all of time in this moment

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In the front row of the sanctuary, seated in the center so that my eye looks right at the Torah in its arc, I listen to the cantor singing the blessing over the wine. In a flash of my mind I am 18 years old again, at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA surrounded by new Jewish friends who know the entire full blessing so well that I can hear they have sung it every Friday of their lives. I only knew the beginning of the blessing then, and just the words, not the melody; it’s all we had recited in my home growing up, on those occasional Fridays when my mom decided to make chicken and rosemary potatoes for a special dinner and we lit the Shabbat candles. At that dinner during the beginning of college, I tried following along with the long prayer, mostly listening. Now, in the sanctuary of the synagogue in Atlanta where my husband is concluding a five-year tenure as one of its rabbis, preparing to move to a new congregation in a new city in a new state where he will lead a Jewish community, I easily sing along with the familiar words and melody.

All of time coalesces in this moment and I think about what it means to me to be Jewish, to have Judaism as my sanctuary. I remember the first day of freshman orientation, when I walked through a courtyard at UCLA towards the table marked with a sign that read, Jewish Student Union. I unexpectedly found my people that day, and in those years I connected with my Judaism on a new level. I think it was then that I knew without doubt I would marry a Jewish man and raise Jewish children one day.

I didn’t grow up a synagogue kid, but I went to Jewish summer camp for three years, and had come back from one of those summers to tell my parents I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. They hired a retired cantor and every Wednesday of 8th grade, he came to my house and taught me to read Hebrew, taught me all of the prayers in the Shabbat morning service, taught me my Torah portion, and helped me write my dvar Torah. Before our meetings he would sit in his car and smoke a pipe, and his breath smelled like cloves and cinnamon while we studied together. I had my small bat mitzvah at the library of the JCC, where there was a Torah I read from before 40 family members and friends, and we had a party in the garden of our home. My maternal grandmother had died just a few months before, and I felt her presence deeply on that day. My paternal grandmother had come from Italy, and prepared all of the food for the party.

I didn’t do much Jewishly after that, but at UCLA I connected again with this piece of myself that I had never questioned. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Sephardic refugees who were forced out of Egypt in the 1950s for being Jewish. My Judaism growing up was in the fact that I was born in Jerusalem to parents who had met on a beach in Eilat. It was in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi food my grandmothers made when they came to stay with us from Italy and Israel. It was in stories I heard of relatives who had been rabbis, in my great uncle who prayed daily at the Sephardic Egyptian synagogue in Paris. It was in my cousin’s wedding in Tel Aviv, where I had been a bridesmaid when I was nine years old and danced with IDF soldiers who had come dressed in their fatigues to celebrate their friends. It was in my memory of putting a tiny piece of paper into the Western Wall in Jerusalem with my nine-year-old’s prayer that my great grandmother live forever. It was in the stories I heard of how grand life had been for Jews in Alexandria before Nasser came to power. Stories of my Polish grandmother sewing clothing out of potato sacks in Auschwitz to trade for eggs she could eat.

She would have been so proud of my husband, my maternal grandmother. Proud to know that I had married a man whose family came from the same part of Poland. Proud to see the humility and grace with which he holds the responsibility of being a rabbi, of leading a Jewish community.

All of time coalesces in this moment and I look up at the majestic sanctuary of this historic synagogue in Atlanta, this beautiful Southern city that has been our home for five treasured years. I feel gratitude and love for its people, its history, the way it has held us. I think of my daughter’s bat mitzvah in this sanctuary last year, of the four years of preschool here that have given my son the unquestioned conviction of his Jewishness. I think of the work I have been able to do to connect the Jewish community to the refugee families I worked with professionally. I think how much I am going to miss the Southern hospitality and genteel welcome we have received from everyone here, the sweet lilt in how words are spoken, wondering if Northern Virginia can still be considered the South.

Then, after the senior rabbi has spoken, after others from the community have spoken – all so graciously, so lovingly, so generously towards my husband and our family – my husband goes to the bimah to speak, from this pulpit that is now so familiar to him that it has been strange until this moment for him to sit with me in the front row. From my seat in the center of that front row, I watch him, I hear his words, and tears stream down my face, boundless love and pride burst from inside me.

In words spoken and unspoken, he says to me, We did it. This thing we set out to do together at the very beginning of our relationship 18 years ago, when I first told you I wanted to become a rabbi… We did it, and look how beautiful it is! All of time coalesces in this moment and I feel my grandmothers sitting on either side of me, agreeing with me as I reply silently: Yes we did, babe. Yes we did. And yes, it is beautiful. So beautiful.

After he spoke to the congregation, a standing ovation from our community showered him with the kind of love that fills every well of reserve our family is going to need as we take this next step forward in time.

The entire evening was a life-giving moment. My well is full.

I am going to miss this place, these people, so much. The 18 years leading to this moment have not all been easy. But they have all been so important. Our five years in Atlanta have been our best. I leave here deeply satisfied and grateful. I am so proud of my husband. I am proud of us. I am proud of our family. I can see how every single moment before this one is the moment that brought us here. To this precious place in time where we could pause Well full. Deep breath. Here we go… before our next adventure together.

 

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within the discomfort

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I’m sitting in the sukkah on our back deck. Poles of PVC tubing hold up three walls of plastic tarps, while the fourth side of the square structure remains open. The “roof” is wooden lattice, we didn’t get around to covering it with fallen branches from the trees in the woods across the street before it started raining. The rain stopped yesterday but it still smells wet, clean and fragrant. And it’s still humid from the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that caused devastation in Nicaragua but was only a storm by the time it reached northern Georgia.

The sukkah reminds me of when I first went to the Burning Man festival, where friends and I constructed a geodesic dome – also from PVC – covered by a translucent white parachute. I can’t remember how many rolls of duct tape it took to put that thing together so that it created some semblance of shelter and shade from the hot desert sun. But I do remember the massive high desert dust storm that blew off the parachute and almost blew away the structure itself and everything that was inside while we kept cover inside our cars.

Everything is temporary.

So striking – and humbling – when you are in the middle of a vast empty desert, in a temporary “city” that only exists for a week. This was back when very few people came to the festival in RVs and most people slept in tents or domes like ours.

That’s one of the lessons of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, one of the reasons we build this “temporary dwelling” and spend time within it each fall. We’re also supposed to invite people into the sukkah, including the spirits of our ancestors.

Everything is temporary.

I feel incredibly uncomfortable right now. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, my body was restless, my skin felt itchy and dry, my belly rumbled, my mind swam with unsettledness, and I was annoyed that I was so tired but still awake.

My beloved California – where I grew up, where I come from – is burning and I am so far away. One calamity follows another right now, before we are able to catch our breath, before there is time to recover. No time to heal, no space to hope.

Everything is temporary.

I think about all of the people in the world for whom this is their always. The constant worry about where their next meal will come from. The loss of babies from malnutrition. The temporariness of homes and jobs when there is income insecurity or no jobs at all. The fragility of health. Fear of violence. And even the ability to summon up hope for something better, perhaps, one day.

Somehow the discomfort feels like my responsibility right now, like this dwelling I need to sit in and stay connected with. Especially as someone whose actual home is intact, whose family is safe and well, whose pantry is full, whose job is secure, whose car runs well, whose children get to go to school, whose skin is white.

Are most of us feeling this right now, or are there people, maybe entire communities out there that remain untouched, that don’t feel troubled, that are not concerned? Is it business as usual for anyone, or is this now our new business as usual? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel like we have fallen into an irreversible dystopia fit for fiction? Because I’ve read a lot of those books and it doesn’t feel as though we’re headed there, it actually feels like we may well have arrived. Dystopian fiction is written as a warning. What we need now are prescriptions…

for resolution

for answers

for unity

for justice

for healing.

Please tell me that everything – even our collective discomfort and all of this pain and destruction – is temporary.

capacity & tears

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“Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown…”

~ Tom Petty (1950-2017)

I cried at my desk today. The tears fell quietly as I was reading…

About Las Vegas.

Puerto Rico.

The Virgin Islands.

Mexico.

Houston.

Florida.

West Coast wildfires.

About the genocide against the Rohingya people in Mianmar.

The violence inflicted on innocent people by Spanish police during Catalonia’s elections for independence.

The relentless disease of racism in our country.

The brutality and militarization of American police.

The mass incarceration of black and brown people on American soil.

About our national addiction to the right to bear arms over the right to live free from the fear of violence.

The destruction of the EPA because who cares about climate change when there’s money to be made.

Last night I cried into my daughter’s belly as we listened to Tom Petty, who may have, in that moment, been breathing his final breaths. I remembered details of when I’d seen him in concert in 2009, on one of the most beautiful spring nights I have ever experienced, watching the most gorgeous sunset over the San Francisco Bay. Quite possibly the most incredible live performer I have ever seen and heard.

Last night it felt as if all of the rock stars of my childhood and teen years in the 1970s and 1980s were being taken away, one at a time. Last night I felt every single one of my years, hyper aware that when you’re in your forties, the people around you start to die more steadily. Should I be getting used to this by now?

Today I learned that a childhood friend had died of cancer in the past year. That was the piece that got me in that deepest place in my gut, and then the tears fell more quickly, less gently.

A dear friend recently told me that she thinks my “heart and mind have tremendous capacity.” Most of the time I think I can hold all this, the deep pain that is all around me.

The wounds I know my refugee clients hold from their experiences escaping war and losing everything they had known before.

The brokenness and injustice, in plain view or hidden, in every corner of my city, my state, my country, my world.

The image of the two black people who were pulled over by two white cops a few weeks ago when my family and I turned a corner in our car and we pulled over to film what was going on, just in case things went south and somebody with dark skin ended up dead. Thankfully they didn’t this time, but the imprint of the potential injustice that was happening before my eyes as the cops searched the car for what…? An excuse to lock up – or kill – two more black people for a broken tail light? For driving while black?

When I was younger I used to feel like a sponge, super sensitive to all that was around me. But I’ve learned with age that it’s possible to connect with the pain all around without being quite so absorbent. How to hold the pain without it getting stuck inside. Still, though… Last week I took Facebook off my phone, with no regrets. I needed the reminder that I am the one in charge of what information I take in, and when.

* * * *

Last Friday night and Saturday was Yom Kippur. For the first time in many years, I felt moved to actually fast completely. I still drank water so that I wouldn’t get a three-day headache, but this year it felt good not to put anything else in my body. I also powered off my phone for the day, which felt amazing. During breaks from the services I read and wrote in my journal. I walked around and talked to people. I sat with two very tiny babies and their moms whom I’d just met.

I cried a lot. Not just during the Yizkor memorial service, but at other moments too. While the most incredible cellist played the Kol Nidre melody, accompanied by organ and choir and cantor, and even more magically, when he played the melody solo. While I closed my eyes and connected with each of my relatives who have died, picturing each of their faces in my mind’s eye, feeling them close.

The veil between life and death feels thin at Yom Kippur, and I held both the humbling awe of that understanding and the comfort of feeling held by my ancestors and even my tiny baby daughter who died before me.

I don’t take any of it for granted. I’ve been through hardship, tragedy, loss and struggle. I know how incredibly lucky I am for the stability and goodness of my life. For all of the people I get to love and hold dear. For my health. For my home.

For my life.

It feels like an incredible responsibility, to hold that gratitude along with the awareness that things are so bad and so hard and so incredibly messed up in so many places outside my safe little cocoon.

The awareness that there is so much work to be done, so much light I need to summon up and magnify to help balance out the dark.

And the awareness that it is all so temporary and fleeting. And so precious and beautiful. Even the tears.

 

ports of call

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“Have you been to Brindisi?”

His eyes grow wide, he smiles, and there is recognition.

“Of course! Brindisi, Izmir, Haifa, Ashdod, Piraeus, everywhere!

“My father is from Egypt.”

“He is, really?”

“Yes. My family is Jewish, they were forced to leave Egypt in the late 1950s when the country was nationalized.”

His traveler’s eyes – which have seen every port of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf – remain wide.

“My grandmother and her second husband – he was in the shipping business – they moved from Alexandria to Venice. Then to Beirut, then to Haifa, and then to Brindisi. She lived 50 years in Brindisi and is buried there.”

“Brindisi is at the very bottom of Italy. I have been there many times.”

“Yes, on the edge of the heel of the boot. I visited her there.”

****

He was a ship’s captain for thirteen years. Large ships, ocean liners and cruise ships. He tells me about all the people he met from all over the world, fellow lovers and laborers of the sea. People of all religions but you kept religion and politics separate. He has seen what happens when you don’t.

He looks like a sailor. Hearty. Warm. Bright. Strong.

Again, that quality I continue to encounter in the refugee communities I work with: resilience.

He tells me that he swam across a river to escape his country, through one new country and into a third. His wife is still in that third country, where they met, waiting for the right visa to join him permanently.

He tells me that he has a green card but no passport. I understand what this means: He is stateless. Like my father and his family when they had to leave their Egyptian passports and nationality behind.

Refugees.

He can’t work on a ship again until he becomes a citizen.

“Perhaps in two years,” he says.

****

He asks me if I think he should try to apply for refugee status in another country, in Europe, where maybe they help refugees more. (Perhaps he is wondering if there is a place where maybe he can be more sure of what the future holds for refugees?)

“My friends in Germany, they get help paying for apartments, for medical care, for education.”

I suggest that he not do anything right now because everything is changing daily. I make sure he knows not to leave the U.S. right now, though I know he can’t without a passport to elsewhere.

We look at education programs because he wants to learn about something completely different in the meantime, something practical when you live far from the sea, far from your profession.

He tells me that if he were twenty years younger when he had come to the U.S., instead of in his late thirties, he thinks he would have more opportunities, more possibilities ahead of him.

Then he says, “I have one more question. Can you help me understand why the gas company takes so much money from me every month? I am just one person.”

We spend the rest of our appointment switching gas companies to cut his bill in half. I find a coupon code that gives him an extra $100 in account credit.

This makes him very happy, because an extra $50 a month is a lot, not just on principle.