Friday, May 16, 2014

Teachers of Patience

היום אחד ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבהוד
A day of compassion in a week of humility

Patience is a virtue that I lack . . . then I look at my plants

My succulents, which looked so sparse when first planted in their box

My lemon tree, which took 3 years to bring that first fruit

Trying to retain the lessons they teach me . . . in spite of myself

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lightening our global footprint

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is thirty days, which is four weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבהוד
A day of strength in a week of humility

Thursday night is garbage night in my household. The bins need to be filled and put on the curb for pick up tomorrow morning. This may sound like a mundane task, something that goes on in every household. But in San Francisco, garbage can be complicated.

We've got three bins--a blue one for recycling; a green one for compost; and a black bin for anything else. Even that seems somewhat straightforward, but there's always a question about which containers can be recycled and which cannot; which ones can be put in compost and which cannot. There is a webpage that lists what goes where, but still, the questions remain. Which is why they even have to help you figure it out.

There are those who complain about this, probably the same people who complain about being charged for bags in stores. For me, it's a source of pride in my city. We don't just talk about preserving the ecology of our planet--we do something about it. In San Francisco we're working towards zero waste by 2020. And it's easy enough to carry your own bags, especially when it can help save our natural resources for the generations to come.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Happy Pesach Sheni!!

היום תשעה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is twenty-nine days, which is four weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבהוד
A day of loving-kindness in a week of humility

Chag Pesach Sheni Sameach -- Happy Second Passover!!

There are lots of important laws and instructions and rituals given to the Jewish people in the Torah. But there's just one where you literally get a do-over.

At the beginning of Bamidbar/Numbers, chapter 9, we read:
1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: 2 Let the Israelite people offer the passover sacrifice at its set time: 3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites. 4 Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the passover sacrifice; 5 and they offered the passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did. 6 But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, 7 those men said to them, "Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" 8 Moses said to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you." 9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelite people, saying: 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 the Lord, 11 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, 12 and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the passover sacrifice. 13 But 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 the Lord's offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. 14 And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.
I love this sanctioned second chance at a seder, given to those who are not able to participate at the set time. It reminds us of the importance of this ritual of storytelling and remembrance of freedom and liberation. It reminds us that all people, not just our tribe, can be a part of this commemoration. 

And for those who seem to think there is something wrong when families have their sederim at times other than the first two nights of Pesach---please let that go. You can keep and honor the rituals as prescribed in the Torah. But there is also an importance to have the story told throughout the generations, even if it's at a separate time. That is what will help keep this story of freedom and liberation alive throughout the generations to come.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


היום שמונה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is twenty-eight days, which is four weeks of the omer
מלכות שבנצח
A day of nobility in a week of perseverance

Just a place holder, since no writing is happening on this day.

Not very noble or persevering . . .

Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking at Kaddish

היום שבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבנצח
A day of foundation in a week of perseverance

On this day of foundation I take a liturgy class--one of many that I have taken with Rabbi Stuart Kelman. This one was on the various Kaddishes that are said in our prayer services, with much time spent on the Mourners' Kaddish, the prayer said on behalf of a loved one who has died. As often is the case with prayers, the customs go back so far that often their origins are obscured, But because they have been in existence for so many centuries, they are looked at as "law."

The codification of our observances is what unites us as Jews, gives us a tribal connection in this global society. But we need to remember that they are not set in stone. We need to learn what part they play in our lives, how they work, and even look at why they work...or don't. While the connection of tradition is important, keeps us in that stream that has run through the ages, we also need to revisit the customs, and renew their meanings so they can continue to to speak to us today.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In the flow of the language

היום ששה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-six days, which is three weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שבנצח
A day of humility in a week of perseverance

As I continue my daily blog writing for this year's omer practice, I also have to find time each week to write in Hebrew. I have written some posts of some of my trials, tribulations--and even a few triumphs as I continue to work on proficiency in this language that I love. (You can find them by clicking on "Hebrew" in the categories listed in the sidebar.) This year, I can see my relationship with Hebrew represented in this day of humility and perseverance.

Three years ago, I used the day of compassion and strength to write about my Hebrew studies. I ended that post with "I have the strength--and the smarts--to learn Hebrew. I need to add in compassion, give myself the time and space to let the knowledge settle in." Although there have been ups and downs, I do think that has taken place and I've moved forward in my Hebrew comprehension. When I study Torah, I can begin to uncover new meanings by looking at the grammatical structure of the verses and for a Torah geek like me, that's pretty cool.

Being more aware of the flow of the language also makes me a better Torah reader and service leader. People can hear the particular cadence and feel a connection to the writings. Part of the responsibility of a prayer leader is to bring people along with you, help them experience the letting go that prayer can bring. Having an understanding of the language helps me convey the poetry of the words, and allows the kahal, the community, to take them in and cycle them out in their voices, which is part of the point of prayer.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to speak fluent Hebrew. That's a maybe/maybe not. I worry that I won't be able to get enough vocabulary to stick in my brain. But I need use the aspect of humility to be able to learn in my time and not worry what advanced state I should be--again, the message of presence. Remember that like everything else in life, it's a journey. As long as I keep going, persevere, it doesn't matter how big or small the steps.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Kvelling. . .

היום חמשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-five days, which is three weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבנצח
A day of perseverance in a week of perseverance

Today is one of those days that makes a teacher proud. One of my students had his bar mitzvah today. After nine months of learning and studying and practicing (another three :) he shared so much Torah with translation, commentary, and chanting (three again :).

His Torah portion was Lev 25:1 - 28 of Parashat B'har--not the hardest section of Torah for a 13-year-old, but not the easiest either. In a nutshell, it has instructions for having the land lie fallow every seven years, and about the Jubilee year, every 50 years, when all possessions revert back to their original owners. All of this is a reminder that the earth does not belong to people, but to God.

While working on the translation, in verse 17 we came across the phrase, "fear your God." When I see this phrase, which comes up often in Torah and liturgy, I process it as awe rather than fear. When I asked Josh how he would translate it, he came up with "respect the power of God." It was a moment for this tutor to kvell.

His drash, his teaching, centered around how we need to appreciate that the land needs to rest as much as we do. He referenced someone he knows who is a farmer, who reinforced the practice of rotating crops and planting specific crops to bring back nutrients to the land, as well as letting the land rest. I have a feeling these teachings will stay with him--which is, ultimately, what this study is all about.

And then there was his chanting--which was spot on. In fact, there was a point where I thought he needed a correction, but he, very lightly, corrected me---which is the best a teacher can hope for.

Just a wonderful that will stay with me for many years to come.

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's all about three . . .

היום ארבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-four days, which is three weeks and three days of the omer
תפראת שבנצח
A day of compassion in a week of perseverance

A day of threes--twenty-four is eight threes which is three weeks and three days. There is a recurring theme of three in Jewish tradition. Abraham traveled three days when he found the place for the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:4). It was on the third new moon, the start of the third month of the liberation from Egypt that the Israelites arrived at Sinai (Ex 19:1). They spent three days in purification rituals before receiving the Asseret Debrot, the 10 utterances know as the 10 commandments (Ex 19:11). In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our sages, we learn the teaching from Shimon Ha-Tzadik, "The world rests on three things -- Torah, Avodah--Service, and Gemilut Chasadim--acts of loving kindness. And there's the thread that cycles through so much of ritual and liturgy--creation to revelation to redemption.

Three also seems to be the "magic" number when my students are preparing for their b'nei mitzvah. As they learn to chant, verse by verse, in layers. First, read and get comfortable with the Hebrew words and their meanings. Second, decode the trope, the cantillation, that gives the punctuation, the phrasing, and the music. Third, practice the verse as a whole.

And the practice itself has its meme of three. The first time through is very halting. The second time is better, with stops at the harder words and note combinations. It's with the third round that the smoothness starts to come. It's a phenomena I've now seen again and again...and again :)

Maybe it's the ancients of our heritage looking after the generations ahead. Maybe it's part of that eternal stream of tradition that my students enter into in their journey to adulthood. Maybe it's just the proof positive of "the third time's the charm."

Maybe 3 is the number of perseverance . . .

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Sometimes it all just works . . .

היום שלשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
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

Yesterday was one of those days that worked from start to finish. A day to remember when things go awry.

I led minyan in the morning, and was surprised at the end of the service with a visit from an eight-year-old friend who had to run in to give me a hug before she boarded the bus for school.  She and I have always had a bond, and I know I will be a role model for her. So for her, a woman reading Torah, leading services, and wearing tefillin will be as it should be. May it be so for all of her generation.

Then home to put the finishing touches on my lessons plans for that evening. There are times that can be a struggle, but yesterday it was smooth sailing. In my course on the Jewish experience in America, it was time to teach the Jewish role in the Civil Rights Movement--a favorite lesson of mine. Sadly, these kids are fuzzy on that part of American history in general, most of them just knowing about Martin Luther King and little else. So it's eye-opening for them to learn about the rampant discrimination of the time and the actions of those--so many of them Jews--who fought to help right the wrongs.

Teaching my 7th grade Torah study class has been so difficult this trimester. Things that have worked with other classes just didn't work. The biggest issue is a couple of students who not just refuse to participate, but seem determined to make sure that no one got a chance to learn. Not really wanting to once again put a lot of effort into something that was sure to fail no matter what I did, I chose to show them the G-dcast on the Parashat Masei, use the accompanying curriculum, and hope for the best.

Then it was off to tutor a bar mitzvah student. He's a nice kid, but the training has gone a bit slower than I'd hoped. His Hebrew is not great, which definitely hinders the process. But the system I've developed is kicking in, as he can take the trope that he knows and layer that on the haftarah words. He's doing the decoding, often without my help. I told him how proud I was of him, how he has persevered, how he is really thinking and putting it all together. The smile on his face was a great reward.

Then it was off to teach. And to my surprise, it was a good double-header. It wasn't a surprise that the Jews in America class was engaged--most of them are interested in the topic. But it was nice that in our discussions they referenced earlier classes, making comparisons of the different eras in American history. I really feel like I'm teaching them something they will remember and apply in their lives that lie ahead.

But it was the Torah class that sealed the day for me. It wasn't the most enlightening class, I don't know what the kids will retain, but, for the most part, they followed along with the plan. And the activity, to make up a plan for a city, integrating ecological factors, housing and schools, transportation, commerce, power sources, entertainment and green spaces--intrigued them. There was silliness, but at least they created their towns. The most interesting moment was when I had to take a phone away from one of my most difficult students. She balked at first, but it was her third strike and she had to give it up. She pouted for a bit, but then, lo and behold, became more involved than she had ever been, and seemed not to miss the phone at all. She didn't whine about it, didn't bother me to give it back to her. In fact, I handed it back to her at the end of class without her even asking. A minor triumph, but a triumph none the less.

A true day of strength and perseverance, for both my students and me.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Year-end Teaching Perspective

היום שנים ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
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

Twenty-two days of the omer, and two more Wednesday night teaching sessions. Time to look at the year, see what worked, what didn't; who I reached, who was seemingly unreachable; what was most rewarding, what was most challenging.

In past years now I've envied day school teachers for their classroom time and resources. So much of the curriculum I read is based on the experiential model with multi-day projects incorporating journals and computer research in small interactive work groups. My teaching environment is too unstable for that. I get 50 minutes, once a week, in a 7 - 8 week module, never really knowing how many and which ones of my 15 registered students will attend on any given day.

This year, thanks to my participation in various discussions with a cadre of dedicated Jewish educators,  I've gained a different perspective that reminds me of an advantage I have working in the supplementary synagogue school world. I have more leeway to take those curricula and adapt them to the needs of my students without having to worry about meeting specifically laid out standards. I have the freedom to write my own curriculum, mixing sources as I see fit. I have more flexibility that enables me to let my students take the lead if their input takes the lesson plan off the course that I set. My brief is to bring the critical, creative thinking out of them, without concern of what they need to spit out simply for the sake of passing a test.

All educators have rewards and challenges. The challenges feed our minds, keeping our teachings fresh. The rewards feed our souls, fueling our passion. Keeping both in balance moves us ahead.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Writing in the past; editing for the future

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

With all my talk about the present, I end this week in both the past and the future.

I spent part of the afternoon going over the changes for the Kitchen's Machzor (High Holiday Prayerbook) 2.0. Machzor 1.0 was created in 8 months with the understanding that it would be revised and redesigned in a year or two. It made it two years, and will always shine as our first edition that would form the basis for all editions to come. But the time has come for the new edition, and I will spend the next three weeks immersed in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy fixing mistakes and expanding the content.

The rest of today was spent preparing for tomorrow's classes and tutoring b'nei mitzvah students who live on opposite sides of the bay. I needed to count the next day of the omer when I finally got home. So while I'm technically in the 22nd day of the omer, this entry marks the day past.

My practice is to have one entry for each day--a goal sometimes met, sometimes not. Allowances like this are sometimes needed to make it work. And that is the message of compassion for the process as we now move into a week of perseverance.

Monday, May 05, 2014

One day at a time

היום עשרים  יום שהם שני שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
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

Time is relative.

This morning, I was talking with a 26 year old contemplating rabbinical school and to her, five years is a long time. While I could smile, understanding her perspective, to me, as I approach six decades, it's a small segment.

Time is a matter of perspective.

Five years is short as I look back, but to my parents it must seem like a long time ahead, their ages feeding their need of immediacy.

Time is slow when I'm feeling impatient, and fast when a deadline approaches.

It is only in the present that time     just     is . . .

Meditation is one way of staying in the present; marking the omer is another. We stay grounded in each day with its own unique focus of sephirot. We are encouraged not to to look towards the next until we say the blessing and make the count.

The omer reminds us to take each day as it comes, whatever it brings. Perhaps that is the convergence of foundation and compassion.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Looking for compassion

היום אחד תשעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
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

Along with the omer, there is another period of contemplation built into the Jewish spiritual calendar--the month of Elul. Elul is the month before Tishrei--which marks Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year. It is a time that is to be spent concentrating, meditating on a personal teshuvah--often translated as repentance, but it has the connotation of a turning, a returning to a state of understanding where repentance is not necessary.

I have spent more than a couple Elul periods working on finding a teshuvah from my tendency to be judgmental--sometimes of others but more often of myself. I will need to be aware of this element of my personality, be mindful all my life to keep from allowing that negativity to rule my emotions and my connections to others. I am forever grateful to my teacher, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who gave me the key that can turn my judgmental inclination into compassion.

In a teaching that Norman gave on teshuvah, he talked about the turning in a very literal manner. Take that aspect that you are working on and turn it around--look what is on the other side. What you find will show a different path, a way to redemption.

I found compassion on the flip side of being judgmental. Hidden within the judgments is caring. For if I didn't care, there would be no reason to judge. And when I concentrate on the caring instead of the judgment, I find compassion.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The past, present, future of life

היום אחד שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
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

It's the 18th day - the חי - chai - day of the omer. Today is the "life" day of the omer.

Each Hebrew letter has a number associated with it, which is how Jewish dates are written, and is the basis for Gamatria - the studying of Jewish text from the number value of the words.
חי - chai - means life
ח = 8
י = 10
So יח is 18 = life.

Today is also Shabbat - a day of rest - a day which is made for contemplation of one's life. These days of contemplation mean more to me this year as I face my 60th birthday in a couple of months. It's one of those milestones that force you to look at your life--where you've been, where you are, where you're going.

As I look back--there's a lot that has been accomplished.

As I look forward--there's a lot still to be done.

I stand in the here and now -- appreciating the past, anticipating the future . . .

But I need to live in the present

Friday, May 02, 2014

The TImeless Stream

היום אחד שבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
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

Time for another breath of Shabbat, with a coolness not felt in these past days.
My mind is full at the moment, but it's time to clear it out, breath in Shabbat.
Thankful for these interludes built into each week,
feeling the wisdom of the ancients,
entering into that timeless stream with them

Good Shabbas to all

Thursday, May 01, 2014

First Fruits

היום אחד ששה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
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

Shavuot, the feast of the first fruits may be weeks away--4 weeks and 6 days, to be exact :) -- but yesterday I tasted my first fruits of the season--apricots, nectarines, peaches, and cherries. The nectarines and peaches have the tartness of the early season. The apricots are mostly sweet, with more consistancy coming in the weeks ahead. The cherries--sweet, tart--I don't care. I'm eating cherries again, and that makes me very happy.

One of the things I am grateful for in my Jewish practice is the awareness I have cycles in the day, the week, the month, and the year. Rabbi Lew instilled in me how the different ways knowing where I am in that time and space can bring different sets of mindfulness. Concentrating on the aspects of where I am now while being aware of the context of that present moment is a great focus for reflection. Spring is not winter; day is not night; month beginning has a different feel than month end. But as I teach in meditation--the wonder of concentrating on the present moment is that it contains all the moments that have lead to it; and it is a part of every moment that follows.

Which brings me to the joy of these first fruits. Because I eat seasonally, these are my first mouthfuls of this freshness this year. Waiting all year for these tastes, I have an appreciation for the time and energy it takes for them to reach my farmer's market. And I will take a portion of the bounty and freeze it to give me that hint of flavor through the rest of the year.

But the present moment of ripeness, while carrying both that past work and future reminder, is the peak experience. And these first fruits, like the first breath of meditation, feels--and tastes--so good.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Taking memories forward

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

Truly a day of loving kindness and compassion, as I officiate at an unveiling--the Jewish ritual marking the placement of a headstone at the grave of a loved one. It is not something I've done before, and I am honored to have been asked to lead this ritual so close to the hearts of the family who lost their husband and father. We will remember him, with tears and as well as some laughter. It is hard to see this reminder of his death, literally set in stone. But there is also a sense of moving on, letting go--not having the memories fade, but being able to keep them close without the immediacy of the pain. In this way, this ritual serves not as an ending commemoration, but as one that marks the beginning of the new journey.

Zichrono L'vracha -- may his memory be a blessing

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Manifesting leadership in strength

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

Thank you, Adam Silver, on this day of nobility, of leadership, in a week of strength. For today you have exhibited those qualities.

There was lots of speculation as to how the NBA would react to the horribly racist views expressed by LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Would Commissioner Adam Silver try to walk a line of doing something without too much impact, something done as a stop-gap measure until the NBA playoffs were over? Would he be able to come down hard on a very rich owner, part of a group of very rich owners all who want to protect their investments--who might not take well to being told what they can and can't say, especially in private.

Adam Silver, just months into this extremely high profile position, faced a situation more more volatile than anything his predecessor David Stern had to face in the 30 years of his term. And while there is still much more to unfold in this story, Silver's decision to ban Donald Sterling for life, fine him the maximum allowed, and direct the owners cast a vote to force Donald Sterling to sell the team was strong and bold. His demeanor in the press conference was calm and firm, clearing acknowledging the issue, letting all know that there was no question about the solution. I applaud him.

I understand the point of those who wonder why it took so long for the NBA to do something about this man whose racism was well know, not just within the confines of the sport but out into the wider world where he engaged in egregious housing discrimination:
. . . in 2003, 19 plaintiffs sued Sterling for housing discrimination. In the suit, Sterling is accused of telling his staff that he did not like blacks and Hispanics, citing their behavior. “Hispanics smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” he allegedly said. What’s more, the lawsuit said, Sterling told his staff that he only wanted to rent his apartments to Koreans and forced black tenants to sign in when they entered the building. “Is she one of those black people that stink?” he allegedly asked of an elderly black tenant who needed repairs to her apartment. “I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.”  (
I agree that something should have been done earlier, and maybe someone will ask David Stern why he remained silent and inactive. But this is now Adam Silver's league, and he did act. Also, although it may be sad that it's just because of words and not actions that Sterling, a large beam of light is focused on the specter of racism still hovers over this country. And bringing that awareness to light may help to remind us all, to teach us all that the fight for civil rights is not over.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Women of Valor

היום אחד שלשה עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וששה ימים בעמר
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

I began my Yom HaShoah commemoration yesterday dealing with the global aspect of needing to continue this important remembrance. We need to take the reflections of this day and turn them into actions. And the news this past week of the words and actions of Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy shows how much work there is to combat racist hatred.

But today I honor two women who survived the Shoah with their souls intact. Neither had easy lives and suffered wounds often hidden but never completely healed. But they both lived long lives with a deep faith not so much in God but in the spirit, teachings, rituals, and traditions of Judaism.

My dear friend Mitzi Wilner 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. But she was able to keep her faith in a way seems unfathomable in the context of her experiences. As Rabbi Lew wrote upon hearing of her death: "Mitzi’s spirituality was irreducibly Jewish; a great light that she carried out of some of the darkest places the Jewish soul has ever seen, and into a world of hope and continuity."

And then there was Goldie Rassen, who rarely talked of her life in that dark time. She was in a concentration camp, and she made it through. But she felt so strongly that adherence to Jewish practice is what would keep Judaism alive for the generations to come. She wanted Jews to know Hebrew, to read the literature, the poetry, the teachings that Judaism has to give, both secular and sacred. Her life was dedicated to teaching others, and she was cherished by her students. While I don't have a photo of her, I have this poem I wrote in her memory to keep her in my heart

לגולדי  –  מורה שלי – חברה שלי
To Goldie - My Teacher - My Friend

אני זוכרת את הפנים שלך
I remember your face
אני זוכרת את הקול שלך
I remember your voice
אני זוכרת את הידיים שלך
I remember your hands
אני זוכרת שלמדתי איתך
I remember studying with you
אני זוכרת שדיברתי איתך
I remember speaking with you
אני זוכרת ששרתי איתך
I remember singing with you
אני זוכרת שהתפללתי איתך
I remember praying with you
את יושבת בלב שלי כל אזמן
You live in my heart forever
זכרונך לברכא לי
Your memory is a blessing to me

Zichronot L'vracha
The memories of these two strong, courageous women
are certainly a blessing to me. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

6 million...then and now

היום אחד שנים עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וחמשה ימים בעמר
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

Yom HaShoah -- the day we remember those lost in the Holocaust.

At the start of my course on the Shoah, I share this with my students:
There are a little over six million Jews in the US.
Six million.What if all the Jews in the US were to disappear?
It's one way I can impress upon them the enormity of what happened in the Shoah. It's inconceivable and incomprehensible. For no reason other than they were of a certain religion and ethnicity, 6 million people were murdered. And too many people stood by and watched it happen.

We need to teach the why and how of what happened to truly honor the memories of those who lost their lives. Our remembrance needs to encompass a mindfulness that the conditions that brought on that horrible onslaught of the 20th century can happen, and I'm sure some would say has happened, again.

As a young girl growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, the phrase "Never Again" was drummed into my brain. I feel the pain of that time and place. But I need to take that pain and have it fuel my passion to teach my students an awareness of need to work for justice in this world. The story of our people--the story of freedom and liberation that we told on Pesach; the stories of perseverance and survival that we tell this week--is the foundation of those teachings.

I stood yesterday to say kaddish for all of those lost souls--so many have no one to stand for them. But more than just remembrance--we need to take action in one way or another to ensure we do not witness another Holocaust for any peoples on this earth. In that way, we can truly make their memories a blessing.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Define God

היום אחד עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה ימים בעמר
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

There is a saying attributed to Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, "When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) God speaks to me." As someone who does both regularly, I am often asked about my relationship to God. My standard answer is, "Define God."

My reality is that I don't know how to define God. I like to say that God lives in the unknown. Lately, thanks to Rabbi Bradley Artson, I'm thinking that God lives in the connections we have--connections with others, with the planet, with ourselves.

I have been studying Torah regularly for more than 15 years, cycling through the same five books in one way or another. Each year I find not just new teachings, but sections of text I feel like I haven't seen before. That is the "magic" of any sacred writing, and why those texts written in ancient times still speak to people today. I am not so concerned about who authored those writings--some say God, some say people who were God-inspired, some say a combination of deep philosophers with some really good storytellers. I'm in the latter camp, but will respect others' beliefs as long as they respect mine. What's more important than the "who" of the books is the "what" that they have to offer. The teachings I receive from the words of the Torah through the myriad of lenses set out by commentators throughout the ages help me navigate the relationships that make up my life.
That is my version of God speaking to me.

In prayer, through song or words, I seek release from my overactive, wondering mind. The melodies cycle through not just my head but run through my being. I often stand, swaying, dancing in my place with the rhythms. The biblical Hebrew with the tunes from another time and place touch the seed within--the part of my DNA that connects me with my ancient tribe. Reading the liturgical psalms and poems, I get to enter that timeless stream where the past, present and future are one. Those words written so long ago engage me with thoughts of compassion, thankfulness, fullness, and peace. They serve as a reminder that while we may be walking on the edge with stability in question, taking a moment to breathe, letting go of extraneous thoughts can bring in the balance we need.
That is my version of speaking to God.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Shabbat Interlude

היום עשרה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה ימים בעמר
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

I take a deep breath, preparing to enter Shabbat
Thankful for this morning's rain and the late afternoon sun
Glad to be looking forward more than back
More aware of these steps towards revelation than I've ever been
Appreciating this peaceful moment

Thursday, April 24, 2014

One of these things just doesn't belong . . .

היום תשעה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד ושני ימים בעמר
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

My husband, Ken, is an engineer in the film/video production world. He works as an independent contractor for companies large and small. When first hired by many of the large companies he needs to fill out a form in order to become an approved vendor. They need to know that all the paperwork for his company is in order--license, insurance, taxes. Pretty standard stuff. But today, while filling out a form, he called me over to look--there was something that seemed very unusual.

This particular form had a section to declare whether or not the business in question was minority owned. Nothing odd there---yet. If the answer was yes, you were instructed to select one of ten categories. There were the ones you would expect--African-American, Hispanic American, Native American. Caucasian Female looked a bit odd, but I get this, taking out any confusion as to which one non-white Female would select. I'm not sure I would think of Handicapped or Service Disabled Veteran in this sort of selection, but okay. There are three Asian minority categories--Asian-Indian American, Asian-Pacific American,  and Subcontinent Asian American (the hyphens are theirs). I don't know what I would choose if I was of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean descent--they seem to be left out of this list. Nor do I know who would be considered in the Subcontinent Asian category, since they seemed to have people of Indian descent covered.

But none of those were the reason Ken called me over to look. No, the category that caught his eye was Hassidic Jewish. Hassidic Jewish???? Really????  How does that belong there? Yes, Judaism is an ethnic religion, but at this point, anyone can convert to Judaism of any sort--which includes becoming an Hassid. And why would an owner's religion have any bearing on a business's minority status. To my eye, there is something very wrong here.

This is so out of left field, it makes me uncomfortable. I understand that there may be governmental advantages in hiring a minority owned business. But this is a country that is supposed to be founded on the principle of separation of church and state. Including Hassidic Jewish in this lists seems counter to that principle. I'm not sure how that got there and why--and I may be a bit paranoid, but it doesn't feel like any reason would be a good one.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When lesson plans get personal

היום שמונה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד בעמר
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

I'm in the midst of an 8 session course I'm teaching to 7th & 8th graders on the Jewish experience in America. Most of the students are interested in the subject--a nice plus that's not always the case when teaching in a supplementary synagogue environment. And those that are there just to mark time have been, for the most part, engaged--another check mark in the plus column. I can think of two aspects that may have piqued their interest.

One is that they are learning something new--a part of American and Jewish history they have not been exposed to before. It was great to hear a collective "that's cool" when I showed them a prayer written in Hebrew to honor the ratification of the Constitution that included an acrostic of "Washington" in Hebrew. They had also never considered that there would be Jews who were slave owners, as we considered what seders would have been like for southern Jews, speaking of their ancestors' liberation from slavery while being served by their own African-American slaves.

I think, and I certainly hope, that this subject is also making them think about their own relationship to being a Jew in America. I set the stage in the first class as we talked about the whether they thought of themselves as Jewish-Americans or American-Jews, and what the difference between the two would be.

The lesson I will teach this evening was actually one catalyst to me developing this course. We will be looking at the time period of the great wave of immigration to America from 1880 - 1920, when approximately 23 million immigrants entered the country, mostly from European countries. Around 2 million of those immigrants were Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe. Many of those Jews crowded into New York City's Lower East Side, creating a new world for Jews in American where, for the first time, they are a majority, albeit in a small corner of the country. Since most of my students are California natives, the immigrant experience as it applies to Jews is new territory for them, and something I think it's important for them to know. It's not just about teaching them about their heritage, which is important, but my hope is that it will give them a closer lens from which to look at all the immigration issues facing us in America today.

In planning this lesson, I realized I could also make it personal for me. I will be sharing photos of my family--photos taken in both the old and new worlds. I will show them my grandmother's family. I will show them a photo of my great-grandfather in his klezmer band in Poland, and my grandfather when he played with Paul Whiteman's band in New York.  I'll show them the ship manifests from the Ellis Island website, with the records entry for my grandmother, my aunt, and my great-grandmother Malkah--for whom I'm named.

I'm hoping bringing in my family's story will help make this time period come alive for them. Maybe I can get another "that's cool" reaction. It is pretty cool for me to be able use these mementos from my family's past to teach those who are the future of our people. It not only brings to life the phrase, "L'dor v'dor" - from generation to generation, but it lets me honor the memories of those who were dear to me, truly making them a blessing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Finding my Makom Kavua in the Jewish world

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

In Jewish tradition, there is a concept of makom kavua - a set place for prayer. The idea is that one's prayer can be more focused when there is comfort of being in place. As someone who tends to be a creature of habit, I appreciate this minhag, this custom. It is important to guard against becoming too attached to a place. It's not kosher--and certain not welcoming-- to insist on dislodging a visitor who has unknowingly taken than space. And there are circumstances when a change in place is necessary. In my almost 14 years of prayer practice, I've had major changes--such as when the building housing my space was torn down and then replaced; and small changes-- like when a newcomer arrived and appropriated my place just as I was gone for a long vacation. There's nothing I could do about the former; as for the latter, I found a new place in the spirit of shalom bayit--peace in the house.

It's fairly easy to adapt to changes in makom kavuah in my prayer life. I can always find another place to sit. Finding my makom kavua in the Jewish professional world has been a much harder task. I began my path back to Jewish observance and study in the spiritual realm. The physical practice of yoga led me to look at its philosophical underpinning. The similarities I found there with Judaism propelled back to the practices that I was so drawn to in my youth, but now in an environment without gender biases. I could develop a meditation practice within the container of Jewish tradition.

Through the years, I have found my self drawn to leading services, chanting Torah, finding ways to help my communities connect to the Jewish rituals that so deeply touch my soul. I felt the calling to reach out to those who are on a similar search but need help finding their way. How to fulfill that calling was and issue for many years.

No matter how many times I hear someone tell me I should go to rabbinical school, there are many reasons that will not happen. I have, however, found a place in Jewish education. As a teacher of both children and adults I can share my love and connections with Judaism on many levels. In return, I learn much from my students, and the spiral of give and take keeps everything fresh and relevant.

The way isn't always smooth, my confidence level wavers, and I am often the victim of my own doubts. But while the specific space may change, I have found my place, my makom kavua in the Jewish world. With the help of many wonderful communities to support me, I hope to keep my focus as I continue to answer the call.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A disturbing "hoax"

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

Last week, this article about the leaflets informing Ukrainian Jews that they needed to "'register' with pro-Russian militants" came across my twitter feed. Like many others, I spread the word, not wanting to remain silent, feeling the echoes of "Never Again."

On the heels of this globally viral spread, there came a new set of articles, such as this one from the NYTimes denying the validity of this action, with the Ukrainian leadership denouncing the act., a website dedicated to investigating internet rumors, verified that the leaflets were fabricated, while noting that it was still unclear as to who initiated the act and why. In an article on the New Republic website, Julia Ioffe concluded her column on the incident with:
"So, in conclusion: the Jews of Donetsk and eastern Ukraine may have been asked by a leaflet to register, but it has not been enforced nor are any Ukrainian Jews registering themselves. If that changes, I'll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet."
Frankly, I find this don't worry, you can "breath easy" approach disturbing. It may be true that there was nothing official about this call for Jews to register with the government, pay a registration fee, and declare their assets or face penalties that could include loss of citizenship and deportation. But I can only think that this action plays upon existing attitudes that can form the base of this Pyramid of Hate I use each year I teach about the Shoah.

I use this graphic not just to try to bring my students some comprehension as to how this inconceivable and incomprehensible horror of history happened, but to impress upon them that we need to be aware of our own actions and the actions of those around us so we can sound an alarm when if we see the seed of that sort of history being planted targeted at any people.

The fact that this very public antisemitic act was used to stir up trouble brings up the adage of "where's there's smoke, there's fire" -- and as I just found out this moment, in an all too literal manner. For there has been a report of a synagogue in Ukraine being firebombed this weekend. Which is why I find Ms. Ioffe's flippant "No Holocaust 2.0 just yet" statement disturbing. While I understand the need not to overreact, I also firmly believe this cannot be ignored.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

United by Eggs

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

On Easter Sunday and the 6th day of Passover, it seems appropriate to write about eggs. Eggs are featured prominently in both holidays, both on a culinary and symbolic level.

I will admit that, while I've learned much more in my later years, I don't have deep knowledge of the Easter rituals. In my childhood I didn't even know what it represented. Being a New Yorker, I know people strolled down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the women wearing big hats. I knew that eggs were tied to the holiday in the form of chocolate. And it seemed like it would be lots of fun to spend a day dying eggs all sorts of colors.

For Passover, of course, eggs loom large. Next to matzah, it's the one ingredient that's in almost everything that appears in Jewish food in one form or another. It seems like every recipe for anything contains at least 3 eggs and sometimes up to 12. I don't know how observant Jews who are vegan make it through the week.

Although Christians and Jews may eat their eggs different on these holidays, much of the symbolism of eggs is shared. Eggs represent creation and life and spring. We celebrate rebirth and liberation, and the reminder that we can start each cycle of our lives with hope.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Mah Jongg New Year

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

Along with the Gregorian calendar, the Jewish calendar, and the school year calendar, a part of my life follows the Mah Jongg calendar. The Gregorian year begins January 1st, the Jewish calendar has 4 New Years, with the official counting beginning with Rosh Hashanah in the fall, and the Hebrew school year starts either before or after Rosh Hashanah.

The Mah Jongg year starts April 1st with the release of the new card. It's a release that is eagerly awaited by players all over the world. Tonight I will play with the new card for the first time. It's always an exciting moment. Will this card be good to me this year? Only one Like Numbers hand, which does not make me happy, but at least they didn't leave it off completely as they have some years. Will this be the year I able to form one of the coveted doubles hands, garnering 50 - 75 cents from each of the other players? (yes, we play for really high stakes :) How many times will I have a brain blip and call for a tile while building my hand, only to then realize it's one that is marked concealed--and I'm out.

Just like the start of any New Year, it's exciting to start fresh. And no matter what plays out, I know, as always, that it will be a year filled with fun and friendship...and really good food :)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"What could be bad" Food Post 1

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

So many bloggers go through some version of a food phase in their writing series--recipe based, restaurant based, or a combination of the two. Often there's an overlay of health or decadence; regionally centered or a global journey. I am no exception to this rule.

I consider myself a good, rustic cook. My techniques may not be polished, but for the most part I get the taste right. I often work on the theory learned from my mother--"What could be bad?" While this has lead to the occasional odd pairing that doesn't work, it's held me in pretty good stead. I love cookbooks, but I've never felt restrained by recipes, often using them for a starting off point for my own creations--for better or worse :)

I do try to keep the majority of the ingredients that I buy natural and seasonal. I try to keep most processed foods off of my shopping list. I do like to use jarred tomato sauces and I have a weakness for mayonnaise (I grew up with Hellman's--Best Foods for the West Coasters--but I have transferred my allegiance to Trader's Joes, with no additives or sugar.) The amount of sodium in so many packaged foods--even those marked "natural"-- seems really high without getting the benefit of a nice, salty taste.

So learning how easy it is to make vegetable broth and then store it for use in all sorts of dishes was transforming for me. Kudos go to my friend Dorene Hyman for teaching this to me and now I will share this with you.

Now, this assumes that you are someone who cooks, since the basis for the broth is produce that you are using to make other dishes. While you cook, take all the ends and bits that you are not using--stems, roots, peels and instead of putting them in the garbage or compost, throw them all in a pot. Onions, garlic, chard stalks, carrot ends, ginger peel, cilantro stems, squash skins, mushroom stems--there's very little you can't use.

Fill the pot with water and when your prep time is done, you can start the broth. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat underneath to simmer, cover and cook for about an hour or so--basically just keep it there during your meal. Alternately, you can put all the bits in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator if you'd like to make the broth later in the week.

Cool the mixture before you strain the broth to store it for later use. I have found that it's fine to leave the broth covered on the stove and package it the next day in containers of your preference. I like to make a couple of trays of vegetable broth ice cubes. Once they're frozen I pop them all in a bag for easy storage. Lately I've also been using a silicone muffin pan. The bigger size is more in keeping with the amount I'm likely to use. But another advantage of this is that I don't have to open a big container when I'm just using a cup or less.

You can't get much more simple than that. But what a difference it can make in your cooking. When making curries or stews, you get to use a tasty liquid without adding any extra salt. The cubes are great for deglazing a pan or adding a flavor to sautéed greens. And it's easy enough to always have around to use whenever you jump into a creative cook mode, this recipe supports all those "What could be bad" moments.

Feel free to share any tips or cooking ideas in the comments. And look for more food recipes and tips mingled among the posts for the next 46 days.

Teaching is the Guide

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

The seders are over, fulfilling the mitzvah of teaching the story and its meaning to our children, which is what the haggadah, the telling, is all about. We've made the point that we were slaves, and now we're free. We've escaped from Egypt, from Mitzrayim, from the narrow place. The sea was parted for us, allowing us to walk on solid, dry ground. But the story does not end there. The journey has just begun.

We know the journey our ancestors will take--at least, we know what is chronicled in the Torah and the other biblical writings. What lies ahead for each of us is unknown. But we need to continually teach our children--as we say each day in the Shema, when we are home and when we are away; when we lie down, and when we rise. Because it is the teachings and the act of teaching with strength and loving kindness, that will guide us all on our way.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Accounting of the Count

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

Today starts the period of the omer--a 49 day period of counting each day from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. For those unfamiliar with this Jewish ritual, I recommend this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs on for a good nuts-and-bolts overview of the ritual. As you will notice in the header to this post, which will occur in all subsequent omer posts, I use the kabbalistic method of marking each day, using 7 of the 10 of the Sephirot, the emanations, forces, emotions which, according to those mystics, are connections between us and God. Each week has a sephira; each day has a sephira. In the 49 days we get every pair combination. Explanations of the Sephirot can be found here and here; here you will find an overview of using them for the omer count. Feel free to search around for other sources but please, as with all internet searches, be mindful of who is putting out the information.

I also use this time as a writing practice, adding a blog post each day. As I need to remind myself each year on this first day of chesed she b'chesed--a double day of loving kindness, the practice is simply to write. It doesn't have to be award-winning or incredibly insightful--it just has to be. That is why it's called a practice. Like the counting itself, performing the ritual is its own reward. And like much of Jewish practice, fulfillment will come from the doing of the action--even if it takes a while to become evident.

I have one more thought to end this 5774/2014 inaugural post. It's something that now seems so obvious but just occurred to me as I began to think about this year's writings. This blog is an account of my thoughts with some stories of my life. An account --- a (c) count. A reckoning in words rather than numbers. And of course, that is its origin, from Old French to Anglo-French to Middle English to today.

So it seems that my adding this writing element is not just an overlay to the ritual, but emanates from within.