summer!

Well, I’ve been gone so long that in my absence WordPress updated its blogger interface! The change is nice, by the way.

Since I last posted at the beginning of May, I have done the following:

finished my first year of rabbinical school (passing all of my courses!);

end-of-year "mekorot" class cake (First years got "R"; second years, "Ra", etc. Those graduating got "Rabbi".); photo by salem pearce via instagram

end-of-year “mekorot” class cake (first years got “R”; second years, “Ra”, etc. those graduating got “Rabbi”.); photo by salem pearce via instagram

moved from Brookline to Jamaica Plain (the balcony alone in our new place made the pain of moving worth it);

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

read two books (and half of two others);

went to D.C. for 24 hours for Elissa Froman‘s memorial service (you can see the video here);

popsicle stick craft project at froman's memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of Elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

popsicle stick craft project at froman’s memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

began studying Torah three days a week with one classmate and Psalms two days a week with another;

had visits from both my husband’s parents and my parents, as well as two friends from D.C.;

mike's canolli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mike’s cannoli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

started a volunteer position with the National Havurah Institute as its fundraising coordinator;

practiced leyning Torah (I’ve read on Shabbat twice and on Thursday morning five times);

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

and gotten lost running in Franklin Park, the green space near our new home, three times.

she who has a why

[S]he who has a why can bear almost any how. -Frederick Nietzsche

The second week in January I took an interfaith seminar called “Experiencing Islam” in conjunction with Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. I had lunch on one day with an ANTS student, and I told her (a short version of) the story of my journey to the rabbinate. One of the weird things I find about being a new rabbinical student is that, after months of talking about nothing else, I am no longer regularly asked — and I don’t ask any of my classmates of themselves — why I want to be a rabbi.

In talking with my future colleague, I found myself thinking back to the high holidays in October of 2011, almost a year-and-a-half ago. I went to Sixth & I’s Yom Kippur services at Calvary Baptist Church, which Rabbi Shira Stutman led. During the service, Elissa Froman gave a talk. In her introduction, Shira noted that Elissa was planning to start HUC-JIR Rabbinical School the next summer. And I remember having a twinge of jealousy and wanting that (or some version of that, with perhaps another rabbinical school substituted) to be said about me. This wasn’t the beginning of my decision to apply to rabbinical school, as I had already been thinking seriously about it (as much as two or three years before), but Elissa was certainly motivation to really get going.

I don’t know Elissa well, although I should. We have similar interests, are involved in some of the same organizations, and have many mutual friends. Unfortunately, what I know most about Elissa is that she is sick (which is of course not the sum of her identity).

Elissa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than six years ago and has had two relapses, as well as a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been in the hospital for the past year dealing with complications from treatment. (This is information that she, her family, and others authorized by her family have shared publicly.) Elissa didn’t go to rabbinical school last summer, as she had planned. And that plan was a deferment from the year before. And I’m guessing that it’s probably not in the cards this summer, either (although, who knows?). It does seem like she has yet a struggle ahead of her.

In October, a friend of Elissa’s started a fundraising page for her and her family, as her stay in the hospital stretched into its eighth month. My friend Eve sent an email to our Jeremiah cohort about the effort, encouraging everyone to give: “Maybe some of you know her better than I, but, ever since meeting her back in the early 2000s, her work and life have been an inspiration.” (If you want to donate to this effort, you can do so here.) The page and its success are certainly a testament to the impact that Elissa has had on so many people. As the page’s creator wrote in the introduction:

If you are here, it is because you know and love Elissa Froman. You know the impact she has had on the people lucky enough to surround her, you are those people. Or maybe you know of her. You know of her advocacy work, her commitment to community, social justice, civil rights, and making the world a better place.

The morning that Eve sent her email, my classmate Lisa (also a former D.C.-er and friend of Elissa) led the Torah service at school. I also happened to be at the front of the room because I had an aliyah (the honor of saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading). As we sang mi sheberiach (the prayer for healing that is usually said in the middle of the Torah service), we shared with each other later that we had both been thinking about Elissa. All of this is to say that her presence is far-reaching.

And if you need even more evidence of Elissa’s awesomeness, watch this video that her friends made for her 29th birthday.

A year before Eve sent her email, to the day, Elissa wrote the last post that appears on her blog, where she’s chronicled her battle with cancer and her plans to go to rabbinical school. (By the way, you should read all of her blog. It is touching and heartbreaking and funny and honest and all the things that make a blog worth reading.) That last post was also written mere days after she spoke on Yom Kippur. In it, Elissa reflects on the five years since her diagnosis and expresses hope for the next five years, during which she was to finish her rabbinical school education.

It’s obviously painful to read in retrospect. I met with Elissa shortly after she wrote the post. We had coffee in the middle of the day, and I excitedly told her about my first visit to a rabbinical school and my plans for more visits and applications. And she shared with me her hopes for her rabbinate. We talked about how great it would be to one day be colleagues with similar interests, working as rabbis for social justice organizations.

Elissa’s been on my mind recently, and not just because I told the story of my journey to the rabbinate. Elissa’s sister recently sent an update on her progress — as she does regularly — to friends of Froman. And as many of you know, last semester (my first in rabbinical school) was very challenging for me, emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t think I’ve ever treated this experience flippantly, I always want to remember that first and foremost I am able to have this experience. This is a blessing and a privilege.

So Elissa, I’ll go to rabbinical school for both of us — until you join me.

UPDATE: Elissa Froman passed away on Friday, March 22, 2013 (11 Nisan 5773). May her memory be always for a blessing.

You can make a gift in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, her longtime employer.

homelessness

One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.

“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”

I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.

I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.

Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.

image

tzedakah box: tiempo israelitico synagogue; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.

But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.

I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?

We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:

Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?

If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you're on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”

The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.

sign near occupy dc on k st nw

sign near occupy dc at vermont & k sts nw; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.

All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

up close and personal

Knowing I was going to be in D.C. last week, I made an appointment with my friend Emily, non-profit account manager by day, photographer by night, and all-around awesome person. I was inspired by her post “Headshot How-To.” As she notes, “there is something SO empowering about having a set of (professional) photos of yourself that you feel really good about.” So I decided to take the plunge: I’ve been surprised by how often in the past year I’ve been asked for a headshot.

pearce family, 1992; photo by chris pearce

pearce family (with dog Calvin), 1992; photo by chris pearce

I’ve had professionally pictures taken of me a few times in my life. My dad’s brother is a photographer, and for many years he took our family photo for my mom’s annual Christmas card. His directions inevitably led to at least one member of the family putting a hand halfway into a pocket. These sessions, and his staging, provoked howls of irreverent laughter from my brother and me — but after the fact. Always after the fact. Levity was not encouraged during the Pearce family Christmas card picture taking, my uncle being a very somber fellow and my mom and dad taking the portraits very seriously.

When I was in high school, a family friend took pictures of me during my senior year for my yearbook page. (At my college prep school, each senior got an entire page to do with what s/he would. Almost everyone did professional photos with favorite quotations and inside jokes. It was a mixture of trite and precious.)

photo by xx

photo by mark gail, washington post

And of course there was also the photo that ran in a Washington Post story about Rosh Hashanah in the fall of 2009. I talked with one of the paper’s religion reporters while volunteering at a pre-High-Holidays event at Sixth & I; she called me back the next day to set up an appointment with a staff photographer. The session took place in the upper balcony of the Sixth & I sanctuary. However, I am wearing my “Super Jew” t-shirt, which perhaps undercuts any professional possibility for that photo.

As Emily when she had her headshots taken — even though she herself is a photographer — I was nervous before the session. Since I was traveling, I had limited wardrobe choices, and I spent half of the morning wishing for various tops that I had left in my closet at home. Then, I don’t wear make-up, but I convinced myself that I should have had it done. Same thing with my hair.

In spite of all of my worrying, I am thrilled with how the pictures turned out. Emily is such a positive, upbeat presence, and she kept saying encouraging things — “You’re doing great!” — in such a way that I actually believed her. And she’s right: It does feel great to know that I have these photos. I’ve updated all of my social media profiles, including the “About Me” page of this blog, on which I had been using an old picture of me taken by my mom during a family vacation to the beach. I was wearing a strapless dress, so in the headshot version it looks like I’m not wearing any clothes, which is probably not exactly what one should be going for in that situation.

But I’ve been using it because it had that indescribable quality of just seeming like me. That’s how I ended up choosing the picture for my senior page. And it’s what I ended up loving about the photos that Emily took: They look like me. No make-up, no-fancy-hair, simple-shirt-wearing me. And that’s what is so empowering.

P.S. If you need a photographer, I obviously highly recommend Emily. Her speciality is birth story photography, but she takes other assignments. And if she’s not available, she can recommend someone else (almost) as fabulous!

the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

happy first birthday

On Tuesday No Power in the ‘Verse turned one! I started this blog in the midst of applying to rabbinical school, and I am now trying to finish up my first semester. In that time, I’ve written 63 posts — more than my goal of once a week! Thank you, dear reader(s?), for accompanying me on this journey.

where the magic happens

where the magic happens; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Some of my favorite posts:

My most popular post (because, I think, my husband shared it on Facebook) was about my being forced to think about what makes a marriage.

I continue to enjoy writing posts about the books I read, but those don’t seem to garner many readers. But that’s okay: They, like this blog in general, are first and foremost for me.

This space is proof that writing is a very effective form of therapy.

bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

lift up your head

part of parshah naso in the sefer torah; photo by kera bartlett

On Saturday, I read the following reflection at the ceremony for my adult b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (more on the ceremony in a later post). The speech is called a d’var Torah (literally, “word of Torah”), a close study on one aspect of the weekly portion of the Torah that is read that week in synagogue. It’s traditional for a bar or bat mitzvah to write and give such a speech at his/her ceremony. The parshah last week was Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89.

Naso et rosh.

Thus begins our parshah, with a directive generally translated as “Take a census.” But it literally means, “Lift up the head.” It’s G-d’s command to Moses to number the groups of Levites entrusted with the care of the Tabernacle. And at its essence, a census is a just a list.

In his book The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing, my friend Bob Belknap grapples with the ancient literary tradition of lists in the authors of the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau. He’s puzzled by his graduate school roommate’s dismissive attitude towards such sections of text, “I just skip over all that stuff.” Indeed, Bob’s love of lists may be unique: Most of us, when confronted with a lengthy enumeration – say, of the descendents of a patriarch in the Torah – at best skim. Almost all of us desperately search for the beginning of the next paragraph: Why on earth should we care about the names of each man who get us from Seth to Noah?

What has been described as our parshah’s overall theme, order and structure, is evidenced in its abundance of lists: G-d tells Moses to take a census; G-d spells out who is to be counted; G-d enumerates the specific parts of the Tabernacle that the Levites are responsible for; G-d lays out procedures for the physically impure, for betrayal, for a wife accused of adultery; G-d explains the laws of the nazarite. And via one of the more challenging examples of a list, repetition, G-d tells us about the dedication offerings from the twelve chieftains of Israel, each of whom brings the exact same gifts. And those gifts take a paragraph each time to describe. So the parshah ends with a list of 12 identical lists.

I wonder how these sections struck Moses at the revelation at Mount Sinai (if it’s the case that, as some postulate, Moses received then the entire Torah and not just the Decalogue). I assume he took a moment to read what G-d had given him before he went down to the Israelites and proclaimed it a sacred text. I like to imagine Moses as editor, sitting atop the mountain with a red pen, trying to reason with G-d. “There may be an opportunity here to cut this part down a bit. No one’s going to read all this 12 times in a row.”

But as my friend argues in his book, “The value of lists is that they ask us to make them meaningful.” If we are engaged in the text – and as Jews we are asked to engage with Torah – we have to consider these challenging sections.

Lists catalogue and lists omit; they highlight differences and they emphasize similarities; they create patterns of possibility and they make assessments of importance. They honor the fallen, the lost, the loved.

Naso et rosh.

Through the years, commentators have expounded on the various meanings of this verb. Rashi sees naso as a play on words: He connects its meaning of “to lift or raise” with the function of the Levites who are engaged in carrying parts of the Tabernacle.

Another rabbi understands its connotation of pride: When one shows or feels pride, one lifts up one’s head and stands tall; the Torah wants to tell us that the Levites were proud of their responsibility.

Yet another rabbi interprets the verb as a metaphor for lifting up one’s spiritual station: The Levites were given an incredibly important task that helped them reach an elevated ability of patience and coping with adversity.

I can think of another meaning. As any student knows, engaging with a text often finds us hunched over, staring into the pages of a book. But as any teacher knows, in a classroom deeper meaning takes root when students are actively listening instead of reading the bullet points of a lecture on a handout. With naso et rosh, G-d is reminding to consider that deeper meaning, to ponder that larger picture. “I’m giving you these lists, instead of narrative, to make you stop. Lift up your head and behold me.” The stories in the Torah – of creation, of the flood, of Abraham and Isaac, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Jacob and his sons, of the Exodus out of Egypt – don’t make us stop. These are great stories, and we want to keep our heads down and find out what happens.

But we’re also called to be like Moses at the end of the parshah, which concludes with him standing by himself (and I imagine, with his head raised), listening to G-d speaking to him from above the cover of the ark.

In these moments, we can reflect, dwell, exult in detail, even rejoice in minutiae. As my friend so beautifully puts it in his book, lists challenge us to stop: “The rhythm of the repetition interrupts the forward drive of the text, and for a moment we are invited to dance.”

these are a few of my favorite things

Leaving D.C. wouldn’t be complete without waxing nostalgic, so following is a list of my favorite memories from my almost seven years in the District. It was hard to rank them, so don’t read too much into the order.

7. Riding in Bike DC. I just participated in this event last weekend, and it was especially meaningful because of my upcoming departure. On that beautiful Sunday, I traversed the 25-mile route with the constant mental refrain of “I love this city so much.” We got to ride almost the whole time without competing with cars, and I especially enjoyed Rock Creek Parkway, K Street, and the George Washington Parkway — the latter of which was a unique, and not to-be-duplicated, experience. It was amazing to head up the Potomac along that scenic road.

home page of The Washington Post on September 19, 2009

6. Shouting at Elena Kagan. In July 2010, I went for a run on Capitol Hill in the middle of the day. As I passed the Supreme Court (just east of the Capitol building), I recognized the diminutive woman walking along the opposite side of the street, whose image had dominated the news in the months leading up to her Senate confirmation. It took a few moments for this to register in my brain — and of course I was still running as I was thinking, “That’s Elena Kagan!” — so by the time I decided to “say” something, I had to yell.

cars on o st nw, just south of logan circle; photo by salem pearce

“Congratulations on your nomination to the court!” I shouted back at her. She turned around, smiled, waved, and shouted back, “Thanks!”

5. Surviving Snowpocalypse. I’m including this one in part because of where I’m headed next: soon several feet of snow will be a regular occurrence. On December 20, 2009, a historic storm dumped almost two feet of snow onto the greater-D.C. area. Everyone panicked: store shelves were emptied of milk (for some reason snow requires an increase in lactose consumption), and the entire city shut down. The storm made local blog Capital Weather Gang the must-read it’s become. This Texas girl had never seen so much snow at once, and my personal record held until the advent of Snowmageddon two months later.

with dan gordon at the new nationals park; photo by dara oliphant

4. Attending opening day at Nationals Park. For the past five years, I’ve shared Nationals season tickets with a group of friends, so we managed to get three tickets to the first regular season game, on March 30, 2008, at the new ballpark along the Anacostia. It was so cold that evening that I had to buy a red Nationals hoodie to stay warm. Then-President Bush threw out the first pitch — and was booed, much to my pleasure — I ate a hot dog from the kosher cart near our seats, and, best of all, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer to lift his team over the Braves, 3-2.

chuppah at sixth & i; photo by matt goldenberg

3. Getting married at Sixth & I Synagogue. (I should note that I am here talking about my wedding — as opposed to my much more important marriage and relationship with my husband, lest my readers get the wrong idea.) The building is beautiful, and as I’ve documented well on this blog, Sixth & I has been the center of my Jewish life in D.C. On October 25, 2009, we stood under the chuppah, under the lofty dome, and made a commitment to each other. Sometimes I still can’t believe that we were able to have our wedding in such a meaningful place.

2. Having my photograph in the Washington Post — twice. Oddly enough, both were because of Sixth & I. The first time was September 18, 2009, right after my conversion. I had volunteered at an Erica Brown Rosh Hashanah event at the synagogue a few days earlier, and there I fell into a conversation with a Post religion reporter, who called me the next day to ask if a staff photographer could take my picture for the story. The photographer and I met at Sixth & I — and the resulting photo (above) was taken in its balcony. It appeared on the Post homepage as well as on the front page of the print edition.

enjoying the first fruits of sixth & i’s kosher food truck

The next time was May 22, 2011, the day after Sixth & I’s kosher food truck, Sixth & Rye, debuted. I dragged my then-intern along with me to wait in the hour-long line, and it was worth every second. Again, I just struck up a conversation with the Post photographer who was covering the event. The resulting photo (left) appeared inside the A-section of the print edition; my hands also appeared on the front page of the website and on the iPhone app.

1. Meeting Michelle Obama. On January 21, 2009, the day after the president’s inauguration, my husband and I got to go to the White House; I had entered and won the lottery that the administration held for 200 District residents to meet their newest neighbors. After a bit of a wait, in a line that snaked around the public rooms of the presidential residence, we made it into the room where the first lady stood. (Apparently we missed the president by just minutes!) First of all, Mrs. Obama is tall (and she was wearing flats on this occasion). Second of all, she has that quality that is the hallmark of all great politicians: the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room. I shook her hand and told her it was an honor to meet her. Third of all, she is a funny and charming lady. The man in front of us told her he was a Tuskegee airman and then shared a short anecdote. She punched him lightly on the shoulder and said, “Get out of here!”

And that is when I fell in love with Michelle Obama, way before all the rest of y’all.

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