we don't always know to ask, and we may not have any answers. But I believe that by continuing to ask these questions we can open the communication lines within us, to our souls.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Minyan Moments

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverance in a week of loving kindness

At this morning's minyan, the gathering for prayers, we had one of those "it takes a village" moments. There was no clergy; we made the necessary 10 and a couple more, with a group of core regulars. Because it is one of the intermediate days of Pesach, there are more rituals than a normal Wednesday morning. We sang Hallel, read Torah from two different scrolls, and had a musaf, additional liturgy that is added on these days. There were lots of roles to be filled, and everyone stepped up to make everything work. And as I was not as prepared to chant Torah as I could have been, it was great to know I did not have to read alone, being gently corrected when I mangled the words or started to run through the end of a verse.

At these times, I am reminded that our rituals are meant to be communal, not hierarchical. Our rabbis are our teachers, but each of us has the ability to lead. This is one of the strengths of Judaism, and one of the reasons why we have survived for so many centuries.

And so, on this day of perseverance in loving kindness, I bring you another minyan moment from 2010 when we were able to support those in our community.

At Beth Sholom, we ask anyone who comes to minyan to commemorate a yarhzeit--an anniversary of the passing of a loved one--if they would like to say a few words about the person they are remembering. It adds an extra level to the experience when the El Malai prayer is chanted--for the survivor sharing the memory and for those of us standing in support. At that moment, we all hold that person in our heart.

This morning, my friend Katherine shared the connection she felt between working with her son on the chicken coops they're building and the time her dad spent working with her on the Future Farmer of America projects of her youth. It was one way she could pass the love her father had for her on to her children. לדור ודור – L'dor v'dor - from generation to generation.

Another woman, Penny, was there to commemorate the yarhzeit of her husband. She told us they met in USY--the national youth organization of the Conservative Movement. They had 17 years together, were married for 11 years, and this was the 25th anniversary of his death. She shared this knowing we would understand the connections to her youth, to her Judaism. We could share the pain of her loss, no matter how long ago.

In these moments, as I place my hand on each shoulder and chant those ancient words, I feel humbled in the presence of enduring love and am honored to share in the stream of their lives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


היום שלשה ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

Road trips to LA, which I take every 3 months or so, have become opportunities for podcast marathons. WTF with Marc Maron is a favorite, Fresh Air is usually in the mix, and FiveThirtyEight Elections is the seasonal choice. I've also become a fan of Tablet Magazine's Unorthodox.

During an interview with Ladino singer/songwriteSarah Aroeste, Deputy Editor Stephanie Butnick admitted to being, to her dismay, "Ashkenormative." What a great word, one that should be entered in Jewish-American dialogue.

In the US, the Ashkenazic Jewish culture, passed on from Eastern Europe, is what is seen as Jewish. Fiddler on the Roof has somehow become the source of all Jewish tradition, coming from Jews and non-Jews alike. It's become what defines the Jewish status quo. Any other Jewish cultural, ritual, and liturgical traditions are considered outside the norm. Everything is viewed through the Ashkenazic lens.

The recent ruling--and reaction to it--by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement in America to "allow" legumes, such as beans, and rice and other kitniyot for Ashkenazic Jews really proved the overwhelming Ashkenormative view of Judaism. It made big news in the Jewish world, and even without. I especially love this NPR story, written not by a Sephardi spouse of an Ashkenazi--some would define this as intermarriage :) -- but by a Latina who married into a Jewish family and could now have rice and beans during Pesach.

This brought to my mind that as Jews in this country, we can share the heritage of our ancestors, but we shouldn't be bound or, more accurately, set apart by those demarkations set so many centuries ago. In food, in music, in culture, we are American Jews. We can make our shared, diverse backgrounds the norm.

While not at the top of the issues facing American Jews right now, I think it's time to take off the Ashkenazic filter through which we see American Judaism. At the end of that podcast episode, Stephanie Butnick pledged to try to stop being so Ashkenormative. I join her in that, and I invite you to do the same. The more we open our world, the stronger we'll be going forward.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Practice paves the way

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

As part of this year's process, I've made a conscious decision to recycle some old omer posts.

The following thoughts are from 5769/2009 - a couple of years before I found the Kitchen. The years following continued to be tough on my practice--this was only the top of the downhill slide. But I didn't run away, I modified but held on to my practice, and I was able to find someplace to run towards. Now, I get to work on integrating what was to what is into what will be.

Of the many teachings that I received from my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, I think those that came from seeing how he lived his life touch the deepest. Primary of those teachings is the importance of integrating spiritual practice into your life, not looking at it as something apart from your life. A large part of that integration involves commitment to the practice. It is the commitment that brings the rewards--both when the practice is "working" and when it's not.

As one who loves ritual and needs that time and space to process, I have experienced the joy that spiritual practice can bring. But it's now, when understanding what I'm doing becomes elusive, that the commitment is at it's most potent. I am forced to look at what I'm doing from different angles, different views, to find my way. It is the ultimate in processing, for while I want to run away--I cannot, I will not. For ultimately it is within the processing that I will find the guideposts I need.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Journey Begins

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

Tonight, the count begins.
In the Torah we are taught to count 49 days,
starting on the second day of Pesach,
bringing us to the 50th day, Shavuot.
Each day we count a sheaf of grain,
watching the growth from the first buds of Pesach
 to the first fruits of Shavuot.
We travel in time and space,
from the liberation from Egypt
to the revelation at Sinai.
We mark the time as the Kabbalists taught,
with 7 connections to the world around us
one for each day, one for each week,
49 combinations, daily intentions to take in and give out.
Come, join in the journey . . .

Picking up the count . . .

Looks like the writing fell apart early last year.....

That's the beauty of practice, you just take the opportunity to start again.
You get to have an experienced beginner's mind.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

. . . and then sometimes it's all about the matzah.

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverance in a week of loving kindness

One aspect of eating kosher, especially in an environment where those who eat kosher are very much in the minority, is mindful eating. Yes, there are other reasons for eating kosher and other ways to eat mindfully, but that's the subject for a different essay. My point in bringing this up is that mindfulness is ratcheted up a notch during Passover. You get used to making various food decisions and adaptations of meals during the year, but during Passover the avoidance of chametz brings another layer to think about.

One challenge is making foods that don't involve matzah in any form. It's just not good for the digestion to eat so much of it. But it is the basis of so many recipes, when you add in all the matzah meal that so often is an ingredient.

I happily had my weekly trip to the Civic Center Farmers' Market this morning, and will be cooking with lots of fresh, seasonal vegetables. Tonight it's soup, tomorrow a kugel--which will have some matzah meal, but I will keep it to a minimum.

I'll look at this extra layer of mindfulness as a positive, not something to complain about. It's always good to eat fresh, seasonal foods, liberate myself from the pervasive influence of processed food on our diet.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

It's not just about the matzah . . .

היום שלשים ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

Now that the seders are over, the tough part of Pesach begins--keeping away from chametz until the 7th or 8th day--depending on your practice and location. But if the focus of the holiday is to tell the story, re-enact leaving Egypt and celebrate our liberation from slavery, what's the point of continuing through the week. And yet, the Torah instructs us even before we leave Egypt that this will be a 7 day holiday:
16 You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. 17 You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. 18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. [Exodus 12:16 - 19]

There seems to be a consensus in the commentaries that the 7th day commemorates the splitting of the Red Sea. That is a teaching I have not heard before, and I'm not sure what to make of it. But those commentaries also mention the intermediate days as days of purification, a preparation to cross the boundary that separates the slavery and oppression of Egypt from the time that marks the road to freedom.

So Passover is not just about the initial escape from Egypt, but honoring that first step into liberation. We need to appreciate the aftermath of that first, somewhat traumatic leave-taking--take a breath and get ready for what comes next.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Sharing ancient traditions

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

One of the things I love about Jewish rituals is the many layers of the traditions brought by different interpretations through the centuries. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that a bit of oil is left of the Torah from the fingertips of the generations as it passes through their hands. I see this also in our celebrations, as different times and places leave their mark on our holiday customs. The deeper the levels, the further back they go, the more intrigued I become. The most ancient ties, linking us back to our roots before Abraham, are the ones that resonate deeply.

Sukkot is the chag-the holiday-that seems to connect most directly to those ancient, pagan times. We shake the lulav, with its myrtle, willow, and palm branches, and the etrog, that special citron, in six directions--north, south, east, west, up down. We march in a circle asking that higher power to please, save us. However the early rabbis justify these rituals, it seems much like magic incantations that seem to hark back to an era that would predate the lech l'cha--the going out of Abraham.

But it is in Chanukah and, I now realize, Pesach, that our ancient rituals feel in sync with people all over the globe. As all my students can tell you, the lighting of the candles on Chanukah has little if anything to do with the story that is told. It is our tribe's ritual of bringing light into the season of darkness. It's a ritual manifested in Christianity with the lights of the Christmas tree and the Hindus with the fireworks of Diwali.

Just as the ancient peoples needed to bring in light to ward off the darkness, they also needed to mark and give thanks for the rebirth of plants and animals that comes with the spring season, bringing life and sustenance. Eggs as a symbol of new life, rebirth, and fertility permeate both Passover and Easter. In Torah time, the first of Nissan, the month of Passover and Spring is the beginning of the year. In the same spirit, the Persians/Iranian/Afghani celebration of No-rooz/Nowruz on the spring equinox to mark the beginning of their year.

I find strength in the rituals of my people and love being able to use them as an entry into the endless stream of time both forward and back. Seeing the connection with other cultures reminds me that global connections have an existence beyond this digital age, with roots in the ancient world.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Re-Counting the Omer

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

We drank the wine, ate the matzah, maror, charoset, and all the other tasty dishes that come with the Passover seder. We asked the questions, re-enacted the story of liberation from Egypt, Mitzrayim, our narrow place, and find ourselves now on the road to revelation. To guide us on our journey, tonight we start the counting of the omer--49 steps of mindfulness.

You can find the how, when, what, and origin of this ritual in this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs and in this entry in the Judaism 101 online encyclopedia. For a brief explanation of the Kabbalistic counting method, you can read this article from Rabbi Simon Jacobson.  In the proverbial nutshell, we count 49 days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot, based on the teaching from the Torah--Leviticus 23:15-16. The Kabbalists added a layer of using 7 Sephirot, attributes that can serve as a connection to the Transcendent spirit, giving us a way to internalize the counting. Each day is assigned an attribute; each week is assigned an attribute. So the counting is not just a number, but a unique couplet of awareness.

I will once again take up my practice of blogging the omer, writing a post each day. As I remarked last year, I add to the count with an accounting of my life. This year I realize another obvious connection that I have manage to miss in this context until now. In Hebrew, the word for counting - ספ'רה - and the word for recount, tell a story - לספר – have the same root. And so, it all comes together.

For those of you who participate in the counting, I'm glad once again to count along with you. For those who have never counted, I invite you to come along for the ride. You are all welcome to download the simple chart you see to the left to help you keep track. I will also be tweeting out the count each evening, California time, so feel free to follow me, @mdivah.

On this day of double loving-kindness, remember that the counting, like life, is a process. There are often bumps in the road, and sometimes our journey takes us in a different direction. But the beauty of our traditions, these rituals we have followed for so many centuries, through so many generations, is that they remain for us to turn to, if not this year, the next.