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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dear california

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Dear fellow Californians, from your friend who left the Golden State seven and a half years ago:

I’m having a hard time with all the posts – both humorous and serious – about California seceding from the union. I’ll tell you why.

I left California with my nuclear family seven and a half years ago so that we could pursue a better future, and it has been a good move for us. It was hard to leave, believe me. I love California, and it will always be my home. I consider myself a native, even though I only arrived from abroad at the age of seven in 1978, also so that my family (of origin) could pursue a better future. I still have my 415 area code, and I won’t let that one go easily. California made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

But for seven and a half years now, I have lived outside of California – in places that have been good to me and my family. I spent four years in historically conservative Southwestern Ohio, where I got to be part of the vote in Hamilton County in 2012 that gave President Obama his victory. After voting in California since I became a US citizen in 1994, 2012 was the first time I could really feel my vote counting. It felt amazing, and I was not alone. I met really good people during our time in Ohio. People who love their children as deeply as I love mine, people who care and who work for justice and hope, people who may speak a different language or have different beliefs or religions than me but who ultimately want many of the same things. When we moved into our home in Ohio, a neighbor I didn’t yet know literally brought us cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood. I know, cliché, but I remember saying to my husband, “I love the Midwest. People are so nice here.” And I was right, they are. For the first time in my life, in the Midwest, I had African American neighbors and friends, and my daughter went to school for the first time where her fellow students did not all look like her. It took leaving my Bay Area bubble for this to happen. Because in spite of the great diversity of California, my world in the Bay Area was incredibly homogeneous, and I take full responsibility for that.

We adopted our African American son just a few months before we left Ohio. He is my gift from the Midwest, and because of him and the people I met while living there, I will always feel a connection to Ohio. To the “Middle America” I got to know for the first time because I left California.

We now live in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the second time I live in a red state. Again, I have African American neighbors and friends. Again, my son isn’t the only black person in our neighborhood or community. He isn’t even the only black person in our Jewish community. Here in the South I have also met good people – heart-driven people who also fight for justice, who are as dismayed by bigotry and hate as my family and friends in California, and as my friends in Ohio. I have friends who voted for Hillary and I have friends who voted for Trump, and both of those friends are raising really good children. I have met GLBTQ friends here in the South. I have met transgender men and women here. I have met friends of all colors and races. I have met friends who are native Southerners and others who, like me, are transplants with other area codes in their phone numbers. For the first time here in Georgia, we were able to buy a home. We couldn’t do that in the Bay Area.

California will always have my heart, and I will always feel like I am home when I land at SFO, drive past the Pacific Ocean and breathe the delicious mixture of salt and bay leaves. But a piece of my heart is also in Ohio. And now, it is also in Georgia.

Dear Californians, I know you know this, but I have to say it: You are not better, smarter, more focused on justice and what is right, more civilized, more progressive, more traumatized today after the election, than other Americans. 26% of people voted for one candidate, 26% voted for the other, and 47% didn’t vote – because either they were disenfranchised or apathetic. But not all of the 26% who voted for your candidate (who was also my candidate) came from California or the Northeast. They also came from Ohio, from Georgia, and from all the states that are so easy to dismiss as foreign, as different, as backward, as stuck in the past.

This is not a time for divisiveness. We need California’s elected officials in the U.S. legislature to partner with the elected officials of all the other states. We need your progressive messages. We need your activism. This is not a time to separate yourselves, to protect your bubble. This is a time to get out of that bubble, to sit in that uncomfortable place and connect, to reach out to understand – not to get to know “the other America” but to realize that we really aren’t different. We are all America. And we need you – not to be separate, but to work alongside us for unity.

for b.

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There are two trees in front of the house next door. They bloom twice a year, once in the spring along with all the other trees, and again in the fall after they have lost their leaves. I never knew trees could do that, and even though I’ve seen them bloom twice before, this year again it amazes me. It feels rebellious, audacious. Generous. These beings of nature that do their own thing but manage to give of themselves in the process.

I’ve been connecting with some very old and very dear friends the last few days, some with whom I haven’t spoken in years, following the passing of a friend we all shared. It hit me that I am at that age – when friends my age start to go. I’ve lost important people in my life – grandparents, friends, my child. I’m not new to death or loss or grief. But this hit me differently.

Life feels tenuous today. I feel hyper aware of something I know but manage most of the time to ignore: that nothing is guaranteed.

And yet here we are. We bloom when we can, we fall when we can’t stay up. And then sometimes we manage to bloom again, like those trees.

Like those trees, we reach out to each other, but sometimes not enough. Sometimes it takes a loss to remind us.

This is for you, B. Thank you for your adventurous and generous heart, for your wit and humor, and for all you gave of yourself to all of us who love you.