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.

Who knew?

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The nice people over at Reboot have been on my mind lately. I have known about their work for a few years and have silently applauded (one hand clapping, while the other grips the iPod) their mission of helping people slow down their lives and jump off their individual mouse-wheels. One tool in their kit is the National Day of Unplugging, the most recent of which was this past Shabbat.

On the National Day of Unplugging, people are encouraged to leave their gadgets behind and have a different kind of Shabbat – not necessarily to observe in an Orthodox manner, but to bring some intentionality to their relationship with technology. Since starting work, I have been feeling the electronic tether too much and have struggled with setting limits for myself, and for the boys.

It’s not easy. My kids love their screen time, and because they love it so much I had been scared to try unplugging for a whole Shabbat. I also, alas, love my screen time, even though I hate how it makes me feel. (“This is your brain. This is your brain after hours of screen time. Any questions?”) And although I don’t usually use the screens on Shabbat, I sometimes find them useful for occupying the kids if I want a little Shabbos schluf.

Nonetheless, I have had unplugging on my mind and decided to take the plunge. Just like they say in the stupid buzzfeed videos, what happened next shocked me.

Boys woke up Shabbat morning and came in for an epic snuggle. I mentioned to them that a lot of people are choosing this Shabbat to go without electronics for the whole Shabbat and that I was going to do it. They bought in, without hesitation.

We went downstairs and I made them French toast and pancakes. (Not enough challah left from Shabbat dinner!)

They played in the living room while I napped after breakfast, right there at the table. (I pushed my plate out of the way first, I’ll have you know.)

We had an impromptu davening at home, full of music and fun and joy. I noted happily that I have made some progress toward my goal of learning the prayers. Akiva read us the first few lines from the parsha, and even Gideon led some of the songs.

We lunched on leftovers from Shabbat dinner.

We goofed around in the afternoon. I had another nap, this one in the bed.

I made dinner.

We had havdalah.

The words “best Shabbat ever” were heard throughout the house.