The Souls Who Whisper are Yelling Now

candlesWhen I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.

But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.

They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.

Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.

I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.

The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.

Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.

Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.

And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?

Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.

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Posted on December 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Festival of Happy Lights

Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, people ask me how I deal with all the rain. Yes, it does rain a lot, but that doesn’t bother me. What did surprise me when I first moved here, and I still have trouble getting used to, is the early nightfall in winter. The reduced sunlight in winter feels very pronounced in this corner of the US, with sunset coming around 4 p.m. in the dead of winter.

And while the routines of life continue normally, there is one slight adjustment I make to my schedule in winter: I turn on my “happy light.”

A “happy light” is a colloquial term to describe a full-spectrum lamp, a lamp that gives off far more shutterstock_167924150light than a standard lamp. It is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, a documented condition wherein, specifically during winter, people will exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy and concentration, tendency to overeat, and others. Since it is connected to decreased sun exposure, the lamp provides “light therapy” whereby exposure to the light is meant to counteract this absence of sunlight.

Now, do I clinically have Seasonal Affective Disorder? I don’t know, but I know during winter I tend to exhibit the aforementioned symptoms of fatigue and less motivation. And does the happy light work? I don’t know either, but it does feel good to get more light exposure during these dark times.

To use a happy light, one simply turns it on while carrying out normal functions. I usually put it on in the morning, so it is on while I have my morning coffee, fix breakfast for my kids and prepare lunches. The light is not meant to be used functionally as a normal lamp—i.e., lighting up a room or used for reading—rather one is meant to look upon it indirectly, and by doing so, maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.

Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Last night we lit the first candle of this eight-day festival of lights. While we celebrate the historical story of the Maccabees and their victory over the ruling Greeks in the 2nd century BCE, and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish use, it is not a surprise that we celebrate a festival involving light during the darkest time of the year. Hanukkah overlaps with Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the celebration of the new month of Tevet. And as Rosh Hodesh is marked by the new moon (that is, no moon) and this month includes the winter solstice, one night of Hanukkah falls on the darkest night of the month that is closest to the longest night of the year.

So we create light to combat the effects of the darkness, and not just the physical darkness. Lighting the menorah is a form of “light therapy” to combat the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. Like the “happy light,” the Hanukkah candles are not meant to be functional or used practically, but are meant to be gazed upon to maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.

How does it work? First, light the menorah. And when you look at the illuminated Hanukkah menorah, ask yourself these questions: What is the darkness that brings you down? Where in your life do you need illumination? What broken aspects of our society need to be exposed and brought to light? In what parts of your life do you burn bright?

Asking these questions and more will allow the light of the menorah to penetrate your inner being, And that should make us happy.

Posted on December 17, 2014

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‘Tis the Season to Create a New Religion

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My daughter and a friend dressed as Tonks, a minor character from the Harry Potter books.

Christmas trees are for sale on every corner, it seems, bringing the scent of the woods to the streets of Brooklyn. Christmas lights adorn streets and houses, and carols play in all the stores. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has earwormed into my head. I’m remembering last year, when my Harry Potter-loving family attended a seasonal event, the Harry Potter Yule Ball. The Yule Ball is an all-ages rock ‘n’ roll show that comes out of a movement of fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, a few of us in our 40s or older, and some kids like mine—young teens and tweens. We didn’t go because it was Christmas-y, but because it was Harry Potter-y.

A number of years ago, some fans formed a band called Harry and the Potters, and this began a genre that is called Wizard Rock, or Wrock. It now includes quite a large number of bands, some of which performed at the ball. Their music is what I would call midrash on Harry Potter. It takes the perspective of characters in the books, exploring their thoughts and lives. One example is singer Lauren Fairweather, who writes songs like “Maybe,” which is from the perspective of character Severus Snape.

There was fan-created merchandise at the Yule Ball, and information about the Harry Potter Alliance, a social justice organization that has brought together Harry Potter fans (and, later, Hunger Games fans too) to work for equality, human rights, and literacy.

It was my first experience with Harry Potter fandom and the midrash it has generated. Among the millions of fans of J.K. Rowling’s work, there are a subset for whom the Harry Potter saga has deep resonance. They were the ones performing, and the ones who were there that night. My family had gone on a whim, but there were others for whom the evening was meaningful in a profound way.

At the end of the night, the final song Harry and the Potters performed was “The Weapon (We Have is Love).” To my surprise, the fans standing around the stage put their arms around one another as they swayed and sang passionately along.

I suddenly felt that I was witnessing the birth of a religion. It had familiar elements: a sacred scripture, interpretation of that scripture, a social action component. Its adherents are emotionally involved with it and feel a sense of community with each other. There are differences from most of the established religions, too: There’s no deity to try to figure out, and no history of oppressing others or being oppressed in the name of the religion.

The theology is very basic—at least at this point. The primary motivator is love: Harry’s mother’s love that saved him from Voldemort as a baby; Snape’s love for Harry’s mother; Harry’s love for Sirius Black and his friends, which ultimately allows him to triumph over Voldemort. Fans take the idea of this fierce, life-saving and life-altering love and apply it to their version of what many Jews would call tikkun olam, repairing the world.

I imagine that 500 years from now a deity might have developed, as well as separate denominations of Potterism—Snapians and Harrians, most likely. After all, it seems that that’s what religions do: they form, and after maybe 100 years, they split into different groups because there are different ideas of how to do it right. I don’t think that even a religion based on “the weapon that we have is love” would be different. And that’s okay. I would hope that the Harrians and Snapians would recognize one another’s Potterism as authentic, even if it’s not their preferred way of practicing their religion.

Probably I’m just making this up, and this fan movement won’t develop into a religion. I expect that many of the Harry Potter fans would be angry that I would even say that it could. But that was my feeling in that moment at the end of the Yule Ball, and it was beautiful to see the inspiration, the love and joy, the simplicity, and to imagine that the beginning of my religion, Judaism, was that way too.

Posted on December 16, 2014

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This Little Flame of Mine

Nail polish in Hebrew is "lahk"

Nail polish in Hebrew is “lahk”

The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.

As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.

As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.

After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”

Menorah lit in a window

Menorah lit in a window

These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.

When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.

Posted on December 15, 2014

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All I Want for Hanukkah is…

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shutterstock_101422984What is the best present you can give your children for Hanukkah?

To answer the question you have to take a step back and reflect; what type of children do I want to raise? Do I want them to go to a good college (if affordable, yes)? Do I want them to be well off? (nice, but not necessary). Do I want them Jewish (definitely, yes)? What do I want the most for them?

My answer is contained in this story:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a ten year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him and waited for his order.
“How much is an ice cream sundae?”
“Fifty cents,” replied the waitress.
The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it.
“How much is a dish of plain ice cream?”
Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient.
“Thirty five cents,” she said, a little brusquely.
The little boy again counted the coins and said, “I’ll have a plain ice cream.”
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished his ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she picked up the empty dish and swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies, fifteen cents, the difference between a scoop and a sundae – her tip.”

I want my children to be compassionate enough to think a person, overworked and not very likable at the moment, is still more important than fudge and whipped cream.

But, how can we accomplish this? By giving our children the best present of all on Hanukkah – ourselves. By spending the time with them instead of whatever else is most pressing at the moment.

Rachel Naomi Remen taught, “There is so much more to life than a perfectly clean kitchen floor.” There is also so much more to life than a football game. I have officiated at many funerals. I have never heard a child praise a parent for devoting their time to career.

You can only make a difference in life if you make a difference with others.

Posted on December 14, 2014

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Bad Things Create Better People

True, things could have been worse for Joseph – but not much worse. First, growing up an orphan – his mother had died when he had been an infant. Yes, Joseph had a father. His Dad Jacob was alive alright, but he was most probably preoccupied with the tensions and jealousies of an extended family composed of his three remaining wives and over ten other children. There was rivalry, resentment and then hate among the brothers, culminating in their ganging up on Joseph and leaving him for dead, having thrown him into an empty well in the middle of nowhere. Fished out of there and sold into Egyptian slavery, he was framed by a sexually starved Egyptian princess, wrongly accused of attempted rape, and condemned to the dungeon. And that same Joseph – at the age of 30 – rises to become the viceroy of Egypt and the savior of the Children of Israel. Is there any connection between the two parts of Joseph’s life?

It really hurts when a seven year old falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. He wails in anguish. As parents it hurts us too, and we wish that it wouldn’t have happened. But we also know that no one every learned to ride a bike without taking a nasty fall at least once or twice.                                  Bad Things Make Better People

There is no way in the world to grow, to learn, to advance and progress, without taking risks or being thrust into challenging situations, and stumbling once in a while. No pain, no gain as we say. That is the way that God created the universe, that’s human nature. It is only the possibility of failure, the experience of adversity, which steels us and refines us and pushes us forward. Only when we go way beyond our comfort zones, do we discover unexplored regions without ourselves. Real growth requires pain.

The Hasidic master Rav Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbitch, tells us that the deepest source of meaning in life is to be found in the fact that God does not shield us from tribulations and suffering. He watches over us, as it were, by allowing life to take its natural course. Because of His concern for our ultimate growth and success, He refrains from preventing us from falling. We have been placed in a reality that allows us to err, to know grief and heart-ache, to endure pain, for only under such circumstances do we have an opportunity to grow. It is only through the struggle, the turmoil, that we become fully alive to the significance of life. It may be that only he who has suffered may fully live.

Not that suffering guarantees meaning. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We may not always take advantage of the opportunity. We may wallow in grief, we may feel sorry for ourselves, we may not find the inner resources to overcome our adversity. Tragedy may break us. But if we do surmount the obstacles, we are far better off than we were to begin with.

When all is good, life is emptied of its transformational power. When you have it all, that is when all may be lost. Only through the lack, only when we are far from having consummated our desires and dreams, only when all is not revealed and clouds still cover the heavens, only them is the deepest meaning available and only then can we access the wealth of potential greatness hidden within our souls.

The very nature of creation is that God cannot simply vouchsafe to us meaning and greatness. It can only be attained though struggle and travail. May we all harness our pain as Joseph did to reach the heights of personal accomplishment and spiritual grandeur.

Posted on December 12, 2014

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Do You Accept Science, Or Judaism? Yes.

shutterstock_134698571During my seven years in the congregational rabbinate, I had so many people say to me, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t feel connected to my Judaism. Instead, I believe in science.” Or they would approach me and explain that they saw Judaism and science as separate realms, with no connection between the two.

The way this was framed saddened me, but I could understand where it came from. Since the media portrays religion as anti-science, many Jews would say, “I don’t want my science and my Judaism mixed. And if religion is opposed to science, then I don’t want any part of Judaism.”

Yet are those statements representative of the Jewish community as a whole? How do Jews perceive the relationship between Judaism and science?

Recently, my organization Sinai and Synapses partnered with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to run a workshop exploring those questions. DoSER had joined with Rice University to create the Perceptions Project, an initiative to increase understanding between religious and scientific communities. They ran a comprehensive survey of 10,000 Americans — Jews, Evangelical Christians, Catholics and more — to provide a snapshot of religious communities’ views on science, and how we can create a healthier relationship between the two.

Last month, DoSER and Sinai and Synapses ran a workshop for the Jewish community, bringing together rabbis and scientists to delve into the data, so that we could uncover both the challenges and opportunities surrounding Jewish responses to science.

The first finding that surprised me is that I had always thought that Jews didn’t feel the same conflict between religion and science that, say, the evangelical Christian community feels. But in fact, about 25% of Jews do see religion and science as being  in opposition — about the same number as the American population as a whole.

Yet while most of the Christians who see religion and science as being in opposition view themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who see science and religion in conflict come down on the side of science — and by a huge, huge margin. For those “conflicted Christians,” about 3 out of 4 opt for religion, and about 1 out of 4 choose science. But for that 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16(!) would see themselves on the side of science — and therefore, anti-religion.

Now, on one level, that number is a real positive. Jews are clearly deeply in favor of science. But just as religious fervor and opposition to science can thwart scientific research, scientific fervor and opposition to religion can hinder religious living.

So that’s the first challenge for the Jewish community when it comes to science — while the Christian community grapples with how to embrace science, the Jewish community has to figure out how to relate to Judaism.

But there’s a second, more subtle, challenge for the Jewish community. Besides “conflict,” the Perceptions Project also offered respondents two other frameworks to describe the relationship between science and religion. People also had the option to say that these two realms were “independent (referring to different aspects of reality)” or “collaborative (they can help support each other).”

And that led to the second finding that surprised me — among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to pick “independent” and least likely to pick “collaborative” to describe the relationship between religion and science.

In other words, every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.

Here, then, is a great opportunity — after all, if Jews tend to have a positive outlook on science, why not use science to help people enhance their connection to Judaism?

That’s the inspiration for Sinai and Synapses, and how we are striving to bridge the religious and scientific worlds. We want to look at questions using the best of science and the best of Judaism in the service of making people’s lives more meaningful and our world more just.

We want people to understand how memory actually works in our brains, and what that means for how we observe Passover. We want to study the role of online activism in effecting real social justice change. We want to use science to teach us about how to act more compassionately.

And so that’s why, when people ask me, “Do you accept science, or Judaism?” my answer is, “Yes.” Because not only can science and Judaism co-exist, they can help us bring out the best in each other — and in ourselves.

Posted on December 11, 2014

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Does the Valley of the Shadow Have a Statute of Limitations?

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death-grief-hpBirth and death are expected aspects of a congregational community’s life. The past few days, however, have weighed heavily on the side of painful loss for my congregation. For four days last week, someone died daily. A 40-year-old man died tragically in his sleep while on vacation. An utterly vibrant 74-year-old man died suddenly of a heart attack on his drive home, while his wife, daughter and grandchildren waited for him to arrive for dinner. A graceful and elegant 87-year-old died of old age with her adult daughters surrounding her. And a 73-year-old pillar of strength died after living every minute joyfully and wholly, knowing that she had terminal cancer for 25 years.

Death is as much a part of life as anything else we know. As part of nature’s course, we actually start dying the day we are born. Most of us don’t talk about, however, because we somehow think that speaking about loss might hasten our own demise.

These past few days have been heady and sad. But they have also been beautiful. I had the privilege of being with a couple of these dear souls before they left the world. They each didn’t want to leave, but they were not scared to die. They left with no regrets, having lived full and connected lives. Each always made sure to tell their nearest and dearest how much they were loved. Each of them embraced every moment granted to them. I believe they are now safe and peaceful; living without the mortal vicissitudes of disease.

But I worry for their loved ones left here on earth. Their hearts are torn and they wander in disorientation. I worry about how we, who are called on to comfort, respond in the face of their pain. Because many of us are fearful of death; we want mourners to be better; to be normal as soon as possible. We tell them that everything will be okay. And it will. But that is not what they want and need now.

These past few days have reminded me about the importance of letting mourners, mourn and be sad. We bring food and flowers. We fill in the space of conversation with superfluous words. But all mourners actually need for us to do is to be there, to listen, to embrace them. We need to allow them to cry and be sad and to say out loud that for now, life is not okay. Rushing our friends back to normalcy when life is not normal only delays their process of healing.

I know it is uncomfortable for so many legitimate reasons for us to not want to dwell on loss. But in these past few days, the bereaved have made it clear to me that the food and chatter don’t mean nearly as much as the patience they need from loved ones to just allow them to say out loud that, “life stinks.” We are resilient people. Our souls do heal. But like cut skin needs medical balm to allow it to scab and become whole, so do our spirits need the balm of time and tears and love and embrace to get better as well.

Being present in the pain of others doesn’t mean that we can be infected by their sadness. It simply means we are doing the most sacred work in helping our loved ones authentically heal. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to how long it takes to heal from loss. Escorting our loved ones through the Valley of the Shadow in the way that they need us to is nothing less than holy work.

Posted on December 10, 2014

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Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

shutterstock_155146976I prefer to get my news by listening to public radio. Because I’m a visual learner, I’m forced to concentrate more to catch all the details, so I find that listening to the news keeps me better informed. Because I’m sensitive, I try to avoid graphic pictures and videos on television and social media; when I do see a disturbing image, it tends to get stuck in my mind.

Hearing of the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officers involved in Eric Garner’s death, feeling frustrated that I could not take to the streets of NYC with my colleagues to protest, I turned on the television to watch the news unfold. Inadvertently, I also watched the video that I’d previously managed to avoid, the video that captured one officer subduing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, another holding his head against the pavement, pushing with both hands and exerting what appeared to be excessive force. Seeing a broadcast of these final, violent moments of Garner’s life left me feeling depleted.

I recognize that a few moments of video footage cannot adequately show everything that may be apparent to those who are physically present. Eye witnesses’ vision can also be distorted; despite that we possess greater peripheral vision than a camera lens, our eyes offer a limited view of the world around us. We sometimes rely on others to report what they are seeing when we are out of visual range, and even when we can see with our own eyes, we don’t always understand what we see. Our eyes convey images to our brains, where the information is stored in memory and can be revisited…and revised. We remember our initial, emotional response to what we’ve seen and reinterpret its significance.

Because our eyes can lead us astray, God commands Moses to tell the people of Israel to put fringes on the corners of their garments: “And you shall have the fringe so you will see it and bring to mind all of God’s commandments and will do them, and you will not go around after your heart and after your eyes, because you whore after them.” (Numbers 15:39, according to Professor Friedman’s translation) The tzitzit, fringes, are intended to cause a positive association with God, to help our eyes guide us toward holiness. Wrapping in garments and gazing at the fringes, we prevent ourselves from being misled by our imperfect vision, from being seduced by our desire to possess things, from being influenced by people who would lead us away from God.

I am haunted by the idea that my eyes deceive me.

buck webA week ago, I was walking home from the park with my dog, when I saw tree branches poking out of a pile of dead leaves next to the sidewalk. The dog began to pull me toward the branches—she perceived with her keen sense of smell what I could not see clearly—and as she dragged me closer to them, I saw they were not branches but the head of a young buck. He was lying in perfect stillness, as if he’d stopped to catch his breath before heading up the hill and into the crosswalk. But I could see that his eyes, with their glassy sheen, were not blinking. He was beautiful in lifeless repose.

This is not an image of graphic violence, yet it returns to me when I watch Eric Garner cease to struggle as he is lowered to the ground. They are both lying—the deer and the man—empty of breath. I close my eyes to see with my heart, and resolve that tomorrow I will return to listening without watching the news.

Posted on December 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Mensch on the Bench Hits Shark Tank with His Jewish Appearance

December is here along with the season of Christmas lights, Hanukkah cookies, Festivus celebrations, holiday shopping, the Elf on the Shelf, and now… the Mensch on a Bench.

For the last couple of years, I’ve admired the creativity of several of my Facebook friends who have posted photos of their Elves on the Shelf staged quite mischievously each night leading up to Christmas. It seemed Jewish families just didn’t have a good option available for such a doll in their house. And then, last year, I stumbled on the Kickstarter campaign for the Mensch on a Bench and was very impressed to see a Jewish version of this toy.

Mensch on the  Bench Package

The Mensch, named Moshe, is a one-foot tall plush doll. To my eye, he looks stereotypically Jewish: he’s got a beard, a black hat, and a scarf resembling a tallit (prayer shawl). He’s got a Hebrew name (Moshe) and could have jumped off the screen of Fiddler on the Roof. When I see the Mensch, he looks nothing like most Jews I know.

Most Jews I know never wear a tallit. Most Jews I know never wear a black hat. And, most Jews I know don’t have beards. Only some of the Jews I know are men. And only some are white.

I understand that the Mensch’s creator had to choose one “look” for the Mensch, and so it’s impossible for him to represent us all. Admittedly, I’m not sure what the Mensch should look like. But I can’t help but wonder if this Mensch is inadvertently perpetuating some stereotypes – conveying that this is what “authentic” Jews look like.

If the Mensch looked more like the Elf but was wearing blue and white, I’d be happier. Or, if there were different versions of the Mensch showing the diversity of the Jewish community, I’d be way happier (and I’d probably buy them all!).

Also problematic is the book that accompanies Moshe the Mensch. That story opens with an illustration of a family lighting a Hanukkah menorah. You guessed it: a white family with a mom and a dad and a son and a daughter. A family in which the dad and son wear yalmulkes as head covering. While some families I know look this, others do not. Some have two dads, some have only a mom, some have a child or parent of a different race, some have no children. And while some Jewish men (and women!) wear yarmulkes, most do not. When we designed coloring book pages at OurJewishCommunity.org for Hanukkah, we purposefully included images that reflected diversity: interfaith families, Jews without yarmulkes, kids in wheelchairs, same-sex parents, etc.

Sadly, I think the images reflected in this opening illustration of the Mensch book present the most traditional approach, one that simply doesn’t reflect the identity of most Jews today. While Moshe may be typical of how Jews are most often portrayed, I think it misses an opportunity to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.

A few months ago, I had an opportunity to meet with the Mensch’s creator (and he was nice enough to give me a Mensch!). A former Hasbro employee, now a dad and an entrepreneur, Neal Hoffman is an impressive guy.

Overall, I like the Mensch and think it’s nice that there is a Jewish version of the Elf. Also great is that the the Mensch encourages mensch-like qualities. He comes with a set of Hanukkah rules, one of which is to choose a night of Hanukkah to give gifts to people in need.

It turns out I’m not the only one evaluating the Mensch this week. The Mensch on the Bench will be on Shark Tank this Friday night, so we’ll see what the sharks think. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Mensch’s looks; please share your comments here.

Posted on December 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy