Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Fishing Report

היום אחד ועושרים יומים שהם שלשה שבועות לעמר
Today is the twenty-first day of the omer - three weeks

מלכות שבתפרת
A day of majesty in a week of compassion

I still read my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, every day. Sometimes I read it at home, sometimes in a cafe with coffee and a snack. That's the thing about the printed form of the newspaper--it's easily transportable to any sort of environment, and can be folded to accommodate various sizes and types of space available. I know I need to cherish this time spent with this news in print--it looks like it will be gone sooner rather than later as the Chronicle is in danger of stopping its print version sometime this year. I'm pretty sure it will survive as an internet-only news outlet, but that is no where near the same.

One big advantage to reading the newsprint rather than the screen pixels is the way you can skim all the sections and see what captures your eyes. While the web version has links that will take you quickly to the information you want to see, with the paper you can look over the words as you turn the pages, stopping as something makes an imprint. And I don't want to click around to read the comics--an important part of the newspaper experience. I look forward to those two pages each day.

And then there are the small gems you'd never discover in an online version unless you were specifically looking for them. One example of that is the obituaries. I've written before about my practice of reading the obituaries--you can find that here, or check out the "zichrono/nah l'vracha" category of this blog. Another somewhat hidden gem is Brian Hoffman's "The Fishing Report" that appears each Thursday in the sports section. In his opening paragraphs to the state of fishing in the San Francisco Bay Area you will find some of the best writing around.
Here's today's offering:
You can give light and you can take it away, a drive down Army to 3rd at a time past 2. Someone else said that, about the light, except that they meant life, and it was something to think about going over the draw bridge and along the edge of water to the parking lot at Red's.

It was dark except where it wasn't, light from the buildings and strung along the gun-metal bridge, thin halos above the streets and 100,000 places.

The one over the pier water, a rendering like a net in green-gold-orange. Then all that's familiar, the rod and the line, sinker and hook, an anchovy with a bloody eye going down.

The waiting.

If there were stars, it might have been different. It there was anything, it might have been different. As it was, it was fine.

A bench with a broken back. Not another human or even a fisherman. The best hours before dawn. Leaning back and taking aim, thumb to pointer, shooting them out ahead of the sun. One, by one, at a time.
I understand that the world needs to move forward and things have to change. But I will mourn the loss of those moments with my newspaper and my coffee, letting someone like Brian Hoffman use words to paint a picture, bringing me these scenes I would otherwise miss.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teaching Foundation

היום עשרים יומים שהם שני שבועות וששה יומים לעמר
Today is the twentieth day of the omer - two weeks and six days

יסוד שבתפרת
A day of foundation in a week of compassion

Last night I went with three friends to hear Aviva Zornberg, one of the premier Tanach scholars of our generation. She gave a teaching on the book of Ruth. I have heard her teachings--a friend gave me some recordings made in Israel of some classes she gave on the book of Bereshit (Genesis); and there is a podcast of a teaching gave on the book of Shemot (Exodus) as a part of the Speaking of Faith radio series.

I won't attempt to repeat any of her teaching. My notes are not good enough to do it justice. But believe me when I say it was a great lecture--and I would venture to say that all who were there would agree. I love being in a class or class-like situation (as this talk) when you can feel everyone in the room focused on the teaching. That kind of atmosphere contributes to the depth of the teaching. My friend Edna emailed me today, "I glowed all the way home about Aviva's learning."

I am lucky to have had exposure to teachers who have that capacity to draw students who are happy to focus on the teaching, absorbing what they learn. Rabbi Lew was one of those teachers, but I have experienced this in other than scholarly ways as well. Susannah Bruder, my yoga teacher of 12 years, is another master teacher who knows how to reach her students in that special way. She has built up a community of students who understand what it is to have a relationship with the practice. She teaches us both the physical and philosophical aspects of yoga which serves to deepen our practice.

Whether it's one lecture or weekly classes, I am blessed to have exposure to these wonderful teachers who give me a foundation for the practice that is my life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Future is Now

היום תשעה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועות וחמשה יומים לעמר
Today is the nineteenth day of the omer - two weeks and five days

הוד שבתפרת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

At the beginning of the omer count, I wrote that history will record this time as the true beginning of the 21st century. Today's news certainly supports that view.

There is the rapid spread of swine flu, with the words epidemic and pandemic being spoken with varying degrees of emphasis. It is taking the cooperation of governments throughout the world to try to contain the virus and treat all those effected.
From the Associate Press news story (bold text is mine):
"The World Health Organization's director-general, Margaret Chan, said the outbreak of the never-before-seen virus is a very serious situation and has "pandemic potential." But she said it is still too early to tell if it would become a worldwide outbreak.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said his government only discovered the nature of the virus late Thursday, with the help of international laboratories. "We are doing everything necessary," he said in a brief statement."
However you feel about the efficacy of what is being done, at least it is being handled on a global level early in the process. Compare that with the impenetrable blindfolds our world leaders wore for far too many years at the start of the AIDs crisis in the 1980s.

And then there was the news of Pennsylvania US Senator Arlen Spector switching his political party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. The political landscape in the United States is going through a change that could rival the 1960s political switch of the Southern states during the Lyndon Johnson administration. Can this be the beginning of the end of the Republican Party? Like the Whigs of the 19th century, will they self-destruct into factions, dividing between the Democratic party and some others, yet to be formed? As it is said, only time will tell.

But that time starts now; the 21st century is not the future---it is here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jewish Survival

היום שמונה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועות וארבעה יומים לעמר
Today is the eighteenth day of the omer - two weeks and four days

נצך שבתפרת
A day of endurance in a week of compassion

Each morning service at Beth Sholom, weekdays and Shabbat, we recite the Prayer for the State of Israel that is in our Sim Shalom prayerbook. It is a prayer for support of the land, the country of Israel. But when I heard the announcement of the prayer yesterday morning, I heard a different meaning. To me those words meant we need to pray for the state of Yisrael, pray for the state of the Jewish people, not just the real estate.

Today is omer day חי (chai), the letters of the Hebrew word for life that add up to eighteen. That the Jewish people still live, exist, through the thousands of years since Abraham & Sarah is a major miracle, especially when you consider how many of those years were spent in persecution with many trying to rid the Jews from this earth. Much of that survival can be attributed to the strong place the religion and it's rituals had in how Jews lived their lives--both among their people and in the world at large.

That last sentence was written in the past tense. Religion in the 21st Century has lost its place in people's lives. It is seen by many as something that separates rather than integrates. But that doesn't have to be. Religion is not about blind acceptance to think a certain way or do something because that's what we do. It's about looking to find our way in this world--both spiritually and sociologically. It's about studying the texts of the wise ones before us---from the ancients to those who have commented through the centuries. For the lessons are there for us to learn--we need to figure out how to absorb them, and pass them on to those who come after us.

One thing I have always been awed by is how the Torah has spoken to every generation through the years. Rabbi Arthur Green once said that the beauty of the Torah is that each generation leaves the oil from its fingertips as it passes through them. It's not easy. We must question--not take anything for granted or just accept what is there. It is this dialogue, this give and take, that we Yisraelites - we who wrestle with God - must keep doing to survive and endure.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Returning to the Turning

היום שבעה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועות ושלשה יומים לעמר
Today is the seventeenth day of the omer - two weeks and three days

תפרת שבתפרת
A day of compassion in a week of compassion

The month before the High Holidays, Elul, is a time of meditation and introspection. It is a time when Jews look inward, looking for some aspect that is wrong or out of place in their lives, and work to find a path away from that harmful place towards something better. That practice is called Teshuvah, often translated as repentance but returning is a better translation.

One year when studying with my teacher Norman Fisher during Elul, he talked about looking at Teshuvah as a turning instead of a returning---take what you're working on and "turn it" -- look at the other side. That year I was working on the judgemental aspect of my personality. Being judgemental would often cloud my view of people and events, leading me to wrong conclusions and, at times, bringing out what I felt was my nasty side.

So, what was the flip side of being judgemental? I looked and saw caring. In order to feel judgemental about something or someone, you need to care about what is happening or what that person is doing. If I could concentrate on the caring side, maybe I could melt away the judgements.

In the years that have followed, I have continued this work and it has helped greatly. Not that I don't have my lapses--but then I need to remember to be caring to myself and get rid of that self-judgement. Beating myself up doesn't help anything and just leads to stagnation. Learning to care enough to make the changes that are needed is the lesson. The lapses are inevitable, but if I can remain mindful of what is happening, I will keep making a fresh start. I make my teshuvah to keep compassion--for myself and others--as one of the filters of my life.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Acharei Mot - After the Death . . .

היום ששה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועות ושני יומים לעמר
Today is the sixteenth day of the omer - two weeks and two days

גבורה שבתפרת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

At today's Shabbat Mincha I read the beginning of the week's Torah parasha, אחרי מות - Acharei Mot, -- "After the death."
From the Etz Hayim commentary:
"'This is one of the parashiyyot whose name and opening words set the tone for all tha follows. 'After the death of the two sons of Aaron,' we are drawn to confront our own mortality and to reflect on the direction of our lives, for the text proceeds by describing the Yom Kippur rituals of cleansing, self-scrutiny, and self-renewal . . . (Acharei Mot is read in the spring, six months before and after Yom Kippur, as if to suggest that any season is an appropriate time for self-scrutiny and atonement.)"
One of the aspects of Jewish practice that I appreciate is the structure of the yearly spiritual cycle. While the rituals are specifically prescribed, there are many types of ritual--the Torah readings, the sacred calendar, the time cycles of seasons, months, days. Like concentric circles, at one point in the arc you are on many different layers. I will look to each circle--some going inward, some seeking outward--to guide me with my confrontation with mortality and with my reflection on life.

"After the death..." - those words have resonated many times this year. I have experienced my own grief with the passing of Mitzi and then Rabbi Lew. I have supported friends in their grief as they grappled with the loss of a parent. And tomorrow I will join with others in my community as we struggle to make sense of the death of a vibrant, 25-year-old who touched so many in her brief life.

As I travel through the circles on this day of strength and compassion, may each layer bring me the insight I need to find my way.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Day of Mourning

היום חמשה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועות ויום אחד לעמר
Today is the fifteenth day of the omer - two weeks and one day

חסד שבתפרת
A day of loving kindness in a week of compassion

As I look to the start of the month of Iyar tomorrow, some of my Rosh Chodesh joy will be diminished as I think of two families who will be mourning a loss.

My friend Sharon Goldstone's dad, Jack Goldstone, passed away Tuesday evening. I didn't know him but based on what I heard at the funeral today, I really missed out. He was a man of great honor and integrity, with a sense of humor that will transcend his death, as the recounting of his life and words brought laughter amidst the tears. Another Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, he managed to make it to Shanghai and then to San Francisco. He then forged his own family with much love--and that love will live on in his children and grandchildren. And while the Goldstone family is now grieving, it is a grief filled with fond remembrance

The grief that Esther Safer's family is now feeling is much more raw, pervasive, I'm sure, with a feeling of "why?" Esther passed away on Wednesday evening from complications of an epileptic seizure. She was 25 years old.

I knew Esther as a young, committed Jew. I met her when she attended our minyan for a period of time--adding to the ranks of tefillin-wearing women. She was a wonderful Torah reader, and had a passion for Judaism and Jewish practice. She would often join us in Torah study on Monday mornings, and had no problem challenging Rabbi Lew when she did not agree with him. One morning, needing to get his attention in an argument, she called out to him, "Dude!" Looking at our somewhat shocked faces, she realized what she had said and turned beet red. But we all laughed, including Rabbi Lew, and for the next few weeks Rabbi Lew was often referred to as "Dude" -- a moniker he was happy to have. She spread much joy and will be missed.

For Jack Goldstone; for Esther Safer

Zichronah, Zinchronoh l'vrachot

May their memories be blessings for us.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Writing what you want; Finding what you need

היום ערבעה עשר יומים שהם שני שבועת לעמר
Today is the fourteenth day of the omer - two weeks

מלכת שבגבורה
A day of majesty in a week of strength

Last night I went to Berkeley Hillel for a talk with Maggie Anton, the author of the series, "Rashi's Daughters." The first two books are available now, with one more on the way. I've read the first and am about to start on the second. I encourage you all to read the books. Not only are they a great insight into Jewish life in Western Europe during Rashi's time (11th/12th century), but the stories will hold you as well.

However, last night it was Maggie Anton's story that impressed me. On her path of taking Judaism from a secular place to a spiritual place in her life, she joined a women's Talmud study group led by Rachel Adler. As she delved deeper into Talmud, she was drawn to research the family of the renowned Jewish scholar Rashi. Anton knew that Rashi only had daughters, and there are legends that they studied the sacred texts with him and put on tefillin, both things women are traditionally forbidden to women.

Her research turned into outlines for 3 books--one for each daughter. She retired from her career as a chemist for Kaiser Permanente's Biochemical Genetics Laboratory to write these books. Anton and her husband David Parkhurst, a lawyer, set themselves up to publish and market Rashi's Daughters Book I: Joheved. That first book touched many, and took off. The rest, as they say, is history.

For me, last night was one of those instances when you hear what you need to hear at a time when you can hear it. It was great to see someone who just kept going where her heart and soul told her to go, and she made things happen.

Her thorough research and the importance of finding out all she could--studying on so many levels--is outstanding. She opens the door for us to Jewish practice in Rashi's time. The characters are based in the customs of their culture but imbued with the spirits of people close to Anton--such as her mother. This makes them come alive.

Why did she write the books?
"I wanted to write the books I wanted to read"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

היום שלשה עשר יומים שהם שבוע אחד וששה יומים לעמר
Today is the thirteenth day of the omer - one week and six days

יסוד שבגבורה
A day of foundation in a week of strength

As Ken has me going through the contents of boxes that have been stored in the garage for some years now, I end up taking those proverbial walks down Memory Lane. Along with the old address books I mentioned a couple of days ago, I also found old journals. I was never able to be a consistent journaler--I think my longest stretch was around 6 months. I always thought that meant I failed as a diarist, but now I am glad to have these stories of various times in my life, told in my own words.

This blog now serves the same purpose as those journals. I still write in fits and starts--and it's still a way to keep in touch with my earlier selves. Two years ago, during my first go-round of blogging the omer, I wrote about the start of my regime to lose weight. I was struggling a bit with the outcome--I could see and feel the physical difference, but the scale told a different story. But I did profess a determination to continue on that path of well being.

I'm glad to report that I have been able to keep my resolve. Without too many bumps in the road I have been able to reach a good place for my body. I am a good 20 pounds lighter than I was when I started that first cleanse. My yoga practice is strong, and I've added two days a week at the gym into my routine.

There's no telling what the future will hold. There are many potential roadblocks that could cause me to fall off the path. So, to that future self--don't obsess about what you're not doing or you haven't done. Just start again, now. Like that first breathe in meditation, the first step can be the most satisfying.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom HaShoah 5769

היום שנים עשר יומים שהם שבוע אחד וחמשה יומים לעמר
Today is the twelfth day of the omer - one week and five days

הוד שבגבורה
A day of humility in a week of strength

Today is Yom HaShoah--a day of remembrance for those who suffered in the brutal Holocaust brought on by Adolf Hitler and his supporters in Nazi Germany--honoring both those who we lost and those who survived. I encourage you all to visit the Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project. Scroll down, enter the site, take some time today to remember. We must remember, we must never forget--for to forget dooms other innocent people who could be imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for no reason other than the fact that they exist.

This year, with the loss of my dear friend Mitzi Wilner, the remembrance is touching me deeply. Mitzi survived by living as a Catholic nanny using her best friend's papers with her friend's maiden name. But her parents, her sisters, and much of her family were captured in the German "actions" in her Polish town. It was so important, each year, for her to honor their memories. Now, in honoring her memory, I honor them as well.

I would also like to honor those of my family that were lost. Above you see a postcard sent to my grandmother in 1933. It's a photo of her sister Mantzi with her husband Josef Vogel and their children. She and her family perished in 1942 when the Nazi's took over the town and sent all the Jews to a death camp.

לא תשכח
We will never forget

Monday, April 20, 2009

Practice makes.....more practice

היום אחד עשר יומים שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה יומים לעמר
Today is the eleventh day of the omer - one week and four days

נצך שבגבורה
A day of endurance in a week of strength

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.

And there, for me, lies today's message of endurance in strength.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

היום עשרה יומים שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה יומים לעמר
Today is the tenth day of the omer - one week and three days

תפרת שבגבורה
A day of compassion in a week of strength

Compassion and strength combine to bring me a day of peace and wellbeing. I led the davening at minyan. After a week away, it felt good to have the prayers of the Shacharit service fill my soul, flow out through my voice, and come back through the voices of those around me.

Back home, Ken had me go through the contents of some boxes stored in the garage--clearing out those things I no longer need to hold on to; discovering things that had been hidden from me for some years. I found old journals that brought me back to earlier times--some I may share as my blogging the omer continues. My collections of knitting needles were uncovered, asking me to pick them up again. And I shed lots of old tax returns, tossing them in a box ready for shedding.

It felt good to rid myself of unnecessary papers and reacquaintance myself with old friends. I also found some old address books. I was going to toss them out, but have decided to look through them before assigning them to the recycle bin. In this Facebook world, I'm going to see who I would like to try and reconnect with from my past. If I find them, I wonder if they will choose to reconnect with me....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wrestling with the Fire

היום תשעה יומים שהם שבוע אחד ושני יומים לעמר
Today is the ninth day of the omer - one week and two days

גבורה שבגבורה
A day of strength in a week of strength

A different kind of Shabbat today--a gathering of those who wished to join together in songs, prayers and teachings in a wonderful garden on a warm, sunny day. Several short Torah drashes--thought provoking, with more questions than answers on how to grapple with a difficult parsha like Shmini, which contains the story of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu--how they offered God אש זרה "strange fire" and were killed by fire from God. It is the grappling with these stories year after year, challenging us to look at inconceivable actions from different side and in different ways, that brings us in conversation with the Transcendent God.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Kabbalistic Betzalel

היום שמונה יומים שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד לעמר
Today is the eighth day of the omer - one week and one day

חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

Each day I search for images to connote the omer day. It's a process that takes me in different directions as I look for representations for different aspects the day. Sometimes my writing influences the choice of image--sometimes the image influences the writing. Today is an instance of the latter.

I usually start with the number, and the picture you see here came up high in that search. The original web origin of the image is the website of David Friedman, an artist and kabbalistic teacher living in Safed, Israel. There he showcases his artwork--for sale as silkscreens, posters, cards or postcards--and his written teachings.

I first looked at his artwork--and connected to many of his pieces. One work in particular touched me as it is the image I've been looking for to use when I share my Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay name of God meditation. I was thrilled to be able to order that, as well as some of his other posters. I have my eye on one of his silkscreens, but I'm going to wait.

I looked at some of his teachings as well, and think I will spend some time with them. I've been looking for some teachings to touch my soul, and these have the added element of coming with some meditation practices.

As I transition out of the Passover time into the omer wilderness on the way to Shavuot of Sinai, I do feel on a path. I may not have cleared my house as much as I wanted for Pesach, but I had some difficult clearing of my mind. Sometimes you do get what you need, and I think finding this artwork and these teachings brought me some comfort that I've been seeking. It has reminded me why I follow this path of spiritual guidance. I have chosen to travel the path with teachings and practices of my tribal roots, for they resonate deep within me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The end of an era.....

היום שבעה יומים שהם שבוע אחד לעמר
Today is the seventh day of the omer - one week

מלכות שבחסד
A day of majesty in a week of loving kindness

Former Oakland Raiders coach and premier football sportscaster John Madden announced his retirement today. As I started blogging the omer, I made the point that the 21st century is actually starting at this time. His retirement is more proof of that, since his stepping out of the broadcast booth certainly marks the end of an era.

The games will go on, but it won't be the same. The next generations of fans will only get to see and hear his brilliance on archived recordings. I can only hope that those generations of sports broadcasters study those recordings and learn.

Another loss for the sports world today is the death of Les Keiter. Read his obituary from today's New York Times. His major claim to fame? He recreated the San Francisco Giants games for the New York fans still following their former home team, ". . . through [his] booming voice and excitable embellishments, aided by his Western Union ticker reports, his taped crowd noise and a drumstick and wooden block alongside his microphone.

Like John Madden, he was someone who worked hard at his craft, working to give his listeners the full flavor of whatever sporting event he was covering.

Just a note on the photo accompanying this post. Not only does it give me a way to indicate 7, today's day of the omer, but I get to take a moment on this day of Yizkor as we remember those who are gone, to honor Lyle Alzado. Alzado was a NFL football player who is a 1967 alumni of Lawrence High School, graduating with my brother. He and my brother had no contact, but I can say I watched him play football as we saw the games he played in during high school. He died in 1992--from the Wikipedia page on him:
"Alzado is probably most remembered today for being one of the first major U.S. sports figures to admit using steroids. In the last years of his life, as he battled against the brain tumor that eventually caused his death at the age of 43, Alzado asserted that his steroid abuse directly led to his fatal illness, but every single one of his physicians stated it could not possibly be true, and that while steroid's do have harsh side effects, they were not the cause of his brain cancer.

According to some reports, Alzado was using natural growth hormone, harvested from human corpses, as opposed to synthetic growth hormones. However, shortly before his death, Alzado recounted his steroid abuse in an article in Sports Illustrated. He said:
“ I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I'm sick, and I'm scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We're not born to be 300 lbs or jump 30 ft. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair's gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way."

Unfortunately, he didn't get his wish. I just wish those in a position in sports to do something about the use of steroids had paid heed to his words.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kashrut - Unify or Divide Community?

היום ששה ימים לעמר
Today is the sixth day of the omer

יסוד שבחסד
A day of foundation in a week of loving kindness

This coming Shabbat we read Shmini--one of the parshiot in the Torah that lists which creatures to eat and which not to eat--the foundation of the laws of Kashrut.

In this week's "Today's Torah" drash I receive from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Rabbi Bradley Artson comments on the practice of Kashrut:

"Kashrut offers an opportunity to harness the act of eating to contribute to who we are and what are our values. Kashrut summons us to elevate eating from an animal response to an encounter with holiness, transforming our kitchens and our dining room tables into sacred altars, our meals into reminders of our deepest values as Jews. . . .
For thousands of years, the dietary laws served as a vehicle for solidifying Jewish identity, for forging a link with Jews throughout time and across the globe as well as for strengthening the connection between Jews and their Judaism. Jewish meals forge a potent bond, linking family and friends into communities devoted to a more humane order on earth.
. . .
Finally, the practice of kashrut, motivated at its core by a recognition of the holiness of every living creature, has instilled sensitivity to the suffering of animals and of our responsibility to other forms of life. True, the practice of the dietary laws requires commitment, self-discipline, and striving."

I wrote something similar last year on the third day of the omer - you can read it here. So I can't say that I disagree with Rabbi Artson on his view as a whole, but I'm not comfortable with the tone of his drash. You see, when he talks about "Jewish meals" and "kashrut," he's thinking only in terms of his Conservative movement view of those things. And because of that, he doesn't address the difficult issues surrounding the practice of kashrut in Jewish America today.
While I believe that kashrut is one of the practices that kept Judaism alive for all these thousands of years, I find that today it often serves to divide Jews to the extent of making some Jews scorn the practice completely. I know many people who eat mindfully and compassionately. I am a part of communities who bond over food. But it is often hard to reconcile each person's or group's version of what is kosher so that the caring act of sharing food becomes a seemingly judgemental event with some feeling either they are not good-enough Jews or their practice is not being respected.
It is a dilemma that is being felt by many Jewish communities across the nation. I wish that Rabbi Artson had addressed that, and given us some guidance as to how our communities can deal with these issues--or even recognize that the issues exist.
To me, it shows me one more reason to believe the Jewish Conservative movement has it's proverbial head in the sand----and may find itself deeply buried there if it doesn't start to pick up it's head and live in the real world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Forward payment goes both ways

היום חמשא יומים לעמר
Today is the fifth day of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

This morning I had one of those "pay it forward" moments.

Coming back from my yoga immersion, driving up 29th Street, a block or so from my house, I saw a Latino guy next to a white truck. He was motioning to cars going by with jumper cables in his hands. I drove by...realized he needed a jump...stopped and backed up to help him. We got the truck started, and one of the guys asked me if I wanted anything in exchange. I told him he owed someone else a jump. He agreed, with a smile.

Then I get home and read of two other, long-standing "pay it forward" events--one the flip side of the other.

Some would call this story a "pay it back." In an Associate Press account of the deportation proceedings against John Demjanjuk, a now frail 89-year-old Nazi war criminal. A German arrest warrant claims Demjanjuk was an accessory to some 29,000 deaths during World War II at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He has been removed from his home in suburban Cleveland, but his case has just been stayed.

Some bits from the story:
"A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay until it could further consider Demjanjuk's motion to reopen the U.S. case that ordered him deported, in which he says painful medical ailments would make travel to Germany torturous."

"As Demjanjuk's wheelchair was loaded into a van at their home, his wife, Vera, sobbed and held her hands to her mouth. As the van moved down the street, Vera turned and waved, sobbing in the arms of a granddaughter."

"It was horrendous. He was in such pain. I wouldn't want to see anyone go through something like that," said granddaughter Olivia Nishnic, 20.

"If he is deported, if this madness and inhumane action is not stopped by the 6th Circuit, he will live out his life in a (German) hospital. He will never be put on trial," he said. "It makes absolutely no sense that the Germans, after nearly killing him in combat, would try to kill him once again."
I find those statements chilling, putting in bold those that cut to the heart. Those words are being used to come to the defense of a man who not only watched mad and inhumane actions being used on thousands and thousands of innocent people, but he participated in their torture and murder. A week from today Yom HaShoah, the day we honor all those killed in the Holocaust. Their families pleas for mercy, justice, and compassion fell on the deaf ears of those like John Demjanjuk.

In today's SF Chronicle, I saw this story:
Jews pay back quake victims in Italy

"More than 65 years after villagers provided shelter to Italian Jews fleeing from the Nazis, a group of those who evaded capture rushed to repay that sacrifice in rural communities hard-hit by an earthquake last week.'

"'I wouldn't be here if it weren't for these people,' said Alberto Di Consiglio, whose parents were sheltered in the small hamlets of Fossa and Casentino during the war. 'We have to help them.'"

"In one tent, Di Consiglio managed to find Nello De Bernardinis, 74, the son of the couple who sheltered Di Consiglio's father and eight other relatives during the war."

"'Those were difficult times, like today,' said De Bernardinis. 'The Germans were always looking for Jews and we did what we could.'"
People helping people who help them back. Righteous acts moving forward.

The cycle of paying forward lasts through time. As Nello De Bernardinis tells us, you do what you can. Maybe that's the message on this day of humility in loving kindness.

Monday, April 13, 2009

True Losses for Baseball

היום ארבעה יומים לעמר
Today is the fourth day of the omer

נצך שבחסד
A day of endurance in a week of loving kindness

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

Two losses for baseball today....

Harry Kalas, the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies for almost 40 years collapsed in the broadcast booth and died today, right before the game was to begin. Although it's a sad time for his family, friends, and fans, at least he was able to go out after he called the last out of the Phillies World Series win last fall.

Mark "the Bird" Fidrych was found dead today in what was apparently some sort of accident at his farm. His career was short, but he had that one great rookie year. There was a great spirit about him, his delivery was unique, and he was fun to watch. Below you'll see a 1985 interview with him.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Seder musings......

היום שלשה יומים לעמר
Today is the third day of the omer

תפרת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

I had three seders this year instead of the usual two. As it is with seders, they were all basically the same, and each one was different.

The first night I went to Bob & Ruth White's house for what has become my family seder. This is the third year Ken and I have been a part of their celebration, and I hope to be there for years to come. There is much joy and laughter as Bob leads the seder surrounded by his four children who always manage to get home for Pesach no matter where in the world they are at the time--New York, Madrid, Berkeley, wherever :) It is a complete seder, with lots of singing. All who attend are encouraged to contribute any food for thought--to go along with all the great food we eat :) This year I brought me two new insights into the haggadah text. First, the association between the 4 children and the 4 Marx Brothers--I invite you to figure out which is who. And I will never look at the song "Dayainu" in the same way again. Bob is right, there is irony in those words. As a people, do we ever say, "this is enough?" It reminds me of the Jewish joke:
*Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
*A. (Sigh) Don't bother, I'll sit in the dark, I don't want to be a nuisance to anybody.
For second night, I was invited to the Mirvish's house, another family I know from Beth Sholom. The dad, Adrian, is a philosophy professor, and he lead us in text study of many parts of the hagaddah. I don't know that I've experienced a seder quite like that and since I'm a bit starved for good Jewish group study these days, this really resonated with me. It made for a long seder, but one that I found really satisfying.

Last night I lead another seder for my friends Robin and Darin with their two kids, Darin's parents, his brother and his girlfriend, and our friends Eli (Elizabeth), her husband Brian and their daughter. Darin is Jewish, but no one in his family has ever had any interest in practicing any part of the religion. Robin is not Jewish, but feels a tie to the spiritual nature of religion and wants to give her kids the experience of their heritage. Eli and Brian are not Jewish, had never been to a seder, but Eli wants her 5-year-old daughter who attends Catholic school, to have an appreciation for the different religious practices in the world. Some would call this seder watered down, but in some ways it might be the most important of the three. For it gives people who would not have any relationship to this story of liberation a way to show their children the importance of freedom for all people. It gives the adults a chance to appreciate the message as well.

One tradition--three different experiences. It made for a long start of the week, but helped bring the aspect of loving kindness into each day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The strength of Shabbat

היום שני יומים לעמר
Today is the second day of the omer

גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

In this year of omer counting, Saturday--Shabbat is the day of strength. That seems like a disconnect, since Shabbat is a day of rest, a day spent refreshing oneself physically, mentally, and perhaps emotionally. Many times strength implies a certain amount of work, something one is not supposed to do on Shabbat.

So, what is the strength of Shabbat? Something to ponder over the next weeks.......

Friday, April 10, 2009

And so we begin.....

היום יום אחד לעמר
Today is the first day of the omer

חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

Another of the Jewish cycles begins today as we start to count the time between Pesach and Shavuot--from liberation to revelation. One brings us freedom to be ourselves in this world; the other gives us the guidance we need to be with others in this world.

I believe that history will record this time as the true beginning of the 21st century. Change is afoot on many levels--politically, economically, technologically, environmentally, spiritually. The mindset of the world needs to be different in order to ensure our survival.

The citizens of the 20th century traveled from a time of isolation to a time of globalization. As the leadership of the 21st century starts from that place of globalization and travels into unknown territory, I can only hope that loving kindness for all people guides them on their way.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Chag Sameach Pesach

The first batch of Farfel Fantasies are made; the Passover rolls are in the oven. Time to relax, take a shower, and get ready for seder. I am blessed to have friends who have embraced me as family as I sit at their Passover table each year.

May you all have wonderful seders filled with joy, laughter, and love.

Once again, Chag Sameach!!!!

We bless the sun; the sun blesses us

There was lots of cloud cover, but the raindrops held off until we were done blessing the sun. And the vibes we sent out into the universe had its effect, for an hour later, the sun showed itself.

So on to your next cycle, light that gives light. May I be there to bless you on Wednesday, April 8, 2037.

Here comes the sun........I hope

It looks like the rain will hold off for a couple of hours, so our Birkat HaChammah ceremony will take place this morning on Twin Peaks. See this post below for details--I hope to see you there.

UPDATE--two minutes later, now it's raining. The rain seems soft, and so I'm going to forge ahead. I need to go get my tefillin, so this will be my last post. Bring an umbrella, a raincoat, good shoes for wet conditions. Barring a raging downpour, I'm sending my prayers out to the sun, which must be shining somewhere.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Birkat HaChammah - Blessing of the Sun - UPDATED TIME

Birkat HaChammah is one of those gems of Judiasm that I seem to discover every couple of years or so. Below is a copy of an email invitation I sent to some friends which gives the essence of the ritual. At the end of the email are some resource links to learn much more--and I encourage you to do so.

For those who are in San Francisco and looking for a service, here's the info . . .
On Wednesday morning, April 8, we as Jews will celebrate the end and beginning of the sun's cycle as it returns to it's makom, it's place at the time of creation. This little known--but getting more popular--Talmudic celebration occurs once every 28 years. In a somewhat unusual but somehow fitting convergence, this year it falls on Erev Pesach.

I invite you and anyone you think would be interested, to a Birkat HaChammah service on that Wednesday morning, April 8 at the top of Twin Peaks, taking in a full Eastern view. We will gather near the overlook, and there is plenty of parking, although I do encourage you to carpool if possible--or maybe even bike or walk if you are so inclined :) The Chabad of Noe Valley will have their service already in progress, so please be respectful of them. I will be there to find our place, so look for me. We will start to gather at 7a.m. -- I am thinking about some chanting and maybe movement as well--that part is still in formulation :) The Birkat HaChammah liturgy will start at 7:15 a.m., followed by a Shacharit service using the using the Makor Or siddur. Having never done this before, I can't say for sure, but I think the service will last no longer than an hour. For those who would like, we can adjourn afterwards to a cafe for coffee and our last bit of hamatz :)

Please let me know if you think you will be coming, and if you invite anyone and can let me know, that would be good as well. That way I can estimate how many service sheets and siddurim to make. There's plenty of parking on top of Twin Peaks. You get the the road up from Clarendon on one side and Portola on the other. Click here for a link to the Google map.

The big question is--will we see the sun, since seeing the sun is an important part of the ritual. I think that as long as it's not pouring, I'm going to be there. But I will post something on my blog by 6a.m. that morning, so you can check there. (For those of you who have noticed that I haven't written in a while--it's that time of the year when I "blog the omer" so be sure to check back starting April 10th and through to Shavuot.) You can find my blog at

I realize many of you have many questions about this whole ritual. Rather than have me regurgitate information, below you'll see four good resources
I'm not sure who is behind this site, I think it might be rabbinical students, but it's got good overview and other information.
Ritual Well is always a good place to check for both spiritual and practical takes on the holiday rituals. This page is no exception, with links to lots of articles and other resources.
An environmental view of the celebration. From their site: "We invite you to join us as we draw on Jewish sources and spirituality for wisdom to help shape changes in behavior, policy and consciousness in response to the challenge of global climate change."
Not only will you learn about the celebration, but you will experience it through an essay Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote on the occasion of the last Birkat HaChamah on April 8, 1981.

I'm looking forward to experiencing this with many of you.

Take care,


ps Yes, I realize that the down side is the first born males among us who need to attend a siyyum so they can eat that day may not be able to join us :( May you be around 28 years from now so we can celebrate again together :)