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January 2005
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March 2005

I'm just a girl who cain't say no...

Somehow, at tonight's religion committee meeting, I got hornswoggled into orchestrating our Purimspiel.

We had just established that we're going to eschew an evening reading of the  whole megillah (which we'll do the following morning at services anyway) in favor of a Purimspiel which retells the Purim story in dramatic form. We agreed that the script should both stick to the source and be funny, and that the action should periodically be broken up by short comedy routines, knock-knock joke contests, a kids' costume parade, and other appropriately irreverent ways of keeping little people entertained until the exciting part where they get to gnash their gragers.* I was industriously taking notes when Jeff slyly noted that his real plan was for someone new to run the Purimspiel this year: get some new blood and new ideas, see what kind of spin somebody new might put on it. Somebody like, oh, me. 

I never turn down the chance to make a holiday happen, and though Purim and I haven't had much to do with each other in the last few decades, I figure we can renew our acquaintance in time for March 24th. I like to write. I herd cats reasonably well. Naturally I said yes.

Only one problem.  The Purimspiel is supposed to be funny. Comedy? Not my strength. Which is why I'm seeking help. The first thing I did when I got home was email  Seth Brown, lord of the House of the Rising Pun, because he's a funny guy and I have high hopes that he'll help me out. But I'm not stopping there; I'm hoping y'all will help, too.

I feel fairly confident that I can retell the Purim story in a vernacular that's clear and timely. But I'd love suggestions of jokes, songs, sketch routines: ways I can keep the wee ones amused and paying attention before the part where they get to make lots of noise. If you've ever been to (or been part of) a great Purimspiel, tell me what made it work. If you have a script (or some links) that you'd be willing to share, that's grand too. Somebody out there has to have lyrics for the Big Bad Broadway Megillah, right?   

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*Tradition dictates that we make lots of noise -- usually with noisemakers called gragers -- whenever Haman's name is mentioned. Kids usually love it. Adults usually bring aspirin. Or maybe that's because of the Talmudic injunction to drink until we can't distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"...



I try to refrain from cluttering up this blog with posts which don't relate to Judaism, but every now and then I break my own rule. (Like now.)

A few of you have asked to hear more about my trip, so I've posted a travelogue. I redacted my trip-journal into abbreviated form: one page for each day we were on the road, illustrated with some of Ethan's digital photos. The whole thing is about 8000 words.

You can find it here.

Thanks for your interest, and enjoy. Soon: a return to blogging-as-usual.

A visit to Keneseth Eliyahoo

Midway through the afternoon of our day in Bombay we stopped at a small building set into a busy block, pale blue with white trim. The sign beside the building was bilingual, but the non-Roman characters weren't Hindi, they were Hebrew: we had found our way to Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue.


A woman dressed in a blue sari let us in and showed us around. She explained that KE is a Sefardic synagogue (apparently Baghdadi in origin), featuring traditional Sefardic sanctuary design: a raised bimah in the middle of the room, and a balconied women's gallery overhead. There's elaborate wooden gingerbreading at the edges of the gallery, with stars-of-David carved in, and stained glass adorns the windows of one wall. The ark is concealed by a velvet curtain with a heart stitched on.


As we were looking around, an older fellow hurried in, wearing a yarmulke and smiling broadly. The gentleman, who welcomed us to Keneseth Eliyahoo with a "shalom," introduced himself as Ben Tzion. He showed us photographs of previous American visitors, and let me leaf through a Hebrew/Persian chumash and a Hebrew/Hindi alef-bet primer. I came away with a pamphlet called "The Jews of India," written by Benjamin J. Israel and published by the Jewish Welfare Association in New Delhi, which chronicles the history of the community. The majority of India's Jews are  Marathi-speaking Bene Israel; there's been a Jewish community on the west coast of India for centuries, which hit its peak at about 20,000 members in 1951. Today Keneseth Israel has about fifty member families, and the Bene Israel community numbers about 5000.

I didn't notice the pamphlet's authorship until we'd left. I wonder now whether it was written by our friendly host -- whether Benjamin Israel is an Anglicization of Ben Tzion? In any event, it's unfortunately not available online, though The Last Jews in India and Burma, by Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg, offers a good historical overview.

Ben asked if we would join them for Shabbat services, but we had to say no; by Friday night we would be in Jaisalmer (I welcomed that Shabbat with a shehecheyanu as we watched the sun set over the Thar desert, our trusty camels kneeling placidly at the base of the next dune). We said goodbye with a promise to send him a copy of this snapshot:


I like thinking that future visitors to Keneseth Eliyahoo will see our picture in the binder of visitors --  that something will remain to mark our passage through.


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Pre-trip blessings

Yesterday before services, I spotted a male cardinal in the bare branches of the enormous willow outside the sanctuary. We clustered at the window and marveled. There's something amazing about the vividness of the red bird against yellow branches, snowy earth, blue sky.

Yesterday during services, I got two blessings: one after my aliyah (that I might nurture the ability to be compassionate, as God is compassionate) and one after the Torah reading, when I was called up to receive a blessing for my travels (that I might depart safely and return safely).

Every time I see cardinals now I remember my grandfather, who always loved those birds. The first time I saw a cardinal after he died, I felt like he was visiting us here again.

I guess maybe I got three blessings at shul yesterday.


I've been thinking about my own blessing or valediction for this journey:

May this trip dazzle my senses and open my eyes. May I retain my sense of humor and my ability to roll with the punches. May I be aware of the sparks of holiness in everything I encounter. May I see strange and beautiful things, and eat new foods, and smell new spices. May I revel in the chance to sit with my husband and watch a new landscape unfold outside our train window. May I remember how lucky I am. May I spend the next ten days feeling wonder and gratitude. May I be open to whatever changes this trip wants to engender in me. As a friend emailed me just now, may I have a good time, not get cranky, and come home with many stories to tell.

And may you all have a wonderful couple of weeks while I'm away. See you on the other side!

Torah study

I found a refreshing window of focus this morning. It didn't come during meditation; unsurprisingly my attention wandered often, and I kept having to call it back (using a liturgical melody helped -- every time I caught my mind spinning I hummed Rabbi Jeff Roth's "Kol Haneshama" to myself, which brought my focus back to the melody and my breath). The focus came during Hebrew study. Jeff (not Jeff Roth; my other Rabbi Jeff) spent forty-five minutes with me translating the first few lines of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, and it felt great.

I knew many of the words off the top of my head, and I was able to puzzle out some of the ones which were foreign to me. Jeff was terrific: he didn't put pressure on me, didn't make me feel sheepish when I didn't know things, but also didn't allow me to give up too easily. When I got stuck, he'd say things like, "Okay, what part of speech is it?" And I would identify the word as a verb. And then he'd say, "What tense, what person?" And I would stare at it for a minute, and finally come up with those answers. And then he'd say, "Do you know any other words that relate to that root?" Only when I was entirely stymied would he actually answer something for me.

I learned that the dagesh (a diacritical dot) in the first letter of the word mishpatim ("laws" or "judgements") denotes a missing letter; there used to be a lamed before that word. In an apparent digression, he asked, "What's the Arabic name for Jerusalem?" Al-Quds, I said. "And what does it mean?" It means The-Holy; the Arabic qds shares a root with the Hebrew word kodesh, and we too call Jerusalem "The Holy City," in Hebrew ir ha-kodesh. Turns out that same diacritical dot (the one denoting a lost "l" sound) appears at the start of the word kodesh: in some Semitic linguistic ancestor of Hebrew, we too would have said ha'l-kodesh. Al-Quds by any other name...

Anyway, I worked my way painstakingly through these verses and these verses. I learned how to tell the word "yaldah" (daughter) from "yal'dah" (she bears). I learned when the diacritical marks (vowels and cantillation markings) were first written down, and by whom (thanks, Masoretes.) And then it was time to go.

This is a hundred times more engaging than practicing verb conjugations. This is why I want to learn Hebrew in the first place! I'm a little bit amazed by how fun that was, and how satisfying, and how much more helpful it is to have someone coaxing and nudging me through the work than to be doing it alone. (Guess the tradition is pretty wise on that count; traditional Jewish study always takes place in pairs.) I hope Jeff is getting something out of this, because it's immeasurably useful and enjoyable for me.

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Monkey mind

The aforementioned trip to India is fast approaching (Ethan's been there all week on business; I depart on Sunday) and as my departure date looms I find myself increasingly scatterbrained. All of the metaphors that come to mind relate to small winged creatures: I'm aflutter, flighty, abuzz. I've been working overtime to prepare for leaving my arts nonprofit for two weeks, and haven't made the time for my in-depth pursuits of Hebrew and poetry; today I had the time, but the focus just wasn't there. My monkey mind is chattering.

This is a natural reaction to knowing that I have a lot to do. Like Marge Piercy, I am a maker of lists, and I've been listing like mad this week. (Redo work voicemail recording so the message reflects my absence; pick up travel-packs of Kleenex to serve as toilet paper on the road; make sure the house-sitter knows where the thermostats are...) It's a manic feeling, like having drunk too much coffee. On the upside, I'm getting a lot done; on the downside, the clamor in my own mind is making me a little tired.

It's a truism of meditation that it's most difficult to practice when one needs it most. Fortunately, the kind of meditation we practice at my shul encourages not trying to silence the mind (after all, thinking thoughts is what the mind is for) but becoming mindful of its machinations, to ground oneself in the present moment. Perhaps the hardest part for me is refraining from the impulse to judge its workings.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto) wrote, some decades ago, "First, one simply watches for a set period of time, observing his thoughts. He eventually will notice that the mind is emptying, his thoughts are slowing a bit from their habitual flow. He then must repeat a single verse or phrase, such as 'God is truly God,' in order to insert a thought of holiness into his now open mind. After these steps, he can articulate a need for help in any one of the areas of character development which he needs to work on, be it faith or love or awe."

His threefold meditative process sounds about right to me. Today when I step back and watch my thoughts unfold, I'm pretty entertained by the slideshow. I haven't gotten as far as a mantra today (the one I usually favor is Yah Echad, "God is One," though the one he suggests is good, too) but maybe I'll get there at meditation tomorrow morning. And before I fly out on Sunday, I hope I can take a few minutes to center myself in the at the Albany Airport. (I've enjoyed davvening there in the past.)

For now, the pre-trip mental chatter is okay with me. I'm excited about going. It's good to be excited. Even if it means I'm a little buzzier than usual, today. Go, monkey mind, go!

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