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.