Friday, February 27, 2015

My Mother's Shabbat Candles

In memory of my parents, Rabbi Benjamin Miller and Jeanette Miller, whose yahrzeits occurred this past February 15 and February 22, respectively.

While going through the contents of my piano bench one evening, I discovered the sheet music to a piece I used to play constantly when I was in high school.

Among the smiles
Among the tears of my childhood’s sweet and bitter years
There’s a picture that my memory fondly frames
And in it softly shine two tiny flames
My mother’s Sabbath candles . . . 
(Jack Yellen,1950) 

I placed this decades-old song above the keyboard and began to play. My fingers traversed the black and white keys easily. I recalled the living room scene where my mother would sit on the flowery upholstered couch across from the piano and listen while I practiced. Often, she was tearful; mostly, she was just speechless.

I witnessed my mother lighting and praying over the Sabbath candles every Friday night for the 22 years that I lived at home. She succeeded in fulfilling the commandment to light the Sabbath candles almost 5,000 times during her 95 years; I believe she never once missed this reverent act. When I got married and left the warmth of those Friday evenings, I took the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles into my home, and it became one of our cherished family traditions.

My aging parents moved to Philadelphia from the Bronx to be near my oldest sister, Khana, when they needed extra care. For the next eight years, they lived in a large one-bedroom apartment that included a small, square kitchen that could only accommodate their dishes and appliances. There was no breakfast area and no real table, so a shelf was built specifically to hold my mother’s two Sabbath candlesticks.

My father’s yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death, occurred the Sunday before my mother died. She had struggled to live without him throughout the year. Now, another year was beginning. How many more Sabbaths would she need to observe without him? The week before, I had stood next to her in that kitchen, and the two of us had lit the Sabbath candles together. My childhood memories melted into the candle wax. My mother leaned on me as she waved her hands in front of the candles to usher in the light of the Divine. With her eyes closed, she continued the tradition of her foremothers, mumbling the customary Hebrew blessing while her heart cried out with silent grief.

My mother died the following Sabbath in the early morning hours before dawn. I was not with her when she lit her candles for the last time. But my father’s spirit stayed to bless and temper her Sabbath sorrow. He resided in the tears that fell onto my mother’s apron and sanctified the windowless space. I can picture my parents leaning on one another and waving their hands toward the light. Perhaps the glow of the flame was my father’s soul longing to be at home again with her. Perhaps it was my mother’s longing to be at home in his soul.

Maybe both.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shabbat with my Grandchildren

They sat on my couch lined up like a row of boats in the harbor: boy, girl, boy, girl; six, eight, eleven and twelve respectively.

With the Shabbat candles lit, we sang the welcoming Sabbath hymn, I gave them each a hard cover siddur (prayer book), and together we created our home-centered Friday evening service.

“What prayer would you like to sing now?” I asked.

My four grandchildren have been singing and studying the Jewish liturgy since birth. Their parents celebrate Shabbat with them every Friday night, and the tunes and the words have been etched in their hearts and minds for years. How did I get so lucky to be witness to the next generation of Jewish youth?

As I listened to my grandchildren recite the prayers of our age-old religion, I realized that passing down the traditions of our ancestors is accomplished with one teaching moment at a time.

It may begin with a Jewish lullaby or the taste of a braided challah. The glow of the Sabbath candles or the recognition of a Hebrew letter. These are the sights, the smells, the sounds of our Jewish heritage.

I can see beyond this Shabbat and perceive a Jewish future where my four grandchildren are leading the way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Portraits of My Father

I could look up the year of my father’s death, but what does it matter? On a cold February day, five or six or eight years ago, he passed away. What matters is how the grief has changed me. After all these years without his physical presence, our relationship continues.

Is it normal to bring into focus his funny face every time I think of him? What did we both look like when we were younger? What does it matter? Now, all that I can imagine is an ageless father who stopped growing old and never was young enough to be my "daddy."

Sometimes, I see him pulling out a Cuban cigar from his pocket, and, in slow motion, lighting up on a corner street in the Bronx. Sometimes, when I walk into a Dunkin Donuts store, I continue ordering him his favorite, the original donut and a large black coffee, no cream, no sugar, but hot enough so he could feel the warmth on his dentures. And sometimes, I picture him standing in the living room, with tallit and tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead.

Morning after morning, he appeared as my first vision. He appears again as I conjure up his funny face.


Whether my father was eating, smoking, praying or laughing at his own jokes, he was and always will be moving portraits of love, compassion, wisdom and joy.

Friday, February 6, 2015

PhD-Level Compassion

David introduced himself before the lecture began. A high school junior from Winston-Salem, N.C., he was spending a semester at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. We were seated in the second row of the Helena Rubinstein auditorium inside the United States Holocaust Museum, where Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would attempt to answer the question: "Can Atrocities be Prevented?"

Mr. Al Hussein, the former Permanent Representative to the United Nations from Jordan, is a Muslim. His portfolio includes peace building and accountability for human rights violations. He crafted his talk with published research, quotations from Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, and court records from the perpetrators of the holocaust atrocities. Every day he concerns himself with suffering on the ground. His distinguished, calm demeanor relaxed us even though the subject was dark and dismal.

I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights componentcan be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel. . . . We need people who are kind. People with PhD-level compassionPeople who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass, and we need to help to build – or rebuild – that compass with education that includes a deeper moral content.

We applauded his simple truth but reacted with public cynicism and frustration.

I asked my high school friend what he had learned from the High Commissioner.

"I have to tell you that I go to a Catholic parochial school, and although I get a good education, the emphasis is mostly on getting good grades. I have learned more about ethics and morality in the two weeks that I have been here at this program than I have in the two years that I have been in high school. The Commissioner is right. We need to teach about basic moral values, human rights and ethics in schools everywhere, not just at the School of Ethics and Global Leadership."
David from Winston-Salem, N.C., is on his way to earning his PhD in compassion. He gave me hope in the midst of communal despair.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Desire for Acceptance

"May the words of my mouth be acceptable to You."
- Hebrew prayer recited before
we begin the central standing prayer, known as the Amidah


We ask God to accept our prayers even before we say them. We ask people to accept us even before we meet them.

In our daily lives, we seek to be seen and heard. We want to matter. Like a child who reaches her hands upward signaling that she wants to be held, we, as adults, long for that attentive act of unconditional love. The fear of rejection begins as a child and carries a lifelong sentence of perfection performance.

I am the second child of my parents' offspring. I am constantly struggling for my premiere place in the world, even as I accept my birth order in my nuclear family. I want to claim my gold position in everything else, and so I work harder to achieve and to get noticed for these same successes. I was the first female in my family to get a higher degree and the top student in my classes from public school to rabbinical school. I was the first cousin who traveled to Israel on scholarship as a college student, and getting to be Queen Esther in the Yiddish fifth grade school play made all my other cousins jealous.

In Judaism, the "bechor," the first born (usually the male heir), has numerous privileges and responsibilities. God’s favor rested on their first fruits, their first offerings.

And yet, as in the biblical Cain and Abel, we learn that to be first was not always a good thing. The rejection of Cain’s offering to God began the saga of sibling rivalry and culminated in the first post-creation murder. The early Genesis stories confound us further by giving the second born lineage over the first-born: Abel over Cain; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau.

To be accepted is to be acknowledged for our uniqueness no matter our birth order or status in life. When God accepts our prayer offerings, the Holy One relies on the authenticity of our heart’s desires -- not on the embellishments that surrounds them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Grand Paris Synagogue

The Grand Synagogue of Paris sits inside the 9th arrondissement on 44 Rue de la Victoire on a narrow cobbled street. This 1874 architectural jewel overtakes the street cowering like a Lion of Judah protecting its cubs.

On a rainy summer day last July, my friend and I ventured from our apartment in Le Marais (the Jewish district) to attend the morning Sabbath services at this oldest and most prodigious Jewish house of worship in France. We handed over our American passports to the guard and emptied our backpacks to reimagine these glorious generations in French Jewish history.

What were the Jews thinking when they built this "cathedral" to their God 141 years ago

Prosperity. Economic security. Demographic growth. Cultural Continuity. Eternal light.

The luminosity inside this 1800 seat, womb-like structure startled my sensibilities.

Dozens of menorahs with nine plastic covered bulbs each circled this cavernous chapel. Chandeliers hung from every corner. Light fixtures on the walls illuminated my way to the women’s section in the downstairs main section. Facing sideways towards the bimah, I could see the men processing their morning choreography in fastidious detail.

The traditional Hebrew prayers sung and chanted by eight educated male songbirds reverberated off the walls and the ceilings without any electronic enhancements.

I was reminded of my own Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx where I grew up in the 1950s. Although much smaller in size and scale, I recalled how the male voices blended into my perfect prayerful past and, now again, into this perfect prayerful present.

I called upon this memory while watching Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Hollande seated side by side inside the Grand Synagogue during a memorial service for the four Jewish victims of a terrorist attack inside a Paris Kosher market the weekend of January 9. I prayed for the harmonies to be grand. I prayed for the healing to be majestic. I prayed for the Lions of Judah to stand up again for her cubs.

Disabled Prayers

I watched my fourteen-month-old granddaughter watching me as she embedded herself on an adult hospital mattress in the pediatric intensive care unit at Fairfax Children’s Hospital in Virginia. A prolonged respiratory virus causing high fevers,consistent coughing, and rapid breathing convinced her parents that it was time to take her to the emergency room.  Four days and three nights of constant medical intrusions and interventions escalated into one traumatic episode for my daughter, her husband, and our extended family. Several times, I was alone with Shoshana Naomi when my daughter took a well-deserved break.  I stared into her dark cimmerian eyes and leaned forward so she could see and, perhaps, feel my deep empathy for her well-being.  I hunched over her adorableness and became absorbed in a moment-to-moment healing ritual of being. I did not speak the words of my familiar prayers. They remained irretrievable and silent.My essentiality and ego faded into the background.  In the foreground was this disconsolate child, my soul’s present priority. Focused and fixated, I recorded every minute movement from her struggling body. Was sheasleep? Was she nursing comfortably? Was her breathing optimal? Was her cough waning?  How might we reduce her tiny tremblings?  I sat and swayed her in a chair that did not rock.  She was my safety and I was her anchor.  We slipped into the harbor together, heading toward the lighthouse of recovery.  But where were the prayers? Where were the Hebrew prayers of my childhood that I know by heart? Disconnected. Disarmed. Disabled. Lost in fear. I remember visiting my late father following his hip surgery ten years ago. Frail and pale, his body sank sullenly into the hospital bed. In an attempt to raise his spirits, I offered him a siddur, a yarmulke, and his well-worn tallit. My devout father, who prayed every morning and evening, refused his personal paraphernalia. “I cannot pray today. I am too weak. Today, God will need to pray for me.” For four days and three nights, not one prayer passed through my mind or mouth. I simply was not able. I was too busy watching my granddaughter watching me.
Could I boldly ask God to pray for my granddaughter? Perhaps you, Papa, with your ever-persuasive prayers, could engage with God for Shoshana’s healing, and also bring my prayers back to life.