Sunday, January 25, 2009

Harvey Milk - Reel vs Real

Last night Ken and I went to see the movie Milk. The reviews have been extremely good and I was expecting to have a good movie experience, with the bonus of seeing alot of San Francisco in the 1970s. Instead, I was hugely disappointed on both counts.

I will say that Sean Penn was fantastic in his role as Harvey Milk. He is not just playing Milk, he becomes Milk. He deserves to be considered for the Best Actor Academy Award. But as far as writing and directing goes, it's a total thumbs down from me.

The writing seemed so, I don't know, obvious, for lack of a better term. The story moves along, but there's no passion, no soul. The direction was claustrophobic. I didn't get a good sense of time and place in the visuals. The shots were either very close or very wide--neither giving me a feel for San Francisco in the 70s. Again, a lack of passion and soul. I was not moved emotionally.

And this is a story and a time and a place that does move me. If you really want to feel the power of Harvey Milk and the activism that defined San Francisco in the 70s, see The Times of Harvey Milk, the Academy Award winning documentary directed by Rob Epstein. I've seen it numerous and it never fails to bring me to tears.

For me, the telling of the real story from those who lived it brings it closer to my heart than watching the Hollywood reel version.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Can

Many words have been written about this monumental day. When "that" moment came today, I stood and cried--it's hard not to feel the hope for the future. In honor of the next generation that will bring us through this difficult time stronger, more mindful, and more united, I offer this video that I see as an anthem for this time and place.

Yes, we can......and I believe, with Barack Obama as our leader, we will.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sharing Torah Moments

This morning, exactly one week after I read Torah at the shiva minyan for Mitzi--I read Torah at the shiva minyan for Rabbi Lew. At the service for Mitzi, I gave a very short drash--call it a "drashlet"--based on a teaching I got from Rabbi Lew (the same one I used in the speech posted here in an earlier post).

Today, I shared a moment I had with Rabbi Lew one late-spring Saturday mincha. I was chanting Torah that day, and needed to roll the Torah to the correct spot--somewhere in Bamidbar/Numbers. As I perused the scrolls, looking for the start of the reading, Rabbi Lew leaned over and said:
"וידבר יי אל משה לאמר" "God spoke to Moshe and said"-
a phrase that starts the huge majority of paragraphs in that part of the Torah. It's a standard, geeky, Torah reader joke.

The love of Torah--reading, chanting, studying, holding, touching, breathing, even joking about Torah--is something I shared with Rabbi Lew.

I know that all who studied with Rabbi Lew will continue to pass his teachings to the next generations.

The photos posted here are from a Makor Retreat in August, 2002.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

One step at a time

One thing about Jewish practice is that for all the parts of it that are hard to access, we do well with the process of mourning and grief. Losing both Mitzi and Rabbi Lew in the space of a week has weighed very heavy on my soul, but it's good to have rituals and a community for support.

With Mitzi, the grief is a bit easier to deal with - our close relationship and all the time I spent with her in this past year makes me miss her alot but also gives me comfort. With Rabbi Lew it's more complicated. He gave me so much, taught me so much, yet also was the source of some anger. I have been releasing that anger over the past months, and we had some very precious, close moments with each other during this year. So at least I'm spared the guilt I might have felt if this happened just a year or so past.

It's still alot to deal with, but because of my teachers--Rabbi Lew, Norman Fischer, Susannah Bruder--I know to keep moving forward, one step at a time. I also know that we need to feel the pain in order to go beyond it. For if there were no emotion, there would be no love. And while the physical bodies may be gone, the love remains, stays with us, and helps us grow.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Radiant is the World Soul

In a few hours we will welcome Shabbat. It's a Shabbat that will feel diminished with the loss of a true tzaddik, Rabbi Alan Lew. To honor his spirit, I share a poem from a tzaddik of the past generation, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. It reminds me how much Rabbi Lew's teachings touched my soul, and as well as the souls of many others in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Radiant is the World Soul

Radiant is the world soul,
Full of splendor and beauty.
Full of life,
Of souls hidden,
Of treasures of the holy spirit,
Of fountains of strength,
Of greatness and beauty.
Proudly I ascend
Toward the heights of the world soul
That gives life to the universe.
How majestic the vision - Come, enjoy,
Come, find peace,
Embrace delight,
Taste and see that God is good.
Why spend your substance on what does not nourish
And your labor on what cannot satisfy?
Listen to me, and you will enjoy what is good,
And find delight in what is truly precious.

--Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shomer Scarf

I just finished my time as shomer for Rabbi Lew. Part of the Jewish burial ritual is to make sure that there is always someone sitting, watching over the body until the time of the funeral. It is important that the body not be left alone at this time. I see it as a way we can accompany our loved one in this last part of their journey on this earth. It gives us a way to honor someone, hold them close before we have to let go.

It is traditional to read Psalms during this time. We arranged for the shomerim in shifts, and many read Norman Fischer's "Opening to You," his interpretations of the Psalms. Norman is Rabbi Lew's closest friend--they traveled many of the life's paths together--the Iowa Writing program, the Zen Center, Makor Or. Norman was also a shomer, taking these last steps with Rabbi Lew.

I read Psalms, chanted Torah, shared some other writings. But mostly I just sat in silence-sometimes in meditation, sometimes having conversations with Rabbi Lew in my head. Because I had the overnight shift, 8P - 8A, there was lots of time. I also brought a skein of yarn and crocheted. I started a scarf--a pattern I have recently developed, something I can do without too much thinking. It's a spiral pattern, which felt appropriate as a spiritual metaphor for the teachings Rabbi Lew has given me. The scarf is crocheted lengthwise, and I chose to make it 108 stitches long. 108 is a spiritual number in many traditions. Eighteen is the number that represents chai, life, in Judaism. 108 is 6 X 18--Rabbi Lew had completed six decades of life, with the seventh unfinished. The Buddhists ring bells 108 for the New Year. It's also a sacred number to the Hindus. And it happens to be the number of stitches on a baseball--another spiritual pursuit of Rabbi Lew.

In the midst of the last row of the scarf, I ran out of yarn. Somehow, that seemed right. For loss of Rabbi Lew leaves many of us feeling incomplete. He left us far too soon; he had so much more to teach us. But we will continue the teachings he left us--in deed and in study. We will pass them on to the generations ahead. His life, like the scarf, may have been cut short before it's time, but his memory and his light will shine on for many years to come.

Zichrono Le'vracha

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rabbi Alan Lew - Baruch Dayan HaEmet

Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono le'vracha, died today. It's hard to grasp that reality.

In his memory, I share these words I spoke on the occasion of his retirement from Beth Sholom in June, 2005.

Ernie Newbrun has spoken to you this evening of the depth of Rabbi Lew's teaching, and the effect it has had on all of us who who are his students. One of my favorite teachings of his, one that comes up for me again and again, is his teaching from the 15th century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, in his description of the chumash, the 5 books of Moshe, as a blueprint for a spiritual life. As I was thinking what I was going to say this evening, I realized this teaching also serves as an example of our community, and the gifts that Rabbi Lew has brought us.

Bereshit, Genesis, represents the personal spiritual seeking, ending in a leave-taking. For many of us here, that spiritally seeking leave-taking brought us to Beth Sholom. At Beth Sholom we found not only ritually rich Judaism, but a Rabbi who could speak to that seeking spirit within us.

Shemot, Exodus, represents Revelation, and the beginning of community. With the founding of Makor Or, Rabbi Lew recognized the need for a community where meditation and Jewish spiritual activity are done in combination. For experienced meditators who happen to be Jewish, the meditation practice at Makor Or brings refreshed connections to a religion they had basically left behind. For those like me, familiar and comfortable with Jewish practice but looking for a deeper connection, Makor Or brings a place to experience meditation in a environment with no foreign icons to block out. Rabbi Lew has made all of that possible. For those of us who have participated in Makor Or, Rabbi Lew has been there to guide us when meditation brings to fore our inner angst. And connecting sitting meditation to prayer has brought a deeper appreciation for both activities.

Which brings me to Vayikra, Leviticus, representing the actual practice. The practice of Judaism is not easy in this world, and especially in this town. We eat differently, our holidays are always at times that conflict with the outside world, we have to learn a whole different language to participate in prayer. Yet here at Beth Sholom, we embrace the traditions, even to the extent of reading the entire Torah parsha each week, something becoming increasingly unique in the Conservative Jewish world. But rather than water down the rituals, Rabbi Lew inspires us to look to the deeper meanings of the practice, helps us see why they are there and what they can bring to us.

And that's how Abravanel catagorizes Bamidbar, Numbers, the book we very fittingly start this Shabbat. Bamidbar is about bringing the practice into our lives. And that is where, I think, we owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Lew. For he has made it his mission to share with all of us his love of Judaism and the deep spiritual sense it has brought to his life. That's what makes his sermons so special—he doesn't just talk it, he walks it. He doesn't just teach about the benefits of meditating, he's there at 6 a.m. He doesn't just preach the importance of keeping our minyan vibrant, he participates fully. He finds ways to reach us all.

As a case in point, I looked to one of my favorite sermons of his, one given Rosh Hashanah 5760, in 1999, just before I became a member. It's a sermon that demonstrates why we're here, filled with respect and love and honor for Rabbi Lew.

He first sets a scene of a news crew filming meditation—"Apparently, this is a thing of great amazement – a bunch of Jews sitting in the room without talking; quick, get the cameras! Let's run this on the 6 o'clock news." They also film minyan. His description of minyan focuses on the time-honored Beth Sholom tradition of saying "Yasher Koach" – loosely translated, may the force be with you -- to everyone who participates in the slightest manner. Why do we do this? "We are congratulating you because of all the places you could have put your energy in this world, of all the forces you could have aligned your force with, you freely chose to be here, to put your energy here, to align yourself with the three thousand year old stream of spiritual energy we call Judaism"

Later in the sermon, Rabbi Lew goes on to relate that "Yasher Koach" moment to a moment in this country that demonstrated that same spiritual achievement — that moment in 1995 when Cal Ripken, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, played in 2,131 straight games, breaking Lou Gherig's record. Besides fullfilling the insight of his teacher Louis Finkelstein who said (according to Rabbi Lew) "you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball" Rabbi Lew understood that this acheivement of being present and showing up each day made the difference in a world that doesn't always show up as we would wish. Rabbi Lew said "simple human presence – simply being present, simply persisting in being here – has tremendous spiritual power, It has the power to heal. It has the power to nurture."

Rabbi Lew has been here for us, nurturing us, being present for us, for 14 years. From all of us I say thank you, and "Yasher Koach."