Sunday, November 22, 2015

Post Paris Massacre

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.  
No matter where I turn, there is talk of violence and hate.
Where can I place my pain, so that it is healed by a tender touch?  
Who will listen to the disquiet within me and reassure me with love?.
Who will take my tears and turn them into a potent prayer?

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.
No matter what I do, the melancholy attaches to my muscles.
Where can I place my beliefs, so that it draws me to action?
Who will solve the problem of evil, while my body emotes fear?
Who will offer up a psalm and turn my mourning into hope?

I can’t scrub the sadness out of my heart.
So I will leave it there
And watch it grow with sorrow and compassion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My Savta, My Rabbi

My granddaughter, Noa Rebecca, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last weekend with a tribute to curiosity. She read from B’reisheet, the first chapter of the first book of Genesis. Noa was poised and confident, full of joy as always. Her sincerity, so touching in a twelve-year-old, was manifest in the set of her shoulders, adorned with a prayer shawl that had been made for my oldest daughter, Naama, for her own Bat Mitzvah thirty years ago. On the collar of the tallit, a Hebrew inscription from Proverbs: “Wisdom begins with awe.”

After reading from the Torah, she delivered a teaching she had prepared, which included these words:

One the one hand, Eve’s curiosity shows her eagerness to be knowledgeable and learn about the world. On the other hand, Eve’s curiosity would mean that she would disobey God’s commandment. Adam and Eve’s curiosity to taste the apple and taste the knowledge was so strong that it even overcame their will to obey God...I understand her curiosity and her hunger for that apple full of knowledge. I learned that the Torah, such an ancient text, really does have relevance for me in this modern age.

Afterward, she took a breath and read her “thank-you part.”

This special day would not have been successful without the help of so many people. First, I would like to especially thank my Savta for being my Rabbi...

My Savta. My Rabbi.

As we stood side by side on the dais at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the nation’s capital, my dual roles became interwoven into a one-of-a-kind tapestry: it was the first time that I was officiating as a woman rabbi at the bat mitzvah of my own granddaughter. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, one of my uncles, and my father-in-law, all of blessed memory, had carried the title of rabbi, but the ordination of female rabbis did not even begin until the year I had my first child. It hadn’t occurred to me, as a young woman, that I could carry on that legacy. Now, we stood at the intersection between history and family.

The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935 under the authority of her mentor, Rabbi Max Weyl, after attending the Judische Theologisches Seminar in Breslau. She wrote her thesis there on the subject, “May a Woman Hold Rabbinic Office?” and this is the first known attempt to find a legal basis for women’s ordination in Jewish law. She was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and performed rabbinical functions there until 1944. She died in Auschwitz that same year with no successor. Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1972 and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974. These women were still outliers in the movement toward ordaining women rabbis.

Within the Conservative movement, the demands for women’s equality were presented by the Ezrat Nashim group in 1972. That same year, Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of the eminent Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City to consider her application to its rabbinical school. She was denied entrance. Had she been the son of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, she would have been given the accolades due to someone of her lineage. Today she is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth and lectures at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But it was 1983 before the JTS faculty voted to open the doors of its rabbinical school to women. Nineteen women entered the first rabbinic class, and in May,1985, Amy Eilberg was ordained the first female rabbi by the Conservative seminary.

In the space of three decades, women rabbis have transformed the religious landscape of modern Jewish America. We have created new rituals for the moments unique to a woman’s life cycle and shaped feminist theology and textual interpretation.  We have pioneered careers in chaplaincy and healing, justice and peacemaking.  We have taught Torah, comforted the bereaved, studied with Jews-by-choice and designed our own spiritual communities, large and small, throughout the United States. As of this year, over fifty percent of the classes in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries are female. Yeshivat Maharat, the first orthodox yeshiva established in 2009, has so far ordained five women with the title “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

Today, there are close to 1000 female rabbis in America.  I am one of them.

My faith in God has always been strong and positive, but my Jewish education was minimal.  I was not required to dig deep into the mysteries of the Torah. But once I understood that I could shed the strictures of my orthodox upbringing--once it became clear to me that I wanted to be the one to carry on my family’s rabbinic lineage--I jumped into the river where the ancient knowledge flowed.  I was fearless and ferocious.

I was ordained at the age of forty-eight by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City, a seminary that trains rabbis and cantors with a pluralistic focus for contemporary Jewish communities. They welcomed me as a second career student.  I graduated in 1995 with five women and one man. We were all over forty-five.

That was twenty years ago. Grandchildren were not even a twinkle in my eye. But now, many of my classmates are grandparents.  We are elders, but not in the rabbinate. At least the women are not. In the future, there will be many granddaughters who will be calling their Savtas their Rabbis. But the Savta-Rabbis of the present time are still few.  

This past year I have seen a surfeit of joy: One year ago, my oldest granddaughter, Ilana, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight months ago, my oldest grandson, Adin, became a Bar Mitzvah at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC.  And on Columbus Day weekend, my second oldest granddaughter, Noa, had her bat mitzvah in the same sacred space.

My Savta. My Rabbi.

My granddaughters and your granddaughters have access to the present day Tree of Knowledge in their own home-grown Gardens of Eden. I am proud to be a witness and a teacher in this time of transformation, and I can see the unbroken chain of my granddaughters’ knowledge stretching far into the future.

Every once in a miraculous while, we, like Moses, are given a sneak peak into our own Promised Land. When I looked sideways from my podium to Noa’s podium, I saw that the seeds of my labor had blossomed into a beautiful flower whose fragrance reached the heavens.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Morning Time Ritual

Every morning, my mother would awaken me.  “Gut Morgen,” she would whisper. Her body leaned over mine and I felt her wet kiss linger on my forehead. “Time for school.”

As I tumbled out of bed, I would stumble upon my father. Standing next to the open window in the corner of the living room, my rabbi -father swayed to the rhythm of his premeditated prayer dance, draped in his white and black-striped worship-gear. Often, my father enveloped me under  his prayer shawl wings,and we moved through the morning ritual together.

Now when I wrap myself in my white cotton prayer shawl scattered with blue, magenta and purple embroidery,  I long for the security that my father’s well-worn wool tallit offered me at morning time. Through decades of time and distance our spiritual practice is surprisingly similar. We still embrace each other albeit virtually.  

Before I open my eyes in the morning, I recite the Hebrew prayer of gratitude:
Modah Ani. Thank you Holy One for returning my soul to my body and renewing
the life force within me.

Then, I open my eyes and take notice of my surroundings. The fleshy tones of the
bedroom paint connect me physically to my body. The light from my bay window calls my spirit into being. I enunciate my good fortunes thought by thought.  Modah Ani. Somewhere behind my morning ritual is the promise of a sweet kiss on my forehead.and a warm embrace.

It's Not Over Until It's Over: The Laundry

My father was in charge of the laundry. As a young girl, I delighted in accompanying him to accomplish this Sunday morning ritual.  I would press the mysterious “B” button as we descended into the basement of our eight- story apartment building in the Bronx. Before we entered the elevator, however, we collected all our quarters needed to operate the washer and dryer machines. We managed to complete the several loads of undershirts and  underwear, the towels and turtlenecks of our daily life, with the quarters we had been hoarding in sundry containers throughout the house..

In between loads, we  would visit the nearby neighborhood park where my father puffed joyfully on his cigar away from my mother’s watchful eyes and consternation. It was our secret and I faithfully kept it. Unless,of course, my mother stared into my eyes and asked me directly.  “Was your father smoking outside? Tell me the truth.”

Smoking or not, my father mingled with neighbors and strangers alike. He was gregarious
and garrulous. I enjoyed his chatter with the people who presumed not to know me.  “You must be Benny’s little girl.” But,of course, I grimaced. Who else would I be?  Did they not notice how firmly I held onto my father’s hand?

Back and forth we went from the park to the basement and back up again until
the folded laundry was placed into our shopping cart and brought upstairs for my mother’s
scrutiny.  She always separated the laundry into two piles. One belonged to me and my sister; the other to my mother and father. The laundry ritual continued this way just beyond my college years when marriage found me, and I moved with my husband to Syracuse, New York.

Suddenly and irretrievably, I became the CEO in charge of all family laundry distributions. Four children later, the laundry ritual was now a daily occurrence. Alone without my father's cheerful inflections, the laundry piled up in every corner of our two story Dutch Colonial house in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Occasionally, my parents came to visit and my dad, once again, joyfully, participated with me in the sorting and folding of each piece of worn and torn t-shirts of every shape and size.  

As each adult child entered college and left the proverbial nest, they lessened my load.
The laundry load. I was naively mistaken.

College was at the University of Chapel Hill for the two eldest daughters.  UNC was a
mere hour away from our home and yes, they would often come home on weekends
to refuel. I mean reload. Before a hug, a kiss or a smile, their bright- colored  laundry
sacks calligraphed with their embroidered names, were dumped unceremoniously just outside our laundry room  So while my two college students refueled, I mindlessly loaded and reloaded the washer/dryer.  By Sunday evening, the girls’ washed clothes were ready to go when they were.

“Thanks, mom.” They giggled as they placed their fragrant totes into the Honda.
I smiled knowing what they knew.  Mom is always in charge of the laundry no matter
where you roam.

Currently, my four adult children reside in four different homes in two different states with their
children and their own assortment of laundry baskets.  Laundry radar follows me from home to home, mound upon mound.

“Thanks, mom.”  

Nothing says “I love you” more than stacks of neatly- sorted clothing resting royally on the beds of my beloveds. The laundry?  It is not over until it is over, which means, it is never really  over. Really.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

His Death Was Certain

I stand in the shade, lean into the base of a yellow birch tree trunk and tune in to a story about the fate of one Jewish man during the holocaust.The sparrows chirp in the background,and I strain to comprehend the archivist’s narrative through the low volume on my phone.

Several days before, I was asked to translate a letter from Yiddish to English written by the man’s widow. I am stymied by the handwriting, but fully intrigued by the possibility of finding a clue that will ultimately lead to the puzzling discordant ending to this family's search.

Did he die at the camps? Or was he betrayed and shot to death by his rescuers?

Either way, he has died without burial, without eulogy, without closure. Seventy years later his family continues to discern what happened to their beloved husband, father, grandfather.

His death is certain. How he died is not. The murdered victim’s epilogue is missing but through what final action?

Holding the document in my hand, I become part of the string of events that might reveal some surety about the chain of events that lead to one man’s terrible demise. It had to be terrible. It was 1944.

My curiosity has now become my burden, and my burden has become my sacred task. His denouement has become personal. Our destinies have collided beyond death.

As I linger on each cursive letter, his life and death begin to matter to me. How can this be? Last week, he was one of the six million. This week, he is one of my ancestors who traveled through my Yiddish- speaking childhood reminding me of other conversations and other incongruities about my family’s past.We call them, the lost ones. Now,I am lost in discovery and in doubt, floating in mystery amid words and paragraphs, sentences without periods, and signs without sounds. Like a Chagall painting, I am in dream mode that slowly regresses into a nightmare.

I place the manuscript in a folder labeled: to be translated. Tomorrow I will struggle to find a message of comfort in this two page document. I am not certain that I will.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Life is Beautiful But...

“Life is beautiful but not always kind,” said the 95 year old matriarch. “ You will need resilience and courage.” This blessing for five-month-old Naomi Adele followed the ritual of calling out her Hebrew names for the first time in community.
Light-haired and blue-eyed Naomi Adele was showered with words like peace, love, health and happiness by other family members. The familiar formula. But Sophie’s words, in contrast, added a truth that we all know but rarely express.  
We beam at the loving wedding couple; we gaze at the precious infant child; we applaud the  proud college graduate when she receives her diploma.  We breathe in the joy these moments contain, and we silently pray for a bountiful tomorrow. The future, however, winks back at us sarcastically.  Maybe they will have a storybook ending and maybe they won’t. But in this celebratory frame of mind, we prefer to believe in fairytale endings.
Life is beautiful but not always kind.
“I have had many setbacks and upsets,” Sophie admitted. “ I just keep on going. I have had a full life. I am not finished yet.”
Her elegance attracted me. Her outspoken demeanor inspired me. Her truth bothered me.
“You are a beautiful and kind lady,” I said. I added no “buts” to my compliment.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015


All too often life takes an unpredictable turn.

We find ourselves on a dead end street.

Or so we think.

We step outside the car and re-examine our options.

We walk around a fence.
An open field stares back at us, iridescent and vast.

Our dreams wait beyond those pastures.