I am a singer, a writer, a mother, a teacher. I am learning to live life differently at this new stage of life. Adventures, food, music, books, friends, religion. Everything is interesting. Everything old is new again.
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There is magic, on a late summer night, sitting with your toes in the sand. The stars twinkle above befriended by a perfect half moon. At my back the sound of the waves lapping the shore and before me a perfect vertical bonfire raising its glowing ember arms to the velvet sky.
We are a circle of friends, sharing our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disasters knowing that we are loved no matter what. What feels a shame to us just gains a smile, a soft silence, a hug; until we know that it is no shame. In this moment of acceptance and serenity we can feel and acknowledge our own growth. We are no longer bound by fear and self.
And in the circle, and the night, and the ocean and the fire, we are new -just for this day, this night, this moment. There is no need to look ahead or behind. We are present. Life will always bring new joys, new sorrows, new trials and triumphs. But in this moment, we are are safe in our own skins. A group of friends sitting on a beach. The magic is we are healing, together.
“Let us dress ourselves in the garments of G_d – compassion for the needy, embrace of the stranger – and then spread the canopy of peace over all the world.” (From the Reform prayerbook Mishkan T’filah.)
I am a Jew. I came to it a bit later in life, accepting the heritage of my father’s family. Some would consider me not a Jew, a fault of my maternal heritage. But I am a Jew.
Anti-semitism has apparently become the topic du jour, not that it ever went away. But in a thread on Facebook that I was following that was begun on the topic of racism, I read something that I had to read more than once. The writer say he was a Jew but had never been touched or “flinched from” anti-semitism. He went on to say that perhaps progressive Jews were more sensitive to such bigotry.
This last statement is so loaded with problems it is hard to know where to start. To begin, I have no idea what he meant by progressive Jews. Contextually the implication was that somehow the liberal snowflake Jews would take more offense, bringing us into the more overtly political. And then to infer that it is just a sensitivity of uber political correctness to be offended by anti-semitism. Finally to imply that more sensible (less liberal politically) Jews would not be bothered by bigotry. Fallacious notions all.
When my son was young and we lived in sub-urban New Mexico, he experienced a great deal of prejudice. I concede that it was primarily born of ignorance not of hate, but it was painful nonetheless. And those who acted on their prejudices could not have cared less what branch of Judaism we practiced, or what our political beliefs were. We were Jews, we were alien.
And the current social media war that rages over whether Jews can be real Americans if they are Democrats, or whether Democrats can be supporters of Israel is despicable. I am a liberal Democrat, although I try to be a thinking independent as needed. I am a reasonably religious and observant Jew. I am a supporter of Israel although not in every action that they take. I have always been hopeful for a peace that seems farther from our grasp than ever. I am deeply offended by the notion that any of these things are mutually exclusive and that our divisive and combative national dialogue has now made my religion an issue of patriotism. I love what this country should be, and I am a constitutional nerd. I also believe in the values embodied in the quote I started with. But my religion is not, or should not be, a political issue. My politics are grounded in the values my religion teaches; a very different matter.
Where I live now it is astounding how many people do not know what a Star of David represents. Most have no idea what Judaism is, what our beliefs or values are; despite the fact that they embrace the old testament as part of their own various faiths. To many we are still money grubbing baby killers. People always seem surprised to learn that I am Jewish, as if a pleasant 60 something woman should be somehow other than.
“Judaism is a doing which can be grasped only by the heart.” Julius Lester
Eikev is this week’s Torah portion; the word has too many meanings for me to really understand or expound on. Suffice it to say that it can mean “heed”, “hear”, “follow” and “heel”, among other things. The portion is always named for the first word so Eikev it is.
Moses, who will never enter the promised land with his people, reminds them of the covenant, the b’rit, that G-d made with them. But he also reminds them that they must be observant and follow the “rules” faithfully for G-d to maintain that covenant. He proceeds to remind them of their bad behavior, of their “trespasses against G-d”. He reminds them that although they will inherit the promised land from the idolatrous, they are far from virtuous.
This portion tells us that the promised land, Israel, will be a “land of milk and honey” if and only if the people obey the commandments and teach them to their children. What a metaphor for our time. If we were to obey the commandments, those basic social rules, we would be in a world at peace.
You have heard the idea that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. You didn’t learn the basics to build a rocket, or a building, splice a gene or write computer code. You did, however, learn the basic rules of how to live in the world, how to treat other people, how to share and how to care. You learned to be nice, to be polite, to stand up for those less fortunate, to tell the truth, not to take or destroy other people’s things, not to cheat, to respect differences and to respect proper authority. As an aside you also learn to “tell on” improper authority figures. All of these values, if we were to actually translate them to adult behavior would make the world a much better place.
We do teach these values to our children, or at least many of us at home, and many of our schools and houses of worship do. But somewhere along the line we seem to forget these values and instead of what we learned as children persisting, we start learning from others, adults, who have also forgotten those values. We have stopped thinking for ourselves. We have stopped standing up for the less fortunate. We have forgotten how to look past our differences. We accept cheating. We have forgotten how to share.
So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, but you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. I think in the main we have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to follow them faithfully. And the promise is that if we ever manage to do that we might globally take a turn for the better.
Each time I leave my mother’s home, I feel keenly that it could easily be the last time I ever see her. She is turning 92 and in relatively good health but she is turning 92 and is frail as one is at that age. It is a subdued kind of sadness as the inevitable approaches.
My father has been gone quite a few years and I miss him still although he wasn’t much of a dad; he was interesting though, and taught me to appreciate tools and their use. But as usual I digress.
When they are both gone it will seem odd, and we are a very small family. So I have been reflecting on this special kind of aloneness. If the world turns the right way, it will happen to us all; children are meant to bury their parents. While we will always miss them, it is the natural order of things and doesn’t feel wrong; life fills the spaces. And we, the children, are meant to become those that we have buried. Parents fervently pray never to have to bury a child, it is unnatural and a kind of aloneness that cannot ever be remediated.
And as I was leaving my mother’s home most recently, for the maybe last time, I learned that my son and his fiancee, who have lived with me for quite some time, will be gone in a matter of days. I was married for roughly twenty seven years, I have been single for roughly three and one half years, during all of that time my son has lived with me. My son’s dog has lived with us. And of late, my son’s fiancee. I have not lived in an empty house for approximately 30 years and it is odd; not necessarily bad – just odd.
Having retired about eight months ago, and just now settled into not travelling, I am at home during the day for the first time in fifty years. My life seems slightly alien, as if it is really someone else’s life and I am just playing at living it. The house is silent now if I don’t play music or turn on the TV. I have become extremely aware of small sounds like the icemaker, the dishwasher and the cat wheezing softly in his sleep.
This all sounds rather pathetic and sad but really, my life is full of people and things to do. I teach, I sing, I write, I deal with my mother’s business, I listen to people talk on the phone, I go to lunch, I take care of my home. Etcetera. I have a full and beautiful life, I am just not used to what it feels like now. But I am moving into my own life, a day at a time. This is aloneness that has remedies. And my son calls.
As we walked the rough cobblestones of the death camps some of the elderly among us struggled with the uneven terrain even as they struggled with memories of lost family and broken connections and betrayed heritage. I watched her walk beyond the limits of her ability because this is was why she came .
At Auschwitz I, the docent took us through buildings that were still standing, explaining the function of each. The eugenics, where terrible experiments took place. The original rooms that served as “barracks”, people packed on the floor with no space to walk. The “punishment” cells where the SS experimented with ways to kill. And many more.
Although the buildings were relatively close together, it was hard going. Those that had been utilizing wheelchairs were unable to do so on these unforgiving paths. And the docent, sensitive to the limitations of some in our group, suggested places that folks could rest and wait for us to meet up with them. Many did just that – they rested, they waited, unable to go on.
One of the most moving things I witnessed on this trip was one elderly woman. Overweight, swollen legs, short of breath. She was offered many opportunities to rest, to stop, to end the tour at each camp. I watched her struggle on, slowly, well behind the pace of the rest of the group. But she would not give up. Being on this sacred ground, where her family died, was the most important thing. Walking these paths, looking for their names on the recording pages, this was everything. She would not give up, she would keep going the whole way, no matter how painful or how difficult, because this was why she came.