Monday, April 30, 2012

Venn Diagram Communities

היום שלשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושני ימים לעומר
Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבנצח
A day of strength in a week of perseverance

Myself and a couple of fellow "Torah Geeks" were processing the mind provoking teaching by Aviva Zornbert at the UC Berkeley Graduate Theological Union this morning when a woman came up to join our little group. She remarked not only on the wonderful talk, but how she saw friends from the varied Jewish East Bay communities, from different Jewish strata of her life. She described it as a human venn diagram.

What a great description of how our communities have common points, even as they are separated by time or place or political persuasion :) Like the venn diagram, there are many different meeting points. Recently, a friend of mine from NY who I met working at NBC connected me with a friend of hers who is coordinating a program at Stanford that gives interested teens a chance to work with programmers to create a video game. Maybe one of my students would be interested. I immediately thought of a bat mitzvah who is really smart AND a total computer geek. Her idea of a fun summer is getting into a John Hopkins program so she can learn all sorts of code. Not only is she my student, but I've been close with her family for years now--plus her father's grandparents came from the same small town in Eastern Europe as mine. I connected her parents with my friend's friend and, voila---we had a happy girl who not only created a game but now wants to go to Stanford!

And then there's the friend of mine who I met through an online game that we participate in but who also, we found out as we conversed, worked at NBC Sports at one point and we knew some people in common. His sister lives in San Francisco and I see him when he visits. He's not Jewish but his sister is--she converted when she married. Sadly, her husband passed away recently. I went to make a shiva visit and bring a kugel. She used to work for Jewish Vocational Services and has been involved in other various Jewish communities. Of course, we found many people we had in common--people who would assume we knew each other through Jewish connections, not from her brother. But connected we were, and there I was to help comfort her in a time of need.

Yesterday I made the point that communities are a modern version of the tribal cultural structure. But I think the opportunity for intersection is something that is particular to our time, and only increasing with the growing connectivity that we are getting from technology.

Our world is really getting closer--whether we like it or not. Being able to reach out to those, not only in our immediate communities but those who are linked and relinked to those around us can, perhaps, bring a strength in the world.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


היום שנים ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ויום אחד לעומר
Today is twenty-two days, which is three weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבנצח
A day of loving kindness in a week of perseverance.

I'm planning to spend this week of perseverance looking at different aspects of being a part of different communities. I think that living in spheres of community is this century's version of tribal culture. It is where we get needed support, even as we sometimes have to also accept unwanted advice :)  It is where we find our extended family, and get to reach out to both young and old. It can also be a place of unfair hierarchies and fights for control. To borrow from Dickens--it can be the best of times and the worst of times.

But like with family, when you are invested in a community you don't just abandon it when times are tough. You may have to separate in some way, but while ties may loosen, it takes a lot to get to a breaking point. And sometimes, instead of snapping the bonds, you get to rearrange the strands into a configuration that has the potential to keep the best of all worlds while still moving forward.

Those are the thoughts that will underlie my posts this week. As I delve into these subjects, I'm open to any words of wisdom anyone would like to add--so stay tuned.

Room Transformation

היום אחד ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות לעומר
Today is twenty-one days, which is three weeks of the omer
מלכות שבתפארת
A day of majesty in a week of compassion

What a difference new furniture can make! Where once there were a bulky green leather couch and an large matching chair we now have a more streamlined, open-ended charcoal couch with two round light brown swivel chairs.

I like the couch, but the chairs are my favorite. I love the curve of the back with the short arms, leaving room for my elbows when I crochet, or my guitar when I play.

We're going to live with them for a while before we make a commitment to any tables :)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Teaching - Reaching them all

היום עשרים יום שהם שני שבועות וששה ימים לעומר
Today is twenty days, which is two weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבתפארת
A day of foundation in a week of compassion

I recently subscribed to The Accidental Talmudist on Facebook. In this time between Pesach and Shavuot, he is following the custom of studying the Pirkei Avot - The Words of our Sages, and sharing some of his perspectives with us.

Today's offering came it just as I was making notes for next year's curriculum. And how timely it is, as it serves as a reminder to keep the different ways students learn in mind as I develop my methods of teaching.
There are four types among those who sit before the Sages:
the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve.

The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.
                                           Pirkei Avot 5:15

While I'm far from a sage, I do see these four types--and more--in my classes. The challenge is to find a common ground to which they can each contribute in their own way.

I have a feeling this will be a life-long quest . . . . . . . :)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yom HaAztmaut -- with sadness.....

היום תשעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וחמשה ימים לעומר
Today is nineteen days, which is two weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שבתפארת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

Today is Yom HaAztmaut - the 64th anniversary of the formation of Modern Israel.

In my youth, I marched in parades in NYC to celebrate this day. Israel was so important to me. Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, it meant a lot to know that I had a place I belonged, a place where someone could not tell me to leave--a place I was not an "other." In 1968 when George Wallace was running for president, I remember clearly feeling that if he won, I would move to Israel.  I was not going to sit still and wait for the next version of overwhelming anti-semitism. I was going to where I could freely live as a Jew.

But sadly, I no longer feel that Israel is a place where I can freely live as a Jew. And even more sadly, it's because my engagement with Judaism is now deeper. When I was a girl, much of the primary Jewish ritual was inaccessible to me, purely because of my gender. I was no rebel in this regard, pretty much just accepted the strictures that were in place--although I really wanted an aliyah :)  I was in an environment where boys and girls were treated equally in the realm of Jewish learning, and that worked for me. I never felt inferior--there were just things that were not mine to do. And, for whatever reasons, I did not question that.

In the late 70s and 80s, living on my own in Manhattan, I was unconcerned with my Judaism. It's easy to be Jewish in New York. With my family close, living in a place where Jewish life is woven into the culture of the area, I could check in and out as I wanted. It was always there for me.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1986 I had to find a relationship with Judaism that generated from me, not from outside sources. There was no family close where I could share holidays and I was unaware and unconnected with the Jewish scene here. I began my own Jewish traditions which I shared with my friends--Channukah Football Sunday; leading a user-friendly seder for 50 on a video stage. I also discovered the new wealth of Jewish feminist writings. Although she is a half a generation ahead of me, Letty Cottin Pogrebin's "Deborah, Golda, and Me" really spoke to me. One story she tells that has stuck with me centers around when she attended the United Nation's Women's Conference in Copenhagen in 1980. It was there that she experienced anti-semitism in the name of "anti-Zionism." Ten years later, she writes:
"I wondered why Jewish women are applauded by the Women's Movement when we trudge through Judaic subcultures ruffling beards with our feminist demands, but not when we bring Jewish consciousness back the other way into feminism; or why we are cheered when we critique the Bible for its anti-woman bias, but not when we criticize feminists for their anti-Jewish jokes. . . Must we identify as Jews within feminism with as much discomfort as we identify as feminists within Judaism?"

It's now twenty years after that was written, and there's still a discomfort with women who take on traditionally male rituals in Jewish practice. Yes, I know, not everywhere...with acceptance growing and growing. A full discussion of this is not what this post is about. But even as there are many places in US where I feel free and comfortable in my egalitarian practice, Israel remains a real problem. Walking around with the marks from my tefillin on my arm can be dangerous; I cannot wear my tallit at the Kotel; carrying a Torah, for me, is an arrestable offense.

I am so glad there is an Israel, a Jewish state from which we cannot be exiled. But once I felt it was my home---now, I feel I don't belong.

Her crime--carrying a Torah.
Notice the women wearing their tallitot as scarves--the only way they are allowed without being taken away.....

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remembering the fallen . . .

היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים לעומר
Today is eighteen days, which is two weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבתפארת
A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

This eighteenth day of the omer, this day of חי -- of life, is also Yom HaZikaron, a day of remembrance for the Israeli soldiers who have, as Amichai Lau-Lavi puts it ". . . fallen for peace in Israel."

In this country, we've made Memorial Day a three-day weekend celebration of summer--going to the beach, taking advantage of sales. Most have forgotten the meaning of the day--the who, what, and why of what we are commemorating.

In Israel, there is no forgetting---everyone takes the time to remember.....

A Double Dose of Tiferet

היום שבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושלשה ימים לעומר
Today is seventeen days which is two weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבתפארת
A day of compassion in a week of compassion

Of all the sephirot, I'm feeling Tiferet - what I'm choosing to translate as compassion - the most deeply this year.

I feel it personally, realizing I need to cultivate a path of compassion for myself in order to keep moving forward in my life.

I feel it professionally, especially when I teach--understanding that compassion for my students brings me the opening I need to reach them.

And I feel, more and more, that compassion is something that is being lost in the world today--something we must reclaim. For with compassion comes understanding. And it's only through understanding that we can have peace.

כן יהי רצון

May it be so

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Open Handed Strength

היום ששה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושני ימים לעומר
Today is sixteen days which is two weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבתפארת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

Ten years ago as I was going through chemotherapy, I wrote a fair amount about strength and what it means to gain as well as give strength. I looked at strength "...with an open palm, not a closed fist -- of the strength in receptivity, of acceptance."

I also concentrated on being present--that is something that weaves in and out of all my journal entries from that time. Cancer treatment or not, I was participating in a 9 month meditation practice period at Makor Or. That in itself brought its own strength.
Strength in open-handed strength
Using judgement to lead to non-judgement
      Just what is.
Using power to take what is
To what the next is
     Will be.....

From Judgement to Compassion

היום חמשה עשר יום שהם שני שבעות ויום אחד לעומר
Today is fifteen days, which is two weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבתגארת
A day of loving kindness in a week of compassion

At services yesterday, I spoke about how the kabbalists viewed Rosh Chodesh, the start of each month, as a chance for renewal. We start with the darkness of the new moon which then grows to fullness. It's a good time to take a breath, and have a brief moment of teshuvah.

I grapple with the judgemental side of my personality. I am very hard on myself; if I'm going to do something, I'd better do it right -- whatever that means. That attitude can seep into my observations of what others are doing--or not doing, as the case may be. And when my thinking goes in that direction, I become unaware of other aspects of what is happening that need to be taken into account.

In the early years of my Makor Or practice I spent a lot of my contemplative time looking at my judgemental tendencies. Then in a Elul teaching session,  Norman talked about looking at teshuvah not as repentance, as it is often translated, but as a returning--closer to its meaning. Keep turning around whatever it is you are concentrating on and see what is on the other side.

It was when I looked at the other side of my judgement attitudes, I saw compassion. For if I didn't care, there would be nothing to be judgemental about. So if, when I'm feeling those judgemental thoughts inch up on me, I can focus on the why do I care, I might be able to find the compassion that lives on the other side. And if I can look at what is happening through the lens of that compassion, I can find a clearer way to help what ever the situation may be--it may be to help others, it may just help myself. It may be that I find a way to solve an issue; it may be I find a way to let an issue go. Either way would bring loving kindness into the mix.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Two Threads of My Life....

היום ארבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות לעומר
Today is fourteen days, which is two weeks of the omer
מלכות שבגבורה
A day of majesty in a week of strength

My soul's ties to Judaism has two main threads that converge and join with modern influences to inform my practice and, in many ways, my life.

I definitely feel the call of the ancient. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read Hebrew or say the Shema--it was just a natural progression. On my road back to Jewish practice, as I chanted Torah and participated in Shabbat and weekday prayers along the way, the flow of the Hebrew language made a deep connection. And as I delve deeper and deeper into text study of the ancient scriptures, I also find a connection to those people, my people, my tribe. And from that tie also comes a link to the Middle East--a tie that, quite frankly, can bring pain right now. But as a Jew I do feel a tie to the culture of that region, with roots in the same ancient times as so many others.

In my mind, there's little doubt where my tribe ended up when forced out into the wider world. My ancestors did not go south, for I am Ashkenazic to the core--no DNA test necessary :) With Romanian on mom's side, there might be some gypsy influence, but the Galitziana in me from the Sniatyners on my dad's side is strong. Ken looks at family photos taken around 100 years ago, points at a little girl and says, "that could be you."

When it comes to the importance of Jewish ritual in my life--many rituals which stem from the Ashkenazic line--the tie gets complicated by my gender. For years I identified with the yeshiva buchers--boys. I wasn't happy with the identification, but it was the closest I could get. But as I've learned more Jewish history during the years, I have now found my place in those early years. I was in the women's section of the synagogue, leading them in prayer, sharing the Torah parsha with them.

Now, my identity as a New York Jew in San Francisco....well, that's the topic for another post :)

Friday, April 20, 2012

From the Bulletin Board....

היום שלשה עשר יום שהם אחד שבוע וששה ימים לעומר
Today is thirteen days, which is one week and six days of the omer
יסוד שבגבורה
A day of foundation in a week of strength

Here's the view of my bulletin board--my personal board, not the one I use for work. Part visual montage, part ticket/coupon holder, part writing idea board. If you click on the photo you will get a larger version.

Maybe one day I'll give a guided tour of the contents, explaining some of the items that may seem a bit odd, or out of place for me. You've got to love the vintage "End Unwanted Seismic Activity" bumper sticker--a Charlie Varon original.

Those white squares of paper contain thought fragments that might make it to a blog post--I capture any ideas that come. I will say they often just stay up on the board for a couple of years before being tossed--not all ideas are good ideas :)

There's a page ripped out of an old datebook that also served as a notebook. This page has three quotes. I don't know when I wrote them down--my guess is the mid 1990s. This is before yoga, before meditation, before cancer, before regular Jewish practice. But I can see the seeds of the need to write, to shed the "no, I can't" and just start letting the words out. I guess you could say this blog is the fruit from those roots. Not a bad representation of foundation with strength.

Work done with anxiety about results
is far inferior to work done without such anxiety,
in the calm of self-surrender.
                       Bhagavad Gita
An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perception,
and on his own terms, not anyone else's.
                      J.D. Salinger, "Franny & Zooey" 
Would you not like to try all sorts of lives--one is so very small--but that is
the satisfaction of writing--one can impersonate so many people.
                     Katherine Mansfield, 1906

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Inconceivable and Incomprehensible

היום שנים עשר שהם שבוע אחד וחמשה ימים לעומר
Today is twelve days, which is one week and five days of the omer
הוד שבגבורה
A day of humility in a week of strength

In teaching Shoah to 7th and 8th graders this year, there are certain phrases I used over and over--needing them to sink in even if there wasn't total understanding. But that will come with age, and hopefully it will then come together for them.

Inconceivable and Incomprehensible
There's an convergence of evil needed to make this happen.....and yet, it did happen. As unbelievable as it did happen. And we need be aware so it doesn't happen to anyone again.

There are 6 million Jews in the US
What if we all disappeared....that's the enormity of what happened

Why is it so important for the survivors to share their remembrances, tell their stories
There is no one answer--this is more complex. But the discussion gets the minds working, with deeper connections made to the testimonies.

Today, I added Why is it important for us to remember
Again, a more complex answer. I guess, for part of the answer, I can say "All of the Above"

If I had wings....

היום אחד עשר ימים שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה ימים לעומר
Today is eleven days, which is one week and four days of the omer
נצח שבגבורה
A day of perseverance in a week of strength

I have to write two short bios for myself this week--one for the Hazon ride in May and one for the educator institute I will attend this summer with The Jewish Women's Archive.

It's times like this that I feel my age with a different perspective from the physicality of aging. How to boil down my almost 40 years of adult experience into three or four sentences? What do I choose to tell; what do I choose to leave out.

I haven't written the bio for JWA yet, but here's what I wrote for the Hazon ride:
Marilyn Heiss is a native New Yorker and a 26-year San Franciscan. An Emmy-award winning editor, she has been working in the TV/Video/Film industry for over 30 years. Marilyn found her way back to Jewish practice through yoga, and is a proud Torah chanting, minyan going, tefillin wearing woman. A participant in the initial meditation practice periods at Makor Or, the meditation center founded by Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l & Zoketsu Norman Fischer, she served as its program director from 2003 - 2005. In addition to her editing work, she trains b'nei mitzvah students, and teaches Torah and Jewish studies to 7th & 8th graders at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

Pretty straightforward, showing pretty equally the mix of my professions as an editor and a Jewish educator. They seemed happy with it :)

Doing this has reminded me of a song that felt very close to me when I was a teenager. It's on Peter Paul and Mary's Album 1700. It still speaks to me today as it spoke to me then.

If I had wings no one would ask me should I fly
The bird sings, no one asks why.
I can see in myself wings as I feel them
If you see something else, keep your thoughts to yourself,
I'll fly free then.

Yesterday's eyes see their colors fading away
They see their sun turning to grey
You can't share in a dream, that you don't believe in
If you say that you see and pretend to be me
You won't be then.

How can you ask if I'm happy goin' my way?
You might as well ask a child at play!
There's no need to discuss or understand me
I won't ask of myself to become something else
I'll just be me!

If I had wings no one would ask me should I fly
The bird sings, and no one asks her why.
I can see in myself wings as I feel them
If you see something else, keep your thoughts to yourself,
I'll fly free then.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Strength with Compassion on Tax Day

היום עשרה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה ימים לעומר
Today is ten days, which is one week and three days of the omer
תפארת שבגבורה
A day of compassion in a week of strength

Tax day this year falls on a day of compassion and strength. Now, I'm far from being any kind of financial expert, but I would we need these two elements in order to tax fairly.

Taxes have been around for centuries--they exist in various forms in the Bible, although the what, why, and to whom we pay is very different from today. Every community needs to have some sort of fund we all contribute to in order to maintain the systems that are vital to our infrastructure. This will give our communities, large and small, the strength to survive.

But the allocation of who gives what and how much must be determined with compassion. Those who have more, especially those who's bounty was grown by using the resources of the community, need to give in, pitch in more. As Elizabeth Warren says in the clip below, no one gets rich without taking advantages of the infrastructure we all pay to support.

Please listen and take in what she says here--she understands the need for compassion and strength in our government.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Strength of Spirit; Strength of Healing - UPDATED

היום תשעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ושני ימים לעומר
Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the omer
גבורה שבגבורה
A day of strength in a week of strength

Does life follow the sephirot, or do the sephirot follow life?

This year, in this week, there is a mighty convergence of the two.
A very strong spirit was compromised with a very strong internal jolt.
But an outpouring of healing energy
emanating from a widespread but spiritually powerful community
is bringing strong support.

And so, on this day of double strength, I post this message
to build the path toward Refuah Shleimah--a Full Healing

Dear friends, family, and all loved ones of Sam Rudra Swartz,

As you have probably heard by now, Sam Rudra experienced a pretty serious heart attack on Saturday April 15th. He's resting and recovering in the hospital in San Francisco, and is getting excellent medical attention and support. Sam Rudra is in good spirits, is joking around and interrogating all the doctors and nurses about where they're from, when their birthdays are, and their favorite sports teams -- in other words, being his usual Sam Rudra self. Everyone seems pretty pleased with the recovery he's making, although he's going to be staying in the hospital for a few more days. 

Lots of people have asked how they can help. Here are some things you and your family can do to help support Sam during his recuperation:

1. Keep sending prayers and thoughts of healing -- powerful OMs, r'fua shleimah, good vibes, whatever you've got -- his way. These messages are getting through to him, and he's especially appreciate of all the wonderful words of support everyone has sent via facebook posts, emails, and texts. (Please know that if you don't hear back from him right away it's because he's resting, but he really is seeing or hearing all of them).

2. Make a donation to support Sam's healing process. Kind friends in San Francisco have offered to let him stay with them while he gets back on his wheels, but the going's going to be tough for a bit. One thing that will really help Sam be healthier is being in a better wheelchair. On behalf of Sam and all of who have spent time with this amazing person, please consider making a contribution to help Sam Rudra Swartz recover peacefully and get a new wheelchair, so he can regain his mobility and be back out in the world as quickly as possible. 

Contributions can be made in three ways:

--> Through PayPal. We've set up a donation system on PayPal, so you can send your support easily and safely on line. 

--> By check. 
Please send checks payable to Samuel Swartz care of:
Leah Muse-Orlinoff
P.O. Box 14684
San Francisco, CA

--> In person (if you are in San Francisco). Stuart Surya Dick, Heather Sevika Ford, Marilyn Heiss, and Leah can all accept donations to Sam's recovery fund. Contact any one of us for more information.

Again, thank you all for your strong and immediate messages of healing and peace. Sam Rudra is healing well thanks to the loving thoughts of the thousands of us whose lives he's touched over the years; now it's our turn to smooth his road to full health.


Hi everyone!

Leah here with a quick update on Sam Rudra's progress towards health. As you probably know, Sam Rudra is out of the hospital and resting comfortably at the home of the extraordinary Stuart and Joe. His spirits are good, but he's still working on getting used to his meds. The doctor has prescribed two months of cardiac rehab, so that will be starting soon. Meanwhile, he's trying to catch up on rest (hospitals are hardly relaxing places to be, as you probably know) and slowly regaining his strength. 

If you'd like to come visit Sam Rudra during his recuperation, kindly contact me (Leah) at We're trying to manage the flow of visitors through Stuart & Joe's house and make sure Sam Rudra has plenty of down time during the day to focus on healing.

Sam Rudra would also like me to thank you all again for the amazing outpouring of love and encouragement that you have all sent his way over the past week. He's working towards catching up with everyone and returning phone calls and messages, but please understand if it takes a little longer for him to respond to you, and know that your message was deeply meaningful to him.

For those of you who have generously shown your support of Sam Rudra's recovery through a donation to the Sam Rudra Swartz Healing Fund, I wanted to let you know that we have been able to arrange for some much needed repairs to his wheelchair. The details of what kind of chair is ultimately going to be best for him are still pending, and will become clearer once he begins cardiac rehab and consults with his doctors on follow-up care; in the meantime, his chair needed new wheels and brakes and a whole slew of fixes, which your support has made possible. I will keep you all posted on the  wheelchair project, and please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions about the fund's use. If you would like to contribute to the fund via Paypal, please visit Checks can be sent to the address below.

Anyone who would like to bring food to Stuart & Joe's house is encouraged to contact Joe Sieger. Contact leah for the contact info.

Cards and other expressions of support can be sent to Sam Rudra at:
Sam Swartz
PO Box 14684
San Francisco, CA 94114

Once again, on behalf of Sam Rudra, thank you for your support and many kindnesses during this crazy week, and hope you and your loved ones have a beautiful day. 

Leah Muse-Orlinoff


היום שמונה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד לעומר
Today is eight days, which is one week and one day, of the omer
חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

Speaking of moving forward (see yesterday's post), as of tonight I will be in my third year of studying Hebrew. Because I started my studies at this time of year, there's documentation of my thoughts as I embarked on my studies, and some stopping points along the way. This is a journey that is important to me on different levels.

In my first post of this series, describe how the Hebrew language reaches out to me. I am affected simply hearing the sounds without full understanding of their meaning. But I still want to be able to listen with comprehension, and that means being able to enter the flow of a language that is routed differently than the language I'm used to hearing. I'm getting better at decoding when I'm reading something; getting the meaning orally is still often elusive.

While I'd like to really "hear" Hebrew, speaking it is a lower priority for me. It's not that I don't want to be able to it--comfortably conversing with others will mean that I have a good command of the language. It's more important to me to read material written in Hebrew without the filter of translation.

I entered into my Hebrew studies for all of those reasons. But there is one side effect of this study that has become equally important not just for me, but for my b'nei mitzvah students. I believe that to be a good teacher you also have to be a student. I fulfill my "student" quota in many ways--I study Torah weekly and attend other classes. lectures, programs, and workshops throughout the year. But for the most part, that learning is within my comfort zone. Studying Hebrew can bring me to a high frustration level, feeling like it's out of reach. But if I breathe through it and break it down, maybe even moving back a few steps before continuing forward, I do move ahead.

And this is what I can share with my students. They need to read the Hebrew while they're decoding the trope. Even if they're memorizing the tune from a recording, they still have to put it with the words. And then, when their haftarah is learned, they need to master a different tune to chant Torah--and this time, there's no vowels or symbols or colors to aid them. It's my job to help them breathe through it and break it down, maybe even moving back a few steps before continuing forward. And then they move ahead.

In order to teach, it is necessary to understand what it means to learn--on an emotional as well as intellectual level. That way, with loving kindness and strength, we guide our students on their way.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Going Forward

היום שבעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד לעומר
Today is seven days, which is one week, of the omer
מלכת שבחסד
A day of majesty in a week of loving kindness

This year, I leave this Passover period with a different perspective on the holiday. I tend to emphasis the breaking free from oppression--whether in the physical, spiritual, or emotional realm. And while that is an important lesson of the story as always, there's more to learn.

This morning I chanted these verses as part of the Pesach Day 7 reading. The Israelites have just gotten out of Egypt. They now see Pharaoh and his army behind them; the seemingly uncrossable Red Sea in front. They are scared. Moses tries to calm them, but the are filled with fear. God says to Moses:
Tell the Israelites to go forward.
And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it
so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground
Exodus 14:15 - 16
Tell the Israelites to go forward....that's the message. The nuts & bolts come next--Moses will gesture, the sea will split, the Israelites will march through. But first, God says, just remember to go forward. Don't dwell on the running away, focus on the going toward.

Now, these Israelites couldn't take God's advice. When things got tough, they yearned for the "good old days" in Egypt. They couldn't open their minds to the expanse that lay ahead.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As it has been told for centuries past, we will continue to tell the story of Pesach for centuries to come. We need the consistent reminder of the importance of freedom on many levels. But we cannot live in that past time--we need to move forward in our lives, being present in each step along the way.

The Great Mandala

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

For the past couple of years I've been teaching myself how to play guitar, simply for my own enjoyment. My favorite book to play from is the classic Rise Up Singing, a compilation of mostly folk but other popular songs thrown in. There's nothing in there written later that the mid-1980s, but that suites me just fine. A lot of my favorite songs from the 60s & 70s are included, and I get much joy revisiting them.

As I sing what was then categorized as "protest songs," I feel the lyrics still have much meaning for the present generation--songs of peace and freedom that still need to be heard today. And maybe, with help of people like Matthew Vaughn, these songs will be heard into the next generation.

For now, I'm going to post the song I put on Facebook yesterday to mark the omer day. It's not in Rise Up Singing, but a great song none the less. I have the Peter, Paul and Mary recording from Album 1700 - in my opinion, their best. But this is a great version, sung by Paul Yarrow, who wrote the song, and Richie Havens.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Second Chance

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

The Torah I will be chanting tomorrow morning includes the instructions for "Pesach Shainee" - a second chance, one month later, to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering our flight from slavery to freedom for those who were unable to be a part of the official commemoration.

Now, the reason for missing the first seder needs to be a good one:
When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs...
Numbers 9:10 - 11
And don't even think about lying to get out of the seder:
If a  man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present Adonai's offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt.
Numbers 9:13
The only vestige of Pesach Shainee left in our ritual is a reminder to eat some matzah that day. But it still has a purpose in our narrative. Our ancestors put great importance on the Pesach ritual, so much so that they built in a second chance to practice. They wanted us to keep telling this story--reliving it every year. 

Maybe it was to keep our history alive, giving our "tribe" a way to survive. If so--well, it worked.
Maybe it was to teach us the need to free ourselves from oppression in any form.
And that is an equally important gift of survival.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It's all about the food, cont...

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

Tonight I went to the "Food Justice Passover," organized by Pursue, Hazon, and The Kitchen, three different progressive Jewish communities who came together to bring raise awareness about the sources of the food we eat. What better holiday than Pesach to have these discussions and teachings because after all, as I wrote a couple of days ago....It's all about the food.

I really like the new trend of bringing in periods of teachings into these type of events. Below I'll list the discussion group choices for tonight's "seder." Which one would you have chosen?

Passover is Justice
with Noa Kushner, founding Rabbi of the Kitchen
The rabbis never thought of justice or ethics as distinct from religion or ritual. In this session we'll look at the Haggadah as a case study for what happens when these two areas (the ethical and the religious) are integrated.

Beyond Kosher: What criteria should we use for choosing food?
with Deborah Newbrun, Hazon Bay Area Director
The Jewish People have been discussing what is "fit to eat" for 3,000 years. We will look at the ancient texts and at Hazon's "Food Audit" We will share what it is we consider when we purchase and partake in food.

Next Year in Jerusalem?
with Naomi Shiffman, Friend of New Israel Fund's New Generations
Israel's Food Justice movement faces many challenges: unsustainable land development, unequal rights to land and water, and inequality for workers. Learn and discuss case studies working to make change and share your thoughts.

Global Food Justice: The State of Global US Food Aid & The Farm Bill
with Matt Balaban, AJWS Global Circle
Take a closer look into the inefficiencies and opportunities in the international food aid system. We'll spark conversation and AJWS's new infographic "US Food Aid - Where your dollar only goes partway!"

Liberation Ecology
with Yosef Rosen, Jewish Studies Ph.D. student, UC Berkeley
Through a close reading of Jewish sources we will examine the relationship between servitude, spirituality, and our material dependencies on the environment. The texts rewrite the exodus story into an ecological drama that seems more relevant today than ever.

Eating with Intention: Jewish Spirituality & Food
with Rabbi Carla Fenves, Congregation Emanu-El
Judaism and Jews are obsessed with food iin healthy and less healthy ways. We will explore how Jewish tradition can teach us to eat with more intention and make eating a spiritual experience.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Crossing Cultures?

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

Jewish Abuelita

While cruising through some photos, I found this one I took at my local Safeway in Feb, 2009. It's the selection in the Kosher section. Why did I take this picture? Let's just say the song, "Which of these things are not like the others, which of these things just doesn't belong" is going through my head.

So, let's take a closer look:

Jewish Abuelita

Do you see it now??

Jewish Abuelita

Well, she does look like a Bubbe :)

Sunday, April 08, 2012

It's all about the food....

היום שני ימים לעומר
Today is the second day of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

All the Jewish holidays have some sort of tie to food--or lack thereof. But Pesach brings the most intense relationship. Most of the other holiday/food connections are rabbinic and/or folklore creations. The food/Pesach link is more ancient than those, with the specifics told in the Torah. More than once we learn of this Feast of Unleavened Bread symbolizing our release from oppression onto the road towards freedom.

Everyone who attends even one seder becomes a part of this yearly reenactment that has been repeated for centuries. Food is not just served as the meal, it plays a central role in the ritual. The parsley and eggs; the matzah and bitter herbs--each has a blessing and a teaching.

And while Chanukah is the only other holiday where the food connection lasts a week, eating latkes or donuts is custom, not ritual. There's no blessing to separate sacred from secular, and there's no real importance given to the eating--there's no, to quote from the Maxwell House haggadah, "and thou shalt eat it." It's the candles that hold the commemoration, not the food.

On Pesach we must tell the story, and the story is in the food. And while you can get the connection from the one seder, following the tradition of no leaven for 7 days brings a different perspective. For now the seders are over, but there are still meals to be created for the rest of the week, still avoiding all leaven. The difficulty is not so much on the food itself--that's not too hard to adapt. It's the breaking free of habits, not being able to operate on automatic pilot. A different type of slavery we need to break free from.

And here is tonight's dinner offering--my first Sephardic mina -- meat pie. It was pretty yummy :)

Another Year, Another Count

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

And once again, the count begins.

A bit of an inauspicious start--I came home from seder last night filled in many ways, but forgot to post the count on Facebook. Perhaps that can be considered a good omen--maybe a slow start will lead to a fuller finish. As always, we'll see. Each year unfolds in it's own way. That's part of the point of this practice. It brings a way to be mindful of each day, be aware of what is happening around me and within me.
For those new readers, I offer a selection of links to help you understand this ancient practice. For those who would like the traditional "nuts & bolts" of the the ritual, go to this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs from the website My Jewish, a wonderful site to get a good range of information about all things Jewish. For an explanation of the Kabbilistic Sephirot that I reference each day, this article by David Cooper is one I like--it's straightforward, explaining the practice without the dogma. The Huffington Post is getting in on the act this year, posting their own daily omer reflections, which you can find here. And for fans of The Simpsons, there's always The Homer Calendar :)

As always, each day will reveal itself in it's own way, so I hesitate to predict or set a theme for the count. Periodically, I will be sharing bits of my omer journal from 10 years ago (pre-blog), as I navigated through the experience of chemotherapy. Two weeks ago, I posted the entry written after my first infusion. Here is a bit from that year's first day of the omer...

A week of loving-kindness, a day of loving-kindness.
It will be an interesting week, getting used to my bald head. I'm surprised at how, well, not-so-upset I am when I look in the mirror... 
There is a whole expectation that this will change my life. Maybe in the short term, but I'm not so sure about it in the long run. Yes, I've had to face my mortality, but I've also had to let those thoughts go-they're just not revelant now. I still need to just keep going day by day, taking each as it comes--once again, the mindfulness of being present. 
Being present with misery sucks, kind of paralizing. But it does attune you to listening to your body--small degrees of feeling better are fully felt. I've still got months of this cycle to go---is that a long time, or short, and does it matter. 
It just will be...and then, it will be over.