Anyone else feel like some kids’ music is particularly grating on the ears, particularly on loop? How many earworms have been generated by these repetitive songs that start all to sound the same?
My three-month-old twins and I have been enjoying (yes, I’ve been enjoying it too!) listening to kids’ music written and sung by some (old school) mainstream Israeli artists. Seems like Israeli artists have covered the market of singers crossing over to children’s music. Here are some of our favorite albums:
On September 11, 2001, I was fourteen years old. That was fourteen years ago — and it was half of my twenty-eight-year lifetime ago.
The proximity of the September 11th attacks to the High Holy Days was never lost on me: the night of that fateful day, I had a rehearsal for the High Holy Day choir. My cantor had composed an Él Malé Rachamim that day, and it was all we rehearsed.
As I pore over my machzor in anticipation of Rosh Ha-Shanah on Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, the words asking “Who shall live and who shall die?” hit me uncomfortably. I have long felt that the liturgy of the High Holy Days hits us at the very bottom of our consciences, where we acknowledge our flaws and errors and learn to live with our fallibility. At the height of the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services, leading into the Kedushah, we note that “On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur [our fate] is sealed.” We ask God, “Who will live, who will die? … Who by fire, who by water? … Who will be calm and who will be disturbed? … Who will be diminished, and who will be uplifted?”
Fourteen years ago, 2,977 people died just before Rosh Ha-Shanah.
411 of these were first responders who ran into the fire and ash rather than away.
246 of these were in-flight commuters who routinely boarded their planes.
19 of these were terrorists who planned these ruthless attacks.
Every time I say this word and strike my heart with a closed fist, I wonder: What have I done this year — what have we done this year — that is so bad to be likened to that entity? How have I stood in the way of peace? Who have I led to dependence rather than independence? How have I, knowingly or unknowingly, participated in oppression?
“Who shall live and who shall die?” Did God premeditate the 9/11 attacks? Did He know almost a year prior? I feel like even asking the question aloud causes the plates of my belief to tremble beneath my feet, as if the earth might split below me.
For centuries our ancestors have recited these texts on the High Holy Days and have asked these questions. In every generation they witnessed their neighbors and family being murdered ceaselessly without cause, and have yet brought their affirmations and their pleas to God in the Days of Awe.
On 9/11, the world changed. Half my lifetime ago, we were forced into the discomfort of eternal suspicion. All at once, as I sat in 9th grade math class in West Caldwell, New Jersey, 23.6 miles away two buildings crumbled as two passenger-filled planes exploded. Our society became less safe and more guarded.
In the past fourteen years, I have witnessed the world crumble and rebuild. It feels like we are in an up-swing; members of communities trust each other more, people are kinder, more compassionate than they were in the immediate aftermath of the attack. There is still work to do, of course. And I wonder: What kind of world my children will grow up in? I wonder: What event yet to occur will define their existence?
May we be moved by our liturgy during this cycle of High Holy Days. May we learn to trust and have faith both in God and in the people who surround us. May we be honest with ourselves, recognizing the work we have to do, and may we all be signed and sealed for life, health, prosperity, and happiness in the coming year.
These remarks were made at the Rumi Forum’s Interfaith Iftar on July 12, 2015. I thank them deeply for the warm invitation and opportunity to share in their sacred ritual.
I belong to a Facebook group devoted to talking about women’s hair covering practices. In this group, which is open only to women, posts range from serious questions of modesty, what it means to look distinctive in public spaces, women asking questions about religious practice and, of course, “Does this scarf match my outfit?”
The most amazing part of this group for me is that its virtual members represent a cross-section of observant Jews, Muslims, and Christians, donning tichels (which is what I wear), hijabs, hats, and headscarves. The group has taught me one fundamental truth: That once we approach a level of observance — a level of faith — where we consider our spiritual practices holy, we are all really the same. We all struggle with issues of modesty, with traditional values, and with what it means to be a religious person in modern society.
As instructive as hair covering practices have been for me, practices and liturgy around food are equally instructive. Food is the bridge — the tipping point — which turns us from instinctive animals relying on impulse only into thinking, faithful human beings. As a God-fearing Jew, I don’t just eat: I bless the God that provided me that food. As I searched my core texts this week for messaging about food, I noticed that the Bible, every time it praises God for or asks God to be the Provider of food, it uses universal language. For example, from Psalm 145: “The eyes of all wait for You, and You give them meat in due season. Open Your hands and satiate all living beings.”
The first paragraph of our Grace After Meals presents a similar message: “Blessed are You, Lord our God … who has fed the whole world in Your goodness, in kindness, favor, and mercy. God is the giver of Bread to all flesh, for His kindness is eternal. And in His great goodness we have never lacked and we will never lack food.”
And so the choice not to eat is equally significant to all of us. By choosing to fast as a spiritual practice, we deny ourselves a most basic need in order to cause change — in ourselves, in our God. We look within, reflect, ask forgiveness, plead our case. Although God or Allah or Jesus asks us to deprive ourselves, we must make a conscious choice to abstain — not just once per day, but every time we are exposed to our triggers. Even outside of prescribed fast days, we abstain and exempt ourselves from pieces of mainstream society in order to unify ourselves with other who practice our religion.
Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a former professor of sociology, once noted that all Jews in America are Jews by choice. Generalizing wider, then, all practitioners of religion in America are practitioners by choice. We all make the active choice to adhere to our faith practices.
As observant people of faith, we must be in conversation. We must support each other in our respective and distinctive quests to attain holiness and godliness. In sharing a meal, we not only sustain our bodies, we nourish our spirits as well. The similarities between us create openness when we join together at the table, the differences add sweetness to our conversation.
My husband Bob and I thank you for including us in this sacred meal, and thank the Rumi Forum for the warm invitation.
I bless us, through our abstinence and our openness, through acceptance of others and faith, to find fulfillment every day. May our active choices as partners and our limitations in society provide us new opportunities for growth and belief. May our communication be welcome and accepted by the One to whom we each direct our prayers.
I only seem to find time to write blog posts when tragedy strikes. Let me start, then, by acknowledging that life for us, in general, is good. I feel blessed every day to have a husband who helps me cultivate my best self and is my partner in every way, and a congregation with whom I have incredible synergy. I am grateful for a community which is doted over by its lay-leadership, staff, and clergy, and which feels safe.
Tomorrow, as we gather for Shabbat services, I will feel just a little bit more broken. The sacred trust that is the sanctuary, where a faith group gathers for worship, has been shattered once again. We live in a world where a shooter can enter a synagogue in Jerusalem during prayer, and a seemingly friendly face can be welcomed warmly, enter a Bible study in a South Carolina church, share in words of Holy Scripture, and then open fire killing nine sacred souls.
When we hear about tragedy, Jewish prescription gives us the words, “Barukh Dayan Emet” – “Blessed is the True Judge”. I must remember that, as the psalmist begins (Psalm 27), “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” I do believe. And I believe that the victims at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston also believed. But I am shaken. I identify with the psalmist here, who also writes (ibid.), “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to visit in his Temple.” And yet, the psalmist cries out: “’Come,’ my heart says, ‘Seek His face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide Your face from me! Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!”
When I walk alone in the dark, I have my guard up. I listen for suspicious sounds, watch those around me, carry my keys between my fingers. Jewish Sages have discussed the dangers of walking alone in the dark. In the Babylonian Talmud’s first volume, Tractate B’rakhot, the Rabbis discuss the notion that one should not place oneself in danger in order to pray if walking at night. Prayer, as acknowledged by this selection, is a moment where we turn inside, focus on ourselves and on God, to the exclusion of other things. These are the moments we are most vulnerable. In order be able to do the work of prayer and self-reflection, we need to feel secure. We need to be sure that our haven, our literal sanctuary, is not a place we are susceptible to those who can do us the most damage. As South Carolina Governor Nikki R. Haley lamented, “Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe, and that is not something we ever thought we’d deal with.” How do we answer our children?
Reports that the shooter shouted anti-black remarks bring this event square into the conversation that Black Lives Matter. Charleston has already been struck by the death of Walter Scott, shot by a police officer in April 2015. Charleston is doing the work to make sure that its community is healing, but I wonder if we as a society are doing enough. We cannot just sit on the sidelines while people, whatever their profession, religion, age, or race, rush to kill other people. The world has already witnessed a world, over and over, where beatings and murders are commonplace in the street enough time. Enough, already. Enough.
“Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?” Free — for everyone, to live freely. Brave — Yes, brave enough to speak out against violence. Brave enough not just to speak, but to rise. Brave enough to harness the energy and despair of heartbreak to channel into action.
Lots of people posting today about the situation in Baltimore. The more articles and opinions I read, the more video clips I watch, the more I am driven to the same conclusion:
For those of us not in Baltimore, not involved in the riots, not members of Freddie Gray’s family, not employed by the Baltimore Police Department, the most powerful tool we have is compassion. We must reflect upon our role in and also our distance from the situation. We must acknowledge that people on both sides are hurting. We must find the line between voicing our opinions and leaving space for those at the epicenter of the hurt to reach out to us for help, guidance, and empathy. We must support the Police for the safety they facilitate in our world, and remember that each actor in Freddie Gray’s story was an individual. We must support those who are in search of justice, on both sides, and support the people who are willing to acknowledge and change systemic problems in our governing bodies.
In this moment, I ask my God to use His powers of healing and powers of guidance to lift up those with the right intentions. I ask Him to give me the composure to stay positive and level headed as I witness from afar (albeit not that far). As I pray for peace today as every day, I ask God to pay extra attention to Baltimore and other places like it, to actualize His role as “הָרֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב” – “the Healer of Broken Hearts” (Ps. 147:3).
I hold before me this kavanah – this intention: Today, God, help me to look within, isolate honestly and modify my own prejudices, dig deeper and wonder about my own ability to cause damage. In knowing myself more fully, I can better affect positive change around me. Help me actualize my own ability to make a difference.
Sitting in silent vigil in preparation for my role on the holy day, I am privileged to sit among a minyan of davening Jews. This is the simplest avodat ha-lév (worship of the heart) sounds. In the next three days we will hear how majestic it can be, perhaps entirely opposite.
I am aware in this moment of how engaging simplicity can be. How the moments people most easily understand are those they don’t have to sift through layers to reach.
And in this moment, in silence, I am also aware of how vocal participation is crucial to inclusion in experiences. In my silence, I feel outside the community though I sit within it.
And so, this High Holy Days, I make a commitment to simplicity, a commitment to vocal engagement, and a commitment to majesty. Perhaps we as a community can find the balance.
I awoke this morning keenly aware that it is September 11th, and decided I was not going to write about it. (So much for intentions.) When it comes to recognition of September 11th as “the day that will live in infamy” of my generation, I struggle — how much do I want to commemorate, how much do I want to just live my daily life? My Facebook wall has been littered with messages: one who lamented the absence of any recognition of this day in history in a major newspaper, another who composed a poem about his memories of that day, acknowledging his sadness but also his willingness to be happy and to move on, a third changing her Facebook profile picture to an American flag and cover photo to a majestic nightscape of the Twin Towers.
Last Shabbat, we read the maftir from Parashat Ki Tétsé, which we famously also read each year on the Shabbat before Purim. It concludes (with Deut. 25:19), “Erase the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. Do not forget.”
As the boy of thirteen who celebrated his becoming a Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat on our bimah read, I suddenly realized that at thirteen years old, this child was born the year our lives were forever changed. He doesn’t remember the panic I experienced as a new ninth-grader in public school twenty miles from midtown Manhattan. Why should he? He was barely born then.
I am most challenged by this question: Why should he remember? Does it matter to this thirteen year old kid that we remember? Should we tell him the stories we see in our minds’ eye? By Middle School, unless they’ve heard from parents and friends, our students haven’t learned this history yet.
And perhaps more to the point, does it matter that we remember at all? They say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But is it everyone’s history or just our own?
“Erase the remembrance of [X]. Do not forget.” Perhaps there is a blessing in forgetfulness, but also the lesson of compartmentalization. The comedic accolade “He’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know in my lifetime” comes to mind. On September 11th, as many other days in which we choose to commemorate sad or challenging events, we acknowledge the new-found distance another year has brought us from the tragedy, but we remember. Perhaps more important of all, however, is that we show our children and our students that we are coping — that we remember, that we have been scarred, but that we are actively trying to move our lives into a place that minimizes the impact of the tragedy on our day-to-day living. We in the 21st century will carry this scar as long as we live, but let us do positive, unifying acts that make the blow just a little less impactful each year.
As I sit in prayer eighteen days from marriage, I am keenly aware of my left hand. This morning, as each of my weekday morning prayer experiences since age twelve, my left hand is wrapped in the black leather straps of my t’fillin. Since December, nine months ago, I have pondered the juxtaposition of these straps with the engagement ring on my fourth finger as they simultaneously symbolize my betrothal to my soul-mate and to my God.
And this, of course, is my life-long juxtaposition: On one hand, wholehearted commitment to my marriage and one day (God willing) a family, while on the other hand committing my whole self to my holy work. To let the fingers of these intertwine, to have the courage to see them as only one hand, is to let them genuinely and lovingly become one path: to aspire to true balance and harmony between family and service.
As t’fillin are worn on the non-dominant hand so as to strengthen a part of us that is weaker, so too may my awareness every day of my left hand, with each of the commitments and separate promises its adornment represents, serve to strengthen my resolve as I aspire to balance between my new married life and my new position as cantor. May they each be life-long.