Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 10; 1 week & 3 days

Today is Tiferet she b'Gevurah - a day of compassion in a week of strength.

I talk alot about my various practices in this blog--my spiritual practice, my Jewish practice, my yoga practice. I can't help wondering if some of the people who read this blog feel a bit like Emily Litella, the Gilda Radner character who appeared on the first years of Saturday Night Live. "What's all this fuss about practice!" I hear you say, "Haven't you spent enough time practicing--you must be getting it right at this point!"

I do love the concept of practice with no end goal. I think it is tied to living in the present. In practice, one is always growing--the rate of growth doesn't matter. In fact, the slower pace of growth, which can feel frustrating in the short term, can create the most satisfying accomplishments. The realization of where you've moved in your practice after years of just doing the practice is a wonderful, soft "aha" moment. And sometimes you feel like you're plodding along in the same place and bam!--you take a leap forward. Those are the times you feel the rush.

So, whatever your practice, have compassion for yourself as you go through the process. It may feel overwhelming at times, but it can be a source of strength.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 9; 1 week & 2 days

Today is Gevurah she b'Gevurah - a day of strength in a week of strength.

In the food realm, transitioning out from Passover has its own flow that is very different than the transition in. Going into Pesach, you eat bread and other hametz and then you don't. There's the rush of tasting all the foods you only eat at this time coupled with the excitement of getting together with friends and family at the seders. Coming out of Pesach, you reacquaint yourself with items such as bread and beer--usually combined in some sort of pizza bash. You put away the Passover dishes and utensils, but the matzah and macaroons remain as snacks.

I don't eat an inordinate amount of matzah during the week of Pesach so while I'm glad to be able to have a sandwich on leavened bread, I haven't reached my fill of matzah. I still find myself reaching for the box of matzahs in the morning to have with some butter and jam.

The contrast of going from eating bread to eating matzah is stark--you jump across a defined line from one to the other. You need to leave all your hametz on one side as you go to the other. The preparation takes time, but the transfer happens in a day. Coming back is more of a blur. You can keep eating one while you add back the other. And the time frame is opposite. You transfer the dishes and utensils in a day, but change in eating habits happens over a couple of weeks.

I could weave a spiritual teaching around this, but I'm not going to at this moment. I'd rather leave this observation for you to ponder.......or not.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 8; 1 week & 1 day

Today is Chesed she b'Gevurah - a day of loving kindness in a week of strength.

This morning in minyan Forrest Benjamin celebrated his bar mitzvah. It was a warm and wonderful event, with an authenticity that is unique to having a minyan bar mitzvah.

B'nai mitzvah represent the transition from childhood to adulthood in Jewish ritual life. At that point, boys and girls are considered able to take part in full Jewish practice. That does mean getting an aliyah and learning to read Torah--something many people do once in their lives at their bar/bat mitvah and then never again. It isn't about the party--although I am certainly not one to downplay taking the opportunity to celebrate in every way.

Forrest got his aliyah and read Torah. But he will be back again. For along with the family and friends that showed up at 7 a.m. this morning to witness Forrest crossing that threshold were the regular minyanaires, people who have seen him grow into this role. For Karen, Forrest's mom, has been going to minyan for about 15 years. She was the first woman at Beth Sholom to take on the practice of wearing tefillin. And Forrest has been at minyan almost since conception. Karen came to minyan when she was pregnant; she breast fed Forrest at minyan. We watched his teeth come in, then out, then in again. He was part of the ark opening each Monday. He has been a constant these 13 years.

So today, with his family and community surrounding him almost literally as the chairs formed a horseshoe around the bimah, Forrest Benjamin became Bar Mitzvah, living the phrase, "l'dor v'dor" -- to the generations and through the generations. He embodied this day of loving kindness and strength.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 7; 1 week

Today is Malchut she b'Chesed, a day of majesty in a week of loving kindness.

Passover ends today, and I will say that this year it certainly was the harbinger of spring in San Francisco. The weather has been fabulous--bright sunshine with the cool ocean breeze that keeps the air from getting too hot. And this morning I heard the symphony of the birds, sounds that never cease to amaze me.

I've lived in cities all of my adult life--first in Manhattan and now in San Francisco. Even on the quietest of days you will be hard pressed to hear many sounds of birds in a New York apartment--not counting, of course, any you might have as pets :) When I first moved to San Francisco, we lived right across from a small park but still, not many chirps.

But here in the SF neighborhood of upper Noe Valley I get serenaded each spring and summer morning by all sorts of birds. Often in our backyard I see sparrows and bluebirds and hummingbirds. But the loudest sounds come from the parrots that live on our hill. The birds are probably part of a flock of wild parrots originally imported as house pets. You can read about the San Francisco parrots in Mark Bittner's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

It's a beautiful cacophony. I don't usually see them en mass, though I often spy different varieties. But in those early hours with the sun newly risen, listening to their songs, I lay in my bed and smile, reminded of another reason why I love living here

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 6

Today was Yesod she b'Chesed - a day of foundation in a week of loving kindness.

We're changing spaces in our house--giving some rooms new looks for new uses. Our two front rooms were both being used as offices--one for Ken, one for me. But last December we decided to both share one office and make the other room a library/guest room. That way no one is uprooted or inconvenienced when we have visitors staying with us. And the new room configuration will allow our visitors to stay in the same room as their clothes and luggage--much more comfortable and convenient for them.

To give our guests some privacy, we put blinds on the front windows and are adding a door to the entry. You can tell there was a door there at one point--you can see where the hinges used to be and there's a hole in the frame for the door latch. So while this door is new for us, it's nothing this house hasn't seen before. I wonder who took down the door, and why. I think of the phrase, "if these wall could talk...."

This house is about 100 years old, and I'll bet has seen lots of changes. It's another good bet that it will see many more. Just as I'm wondering why a previous resident took the door down in one room, I can image those that live here 100 years from now adding back the closet we took out from the other room, and wondering why we did that. The walls will know, but still won't tell.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 5

Today is Hod she b'Chesed - a day of humility in a week of loving kindness.

Yesterday afternoon I went to the A's game with Eric Stone and his 4 1/2 year old son Benjamin. It's a tradition Eric has started with Benjamin--going to a baseball game during Hol Ha'Moed Pesach--the intermediate days of Passover. Eric calls it their "matzah ball" game. I think this is the second or third time they've done this.

During a conversation when Eric was explaining Benjamin's history of attending baseball games, Eric asked Benjamin a couple of times, "do you remember that?" Each time, Benjamin shook his head "no." Now, these were events that happened two or three years ago--half of Benjamin's life. A lot has happened to him in that time--he can't be expected to remember everything that happened. After all, do I remember everything that happened when I was in my 20s??

But I began to think about my earliest memories--what has stuck with me? I have pictures in my mind of going with my dad with a sled to get his drums out of the car after a blizzard--I'm six or seven. I can remember being the last one in my kindergarten class to learn to tie her shoes. I can remember sitting on Pop's--my grandfather--lap at a seder, eating the matzah he hid under the tablecloth. I must of been about five, obviously unclear about the concept of the Afikoman. I can remember being hoisted onto the kitchen counter in my great-grandmother's kitchen while she made me a soda with the syrup and seltzer she had delivered.

But what amazes me is the one really early memory that has always been with me, and how I remember it. I must have been under two because I was still in a crib in my parent's bedroom. I can remember seeing the side of the crib, taking hold of the slats to lift myself up and then hang over the top, folding at the waist. It just seemed like a good thing to do, and I was fine with it. I also remember my mom coming in and flipping out, picking me up in a panic and putting me back down on the bedding. And I can actually remember thinking "why is she so upset, I was fine where I was."

We'll have to hear her side of the story when she reads this.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 4

Today is Nitzach she b'Chesed - a day of endurance in a week of loving kindness.

Most Jews participate in one or two seders during Pesach, depending on where they live--in Israel or not; what their affiliation is--Reform or not; or whether they associate being Jewish as a religion or a heritage. But I'm going above and beyond the normal seder attendance and will be participating in four seders this year.

I attended "family" seders on the first two nights of Pesach. The first night I was at Bob and Ruth White's seder. It's my third year there, and Ken and I are now considered regulars. It's great listening to Bob White-one of the top litigation attorneys in San Francisco--be questioned and challenged by his four children, now all adults. They get such pleasure in it, as does he.

The second night I went to the Hollander's seder. This is the first time since I've known them that the family--Henry and Katherine with their kids Ruth and Reuben--stayed in San Francisco for Pesach. Usually they travel to Rochester to spend Pesach with Henry's family. But the combination Ruth's Bat Mitzvah coming up this July and the lateness of Pesach this year so they kids were not off from school meant that they held their first seder at their home. So while there are no "regulars" for this seder, it was definately a Beth Sholom family affair with a lot of our Shabbat community coming together.

Those were the "official" seders, happening on the appointed days. So what's with the two extra events?

For the second year in a row, Kenny Altman and I were invited by Hilda Richards, a longtime Beth Sholom congregant, to lead a seder at the Sequoias, the assisted living facility where she lives. We were there last Pesach and this past Hanukkah. We lead an abbreviated seder, making sure we don't miss a dip, and lead the group in song. While some may say "why bother" this seder is important to these residents. Many of them came from Europe, some before the war, some survivors of the Holocaust. While they may not do much in the way of Jewish practice, bringing them this seder brings them joy.

Tomorrow night I will be conducting another seder for a family that has no religious practice but want to give their children a feeling for their Jewish heritage. I was going to do this as a second night seder but they had other plans so we decided to hold it tomorrow. Again, some would say "why bother" but again, this seder is important. Isn't it better to share some of the rituals of Judaism, rituals that may resonate with these kids later in their lives. It gives them a tie to the greater Jewish community--how can that be a bad thing. I am happy to share this with them.

Of course, this also happens to fall on a week when I have tons of video work to do on a project that is on a tight deadline. It seems that there are not enough hours in these days to accomplish everything I need to make all these things happen. But there I find the meaning of having endurance wrapped in loving kindness.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 3

Today is Tiferet she b'Chesed - a day of compassion in a week of loving kindness.

So many of the Jewish holidays deal with food--what we eat, how we eat, where we eat. There's the old one-liner that is said to sum up most of our commemorations--they tried to get rid of us, we're still here, let's eat. But I think this emphasis on food is one of the reasons Judaism still exists today.

I've thought alot about the Jewish food issue in these past years as I've taken on the practice of eating kosher. It's one more practice that has in its process a continually check in with its effect as I continue on this life path. There are times that I am resentful of the restrictions this practice puts on my eating habits--it seems like a bunch of incomprehensible and outdated rules. But the longer I continue to follow kashrut, the more I realize how it enhances my spiritual practice, my ties to my community, and the way I exist in the world. And all three of those things overlap in the process.

I am mindful of what I eat, where it comes from, how it was made. I try to extend the "kosherness" of a product to include how healthy it is for my body and how its production effects the planet. I feel the connected to all the generations of Jews who came before me, who ate this same way. I feel lucky to be able be a part of the generation that can share the foods of different lands that were made the Jews who settled in various lands around the world.

But most importantly, I think, I learn that there are always choices to be made in your life--choices that are not always what I want to do but what I need to do. And maybe having to make those choices when they are more simple, such as in what kind of food to eat, will help me when the more difficult choices have to be made.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 2

Today is Gevurah she b'Chesed - a day of strength in a week of loving kindness.

I don't know about the middle of the country, but on both the east and west coasts of the US there is a buzz about the Great Matzah Shortage of 2008.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, by Friday, the day before the start of Pesach, there was little to no matzah to be found. This news made the front page of the Bay Area section of the Chronicle. "The reasons for the shortage are not entirely clear. But theories abound. A jubilee year in Israel, when some fields lie fallow, might have depressed production. Others believe that grocery stores may have underestimated a rise in Jewish observance."

In New York, the talk is about the missing Manischewitz Tam Tam crackers. The reason for this shortage is clear. David Rossi, a spokesperson for Manischewitz explains in this New York Times article: "“What we did was put a brand-new oven in our Newark facility. Much higher speeds, all computer-controlled, a state-of-the-art baking line. That was something we were hoping to have up and running well prior to the Passover baking season. Due to some engineering delays, we missed the window.”

These shortages bring out the differences in Jewish life between the two cities. In New York the hoopla is about not having one particular snack for the week. Everything else, especially matzah, is in full supply. In San Francisco, the matzah ran out before the first seder had begun -- something that would be unthinkable in New York.

It is sad that the compassion level of some in our San Francisco community is at somewhat of a low level, as evidenced by the Orthodox Jew who is quoted in the Chronicle saying, "Those who didn't buy well ahead of time are not planning as wisely as the holiday would dictate." I am glad to say that in my Beth Sholom community those who have are offering to share with those who missed out. So there is the spirit of the day--the strength of our community reaching out to o thers with loving kindness.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Omer 5768 Day 1

Today is Chesed she b'Chesed - a day of loving kindness is a week of loving kindness.

How nice to start off this week of loving kindness with a surprisingly lively, haimish second day Pesach service. I figured we'd be lucky to get 15 people on a Monday morning after two nights of seders. But a bit more than twice that number gathered at the Beth Sholom Preschool to pray, to sing, to hear Torah. Some were visiting from out of town--the visitor from Korea got the distance award--and some visited from across town, members of shuls who don't have a second day Pesach seder. We had elders and babies and all ages in between. Best of all, there was lots of joy.

Tomorrow a San Francisco building inspector will determine whether we are ready to get our certificate of occupancy. May it be so........

Friday, April 18, 2008

Chag Sameach Pesach!

I wish you all joyful and tasty seders.

As a start to this Festival of Freedom, I share with you a poem by Fanny Neuda, brought to us in English by poet and editor Dinah Berland. Neuda wrote Hours of Devotion, a book of Jewish prayers for woman, which was published in Germany in 1854. Read her words, and you'd think it was written today. (Click here to read other selections from the book.)


Dear God, the festival of Passover has come--
The joyful feast memorializing the days of jubilee,
when you redeemed our ancestors
From inhuman oppression and carried them
With an outstretched hand
Into the beautiful land of liberty,
From the dark dwellings of error and false belief
Into the sunny realms of knowledge and the pure,
Gladdening faith in you and your divine word.

With deep emotion and joy, we celebrate this holiday,
Which reminds us of that happy time
When you chose Israel for your inheritance,
Elected her from all nations,
Wedded her to you as a bridegroom weds his bride
And bound her to you with the ties of grace and love--
The tme when your people, in return, clung ot you,
As a youthful bride to the heart of her beloved,
As a chid to its mother's breast--
When they followed you, full of love and faithfulness
Into a strange, unknown land,
Followed you into a vast desert wilderness.

A long space of time has since passed,
And the heart of your people has often changed,
But your love has always remained the same.
You have been a help and refuge
To our ancestors from eternity,
A shield and a help to their children after them
Throughout all generations.
You are our guide, our protector, our guardian,
As you have been in all times.

We have passed through more than one Egypt.
Hatred and predudice have set
A heavy yoke around our necks,
But through the darkness of misery and oppression
A ray of your grace has continually shone above us
And has at last brought a morning of redemption
In which our human dignity is recognized
And we live free and undisturbed
Under the protection of mild and just laws.
Oh, may you, O God, continue to be with us.
As in the days when you burst the chains
In which we sighed, and with an awful hand
Broke the yoke of bondage and tyranny,
So may you deliver and redeem our souls
That they may rise above all attacks
From within or without.

As you hurled the many idols and gods of Egypt
from their altars, so may your boundless mercy
Release us from the idols that attract us today,
And let every cell and organ of our bodies be filled
With your incomparable, exalted, and glorious being.
May we be thoroughly infused by faithfulness and love,
By unconditional, unwavering confidence,
And boundless attachment to you.
You are the shield and savior of every human being
As well as of whole nations.
You comfort them
In the midst of trouble and suffering. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Clearing out the Hametz

Traveling through the year with the Jewish sacred calendar is one of the things I love about my practice. While the same cycle eternally loops around, each holiday experience is different each year. This year, the clearing out the hametz--not just the leaven but all that is stale--is helping me move ahead in my life. I've been in this really long transition from my bout with cancer. I need that process of clearing out and letting go of those physical and mental manifestations that may have supported me then but I have no use for now.

I started this year with the teshuvah, a specific introspection, of clearing the clutter--you can read those thoughts here. It is a slow process for me, for I often have to fight the inertia. But then here comes Pesach and the ritual is to clear, and so I clear. And as I clear I become lighter and want to clear more. I know it won't last too long, but I take advantage of the momentum.

The good news is Pesach segues into the omer period--a time spent counting each day as a spiritual step leading to Shavuot, a commemoration of the teachings of Torah.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Sense of Shalom

In about a month from now, Beth Sholom will start moving into its new building, and our community will have a home again after being Bamidbar--in the wilderness--for almost two years. The time away has been difficult and had a negative impact on many of our practices and traditions, not least of which was the negative effect it had on our Shabbat gatherings.

Most of the time we've been without our own building our congregation was split between two services for Shabbat--one at another congregation across town and one in our school building for those who do not drive on Shabbat. Since January we've been holding Shabbat services at St. James Church, which has allowed us to come together once again as prepare to return to our new home. We get to feel that community spirit again, to be back with our Beth Sholom traditions while trying out some new ways of experiencing prayers.

Yesterday was a Shabbat that brought me that feeling of shalom, of fullness, that has been missing from much of my time Bamidbar. It wasn't any special Shabbat--it was just the specialness that is Shabbat. We sang together and prayed together and learned together. There were elders and youngsters and expectant parents. A mom and her daughter opened the ark; a dad and his son shared a birthday aliyah. Babies were sharing their own version of davening, and a little boy couldn't wait to lead Adon Olam. At kiddish, a young couple spent time talking with a 90 year old matriarch, sharing stories about living in Brooklyn, New York.

And I got to take it all in and let it fill me up. I spent no time worrying about anything. The service flowed as it needed to flow--any burps were just integrated into the stream. The spirit in the room was one of joy; the feeling of community palpable.

We are in the month of Nissan--in the Torah, the first month of the year. It is in this month, in this new year, that we start to move into our new makom, our new space. It is good to see, hear, and know that while it's great that we have a literally awesome, new physical place, it is the community spirit we are rebuilding that will sustain us.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sports Crime Blotter

I'm one of the people who are keeping the newspapers afloat right now. I get the SF Chronicle every day. I need my daily fix of local news, comics, sports and sudoku without having to look at many different pages online.

The Chronicle sports section always has a Digest column--a compilation of news from different parts of the sports world that the editors obviously feel don't deserve separate articles. Sometimes it's news from out of season sports, like pro football in April; sometimes it's news from sports that are not big here in the SF Bay Area, like women's hockey. But there's one category that has been added in the last couple of years that is disturbing. It's a paragraph or two under the heading Jurisprudence.

If you go to today's digest and scroll down, you'll see this entry:

Jurisprudence: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najeh Davenport was acquitted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in Cleveland Municipal Court. Davenport had been accused of slapping and punching Anita Person, the mother of his 5-year-old son at her Cleveland home in October.

I guess I should be glad that for a change the story is about someone who was acquitted instead of convicted. These stories of run-ins with the law appear regularly, I'd say at least twice a week. And while there is some variety in the types of crimes committed--drug deals, DUI, stolen goods, gambling, etc.-- all too many of them deal with domestic violence.

So when we're looking at the culture of competitive sports, let's not be distracted by any particular issue like steroids. We must take a wider look at the current environment and see how we can make changes that will improve the condition of these athletes lives off the field as well as on.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Who shall live, and who shall die...

Who shall live out the limit of her days, and who shall not?

This words are from the Une-tanah tokef prayer we say each Rosh HaShonah and Yom Kippur. It came to mind today when I saw the notice of the death of Debbie Peterson in today's SF Chronicle.

Debbie was one of the women in my support group at Kaiser when I was going through treatment for breast cancer. It is true, as her obituary says, "[She] had a huge heart, a huge smile and a huge capacity for letting others know they were loved." She was a fighter who knew how to be an advocate for herself and others. I remember that various doctors were trying to push her into having a surgery she felt was unnecessary. She did the research, found some alternatives, and bucked the system. She was funny, even through sickness, and was a joy to be around.

This makes two women lost from that group--Miriam Engelberg died in October, 2006. Why them and not me--that's a question that cannot be answered. What I will share with you is a poem I wrote while I was going through the treatment process--a time when I wasn't sure what my prognosis would be.
What have I been given?
By glimpsing death,
I touch my nefesh—my soul.
Through the sadness,
I touch my soul.
Through the uncertainty,
I touch my soul.
Don’t harden against thoughts of death
Look at them,
and let them see you.
Join with your soul

Zichrona L'vracha, Debbie.
I know your memory will be a blessing to all those whose lives you mine.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Did they have bagels and coffee?

My husband Ken often has great insights into various parts of scripture from both a Jewish and Christian perspective. His mom, Val, is Catholic, and he grew up with church practices. He went to Catholic elementary school and was an altar boy. When he was about 12/13, he was done with it, and through the years has come to his own spiritual base.

Living with me, especially in light of the last 10 years where my involvement in Jewish practice has increased exponentially, has given him new ways to understand certain parts of Christian scripture while also giving me new insight into Jewish scripture.

He recently told me in the Christian Bible there is often mention of people waiting for Jesus while he's off praying--in the morning, in the afternoon, or in the night, but most often in the morning. In fact, it is remarked how he prays for an hour every morning. But Ken now laughs--after all, what's the big deal. Ken understands that Jesus is at his shul's Shacharit minyan. He watches me go to my Shacharit minyan 4 or 5 times every week.

And that's what I like about Jesus. He was a practicing Jew who really got the spiritual hit as well as the moral blueprint for living in this world. He understood the power of prayer on both an individual and group level. He was a minyan regular, just like me.

I wonder what their kiddush was like..........

Friday, April 04, 2008

Gay Gezinteh Hait

My friend and minyan buddy Yitzchak is always trying to teach me Yiddish words and phrases . Last week I learned the difference between "zei guzent" - be healthy, be well - and "gay gezinteh hait" (sometimes shortened to just "gay guzent") - go in health. Zei guzent is a way of warmly wishing someone well, often used when saying goodbye. Gay guzent is a sarcastic phrase, the Yiddish version of "go, have a good time, don't let the door hit you on the way out." I don't remember how we got on to this, but I knew it would be a phrase I would be using--I just didn't realize how soon.

This week's Canadian Jewish News posted an article on synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism who are now planning to leave the organization.
From the article:

Rabbi Steven Saltzman, spiritual leader of Adath Israel Congregation, said last week that his shul’s board of directors has voted “overwhelmingly to leave USCJ, effective immediately, because they feel it has not met even the bare minimum needs of our community here.”

Ideologically, he said, “we find the chasm between Conservative Judaism in the United States and Conservative Judaism here to be growing larger and wider.”

Canadians, he said, are much more traditional than communities across the border, and the egalitarian movement in the United States includes women being part of the services, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, and patrilineal descent. “Frankly, [USCJ] no longer represents what and who we are.”

If these congregations can't stand to be associated with a group that supports egalitarianism and equality within the framework of our rituals, I say "Gay Gezinteh Hait!"