Monday, June 30, 2008

Happiness is . . .

. . . having a pastrami sandwich for lunch.

Now, that may not sound very joy-inducing to many of you. Remember, I follow the practice of eating kosher and I live in San Francisco--a great food town but low on the scale when it comes to kosher eating establishments. Don't shed too many tears for me, the choices are great on the vegetarian side of things so it's not like I make too many sacrifices when going out to eat. But there is no going out for a meat meal on any level.

EXCEPT....there is The S.F. - New York Deli. This tiny oasis of kosher meat sandwiches is tucked in a corner of Justin Herman Plaza in downtown San Francisco. It's not a neighborhood I frequent so the deli has fallen off my radar. But today I had to pick up an animation file at Video Arts, which is near Pier 39. Driving home on Embarcadero with an empty stomach at 1 p.m., the urge for a pastrami sandwich tugged at me when I realized the deli was near.

I came home with the sandwich on marble rye, augmented it with some Betampte saurkraut and washed it down with a Dr. Brown's Black Cherry soda. I will admit that it wasn't a Ben's experience, but it was a lunch to savor.

Noah's Robot

A week has gone by and I'm still thinking about WALL-E. I don't know why this movie has made such an impact on me. If anyone else has been so effected, please let me know.

In my post of last week "Touching Life" I shared a WALL-E/Torah connection the came to me when I was writing that entry. Today I remembered another one that popped into my head while I was watching the movie.

Eve, the robot Wall-E fall in love with, appears on Earth as a probe sent by a scout ship from the floating world of the humans in outer space. She is a white oval gracefully zooming through the air. Her mission to find life on earth is fulfilled when she finds a living plant.

When I saw that I thought of the dove released from Noah's Ark:
"He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth."
---- Gen 8:10,11

I'm not sure this is that profound, but I thought I'd share it anyway. I welcome any comments or other interpretations.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Circle of Life

In the course of this weekend Ken and I were witness to commemorations in life, from birth to death and the journeys we take in between.

Yesterday at Beth Sholom was filled with simcha's -- happy occasions. First, there was a special baby naming--special because the baby was 6 months old so she already had a name. But this was a family where the dad is Jewish but not the mom. So on Thursday, the family gathered to witness the little girl's conversion, as they had four years before for her older sister and on Shabbat, she was publicly introduced to us by her Hebrew name.

Obviously, whatever compromises the parents have made in their relationship, they have made a commitment to raise their children in a Jewish home. With all the gloom and doom in the Jewish world about intermarriage that goes on these days, this is proof that we will survive as a community and as a people.

We also celebrated the 90th birthday of the father of one of our core congregants. This man moved to San Francisco last year after his wife died so that he could be close to his children who live here. He's a lovely man who comes to services each week, davening with gusto, using his magnifying glass to follow along with the Torah reading. He was pleased to be honored with an aliyah, with the joy coming from those singing to him feeding his soul.

We celebrated Gay Pride weekend with the members of our Keshet (rainbow) Havurah leading the service, reading Torah, giving the drash. How wonderful it was to hear the announcement of two couples who will be married in August. One couple, honored with an aliyah, have been together for 35 years. The other couple will mark the occasion of their 25 year anniversary with a wedding. One of those grooms gave the drash, and the catch in his throat as he talked about their upcoming nuptials touched us all.

Today I went to a farewell gathering for a young family on the move. They met, married, and started their family with the birth of their son here in San Francisco.Their work situation prompted their move to Scottsdale, Arizona. While they are sad to leave friends behind, you could feel their excitement as they embark on this new journey to plant new roots as their family grows by one more this December.

Then on to another baby naming--this time the baby was a newborn. In the past year, this family has suffered through the deaths of three of that child's grandparents. Her parents spoke movingly of life and death, feeling close to both ends of the cycle. Our eyes were filled with tears of joy and sadness, the mixture reminding us of the meaning of life.

While I was traveling from one event to another, Ken had a more difficult visit to make. He drove out to Walnut Creek to attend a memorial service. A young man in his thirties--someone Ken worked with, married to another work colleague--died this past week of food poisoning while on a business trip in LA. The tragedy is compounded by the fact he will never know his child, who will be born this August; and that child will never know him. This is too sad for words to convey.

I will end this post with a poem by Marge Piercy from her book The Art of Blessing the Day. It is her interpretation of the Kaddish--the Jewish prayer one says to honor those we've lost by honoring life. For it's certainly been a weekend to honor all parts of our life.


Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let's say amein.

Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children's children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
Let's say amein.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let's say amein.

Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let's say amein.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Touching Life

The reviews of WALL-E are out and most critics have written favorably about the movie, some echoing the views I expressed in my last post, mentioning the unevenness of the production but also feeling the power of it's message. Before I let you all come to your own conclusions, there is one more comment I'd like to make about the movie.

In my post, I mention that I was touched on many levels and that the movie stayed with me, but I don't go into any specifics. I think one of the reasons it stayed with me is because it shows the power of touch--a power that has it's own many levels.

WALL-E, the robot, sees humans holding hands as he watches Hello, Dolly over and over again. He longs for that connection with others, holding his own "hands" as a way to comfort himself in his loneliness. When he meets Eve, he reaches out to her, and their relationship at the end is sealed with a grasp.

The humans in the story have lost the power of touch--with the world and with each other. With all their needs and wants taken care of, they have become fat blobs flying around on lounge chairs communicating through the screens in front of them. Not only do they not touch each other, their feet never touch the ground as generations spend their lives floating in space. As the story progresses, they literally need to hold on to each other to save themselves and eventually do land back on earth.

WALL-E reminds us that we can't just isolate ourselves from others and from our surroundings. We need keep in contact, both physically and through our actions, to keep our communities and our planet alive. We need to keep in touch with one another, expressing support and love. As much as we may want to fly away, we must remember the importance of ground beneath us.

As I write this, I am reminded of Jacob's dream in the Torah (Gen 28:10 - 15). He sees a ladder set on the ground with it's top reaching to the sky. The melachim, the angels, are going up and down the ladder. We are like both the ladder and the angels. We need to feel grounded on the earth even as our minds reach up to the skies. We can climb up to fulfill our dreams but need to come down to share our dreams with others.

In Jacob's dream, God tells him that his descendants will spread to all corners of the earth. In WALL-E, the people come back to live on Earth once again. We who inhabit this world today need to remember the power of direct, loving touch and connections--towards each other, towards our universe. For that a key to life.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A fable for our time

Last night I saw WALL-E, the new Pixar film that opens this coming Friday. Pixar has pre-release screenings for the vendors that support them, and we get to go as Pixar is one of Ken's clients.

I will be interested to see the reviews of this movie. It was typical of Pixar's high quality animation work, although some sections were better than others. I also have some pacing issues, feeling the redundancy of many of the action sequences. But the writers and the director took chances with this movie that I admire--most notably by constructing the film with very little actual dialogue. I was touched on many levels, and the movie has stayed with me today.

The story--a futuristic fable showing the consequences of the mistreatment of our planet--rang disturbingly true, especially as I opened my SF Chronicle this morning to the front page story "Grim Look at State's Plant Life" with it's subtitle, "At it's current pace, warming could take huge toll on California's greenery in 100 years, study finds." In WALL-E, one small plant is discovered after hundreds of years of total devastation of the earth.

We can discuss the artistic merits of the movie, but we need to be sure to heed its message

Monday, June 23, 2008

Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet - George Carlin

We lost one of the greats in American comedy yesterday when George Carlin died at age 71. He called things as he saw them--and his view was pointed, true, and very funny. He saw the absurdity in many of our so-called realities, and was able to continually reach people of all ages through all the stages of his life.

I own a copy of "Class Clown" -- George Carlin's third comedy album recorded in 1972. It has the infamous "seven words you can't say on television" routine. But there are many other outstandingly funny bits on it. I encourage you to find the recordings of it floating around the web world. Although parts of it are specific to its time--the Vietnam war, Mohammed Ali--the jabs at our society still ring true today.

But the bit I will share is a later one--a comparison of baseball and football through the language of each sport.

Zichronah l'vracha, George Carlin, you will remain in our psyche for many years to come....challenging us to always question societal norms around us

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Deja Vu of Life

The ten years I spent working at NBC in New York now make up less than one third of my professional life. But they were formative years, working within a large corporate structure in a male dominated environment. That experience taught me more than just the tools of my craft.

At NBC I had to navigate a course learning when to go with the flow and when to stand up to the crashing waves that came my way. And when the waves hit, I learned how to get up and move through to the other side.

With all the changes and transitions at Beth Sholom, I'm once again caught in those flows and waves--some I ride and some crash over me. But this is where age and experience come in handy. There's also the advantage of being surrounded by different types of support, helping me move forward.

It's good to realize I can learn the lessons from the history of my life.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 49 - 7 weeks

Today is Malchut she b'Malchut - a day of majesty in a week of majesty.

Tonight is Shavuot, and at Beth Sholom we will commemorate the giving of the Torah with a night of Torah teachings leading to a sunrise service. (For those who don't wish to stay up all night there is a 9 a.m. Shavuot service.)

My teaching slot is at 1:30 a.m. I'm not sure how many will be there but I am prepared. My teaching will center around one of my favorite group of verses in the Torah--Deuteronomy 30:11 - 14, from the parsha Nitzavim:
"Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
From the moment I read those words, they touched me. For me it defines spiritual practice as something that comes from within, something that you observe inside yourself, into your soul, that gives you a way to live fully in the world. Obviously, I am not the only one touched by these words, feeling this meaning. As a Shavuot gift to you, here is a poem I will share with my fellow students this evening:

Barbara D. Holender
Even when you hold it in your arms,
you have not grasped it.
Wrapped and turned it upon itself
the scroll says, Not yet.

Even when you take them into your eyes,
you have not seen them; elegant
in their crowns the letter stand aloof.

Even when you taste them in your mouth
and roll them on your tongue
or bite the sharp unyielding strokes
they say, Not yet.

And when the sounds pour from your throat
and reach deep into your lungs for breath,
even then the words say, Not quite.

But when your heart knows its own hunger
and your mind is seized and shaken,
and in the narrow space between the lines
your soul builds its nest,

Now, says Torah, now
you begin to understand.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Omer 5768 - Day 47; 6 weeks and 5 days

Today is Hod she b'Malchut - a day of humility in a week of majesty.

I've listed the count to honor the omer and those who have maintained the count. I managed to keep it going in the midst of my heavy workload but lost it in the aftermath of release from obligations. It's unrealistic to think I will keep the complete omer count every year, and accepting that is a teaching in itself. There are always things that fall through the cracks, things we mean to do but just don't get to. It's important to remember that those things don't have to be lost. We can pick them up again--in different times, in different forms, in different ways.

Sunday night is Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, the time of revelation. But revelation is just the key--the true work of life is ongoing. As we discussed last night at a Shavuot study group led by Rabbi Dorothy Richman, the spiritual cycle is about emptying and filling. The counting of the omer represents the time between Pesach and Shavuot, from the freeing time of liberation from Egypt, Mitzrayim, the "narrow place," to that moment when we all stood at Sinai, receiving those words by which we live, filling our souls.

Throughout our lives we need to live that cycle. We need to figure out where we can empty, freeing space within us to fill with the revelations that help us travel our path. It's not always easy--even the most learned among of has had to deal with finding the balance. But, as always, it is not the endpoint but the journey that makes the difference.

Behold, I am a creature of this world.
I was created with two eyes and two arms.
All of my limbs and organs are healthy.
Yes, I have no idea for what purpose I was created,
or what I am supposed to fix in this world.
Rabbi Chanoch Henich of Alexander

I can tell you what should not be done--
But as for what should be done...
That is something we all must figure out for ourselves.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk