Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.
Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.
Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.
Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.
Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.
The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.
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Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.