Yaffah Korinow, zichrona livracha

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Today we buried our beloved teacher Yaffah (Gail) Korinow, who died at the too-tender age of 63 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer. As the 1st grade Hebrew and Tanach teacher at JCDS, Yaffah taught both my sons to read and write Hebrew and to love Torah. But really, Yaffah taught everyone. When Akiva was in her class, Gideon had yet to enter preschool. Everything social about my day happened at JCDS, early in the morning and later in the afternoon. When I came to get Akiva from school, I was hungry for Hebrew learning, and Yaffah would teach me. At the time I still labored under the naive assumption that I could learn alongside my children and keep up. Yaffah would give me elementary Hebrew books and answer all my questions, despite having an hour-long commute ahead of her. She acted as though she had all the time in the world.

How dearly I wish she had.

During Gideon’s 1st grade year, we learned that Yaffah had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A person could be forgiven for slowing down after such a discouraging diagnosis, but Yaffah was irrepressible. She scheduled her chemotherapy appointments for Fridays (the shortest school day) and the children knew only that every other Friday, Yaffah would not be in school. The rest of the time, though, she was there, devoting herself utterly to her students with characteristic joy.

I remember one morning when I came to drop Gideon off for school, we arrived uncharacteristically early and the classroom wasn’t yet open. The lights were low, and as I looked in the window, I saw Yaffah curled up on the floor in the corner. It was the first time I realized how sick she was. When the children were around, it was an entirely different picture. As soon as the classroom opened, she was lively and joyful, greeting the children and engaging with them as she always did.

Today’s funeral was long, but nobody wanted it to end. Like Yaffah’s beautiful, rich, soulful life, it felt too short. The tears were flowing before the service even began, and when the first shovelful of dirt fell, our hearts broke again. Yet it was good — essential, even — to be together. Hearing Yaffah’s sons, daughters-in-law, and friends speak of her with such love and admiration softened the blow. There was plenty of sadness and regret, but also much laughter and love. It felt good to be with others (so many others!) who knew Yaffah and loved her.

May her memory be a blessing. It already is.

Some other time

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I spent an amazing, riotous weekend in New York, a gift to myself in advance of some big changes. One of the many pleasures was going to the theatre, something I do much too rarely these days.

On Saturday, I saw On the Town, the Bernstein/Comden & Green piece that tells the almost-stories (more like anecdotes) of three young Navy men on a one-day leave in New York. It’s the show that taught me that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, among other pieces of wisdom.

There isn’t much of a plot: just the funny and sweet things that happen with these boys, mainly involving meeting girls and just what you’d imagine young people in that situation might like to do. (I remember it well.) The show strolls along from vignette to vignette, skimming the surface, until, just before the end, it sneaks up on you and goes deep. Suddenly, four of the young lovers sing a gorgeous number about how fast the day went, and how much is left undone till next time. “Oh well, we’ll catch up…some other time,” they sing. They are convinced that life is spread out before them, that there will be adventures and loves and reunions some other time. They are young enough to believe that life is a lark, that you really can meet someone in New York and have your whole life change in the course of a day.

The song was staged brilliantly in this production. Nothing fancy: just the four lovers slow-dancing on an empty subway car. “This day was just a token. Too many words are still unspoken. Oh well, we’ll catch up…some other time.”

I’ve seen On the Town a couple of times, and that number is always affecting. The slow-dance on the subway — could there be anything sexier? To me this song, this scene is the heart of not just the show but of a certain flavor of nostalgia. It’s a rich flavor, seasoned bittersweetly with innocence and tenderness but also with patriarchy, war, enforced domesticity. Yet even with those rough edges, I love it. This scene hits me in the gut every time, despite my being born nearly three decades after the object of this nostalgia.

And this time, it hit me harder still. It’s not just the staging — did I mention they were slow-dancing on the subway? — but the subtext. These sweet, sort-of-innocent boys are going off to war. Even if they come back, they will never be like they are now, in this one precious minute, slow-dancing on an empty subway car in the wee hours with girls they just met. They will lose limbs, they will see friends die, they will kill. They are innocent of it now, but they are about to grow up, brutally.

Each time I encounter this song, I alas am also reminded how many words are still left unspoken, and lives unfulfilled. It is harder and harder to avoid the realization that time is racing, and we never know when “some other time” stops being an available resource. These past few years have seen the deaths of friends, of friends’ parents, of (dear G-d) friends’ children.

I’m getting older, and the stuff that used to happen to older people, or to other people, creeps closer all the time. Life is great, yes. Life is a lark. But it’s shorter than we think, and getting shorter as we go. Let’s catch up now, and leave nothing unspoken.

L’dor vador

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L’dor vador nagid godlecha. From generation to generation, we will tell Your greatness.

This beautiful text from the Amidah reminds us of the duty, privilege, and joy of communicating our religious tradition to our children. It goes on to say: For all time we will proclaim Your holiness. Your praise, o G-d, will never depart from our lips. Blessed is HaShem, the holy G-d.

The texture and quality of this communication across generations is never far from my mind, either. I happily struggle with questions of how to transmit this tradition, of which my own knowledge is extravagantly incomplete. I happily struggle to provide my children with a deeper experience of Jewish tradition than I received as a child, in the age-old hope that their achievements might surpass my own. If in their learning and love for Judaism they feel an abiding sense of ownership and satisfaction, I will be glad. And if they view my life as an example of engaging in lifelong learning and exploration of Torah, I will be doubly glad.

This afternoon I had the honor of singing a solo in the beautiful Meir Finkelstein setting of L’dor vador, in a concert with the Zamir Chorale of Boston. Tickets to our concerts are normally out of my price range, especially to risk bringing squirmy kids who might not be able to stay through the end. Today’s concert, though, was at Hebrew Senior Life, a Jewish nursing home, and was a free event, and so I decided to ask Bill to bring the boys.

In preparation for my solo, I asked my 11-year-old son Akiva to translate the text for me. And in the concert, we sang it to a multi-generational group, many of whose members were visibly engaged in and moved by the performance. There were wistful smiles and a few tears, quickened movements and peaceful settling. The experience of sharing music across the generations is so much more than singing notes and words.

The experience, also, of telling G-d’s greatness across generations was there, and it flowed in both directions. In singing this piece in particular, I had the opportunity to share — and perhaps reawaken — a love of Jewish tradition and a connection to G-d, with an audience whose access to the beautiful world is limited by their circumstances and their infirmities. And in learning this song’s meaning from my beloved son, I received his youthful but no less ardent wisdom — and then received from him (and his sweet brother) the appreciation of hearing it sung and interpreted.

Adar (J)oy

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We are in the middle of the Hebrew month of Adar, a month when we are commanded to be joyful. Commanded. It’s not a gentle suggestion or a request, it’s an obligation from G-d.

Some years it’s easy: between Purim, the spring thaw, and the general goodness of life, the mitzvah of Adar joy is as simple as the sunlight outside the window.

This is not one of those years.

My job search stretches to the three-month mark and while there are some interesting possibilities out there — and I have been keeping myself productive by doing small consulting or volunteering projects — this prolonged period of underemployment is affecting my confidence and sense of my place in the world. And while there is currently some sunlight outside my window, it mainly does an excellent job of illuminating the schmutzy remnants of the several feet of snow that have fallen this winter.

In addition, my various communities have been hit hard by tragedy recently. Since the beginning of Adar three weeks ago, I have attended four funerals and visited three houses of mourning. Two of the deceased were relatively young, and one of these young men was taken suddenly, leaving behind his wife and ten-year-old son.

I wander through my days, clinging to my children and my to-do list, barely listening to the chatter that surrounds, searching for some deeper connection that can carry me through the fog.

I find it where I always do: in community. Our custom of providing food for the bereaved is only the beginning. We have been watching each other’s children in order to enable each other to attend the mourners. We have been leading shiva minyanim and checking on each other more than usual and greeting each other with more kind looks and heartfelt hugs.

Adar may not be as joyful this year as in other years, but there is a muted joy in coping together.

Doorways

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Most Jewish doorways are immediately recognizable as such by the mezuzzah posted on the side of the door frame, tilted so that it leans both in and out. We are commanded to mark our doorposts in this way, and even Jews who are estranged from their heritage often keep this mitzvah.

I’ve always loved the sight of mezuzzot: they are small, yet they can be works of exquisite beauty. They are more than just delicate, gorgeous boxes, though: their real power is inside, in the scroll that contains the Sh’ma, a simple declaration of the unity of G-d. Traditional Jews kiss their fingers to the mezuzzah upon passing through a doorway. I have always found that gesture deeply moving.

I’ve been musing lately about why we keep that reminder of our faith on doorways in particular — why not in the living-room or bedroom, where we are likely to hold our most important conversations? Or above the kitchen sink, where our eyes might turn as we prepare the food that sustains our families, where Shabbat dinner takes shape each week?

What is it about doorways?

I guess each doorway, each change, makes us want to check in with G-d. A doorway can be a passageway that changes us — we come in (excited and scared) to new situations, we depart (in resignation or in hope) from situations that no longer work for us. Sometimes we find our way to new places we didn’t even know we were seeking. As we pass through doorways both literal and figurative, we make a habit of remembering G-d with love, of remembering where we came from and what matters to us the most.

From my childhood Torah, the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre, I learned that, “When G-d closes a door, He opens a window.” And when Jew passes through a door, G-d provides an opportunity to reflect on that moment of passage. Responding with love seems exactly the right thing to do.

I’m ready to play today

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About a decade ago, I made a wish: that someday my Judaism would be at the center of my life, rather than being something extra. At that time, I was a semi-regular participant in weekly prayer and Torah study and had taken a few classes – but I was still unsure of my derech, and felt a deep sense of imposture and inferiority.

I thought I knew what “really Jewish” looked like, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see it. I didn’t keep Shabbat, didn’t know much about the dietary laws, didn’t have a community around me. I didn’t engage in Jewish conversations of any consequence and didn’t have an idea about the future of Jewish life and what role I might play in it. I was curious but uninformed, interested but unengaged. But also: I thought that Jewish authenticity wore a white blouse and a long skirt, lit candles at the right time each week, and walked to shul with family sweetly in tow. Real Jews didn’t drive to shul (and still arrive late!) or argue on the way home over who gets the first turn with the iPad.

It never occurred to me that the center of my life would be strong enough to hold a Judaism that speaks directly to me. And yet – I work in a Jewish agency, sing in a Jewish choir, send my children to Jewish school and camp, and host or attend Shabbat dinner just about every week. My volunteering hours are taken up with supporting Jewish organizations, and most of my friends are Jewish.

Maybe I needed a different mirror.

I continue to define and refine my sense of what it means to be Jewish. This definition sometimes goes through several phases in one day. Is it about halacha? Is it about ethics? Is it about studying Torah? Prayer? Community engagement? Israel? If we hold by the traditional belief that every earnest thought about Torah, past and future, was given at Sinai, does that include all my thoughts about Jewish pluralism and the pathway forward for Jewish community life in the 21st century?

I hope so.

I now see that my Judaism is at the center of my life. My Judaism. It might not fit any prescribed notion of authentic Judaism, but as Jewish identity and community fill more and more corners of my world, I feel more and more like my tradition finally belongs to me.

Begin the Beginning

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This time of year has many overlapping beginnings — new school year, new Jewish year — to which I’ve added, this year, new job and new congregation. As the fall chaggim come to a close, we turn again to the beginning, scrolling back to B’reishit.

In the past year, I’d discovered the irony of working at a synagogue. While I was closer to synagogue life than I’d been in recent years, my purpose there was to facilitate others’ spiritual work. Meanwhile, my own spiritual life was feeling more and more distant. Sort of like the cobbler’s children having no shoes.

Now that I am working for a Jewish communal organization, I no longer work nights, weekends, and holidays: I can be Jewish again! In the past weeks, I have enjoyed simple pleasures like hosting Shabbat dinner in my sukkah and dancing with the Torah scrolls again. I have had the honor of dressing the scrolls and have been invited for several festive meals with friends.

Having had three late nights in a row with the boys, I hadn’t expected to get to services today, although I dearly love starting again at the Beginning. I was thrilled when my friend called to invite them to come to a movie this morning, freeing me up to go to shul alone. It was a beautiful, contemplative service and having a little breathing space around me showed me the metaphor in the 2nd creation story for the first time.

Call me slow.

I finally see that the Garden is like infancy — and that the discovery of the tree, the temptation, and the curse are all part of life. It’s not a terrible fall from grace to discover that there are choices in life, and the choices we make matter, and that people sometimes blame others when things go wrong. This Torah of ours is not trying to shame us into an eternal guilt trip, it’s showing us who we are. Adam and Eve aren’t punished for doing evil; their curiosity was not a sin, and G-d’s response is not a curse.

It’s a statement of fact: snakes are gross, childbirth hurts, and farming is hard.

G-d drives the two out of the Garden, sending them into the world, and stations cherubim east of Eden, guarding the way to the Tree of Life. Those of us who encounter these angels and discover the Torah, Eitz Chaim, are brought back to Eden when we study, and are given the chance to learn for ourselves. And each year, when we return to the Beginning, we have the opportunity to see it anew and to try again.

Our hope is not yet lost

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I arrived half an hour early and traffic was already being directed to the outer outer parking lot.

When I approached the building, I had to show ID. When I entered, my bag was searched while I passed through a metal detector.

It wasn’t international travel that necessitated these precautions, it was attendance at the memorial service for Naftali Fraenkel (z’l), Gilad Sha’ar (z’l), and Eyal Yifrach (z’l), the three Israeli teenagers who were murdered a few weeks ago.

The boys – our boys, as they came to be known – died not with guns in their hands but making their way home from yeshiva.

Truth to tell, I was a little wary of going to this service. I had the queasy feeling that it might turn into a political rally, and I didn’t feel ready to do more than grieve. I have been carrying this event around in my heart – as I watch my younger son grow and dance and laugh and sing and dress up as Dumbledore, as I watch the mailbox for a letter from my elder son at sleepaway camp – and have not been able to process the tangle of emotions it evokes in me.

And there was, in fact, more speechifying than I would have planned, if I were queen of the world. Yet the point of the speechifying ultimately was demonstrated by the security precautions surrounding the event. It’s not the usual thing for a memorial service to have a metal detector phase. While the saying goes that there is safety in numbers, it is not always true. I had the unfortunate flash this afternoon when I learned doors were opening for the service an hour early: a wide swath of the Boston Jewish community will be in attendance; it would be a tempting target.

Although I wanted the event to be personal, I now realize it could not have avoided being political. What happened to the three boys was political. It was not a random act. And every day – including the day of their funerals – Hamas (which in Hebrew means destruction) fires rockets into the state of Israel. Every day.

There was not – there is not – safety in numbers, but there is solace in numbers. When people join together in solidarity, when we grieve together, when we pledge to stand tall against slander and murder, there is hard-earned solace.

And when we sang Hatikva at the end of the night, with the poignant words, “lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu,” I dared to hope that we might one day be a free nation in our land, and be able to attend memorials for old men and not have to stride through metal detectors to do so.

Passing/Strangers

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Assimilation has been on my mind lately. Both Purim and Passover deal in this question. Each story has as its central figure a Jew who passed between worlds, sometimes emphasizing Jewishness, sometimes hiding it. In the Purim story, Esther passed in a non-Jewish world until the situation demanded her to reveal the truth about herself. Similarly, Moses, having been adopted by the Egyptian princess but raised Jewish by his own mother/nurse, grew up as Egyptian but knew he was a Jew. He stayed in this in-between space until he could no longer: when he saw the cruelty inflicted on his people by his almost-people, he lashed out, killed an Egyptian, and fled. It was nothing less than the voice of the Holy One that compelled Moses to return to Egypt and free his people.

I find it interesting that both these stories deal with the in-between space of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. I find myself often to be in this in-between space, frequently questioning whether I will ever feel wholly Jewish, even given how much I have changed about my life in these past years in order to more fully align myself with my Jewishness.

By virtue of having a pluralistic community around me, I have learned that there are many ways to be Jewish. The whole notion of Jewish identity is itself multi-faceted. In my own community, we have a dizzying variety of observance and belief, all of it informed by a desire to live a life of kindness and usefulness.

I look constantly for ways to have Judaism be at the center of what I do, rather than an ancillary aspect of my being that I squeeze in. It turns out to be a moving target. By virtue of working at a synagogue, I find myself torn between observing holidays and facilitating others’ observances. Being in a family comprising a variety of needs and temperaments, I cannot always (or even often) prioritize my own spiritual needs. Living in 21st century America, I constantly negotiate among a variety of identities: mother, wife, friend, professional, singer, Jew – and more.

I think there is beauty and richness in this tension of being in between, and sometimes it arises in unexpected places. I spent the first part of Passover in Mississippi with my family. Then we came home Wednesday evening, in time for Bill and me to return to work Thursday. By coincidence, I was invited to sub in at my old church job for Holy Thursday. I worked all day, picked up the kids from their respective play dates, came home to make a spinach matzo pie, and then went to Cantor a Mass. Of course.

The Vicar of this parish is a lovely guy, a real mensch. As he is a member of the interfaith clergy association that meets at my new place of employment, I am guaranteed of seeing him once a month, which I love. He is unfailingly kind and cheerful, and brings a refreshing humility to every encounter. I was deeply touched when he began Thursday’s Mass by saying to the congregation how pleased he was to welcome me back for Holy Thursday, a service which locates itself at an intersection between our two traditions. From the pulpit, he wished me a happy Passover and said how honored the parish was to have “an older sister in the faith” lead the music that night. I didn’t feel at home, but I did feel like a welcome guest.

I think of these questions of identity and fitting in – when to be this, when to be that – as a modern problem. But even my ill-educated glance at the ancient texts shows that Esther and Moses encountered it as well. As one of my Rabbi friends frequently says, “If it weren’t a problem, they wouldn’t have written about it.” We read in the Haggadah, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

And so are we all.

Always remember not to forget!

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This week we mark the yahrzeit of my friend and teacher Anita Winer, z’l, who died in 2011 at the age of 92. Coincidentally, yesterday was Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat before Purim), when we read the story of Amalek, with its seemingly contradictory instruction not to forget to blot out the memory of Amalek, an insurgent who attacked B’nai Yisrael from behind as we were leaving the land of Egypt. The passage reads in part:

“You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

and much is made of the puzzling instruction to remember to forget. Or is it forget to remember?

It’s confusing. At this season, we read two accounts (Amalek and Megillat Esther) that commingle triumph and retribution. Yes, the plans against us were foiled, but afterward we took a mighty vengeance, one that might these days be called disproportionate. We are supposed to remember these things and teach them down the generations, while we struggle simultaneously to blot out the memory of the injustices that have befallen us. In our minds, Amalek blurs with Haman, who blurs with modern-day enemies and perceived enemies. Traditionally, we are supposed to get so drunk on Purim that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil – yet we are never to forget (to remember) to forget. I don’t understand: are we paying attention, or aren’t we?

Anita, in her wonderful wisdom, would not shy away from how troubling these stories were, always pressing those of us privileged to study alongside her to look deeply into them and draw out meanings that make sense for our times. About the Amalek story, she taught me – both in words and by her actions in her long life – that after difficult experiences, rather than dwelling in the memory of things we have lost, we gain strength when we decide to move forward with what remains. 

In Adar, we are commanded to be joyful, and yet I miss my dear friend and continue to mourn her loss. My sons wisely tell me that the joy is in remembering how fortunate we were to have had her as a friend and in cherishing how much we learned from her. My sons have learned well.