At Ease

I grew up in “the city”, that’s Manhattan to those who don’t know. New Yorkers are very arrogant about being the only city. At any rate as much as I have lived in rural and suburban settings throughout my life, I think the rhythm of cities is in me.

Recently, I had the chance to travel to some amazing cities, each one very different than the next. Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Munich – quite a whirlwind. The purpose of the trip wasn’t really “sightseeing” in the traditional sense, but nevertheless we had the opportunity to experience the character of each and what makes each one special. Berlin is full of avant garde artists, musicians, street art; it is a city very alive in a very modern way despite the history embedded there. And still a place for jazz. Warsaw has kept alive a Jewish quarter that doesn’t really exist anymore, the city (and country) was the site of the only active resistance against the Nazis. Warsaw was 85% destroyed in World War II and has been completely rebuilt. They have made great efforts to preserve what can be preserved, 20 feet remains of the ghetto wall but the path of the wall is marked in the streets. Kracow is the complete opposite in that it was almost entirely left standing and it is a beautiful and perfectly preserved historic city. And Prague, ah Prague. Also largely untouched by the war and an amazing and beautiful city, it is very reminiscent of Paris and just as lovely. And there is music everywhere, in every church and cathedral there are chamber players and in the clubs and bars, more music.

I have had the privilege of sitting in Constitution Square in Athens, in a cafe in the ninth arrondissement in Paris and now in the central square in the old town in Prague (not to leave the others out). A seat in a cafe, a cup of coffee and watching the crowded world go by. I feel completely at peace in these settings. I don’t love being in crowds generally, but somehow the general bustle of urban places feels totally familiar and utterly fascinating.

I have had the privilege of sitting in Constitution Square in Athens, in a cafe in the ninth arrondissement in Paris and now in the central square in the old town in Prague (not to leave the others out). A seat in a cafe, a cup of coffee… Click To Tweet

Every now and then one has one of those magical days, or mornings, or afternoons. A moment in life that stands out from the ordinary good. One such for me was an afternoon-evening in Prague. It was a rare unscheduled and free time during this hectic tour. I sat, as I always do, with my coffee and then walked back across the bridge to buy a wallet (a story for another day). I had walked the Charles bridge the day before as all tourists must, but discovered that the bridge that allows cars to make the crossing is much easier and less crowded. And then I walked the old town. I was given a flyer for a chamber concert that evening and determined that it was where I would be. So proceeded to walk, and got completely lost. I didn’t mind a bit. I walked about 19,000 steps that afternoon and saw a lot of that part of town. My google maps wasn’t much help as the streets didn’t match the signs on the building but for some reason, no anxiety. I had the flyer for my concert and it had a map on it, so many lovely encounters asking for directions later, I was back to the appropriate cathedral, St. Clement’s. Vivaldi, Mozart, Pachelbel and Bach later, I tucked into a cab and headed back to my hotel.

My magic afternoon included fresh berries from the open air market, cappucino in an old square, homemade chocolate ice cream, flirtation with handsome older men, lots of walking and very good chamber music in a cathedral adorned effusively with angels. The very best of a lovely city and completely at ease. I love the country but I have an urban soul.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

Vayeira – Do you believe in Magic?

This Torah portion, seminal, climatic, critical, is often cited as one of the most difficult in the Torah because it includes the story of the binding of Isaac among other things.  This portion also includes the story of Hagar and the near death of her son Ishmael and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah again, among other things.  As if this wasn’t enough.

But this portion is full of magic.  G-d reveals himself to Abraham three days after the first circumcision.   Angels appear to Abraham predicting the birth of a son.  Sarah and Abraham have a son, Isaac, when they are 100 and 90 respectively.  Could only be magic.  Hagar, having been banished with her son from Abraham’s house faces Ishmael’s death in the desert.   But she is shown water like magic; saving his, and presumably her, life.  Lot is saved, although his wife is not.  Finally, Isaac is saved from being slaughtered by his father by a voice from heaven and the miraculous appearance of a ram to take his place.

Miracles and wonders.  Do we believe in miracles in this our modern world? Perhaps they are not so plain or easy to see.   Do we stop and try to see the miracles all around us.  Faith as magic.  I wasn’t 90 when he was born, but the birth of my son felt like a miracle.  [tweetshare tweet=”Singing feels like a miracle. The wind on my skin feels like a miracle.  Every time I can say my bills are paid and there is nothing I need, that is a miracle.  Waking up every morning; every breath I take, those are miracles.  Love is a miracle.” username=”@trienahm”]

So whether you take these stories literally, or like me consider them allegorical, as morality stories, there is magic in them.  Two children are saved by the grace of G-d.  A son is given to two aged seniors.  Angels appear.

And there is magic all around us.  It is hard to find, to see in the crazy world we are living in, but it is there.  In the setting of the sun, in the rising of the moon, in the stars and the waves.  In the laughter of our children and the wisdom of our elders.  In the reaction of salt and acid and the unconditional love of a dog.  Make your own list.

Do you believe in magic?  I do.