Destination

This time in the black Suburban
leading the hearse

and the parade of blinking cars
I remember the drive

to the cemetery in San Antonio
the day we buried Mom.

I don't think I'd ever been
on those roads before, or

if I had, they were different
from this new vantage.

So many switchbacks and turns
past small houses, yards dotted

with pecan and crepe myrtle trees
though nothing was blooming.

After today's burial
my friend the undertaker

asks about the meditation labyrinth
behind the synagogue.

It's a contemplative practice,
I explain. It's not a maze

where it's easy to get lost.
There's only one path.

Take your time, notice
where your footsteps land.

We don't know how or when,
but we all know the destination.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 

I should also mention Walking the Labyrinth by my friend and colleague R. Pamela Wax, a new collection of beautiful poems of grief and transformation.


Abundance and dreams, resilience and hope: Miketz and Chanukah

Banner (1)Pharaoh's dreams (artist unknown); an oil-lamp chanukiyah.


This week we continue the Joseph story. In this installment, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. In one dream, seven happy fat cows emerge from the Nile, followed by seven emaciated cows who eat the fat ones. In the other, the same thing happens with ripe ears of corn and shrunken ones.

No one in his court can interpret the dreams. And then the cupbearer pipes up: I was in your prison a while back, and there was a Hebrew prisoner who interpreted dreams! So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who says, the dreams mean that seven good years are coming, followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to set someone wise in charge of his storehouses, someone who can save during the years of plenty so there will be food to eat in the lean times. Pharaoh promptly promotes him, saying, "Could we ever possibly find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

(Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hey yo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man.")

Pharaoh's dreams are about guarding our resources. When there is abundance, set some aside and save it for when there won't be. And this isn't just about individual households saving what they can; Joseph sets aside grain for the whole nation, so the government can make sure everyone makes it through. 

Every year, we read this at Chanukah. As my b-mitzvah students learned this week, there are different stories we can tell about Chanukah. One is the story of oppression and war in the books of Maccabees -- which were not canonized into the Hebrew Bible, though they are part of some Christian Bibles.

Another is the story of the sanctified oil that lasted for eight days. That narrative comes to us from Talmud, and it's the one our tradition chose to enshrine. That Chanukah story is a story about hope, and enough-ness, and the leap into faith when we don't feel like we have enough fuel to keep hope burning.

Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough. Maybe we feel that we ourselves aren't enough. Maybe life feels overwhelming, and in the words of the poet William Stafford, "The darkness around us is deep." The Chanukah story asks us to kindle light exactly then. That's when we need hope most.

This week Torah says: don't use everything up -- resources are finite! Save some of what you have so you can help everyone make it through the lean times! Meanwhile the Chanukah story says: kindle the eternal light, even if you're going to run out of oil! So which one is right? They both are.

The Torah teaching is about things we can touch: protecting our natural resources, not eating all the grain, making sure we can feed people when there's famine. The Chanukah teaching is metaphysical: it's not about oil, but about hope. It's about kindling hope in our hearts, and keeping hope burning.

Earth and water and air and trees and food are finite, and we need to steward them carefully and share them equitably -- that's a big one, we're working on that. But hope provides its own fuel. And like love, it doesn't diminish when we share it. Being a Jew -- for me -- means living up to both of these truths.

We need to be wise with our resources, and help people who live at sea level, and nations that don't yet have enough vaccines. That's never been more true than it is now. And we need to keep hope kindled in our hearts, even when the world seems hopeless, especially when the world seems hopeless. 

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman (b. 1772) struggled with depression. And yet he taught that despair is a sin. Because despair means the complete absence of hope. And that means we've given up on each other, and on ourselves, and on God. And if we've given up, we won't work to repair what's broken.

That's another thing it means to me to be a Jew: tikkun olam, repairing our broken world. We are God's hands in the world. It's aleinu, it's on us, to build a world of greater justice and love and hope -- and not to give up. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat Chanukah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Hanukkah with Padma

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When I began watching the Hanukkah episode in the new season of Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation, I teared up. The episode opens with the Chanukah blessings sung by Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman of Russ and Daughters as they light and bless at their own festive table. I said, aloud, "I'm not sure I've ever really seen that on TV." It moved me more than I expected.

The episode acknowledges that historically Chanukah was not a major holiday, at least in mainstream Judaism. (R. Abby Stein noted recently on Twitter that in Hasidic circles, Chanukah has long been a major source of spiritual wisdom.) Its relative minor standing made it ripe for reinvention by new immigrants, which Padma explores -- as always -- through the lens of cuisine. 

At Russ & Daughters we learn how a lot of classic Ashkenazi dishes -- chopped liver, herring, schmaltz -- were originally the off-cuts, the things that people with means didn't want. (Yes, even caviar, which used to be Russian peasant food.) The Pickle Guys remind us that the tradition of pickling was a way to preserve produce through long cold winters. This was not prosperity cuisine.

The same message comes through with the folks from Gefilteria teaching Padma to make stuffed cabbage rolls (I'm saving that recipe to try this winter.) And with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who notes that brisket was a cheap cut that required long braising. At her Chanukah table, her classic brisket gets turned into brisket tacos. What a glorious moment of remix! 

Interwoven with the food narratives Padma visits the Tenement museum with Annie Polland, and she sits with the rabbi at Central Synagogue, who talks about the Chanukah story. ("I like this rabbi," my son said -- props to you, R. Ari Lorge.) I was struck by his point about the building itself: grand and visible, because here in this country it's safe to be who we are, to let our light shine.

I was especially moved by Ruth Zimbler, a woman of 93 who came over in 1939 -- the same year my own mother emigrated here, fleeing the Nazis. (My mother was three when they fled here; Ruth was eleven.) Ruth talked about America as a beacon of hope for immigrants much as my mom always did. Her horror at this country's recent anti-immigrant policies is powerful.

I've seen Padma speak with immigrants from so many cultures. She values their foodways as she uplifts the core idea that our diversities make us stronger and make us more the multicultural nation we aspire to become. I hadn't realized how much I needed to see her approach the Ashkenazi Jewish food of my own ancestry with the openness and respect she brings to everything else.

 

Related:

 


Complicated thanks

 

 

Like many first-generation Americans, my mother loved Thanksgiving. She emigrated in 1939 with her parents, fleeing the Nazis as they invaded Prague. She believed 100 percent in the dream of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of freedom and welcome to the world's "tired and poor" escaping to these shores. And she loved gathering with family and friends for Thanksgiving -- so quintessentially American.

There was always turkey and dressing, of course -- often cornbread dressing. Homemade cranberry relish. I think there was usually a yellow Jell-o salad that featured canned pineapple, Red Delicious apple, and maybe celery? I know there was always her mango mousse, made with jarred mango and cream cheese and Jell-o, decanted in a bright shining ring. Sweet potato casserole. Texas pecan pie.

I don't miss the Jell-o salads, but I miss Mom's festive table. 

In recent years, as I've started following more Native voices on Twitter, I've become increasingly aware that for their communities the arrival of white Europeans on these shores was catastrophic. Smallpox blankets, land theft, forced relocation, boarding schools that forbade the transmission of Native languages -- the shameful list goes on. This holiday looks different against that background. 

The Washington Post had an article about that recently: This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. I read it when they first ran it, and it's been lingering on my mind and in my heart. (There are some excellent links below to pieces by Native Americans about this holiday and these issues -- I recommend all of them.)

I don't think my mom would have been especially interested in talking about any of that. Her immigrant experience caused her to see this nation and its history through rose-colored glasses. (That's why she instructed us to sing "America The Beautiful" at her funeral. Well, that, and "Jerusalem of Gold," but that's another story.) I don't think she would have been able to hear these Native narratives. 

Many of my rabbinic forebears wrote prayers framing the American custom of the Thanksgiving feast in Jewish language of miracle and gratitude. Here's one from Reb Zalman z"l. Here's one from 1940 by Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Here's a 2018 Haggadah for Thanksgiving.  I love the idea of foregrounding gratitude (there's a reason modah ani is my favorite prayer!) but none of these feel right to me.

These prayers are lofty and beautiful, rooted in Jewish ideals and traditions. And these prayers elide, or ignore, the Native experience of dispossession. Many of them draw on the happy tale of Puritan-Wampanoag hospitality, but that story is a fiction. The truth is a lot messier. I feel like as white folks we need a little bit of Yom Kippur liturgy instead: forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement

Our tradition is clear that for sins against other human beings, we need to seek their forgiveness before we seek God's. What does it mean for us as Jews -- many of whose ancestors came here fleeing trauma somewhere else -- to accept some responsibility for how we (many of us*) benefit from being white and of European descent, here where white European colonists displaced and harmed indigenous peoples?

And (how) can that impulse share space with a yearning for Thanksgiving, maybe especially this year? I love an autumnal feast, especially now that I live where turkeys and cranberries naturally thrive. And this year I'm keenly aware that because my sister and I are both vaccinated against COVID-19, I will get to celebrate Thanksgiving with a beloved family member, which last year was impossible.

So this year I'm sitting with that disjunction. The history of colonialism is awful. The harm that white people have done to Native Americans since Europeans (and others) began settling on these shores is almost inconceivable. The Thanksgiving story as I learned it in childhood ignores that harm. And the joy I feel at the prospect of being able to safely feast on turkey with a family member is still real.

 

 

If you want to read more:

 

*Obviously not all Jews are white or of European descent. It's not my intention to minimize the existence of Jews of color, Sephardi Jews, or Mizrahi Jews. Rather to say: for those of us whose families (like mine) came here from Europe, what responsibility do we have to recognize the privilege that our appearance and our backgrounds afford us, and what do we owe to Native folks? 


Wrestle and stretch

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This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


New normal

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The call comes in late evening. It's someone from the school, calling to tell me that there's a positive COVID test in my kid's pooled testing cohort. I can feel an internal shift, a cloak of calm clicking into place. "Okay, what does this mean for us," I ask, and my voice does not shake even a bit.

It means I should bring him in early tomorrow morning and he'll go directly to the school gym where everyone in his pool will receive a rapid test so they can discern who among them has tested positive. No, I can't go in with him. Yes, someone will be there at 7:45 to let the kids in for their tests.

When I hang up the phone, I'm aware that I'm vibrating at a different frequency than before. It's akin to the way that news of a congregational death shifts my internal gears. Everything that was on my to-do list for tomorrow has been back-burnered. This is more important right now.

I remind my kid that he's had his first shot, which makes him safer than before. I remind him that most kids who get COVID experience something like a cold or a light flu. (I do not mention any of the awful news or social media stories about instances where that is not the case.) He changes the subject.

"It's still scary," he says as I tuck him into bed. "There's no fighting, but it's kind of like a war. There are so many people dying." My kid is incredibly lucky. His life has been as gentle as possible during these first 20 months. Even so, he and his generation will be shaped by this in ways I can't know.

The morning of his test dawns clear and bright, blue skies and unseasonable warmth. He does not test positive. He stays in school, has a normal day, runs around outside at recess, rides his bicycle to Aubuchon at 3:05 and delights in petting the hardware store cat. This is the new normal.

Last year I was grateful that we'd made it all the way to Thanksgiving before hybrid school reverted to all-Zoom. This year I'm grateful that we've made it so close to Thanksgiving before our first experience with this kind of fire drill. And, of course, grateful that he tested negative -- at least this time.


Breathless

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It's disconcerting to be short of breath during a global pandemic that can trigger respiratory infection. Granted, the shortness of breath isn't new, though it has been notably worse in the last year. At first I shrugged it off, evidence that I really ought to try again to establish an exercise practice. 

But then friends started pointing out that it's not normal to get out of breath when doing ordinary household tasks. And then there was the day when two different people, on two different phone calls, said, "You sound really out of breath. Are you okay?" (Subtext: do you think you have COVID?) 

I noted that I'm always out of breath, it's nothing to worry about. "On the contrary," they said. "If you're always short of breath, that makes me even more worried about it. Go see a doctor, please." I rolled my eyes, but I made an appointment to speak with a doctor about it. That was many months ago.

The first thing we tried was a course of steroids, which didn't do much. Next came a cardiac stress test. Predictably, jogging on a treadmill made me wheeze. Then there was a nuclear stress test that made me radioactive, which my kid thought was hilarious. (Alas, it didn't make me glow in the dark.)

Maybe the strangest experience was the hour that I spent sitting inside a small glass box, like Clark Kent crammed into a phone booth, breathing on command into a tube with a clamp over my nose. The technician was gowned, gloved, triply masked. Standard COVID precautionary protocol.

From that pulmonary function test we learned that the amount of air I can forcefully exhale in one second is around half of what it should be. There was a strange relief in learning that. It's so easy to minimize my breathlessness, or to blame it on being "out of shape," but that's not what this is.

I have learned a new phrase: "severe eosinophilic asthma." We're trying injections to improve my breathing. After my first shot, while I was waiting an hour in the doctor's office to make sure my throat didn't close up, I looked up the biologic agent. It turns out to be a form of monoclonal antibody.

I had never heard of monoclonal antibodies before the COVID-19 pandemic. Who among us had? Now, of course, we all know the term. It's fascinating to think about all of the medical terms and treatment methods, the pandemic-related language that has entered common public parlance in the last year.

During the pandemic it has sometimes felt like the whole world has been holding our breath, waiting for this to end. I realize now that that's the wrong frame. I miss the days when we thought the pandemic would end. (And of course I think of George Floyd and Eric Garner and "I can't breathe...") 

For now, these days, I often have to sit down and catch my breath in the middle of simple household tasks. I am working on extending compassion toward myself as we try new medications and interventions to see whether and how my lungs will respond. This is the day that God has made...

Sometimes when I need to center and calm myself, there's a breathing meditation I practice. I learned it many years ago on retreat. It's a simple meditation, mapping the four letter Name of God to four moments: the empty-lungs moment before breath; inhale; lungs full of air; exhale. 

י / Empty -- ה / inhale -- ו / full -- ה / exhale. And again. A letter of God's name for the pause before breathing, for the inbreath, for the pause with lungs full, for the outbreath. A reminder that God is always with me: in the moments when breathing comes easy, and in the breathless moments too. 

 


Leaves

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On Veteran's Day my son led me on a walk. He'd gone exploring with a friend, past the hayfields behind our condo neighborhood, and found a marked ski trail that he wanted to show me. As we walked, we saw someone on a tractor in the distance -- haying one last time before the rains, maybe.

Though most of the deciduous trees here are bare now, in this sheltered curl of hillside there were still some leaves on the trees. They tinted the sunlight golden and orange and rust. Someone had made a lean-to out of sticks, though it was too small for my tall son to crawl inside.

I had to go slower than I wanted, and I sat down on fallen trees several times to breathe, but I made it there and back. On the way back to the condo, my son talked about how lucky he feels that there are woods like this walkable from each of the places where his parents live.

Today the skies are heavy. Rains come and go, as do high winds. I suspect the autumn leaves we marveled at yesterday are on the ground now, beginning their journey toward becoming mulch. Challah dough is rising, soon to be shaped into a spiraling six-pointed sun or Jewish star.

I wonder whether we will look back on these years as the end of something, or the end of many things. The end of when we could have stopped the global warming juggernaut, the end of the myth that "red" and "blue" America actually understand each other -- or even want to try.

I think about climate grief and rising authoritarianism and mistrust. I'm so ready for Shabbat, for 25 hours of setting worries aside. All I can do is trust that when I make havdalah, I'll be ready to pick up the work again. That the fallen leaves will sustain growth I can't yet know.

 


New poetry, liturgy, and art for Chanukah

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I'm delighted to be able to announce that Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group has just released a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Chanukah. 

It's available as a downloadable PDF and also as illuminated google slides suitable for screensharing. You can read excerpts of the prayers/poems and download a PDF, and preview the google slides and access those, here at Builders Blog: Rolling Darkness Into Light

This collaborative creative work is one of the most spiritually and creatively nourishing things I get to do. I hope that what we've co-created will speak to you.

This offering includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, and R. David Zaslow. (And also me.) Click through and read it now.


Integrity and becoming: Toldot

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Our Torah stories are the same every year. But as we change and grow, we find new ideas and understandings in the same old stories.

In the verses from Toldot that we just heard, Isaac is old and his eyes have grown dim. He is preparing to die, and he wants to give his firstborn son a special blessing. Esau and Jacob are twins, but Esau was born first. Isaac sends Esau off to hunt, saying, "bring me back some stew and I'll bless you."

That's when Rebecca steps in, instructing Jacob to fetch a couple of goats. She'll make a stew that he can bring to his father, and that way, he'll get his father's blessing. "But Mom," says Jacob, "Esau is hairy and I'm not. If Dad touches my arm, he'll see me as a trickster and I'll get a curse, not a blessing!" 

"If he curses you, let the curse be on me," says Rebecca. "Just do what I told you to do." So he does, and she covers him with Esau's clothes and with goat skins so he feels hairy to the touch. He takes the stew to his dad. He claims to be Esau. He gets his father's special firstborn-oriented deathbed blessing.

When Esau gets home, he's furious. He begs his father for a blessing, and the blessing he gets is not a very happy one. Esau starts muttering about how he's going to kill Jacob as soon as their dad dies. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee, and that's what sends him off on his big life's journey.

In previous years, reading this story, I've thought about how in the ancient world the older son was always supposed to inherit. Yet throughout Genesis, it's the younger son who gets lifted up. Maybe Torah's teaching us that status, or birth order, doesn't determine our fate.

I've thought about how Jacob, whose name means "Heel" because he emerged from the womb clutching Esau's heel, is kind of being a heel here. It feels like poetic justice when his uncle Laban tricks him into marrying the wrong sister. Maybe Torah's teaching us that the karma of our choices stays with us.

This year, all I can think is: Rebecca in this story is really not teaching the kind of moral lesson that I wish for. It looks like she wants to make sure her favorite kid gets the blessing, so she tells him to trick his father by pretending to be someone he's not? I don't feel good about that.

Earlier in the story, when pregnant, Rebecca asks God why it feels like there's warfare in her womb. God tells her that two nations struggle inside her, and that the older will serve the younger. Maybe that's why midrash teaches that she was a prophet: she knew that Jacob had a special destiny.

Maybe she was practicing what would later be called consequentialism: as long as the outcome is good, then the act that produced that outcome must be moral, right? If it gets us to "Jacob becomes the ancestor of the Jewish people," then whatever steps she took to get there must be okay?

I disagree. How we work toward our goals matters at least as much as whatever those goals are. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. I would never instruct my child to pretend to be someone he's not, even if there were some kind of reward for that pretending.

And generally speaking, Jewish tradition takes integrity really seriously. Rambam teaches that we should never "be one thing in mouth and another in heart," that our insides should match our outsides, that deceiving another human being is like stealing their mind and we should never do it.

So why are most of our sages okay with what Rebecca did here? Most of the sages of Jewish tradition argue that this wasn't really a deception, because our mystics teach that Jacob's soul was formed first in the womb. His essence was special. They see Rebecca as helping Jacob become who he truly is.

My friend R. Mike Moskowitz compares it to someone coming out and changing their clothing style. When Jacob changes his outward appearance, with Esau's borrowed clothes and the goat skins on his arms, now his dad is finally able to experience him as he's always seen himself, as he truly is.

I like that interpretation. I agree that parents need to see our kids as they truly are! But for me, it's a stretch to read these verses that way. If we choose to do that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves that we're doing a lot of work to make Rebecca's actions okay when on the surface, they just aren't.

Maybe what Torah is teaching us here is that even our patriarchs and matriarchs were human just like us, and they made mistakes, just like us.

Because even if you want to argue that only the outcomes matter -- the choice that Rebecca makes harms Esau. And I think we can make a case that this choice harms Jacob and Isaac's relationship, too. Even if her intentions were good, Rebecca's choice has negative impacts on the entire family.

(Just wait until you see how Jacob's kids treat each other. Let's just say the unfortunate tradition of parental favoritism doesn't stop here, and the next generation is a little bit of a mess as a result. Maybe you remember a kid named Joseph, whose brothers hate him so much they sell him into slavery...)

I wish that Rebecca had been able to say to Jacob: don't worry about your brother, just go be real with your dad. Tell him you love him, and ask him for the blessing you most need. Ask him for the blessing you're going to need after he dies. Ask him for the blessing that will help you set off on life's journey.

And as for me, I bless you to be continually growing and changing, to wrestle with our traditions and with God, and to always act with integrity as you live into the wholeness of who you are. I wish that Rebecca had been able to say something like that to Jacob. But at least I can say it now to you.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Miracle

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My refrigerator is covered with memorabilia. Mostly it holds art made by my son. There are a few school pictures held up with magnets, and a picture of the two of us from a few years ago, and some cherished postcards. But pride of place goes to a front page from The Berkshire Eagle from last December.

For the last few years, my son has had the honor of kindling the first lights on the North Adams city menorah. The first year I think he pulled little chains attached to the bulbs. In year two, the city electricians changed the mechanism; now I think it's a matter of screwing in each bulb a bit.

He loves lighting the lights of Chanukah alongside the big light-covered tree, and being on the front page of the local paper is exciting too. In years past, I've clipped out just the Chanukah story to put on the fridge. But last year I saved the whole page, because of the story that appears alongside.

"Vaccine endorsed by panel." It was such enormous news, last winter. Against all odds, medical science was prevailing against a previously unknown virus. A quarter of a million people had died in the US by then, but help was on the way. As soon as the vaccine was approved, we would be safer again.

Sometimes I miss that moment. I couldn't have imagined then how disinformation would be weaponized -- lies about microchips, or the government tracking us. I couldn't have imagined how many people would insist on their "freedom" to continue spreading a mutating pathogen.

Last Chanukah, the news of the first vaccine was light in the darkness. Today brings another miracle: my child will receive his first dose of vaccine. Cases are low where we live, and masks are required at his school; in general I think he's safe. But oh, the relief of knowing that he will be safer!

And the relief of knowing that his vaccination makes others safer. "It's just me-versus-us thinking," he said to me this morning. "If I'm just thinking about me: I don't like getting shots, so I wouldn't want to get the vaccine! But I have to think about us, like, the whole community. We live in a society."

"I wish everyone understood that," I replied, dropping him off at school. When I think about how many people resist masks and vaccines, I despair. When I think about my child getting his shot, all I can say is shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higianu lazman hazeh: how lucky we are to be alive right now.


Local Call

 


I talk to you all the time --
there's a portal in my bedroom,
that glassy silvered frame:
us on a boat in the harbor
on the Fourth of July. Plus
another one upstairs (you
and dad beside an autumnal tree)
and the one from your eightieth,
where you're wearing off-white
and we're all arrayed around you
like lilies in a bouquet.
But walking into a cemetery
feels like plugging in, the
internet of souls humming
all around me. And this
exposed rectangle of earth
is just like the one where
two thousand miles away we buried
you. While I sang El Maleh today
one of my hands was twined
in this scarf you gave me,
its silky burgundy tassels
tucked tastefully into the neck
of my sober black suit. I hear
your voice every morning
when I enter my son's room.
As I murmur to him and flip on
the light, you're belting
"Good Morning To You" with
young Debbie Reynolds flair.
Today in this gold autumn sun
you're almost here, singing to me.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 


Rainy day

Last night the rain woke me. I spared a moment to feel grateful for the roof, then went back to sleep. When my alarm sounded the world was swaddled in cloud. I won't relish the time change -- the "fall back" side of the coin -- though I'll be grateful to have more light in the mornings, at least for a while.

I read in Milk Street that in Korea it's traditional to eat pajeon (scallion pancakes) on rainy days. The sound of the batter sizzling in the pan is said to evoke the patter of rainfall. I've never been to Korea, and the prospect of traveling feels implausible now, but look: here's a recipe. Almost like travel.

Two funerals to prepare for, this week. I say this out loud to one of the photos of Mom that I brought back from her house after her funeral. The photo doesn't answer, of course, but thinking of Mom makes me think of clothing, which reminds me that I need to go to the dry cleaner's before Thursday.

You can't go wrong with a black suit, Mom would say. She'd travel with black clothes because they are versatile. One day she'd add her garnet beads, another day a bright scarf. She'd be drinking tea, if she were here. For Mom, cold rainy days were for making soup. Minestrone, maybe, or tortilla soup.

I like to leaf through her recipes, though I don't cook most of them. I brought two tins of Spanish paprika back with me after her funeral, though, and I like cooking with that. It's faded; I should use more of it than recipes call for. But I don't want to use it up. Another tether that I don't want to cut.

Flavors


Soup

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Friday means challah dough rising while I work. Today it also means red beans soaking for mashawa, a soup from Afghanistan. Later I'll add quick-cooking yellow lentils, bright like the leaves carpeting the grass outside my kitchen window, and tiny moong beans in dull Army green. I wonder what color camouflage American troops wore in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. I know that trying a recipe from someplace doesn't mean I understand anything about what it's like to live there, or to flee from there, or to yearn for a there that maybe doesn't exist anymore. No matter how many news stories I read, I can't entirely bring the other side of the world into focus. At my work email address, I read and forward another email about resettling refugees. Outside my window the hills are dressed in autumnal tweed. Maple and oak and pine trees rustle. Central Asia couldn't seem further away.