Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Afterlife of the Brain

I was in my late twenties, a newly-minted rabbi, living and working in San Francisco. Late one night I lay in bed with the window open, breathing in eucalyptus, rosemary and the sea. It wasn't a dream. I was awake. My mother, who had been dead for over a decade at the time, spoke to me. What she told me was useful. I could have dismissed it as wish fulfillment. But it was real. It happened.

Fifteen or twenty years later I was holding the hand of a dear man as he died. Holding hands, ushering people from this world to the next is one of the ordinary extraordinaries of a rabbi's work. Some weeks after his funeral I was home folding the laundry -- an ordinary but not terribly extraordinary of being a mom. I was folding laundry when the man, now a few weeks dead, came to me with a message for his wife. He wanted her to know he was alright; that being dead was not painful, quite the opposite, and that he missed her.

Belief and experience are two entirely different things. I believed that when we die, it is over. Do it now because this is all there is. My experience is that some essential part of a human person, separate from the body, is eternal. I call it the soul because that is the vocabulary of faith. You can call it whatever you like if faith is not your personal lexicon. Experience told me that the soul lives forever. Some souls of the dead are closer to the living. Others are closer to the Soul of all soul to which that eternal, essential part of all humans eventually join. We move from this life to become part of a great Oneness as quickly or slowly as the universe needs us to move on. That soul is the me of me or the you of you.

Significant parts of the me of me have been missing since the brainstorm and I am still very much alive. Some experiences that brought me the greatest joy before brain injury are like nails on a chalkboard. How could I feel discomfort at a worship service? Why does my long-term memory tell me I love theatre and opera but current experience would suggest that theatres of any kind are rooms filled with pain? If Alice Goldfinger is not a worshipping, studying, theatre geek, whose soul has taken up residence in my body?

Judaism is not dogmatic about an afterlife. It wouldn't be heresy for me to go back to believing that this is all there is. I am living in a conundrum. I have experienced the soul after death and, contradictorily, I have experienced the death of what I once identified as my own soul. It has been replaced with a different, not entirely different (she has my laugh), but still a soul with whom I am not familiar. Is the soul merely a collection of synapses? Or is "merely" the wrong word? Perhaps the wiring of the brain such a holy, wondrous intricacy that reincarnation is a possibility, not after death, but in the middle of a life?

Belief and experience are two different things. So is one experience and another experience.

Monday, December 9, 2013

My Fourth Anniversary

I don't remember when I started driving again. At first the doctor gave me a tag to hang on my rear-view mirror. I was shaky. As I knew all too well, Maine winters are long and icy and avoiding another fall remains essential. I never could remember to hang the tag from the rear view mirror.

I gave in to the permanence of disabled license plates during a rare moment of acceptance. The acceptance was precipitated by a terrifying but undefined period of time spent wandering around a parking lot, unable to remember where I put my car. The disabled spots in front of our supermarket are rarely taken and I can see the car as I exit the store.

It was a dark and stormy late afternoon. I try to make all high-level decisions before noon. "Broccoli or asparagus?" is a high-level decisions for me. Oddly, other people I know with brain injuries share my post-injury dread of supermarkets. But we were low on all provisions so I brought my guide-children to help navigate the store and parked in my usual spot.

A man in a red car pulled up behind my minivan. He wasn't looking at my license plates. He was looking at me. He didn't see a wheelchair and a brain-injury is not immediately visible to the naked eye. What was immediately visible was a reasonably fit, middle-aged mom with two healthy kids in a crowded parking lot who had the gall to use a disabled parking space. He was seething as if I had run over his frail grandmother, her walker "and her little dog too" for better parking.

He asked if I was ok; if I needed help. He was angry. I answered,

"I'm fine. I'm just disabled."

Wouldn't that be nice? To be "Fine, just disabled?" In truth, I'm not fine, although I do have moments that are better than fine. I still experience the sublime. Joy and pleasure punctuate residual pain and cognitive challenges. None of those were present in the parking lot. I burned with shame that someone thought I was the kind of person who would flagrantly disregard the sanctity of the handicapped parking rules.

I thought today was anniversary day. It has been four years since the brainstorm struck. I have the week right but the day wrong. I don't experience the feeling of time passing so I'm calling that progress. I've set all kinds of unrealistic goals since the accident.

At this juncture, I've simplified my goal. I'm going for, "Fine. Just disabled."




Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wakefulness

Once, when I was a teenager, my father slept-walked right out of our apartment. As soon as the door closed and locked behind him he woke up. I didn't hear the doorbell. Thank God for dignified PJ's, a doorman with keys and a dad with a healthy sense of humor.

I've been sleep-walking since I hit my head in December of 2009, whenever that was. I don't mean leaving the house in the middle of the night in my PJ's. I mean living a life, looking awake but feeling asleep. The waking up feeling began the last time there was snow on the ground. Snow ends around April, whenever that was. I don't feel awake all the time but I am more conscious that I am unconscious. Being awake requires so much concentration it has left me with little energy for reflection on the sensation of wakefulness.

There is some improvement in realms like short-term memory. Reading too has improved. I've been revisiting the classics whose characters are old friends.  Kindle has been kind enough to provide extremely large print.

Speaking of kindness and large print, I received a gift of the new large-print edition of the Reform Movement's inspiring prayerbook, Mishkan T'filah. I have missed this beautiful book and am grateful to have it back in my life. If you would like to give a copy to someone who has difficulty reading you can order the book on the website of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (www.ccarnet.org). Finding out who in your community might need such a book and sending them a copy could be a great project for Jewish Disability Awareness Month which is February, whenever that is.

Some parts of the brainstorm are in process. Numbers are not one of them. Numbers are dead, not injured. The distance between one and two is unfathomable. Thursday, today, next week -- these are words in a foreign tongue.  I can't keep score -- not in tennis nor in life. The tennis part is embarrassing. The life part is a bonus. Love and friendship are that much richer when one is neither keeping score nor watching the clock.

There is a former professional tennis player, Diane Van Deren, who became an ultra-marathoner after having a piece of her brain removed to treat a life-threatening seizure disorder. After the brain surgery she ceased to feel time or distance so she just kept on running. She won a 300 mile race across the Yukon. Van Deren was a formidable athlete before brain surgery. Now she is literally unstoppable because she has no idea that it is time to stop.

Which brings me back again to waking up. The friend who told me about Van Deren did so because he wanted me to know he gets it. That he understands my daily slog across the incomprehensible and vast tundra of time, date, measurement, money, math homework and distance. There is no greater peace than feeling understood. It really is the greatest gift we can give any human person -- to let them know we understand the source of their frustration or pain; that they are not alone; that others suffer as they suffer however odd or statistically improbable the source of that frustration.

Unless he meant I should put on my running shoes and head north.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Playing the Line

The Gates of Repentance are closing and there is a pile of dirty laundry in the basement. I have no white clothes for Yom Kippur because I lost a few dress sizes and can't find them.  I have only asked two kids and two friends for forgiveness. I'll have to ask the rest of the family after the holiday. This new year of 5774 includes some major progress. At this moment I know it is 5774. Even a few months ago I did not know what year it was. And there are smaller victories too. I am learning to throw a football properly. I feel the perfect spiral is within my reach. Anything is possible.

My son went out for football. I didn't object. It felt almost poetic. If I could sustain a life-altering blow to the head in the most sedentary profession known to man than why not football? He is playing the line. He is a big kid trying to keep another big kid from crossing an imaginary line. Whoever doesn't push hard enough winds up on the ground. Mercifully, the visual impairment I experience from brain injury makes it impossible for me to follow the action. The parent sitting next to me narrates. I cheer with the appropriate level of enthusiasm at the end of each play without having actually seen my child hit or being hit.

Playing the line means that my son doesn't need to throw, catch or kick. In seventh grade he is a big kid. By ninth grade he might be one of the smaller ones. I want him to have all of the skills he might need for whatever game he is playing. Who knows in what position our children will find themselves as they get older? Who knows which skills or experiences will mean landing on one's feet? A neighbor who played football dropped by the house to throw the ball with my son and teach us both how to catch it properly. Elijah the prophet is alive and well and living in Falmouth, Maine.

This is my fourth Yom Kippur in the brainstorm. This year was supposed be different. I was going to temper my ambitions and do what I could authentically do and let go of what is still unrealistic. I made a plan for those realistic ambitions. And then life, a linesman if ever there was one, knocked me over.

As the gates begin to close, I have a mountain of dirty clothes in the wrong size, food to cook and a few prayers I would like to say in community. Four years worth of high holiday sermons feel overdue. There remains a phantom pain where my rabbinate and the only adult Jewish life I knew were amputated.  I don't know how to be the Jew I now am.

I pick up my son from the last daily practice of the week. In an hour Yom Kippur will begin. The players file out of the gym, get in their parent's cars, sore, sweaty, dirty from the struggle. Their white practice pants have stains that even the most meticulous keeper of the home could not remove. A reminder that life is played on the line and it is messy. I have no white clothes for the holiday, not even dirty ones. I'm already exhausted and I have not yet lit the holiday candles. But every word and every action is Torah of some kind. I'll suit up in something that doesn't quite fit, return to synagogue and make what can be made of this holy day in the year 5774. I know what year it is. And I know God doesn't keep score.








Sunday, August 25, 2013

Grace

Without knowing it my mother set up a living trust. Her gift was bequeathed to me both during her short time on earth and bore compounded interest long after she was gone. God was my inheritance. Considering the young age at which she was taken from the life of her family I could have been left with anger, disaffection or perhaps the greatest assault on religious faith, indifference. In my case loss deepened my faith. Or more likely, faith carried me through loss.

No one is dead. Still, I am respectful of my children's equally palpable losses. Religious community has been a casualty. We are a synagogue of two children and one adult. My son turns thirteen in a few weeks, the age of Jewish adulthood. Still, our family will be eight adults shy of a minyan. Like every parent who wants to shield their child from suffering, I feel responsible. I have a lifetime of religious memory to feed my own soul. I could live off the fragrance of my experience of Godly community for at least another forty-eight years.

My children cannot tap into my memories. They were eight and nine years old when the brainstorm hit and they have been living without communal religious experience for almost four years. That is until a few weeks ago. For the first time my children attended Crane Lake Camp for Living Judaism. It is a Reform Jewish summer camp much like the one I attended. That they were able to go at all was an act of grace. It was a gift given freely and generously by the institutions that inspired me to become a rabbi in the first place. The bumper stickers are right. Grace does happen. But don't be fooled. This gift did not fall out of the sky. One motivated person set the wheels of grace in motion.

That is what it takes to experience grace. One motivated person. My kids have spent the last four years witnessing the power of one motivated individual after another being his or her singular self. Each one of you a living, breathing walking Torah. I hope you know who you are, you bearers of grace.

The Grace After Meals or Birkat HaMazon in Hebrew, is a blessing of gratitude for satiety. There is a different quality to a blessing one says before a meal when one is hungry and the quality of a blessing said in the drowsy pleasure of fullness. Birkat HaMazon requires three Jewish adults for the opening communal invitation to be sung. Ten are required for the name of God to be inserted into that invitation. As a family we bless our food before dinner. Meals end when someone wanders from the table, the phone interrupts or someone else's child rings the doorbell in search of a game of catch or a bike ride through the woods.

Why was dinner this week different from dinner all other weeks? My children returned from Crane Lake Camp. They brought grace to our table. It was the enthusiasm of children who know a secret to which their mother is not privy. While I may have learned Birkat HaMazon when I was a kid, my own children were correct that their's was a song I had never heard. It was the secret melody of Jewish knowledge imparted and absorbed when I was not around. Into our kitchen wafted the fragrance of my children's private memories.

Grace.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Great Writing Needs No Story

I was sitting on a dock reading and laughing out loud. If you are familiar with the unique sound of my laugh you also know that the people on the next dock were either calling for back-up or wanted the name of the book. It was both a book and a not-book. The experience was brought to me by Kindle, best friend of the visually challenged.  With this device I can make the letters enormous or I can listen to someone read to me.

If you are in need of a riotous laugh, the book was Bill Bryson's, A Walk in the Woods. After three years I finished it. The story has two main characters, Bryson himself and a friend named Katz from Des Moines. What I couldn't remember as I finished the book was how Katz got into the story. How did Bryson know this fellow and why were they hiking the Appalachian Trail together? So like a Torah scroll that Jews complete reading and begin again in the same breathe, I flipped my Kindle to chapter one and started again.

Three years ago, when I began my walk with Bryson, I could barely read. When the brainstorm first hit I would read a sentence over and over, understanding the meaning of the individual words but lost as to the relationship between one word and the next, desperate as the information entered my mind and slipped away at the same moment.

During my three years with Bill Bryson I have also completed a few books. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, On The Road, by Kerouac, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. I returned to the classics I knew and loved best. No plot or characters to remember. They were engraved on my heart from readings long past. I had painted, dined and occasional froze for lack of firewood in Hemingway's Paris. I crossed the country with Kerouac, albeit in drag, as the women in his book share the same place in the hierarchy of needs as food and plumbing. I had talked Rand's tragic heroes into the path of moderation. All that adventure before my 21st birthday with nothing but a library card.

I am now able to mix my Kindle reading with a bit of reading's most intense, tactile pleasure, the turning of a page. That is, if the print is large enough and the stars align. I smell the book, new and inky or old and dusty. I longed for the delights of one perfect page.

I am not as angry about the brainstorm now, except when I am. I'm trying to learn what can be learned from this new life since I'm stuck in it. While improvement continues, I show no sign of returning to the old normal. I slog on, absorbing a little knowledge as I go. For example, most books have good or great stories but unspectacular writing. Great writing requires no story at all. I can smell the sea when I travel with Hemingway and feel the sweat pouring off of Kerouac's Dean Moriarty in his jazz-induced manic states. Smelling the sea or hearing the jazz is enough. Great writing renders the question "How did we get to the sea?" or "What is our mission once we rendez-vous at the sea?" irrelevant. The salty air on my skin is all I need from the words on the page.

As for good writing with which I was not previously acquainted, I can "Turn it and turn it for everything is in it." I return to chapter one to find out Bryson's "Katz" is a high school friend from Des Moines. Why such a Jewish pseudonym for an undereducated, alcoholic housepainter from Des Moines, Iowa? While Iowa now has a Jewish population of roughly 6000 souls, the Des Moines of Bryson's childhood must have been significantly less diverse. Is Bryson trying to tell us that his pal is really the undereducated, alcoholic, housepainter son of one of the hundred or so Jewish families in Des Moines? Is calling him "Katz" a not-so-subtle public service announcement meant to dispel myths about Jews and alcohol? Or is a name like "Katz" the ultimate witness protection program? I forgot if Bryson told me or not. On the other hand, I have learned what can be learned. If I drink iced tea while reading A Walk in the Woods, sitting by a lake on a summer's day, iced tea will come out my nose. Learning what can be learned may not be profound but it is practical.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Peace, Love and Phylacteries

"Love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Let these words which I command you this day be upon your heart... Bind them as a sign upon your hand and put them as Tefillin between your eyes..."
-- Deuteronomy 6

It is rare that a rabbi has a new Jewish experience. More often we lead and accompany others on a journey of discovery. We are spiritual tour guides visiting the same places with different people. I swam in the springs of Ein Gedi, climbed Masada, read the letters of a Torah scroll or heard the call to prayer  for the first time, thousands of times through the eyes of the seeking, the curious, the hungry. Those who parents were making them go and those who waited a lifetime to arrive.

Now it is my turn to be led. I have worked, studied and prayed with Jews of many religious and non-religious flavors. Minus one. Renewal Judaism. I have only read about the Jewish Renewal Movement. An offshoot of Reconstructionism, Renewal is open to any suggestion and open to every person. They are willing to try anything that might bring the individual in contact with Divinity. I am off to the Aleph Kallah, a sacred gathering of the Jewish Renewal Movement. I expected Kabbalistic Kirtan. I did not expect the packing list to include Tefillin.

Tefillin are a ritual object that defy description, so much so that the English translation is "Phylacteries." I mean really, what on earth are Phylacteries?

I bought my first set in anticipation of a sabbatical and committed to wearing them for the six months we lived in Jerusalem. I would put them on, recite the mornings prayers, take them off and return to my studies. There was a power in those little boxes placed between my eyes and on my arm. It felt like a ritual in which one should not dabble. That the Tefillin  themselves insisted I make a commitment to them. At times it felt like I was playing with strange fire. Tefillin required of me me total concentration.

I am going to the Renewal Kallah at the insistence of loving friends who move mountains to include me in Jewish life. I need a Jewish renewal and perhaps Renewal is the place to find a way back into the community that celebrates my new normal instead of seeing my disability as a hurdle to be overcome.

Putting on Tefillin is a complicated business, winding the leather strap around one's arm in a prescribed manner. There are too many details for me to remember and my hands shake since the accident. My Tefillin have been sitting in the closet. I thought that chapter of my life was closed. Perhaps not. I'm bringing my Tefillin to the Kallah despite the fact that I still cannot concentrate enough to pray as I once did. And I won't be able to put the Tefillin on when I return home. Maybe they will sit in my suitcase instead of my closet. Maybe not.  These Renewal folks sound like the kind of people who might consider it a holy privilege to help me wind the straps that secure the little boxes that hold within the command to love God.

Far out.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Making Lunch

I will never know how my mother really felt about what we now call the work/family balance because she died before I was old enough to ask. Our family lore is that she went back to work because her young family needed the extra income during tough economic times. Had she lived longer I think she would have worked more not less. As a small child it looked to me like she was having fun at work. Neither of my parents had a passion for lawn care, home-repairs or baking birthday cakes. Which was fine. My brother and I prefer the Carvel cakes with the little crunchies to the homemade variety.

My mother did put a great deal of effort into making lunch. Having grown up in depression-era poverty, my mother thought we needed meat in every lunch. All I wanted was tuna fish , plain on white bread. Lisa Stern's mother gave her a tuna fish sandwich every day. We made the secret exchange of my roast beef, pastrami or corned beef sandwich for Lisa's naked tuna. My mother probably went back to work for the sole purpose of providing me with the pastrami I spurned. That is the burden of guilt I bear.

Yesterday, as I was packing my son's lunch he asked if I could whip up a small container of pasta with fresh pesto. One of his friends had never tried pesto before and was intrigued that I had put this exotic condiment on my son's ciabatta. Since I can't work as a rabbi I have put my energies into the making of lunch. Choosing the menu, buying the ingredients and assembling something kosher that each child enjoys before the 7:00 AM bus has become the morning prayer I can no longer attend.

Less than a year ago an unsupervised trip to the market might have resulted in the purchase of three loaves of bread, an apple and two pounds of salmon followed by a crushing headache. I have no idea what the children have been living on for the last three and a half years. I know their lunches were kosher and that they did not starve, thanks to Victoria.

I had no talent for the kitchen before the brainstorm. Those skills do not dwell in my long-term memory. My son asked to include a little something for a friend who had admired his lunch. I can now retain enough new information to fill a tupperware.

Victory in a lunch box.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Broken Things

Since 1985 every child or adult who celebrates Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Bet Ha'am receives a Kiddush cup made by the pottery artist Toby Rosenberg.  Written on the cup in gold in both Hebrew and English is the name of the student, the date of the celebration and the Torah portion from which the student read.

When Congregation Bet Ha'am said goodbye to me they gave me a Kiddush cup made by Toby's hands. On it, in Hebrew and English, was my name and the most beloved of verses from Psalms, "I have placed God before me always."

The cup broke. It was an accident.

Broken things have a special place in Judaism. Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld taught me that. He stopped by the other day as he sometimes does. We sit on the porch. He never seems rushed. On this most recent visit he invoked the memory of the broken things.

I recounted my attempt to teach and how I could not remember what I said as soon as the words came out of my mouth. Akiva reminded me that God gave us two sets of commandments. The first set was shattered by Moses in a rage upon seeing the Israelites worship the golden calf. The second set remained whole.

The broken fragments of the tablets were carefully gathered up and placed in the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark. When Moses brought us the second set of tablets, the first set was not thrown away. Both the broken and the whole tablets were kept in the Holy Ark together.

Toby made me a new Kiddush cup like the first. Instinctively, I did not throw out the shards of the original cup. The still lovely but broken base sits on the desk where I now write. The residue of Shabbat wine remains in the crevasse where the base met the mouth of the cup, "A remembrance of the work of creation."

Accidents happen. Broken things can have meaning. I will try to teach again.




Monday, May 6, 2013

Is It Responsible?

Last Friday at noon. I am on a freeway going 75 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The guy behind me is sitting on his horn, but I cannot see him. I cannot see the driver in front of me either. Nothing before and nothing after. I am wearing a blindfold.

If I take my foot off the gas there is sure to be a pile-up so I keep moving, under the darkness of a blindfold. And the noise of that horn... I somehow manage to navigate the car off the exit to a stop. I shut the engine at 1:00 PM and forget the blindfold.

That was teaching.

I don't think there were any injuries but I could not say for sure. Is it responsible to teach Torah with a blindfold on my consciousness? Without awareness of what I or anyone else was saying when I taught last Friday? I do not remember the content of my remarks or anyone else's. Is it a desecration of Jewish tradition and God's reputation to teach sacred text in the walking-sleep of the Brainstorm? Or is it a "good enough?" Is it safe to continue and try to improve with time and practice?

I don't know the answer. I am so very tired.




Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seventy Plus Zero

"Every word (of Torah) that the Holy One spoke came out in seventy languages."
Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88b

The art of simultaneous translation reached its highest expression when God spoke the Torah on Mount Sinai in seventy languages all at once, or so the story goes. Seventy is a figurative number symbolizing all the known languages of the ancient world.

But how is Torah to be given and received in the no-language of those who struggle to understand even our own words? I think a thought and attempt to articulate it but other words come out.  The listener seems not to understand. Or is it I who do not understand the listening of the listener?

So I repeat and re-phrase. I lift my tongue to form words as Jacob lifted the stone off the well for Rachel to water her flock. But unlike Jacob, whose heroics led to the sweet silence of a kiss, I forget the object of my exertions and talk in circles until I can no longer speak. This is not a sweet silence. Why was I talking and to whom? Did I make sense? I am left with anxious mystery.

Language was the main course served at the dinner party I called life. Yet it is precisely at dinner parties that I feel like the main course. There is a cruelty and mercy to sharing the evening meal with others. The cruelty is a weariness that sets in around four in the afternoon and increases as dinner approaches. The social grace of holding up one's end of a conversation is followed by the effort of connecting thought to speech. Afterwards, the shadow of "What did I say?" lingers.

There is mercy more powerful than the cruel reality that is sometimes my "plus one" in The Brainstorm. Mercy insists that despite it all I am still a welcome guest at someone's table. Mercy is the reason I persist in accepting invitations. Mercy is communication that transcends words awkwardly spoken, misspoken or unspoken. Mercy is the language of no-language.

God gave the Torah in every language and in the mute existence beyond language. Mercy is not the seventy first language. It is the language of zero. Seventy plus zero is still seventy.  That is to say, Torah, and the mercy it teaches, is accessible in every language that ever was or will come to be; understood by all who wish to understand.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Strawberry Progress, Strawberry Torah

This is what I know today.

I know that sweet peas are pretty but inedible; that tomatoes really should grow downward and not upward; that broccoli takes up too much room to be an economical choice for my small vegetable garden. I know that I cannot absorb new sacred learning and all learning, from Talmud to car maintenance, is sacred. I can make some sense of what I learned before the Brainstorm.


I know that a strawberry plant -- like my brain -- is hard to kill no matter how forceful the impact, how obscured by snow, leaves or human neglect. My progress is strawberry progress and my Torah is strawberry Torah.

On the third anniversary since the Brainstorm, I set an unrealistic goal. To prepare a scholar-in-residence weekend and take it on the road. I can't get on the road. Forget the scholarship. The ability to drive more than a short distance still eludes me and the stimulation of travel and crowds sets my mind to an inarticulate halt.

Instead of a weekend, I will attempt to teach for one hour in a familiar place, with familiar people. We will study what I know by heart, from the heart. This feat will be carried out without caveats, excuses, rambling, stuttering or a net. If I am unsuccessful I will try again in six months or a year or two years or six years. I will keep trying. I will keep trying until I have taken my last breathe. What is the alternative, really? To not try? To quit? To be finished for the rest of my life?

I am not finished.

The experience of raking leaves out of strawberry plants contains holy wisdom within. Somehow the leaves give way while the plants remain in place. I do not understand the science of raking leaves. The blossoms, which will burst into fruit, survive and are stronger than the rake. During our short strawberry season my daughter goes out to the yard each morning to bring in enough fruit for all of us. I have not needed to add new plants. Strawberries seem to adore their own company.

Torah learning and teaching is often compared to a tree with strong roots and branches that reach to the heavens. The Torah of the Brainstorm is more like a patch of strawberries. It does not soar heavenward like the branches of our Maine Pines. It is also harder to take down. The Torah of the Brainstorm is not majestic. It is low to the ground, impervious to the awkward rake and the trampling feet of children at play. The Torah of the Brainstorm is strawberry Torah. It has an abbreviated season and what it lacks in majesty it will have to make up for in sweetness.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passover And My Son's Feet

I think it is the second day of Passover which could mean that I have remembered to feed my children and myself kosher-for-Passover food for two days. I made plans that were once again, unrealistic, but not tragically unrealistic. When I called our host to cancel second night Seder plans she reminded me that the last time I cancelled on her it was apparently Rosh Hashanah and I was in the hospital due to the demands of my soul over-reaching the capacity of the my brain. She sounded more relieved than insulted by my last minute cancellation. For my sake.

After the first Seder I could have slept for a week which means I should still be sleeping.

The next morning my daughter and I made an ambitious trip to synagogue. I lasted until Hallel -- two thirds of the way through the service. This was followed by rest, followed by lunch with friends followed by sleep. I don't think I made dinner.

My son was not with us. He was praying with his feet.

Yesterday, the first day of Passover, a day on which observant Jews are in synagogue celebrating, my son was at a meeting of Civil Rights Teams from middle schools across the state of Maine. 

It is a joy to see that Tolerance has become a team sport. I've never been one to push my kids athletically but I'm a fan. Civil Rights is one sport in which, I confess, I'm hoping both my children letter. 

My son came home inspired enough that he was still talking about the conference this morning over a quick breakfast of matzah, butter and jam. We discussed what it meant that a gathering on tolerance was being held on a day when observant Jews couldn't attend. 

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama for civil rights. When asked why he hadn't remained in New York Rabbi Heschel replied, "In Selma my legs were praying." The march in Selma was not held on the first day of Passover or Rosh Hashanah. Nor was it held on Easter or Christmas. If it had been, I would like to think that what was at stake in Selma would have over-ridden any other concerns of religious people of every faith.

I may believe that my children are Being Passover and literally escorting others out of slavery by attending this conference. I may believe that attending a civil rights conference instead of attending synagogue is another expression of casting off the soul-crushing oppression of whatever enslaves us. But for some Jewish kids that is an interpretive leap their families could not and should not have to make.

So yesterday my son prayed with his feet as he went from workshop to workshop and learned about other young people working to build a world more respectful of difference. I pray that in my children's lifetime such a conference will be held on a day when all young people can attend and matzah will be served. 


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Directing My Heart

When the hour of prayer arrives, if one is unable to stand, one should direct the heart toward The Holy of Holies.
-- After Mishnah Berachot 4:5

Passover isn't what it once was but I suppose every Jewish adult can say that for worse or for better. Last year we narrowly escaped a Passover without Matzah. Pesach arrived without warning as did our local Lubavitcher rabbi with Shmurah Matzah. I had not cleaned or shopped and there was little left in the stores. Friends came to the rescue with an extra box here and there and I cobbled together a week's worth of meals for the kids.

The enslavement to my limitations was so disheartening I filled my hand-held brain, otherwise known as an iPhone, with multiple fail-safe measures. Every day since Purim the phone rings and a message pops up "Prepare Fourteen Lunches." I was not about to spend another whole year in bondage to my brain.

This holiday could be a guilt-fest during which I beat myself up for seven days in remembrance of the inability to remember. I have plenty about which to feel guilty but my inability to observe Passover according to my own custom does not fall under that heading. I want to break from from the confines of what this holiday meant to me in the past, what I had hoped it would be for my children. I wish to celebrate what is, rather than mourning what is not, or at least what is not any longer or not yet.

Mishnah Berachot describes a man on a journey. He is riding a donkey and the hour of prayer arrives. The Mishnah says:

"If he was riding on a donkey, he must dismount; if he is unable to, he must turn his face (toward Jerusalem); if he is unable to turn his face, he shall direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies."

This journey into The Brainstorm is not a ride from which I will dismount any time soon. Nor can I turn away from it. All I can do is attempt to direct my heart toward that which is holy -- friends with matzah and large seder tables, the voices of my children singing songs they learned without my having taught them. I am directing my heart toward the mercy of being freed from unproductive guilt and led to a land filled with promise. And I direct my heart toward Jerusalem, holiest of cities, to which I pray to return every day without fail or forgetfulness.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

In Search of the Heart's Memory

Cousin Judy is the sister I never had and I am glad for that. If she and I had been sisters we most likely would not speak to each other. In a loud voice and at the same time. I would still be nursing teenaged resentment because all my male friends had crushes on her when I was eighteen and she was fourteen and that was utterly gross. She would still be mad at me for borrowing one of those sweaters her mother would fold and put on hangers. They looked as pretty on the hangers as they did on my cousin. Judy's middle name is "Style." It was her mother's first name. Actually, Judy's middle name is unpronounceably Yiddish. I would have worn the sweater under tie-dyed overalls and left it on the floor of the bathroom at the end of the day.

My children and I stay with cousin Judy, her husband Matt and their kids Malcolm and Ethan when we visit family. I owe them a thank you note. I owe them quite a few. Thank you notes were one of the first casualties of The Brainstorm. The amount of remembering that goes into making or buying, writing and mailing a thank you note exceeds what a fully-abled person might imagine. There are so many tiny steps involved in the proper expression of appreciation. Well-chosen words aren't the half of it. At times I have gotten through steps one and two, the purchase and writing of a card, only to find aforementioned card in my drawer, months past its shelf date. The note is unsealed, unaddressed, unstamped and un-mailed and I have long since forgotten whose kindness or the nature of the generosity that inspired me to write in the first place.

The perfect card appeared yesterday at the market and it was so apropos to Cousin Judy and her family I had to take a chance. It said that something -- I don't know what -- is the heart's memory. I don't know what the heart's memory is because I cannot find the card. I've tried working backwards, not to find the card, but to discern what the heart's memory could be. Like on Jeopardy.

The heart's memory. What is... matching tattoos?!!

"Matching tattoos is the heart's memory."

I don't think that is what the card said.

If I could find the card I bought yesterday I would know the exact nature of heart's memory. Along with the heart's memory, I might discover the memory's memory. Then I would know where I put the card.

Thank you Judele, Matt, Malcolm and Ethan. Your generosity and easy-going hospitality inspire gratitude....

Gratitude! It is the heart's memory.

I wonder if I left the card at the market?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Re-Entry

February vacation. New York City. I recall an orgy of food, the joy of being with people I love and skating in Central Park in the rain with the kids. We went to Cousin Judy's Museum. Some, less in the know, call it The Museum of Modern Art. There I discovered my daughter likes Rousseau, which matches her fantastical imagination. My son likes the Avant-Garde which pairs elegantly with his general sense of ennui and other aspects of his personality that can only be described in French. At MOMA both children, upon seeing a massive installation of bee-pollen, wondered why the museum was not handing out epi-pens with the tickets?

Speech has left me. Writing is the Dangerous Unknown until it becomes the Dangerous Forgotten.

Forgotten will happen the minute I hit "publish."

The train ride was better than the paintings (Sorry Cousin Judy. Unlike my children, I am a cretin). God's handiwork was especially lovely as we passed through Mystic, CT where I realized that there was no snow in New York and lots of it in New England. In Mystic I began craving pizza and the bottomless quiet of New England winter.

Tonight is Purim, the holiday when we are commanded to turn life upside-down on its head.

I'm already there and my head hurts so very much.

Re-entry into the gravitational pull of my life is as punishing on The Brainstorm as the lights in Times Square.

Pain or not, life would not be worth living without the grounded pull of Maine or the bright lights of the big city.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Brainstorm In The Snowstorm

I thought I was prepared. We had candles, flashlights, batteries, soup ingredients and ice cream. What else do you need in epic weather?

The soup was good for a day. By day two I was running out of culinary ideas and we were low on toilet paper. Instead of remembering my next door neighbor is a caterer and probably has a little extra this and that lying around I decided to drive to the store. I called first, a shining example of the progress I have made over the last three years. No one answered. I went anyway. It didn't occur to me that no one answered because no one was there. Even when I got on the road, alone, just me and the snow plows, I kept going.

The third store I tried was the charm. It was just me, one employee and a lot of empty grocery shelves. The trick would be to shop fast enough so my car didn't get stuck in a snow drift. I hadn't brought a shovel, something seasoned Mainers keep in their cars in winter. I pieced together a few days worth of meals and made it home safely thanks to the men and women who keep our roads clear no matter what the conditions.

You don't realize how difficult the simple things are until you are unable to follow through on those simple things. But unlike other dangerous, stupid things I have done since hitting my head, this time even I could see progress. When I got home, my children saw the look in my eyes and made the case for a nap. But I knew if I didn't act fast I would forget what it feels like when your minivan fishtails.

I made a list of everything we use in the house including the brand, size and the store where I buy it. Then I compiled another list of the kids favorite meals, the ingredients with details so specific, even a total stranger would know the difference between the Doritos in the purple bag and those in the blue bag, that apples had to be Gala, kosher meat can be had at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods but nowhere else in the great state of Maine and that Parmesan cheese never comes in a green can. I printed out the list and posted it all over the house, saved a copy on my phone so I would never be without it and on my screen saver in case, God-forbid, I lose the phone which is essentially a prosthetic brain.

It is supposed to rain tomorrow. We have five foot snow drifts. That could mean floods and it will definitely mean ice. A year ago I would not have been able to write that sentence or think that thought.

Rain plus snow equals floods. Floods and ice plus trees could equal power outages. In this moment sun plus snow equals beauty and the joy of success. I learned from a mistake for the first time in a long time and we have enough toilet paper to last until spring.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Soul in Silence Waits for You

At some point during my teenage years I discovered a large book at each place in the pews of our synagogue. It was called The Torah: A Modern Commentary by Gunther Plaut. It had the thin, delicate paper I would later come to associate with holy books, but until that moment I don't think I had ever read the Bible. Intrigued, I began attending a Torah Study class for adults on Saturday mornings before services.

By the time I graduated high school the rabbis of our synagogue would ask me to lead the class when they were on vacation. I never stopped going to a Saturday morning Torah Study class, moving from Gunther Plaut's masterpiece to Rashi's commentary in Hebrew. I was introduced to a collection called Itturei Torah in rabbinical school but the Hebrew was too hard. It is an anthology of Hasidic thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. When other students shared their translations I understood the anthology was a precious gem shining through the Torah text, revealing God and the human soul. I kept at the Hebrew and Aramaic long after ordination. Once these languages were my own and not foreign I could go back to the sources of Jewish wisdom. Not just anthologies of great ideas, but the writings of the Masters themselves. It took me twenty-three years to complete the rabbinic education I was supposed to have covered in five.

Slow and Steady. There is no race.

Teaching is no longer in my skill set nor can I learn new material.  I returned to Torah Study anyway, recently, I think. I have found a ride to synagogue with a fellow traveller. Since I do not feel the passing of time it is all I can do to get to the class. I do not know what Torah portion we will be talking about when I get there. Even if I look it up, the information flies out of my head moments after I check the calendar.

I listen to the passage the rabbi has selected for study that Shabbat morning. I do remember what I learned before the Brainstorm. I can see entire passages in my mind's eye. Mostly I have a visceral response to the narrative or to the responses of others in the class. We talk, argue, agree, disagree, all for the sake of Heaven.

The last time I went to Torah Study I made some notes. We were talking about Moses and Miriam's song at the sea and how singing and knowing God are one. I wrote to myself, "The man across the table would like God to sit beside him in study." I wrote this down because the man was not a singer, or so he said, and he wanted to meet God in sacred study.

I remember none of this -- not the conversation about singing nor the man and his wish to know God -- but something has been with me since the class. Not so much a memory, but a shadow, playing hide and seek in the space where short-term memory once lived.

In the hum of learning, there is a moment when I can hear God pull up a chair and sit down at the table. At that moment the melody of learning-out-loud is overcome by silent attention. "My soul in silence waits for You," sang the Psalmist.

The Holy One of Blessing is always at the table, waiting for us to wait for God. In silence.

Friday, January 25, 2013

This Chair is Just Right

When I was a rabbinical student each of us had a student pulpit, a congregation at which we learned a lot and taught a little. I was a student intern at Central Synagogue in New York City for three of my five years of seminary. It is a majestic building, defying description. You must go see it. At the time it was not a building easily accessible to the disabled. Now it is so accessible, I worshipped there tonight from my bedroom here in Maine. The service is still going on. I was able to participate and focus for close to half an hour. My head started pounding and I am turning to you before I close the computer and my eyes.

They stream the services at Central Synagogue live so people like me can participate by computer. It is too far for me to drive the fifteen or so miles to the synagogue I used to serve here in Maine, especially at night. And I still cannot sit through an entire worship service.

As I sang along with the rabbi and cantor whom I do not know, I noticed that the needlework on the chairs that grace the pulpit has changed since I was a student rabbi. The chairs figured heavily in my time at Central because they carried with them a strange irony. The needlepoint had been done by the ladies of the sisterhood but I did not fit in the chair. It was too big. When I sat in those chairs my feet did not touch the ground. The chairs, painstakingly crafted by women, were built for men.

The chairs I saw on the pulpit tonight were the same shape as the old ones but they did not seem as big and the needlepoint was definitely gone. Central Synagogue was devastated by fire some years ago and craftspeople of extraordinary skill were assembled to rebuild this landmark of religious life in America. I wonder if they replaced the chairs entirely or just the needlepoint? All I know is the chairs looked like anyone could fit in them. I don't know if it was the furniture itself or the spirit of inclusiveness that caused the chairs to fit the people instead of expecting the people to fit in the chairs.

Any person, fully abled, disabled, Jewishly committed, disaffected, religiously curious or in need of a ride could be carried away in songs of praise to God. Tonight I was not left, legs hanging, trying desperately to get comfortable. The floor rose up to support me. It was just right.



Thursday, January 17, 2013

Oops I Did It Again

The voice on the answering machine had that tremulous worry sound. My friend Hillel had his grave concern voice on, like I broke curfew but before I got grounded he wanted to make sure I wasn't dead or hurt or both. I haven't blogged since December 24, 2012. That is long enough for me to have forgotten I have a blog which is exactly what happened. Again.

To Hillel and all my other friends who read this for the sole purpose of making sure I am alive and still living in Maine, fear not. My kids get hungry. If anything serious happened to me they would alert someone as soon as we ran out of groceries. But I do appreciate the reminder.

Every person and thing in my life, except for this blog, has an alarm on my iPhone. I eat, go to bed, cheer at baseball games and buy sneakers in the next size up because an alarm goes off telling me where to go and what to do when I get there. Then another alarm goes off to remind me that the alarm went off.

But not writing. I don't write on a schedule. I wait for the muse or at least a subject about which to write. Serious writers don't wait. They write every day. Writing is a day-job. I can't take a day-job or a night-job or any job that requires doing something specific at a particular time or place. Unless someone will pay me to stare into space for an indeterminate period of time until I lay down and close my eyes.

Then there is the reality that I do not write every day because I am not a writer.

I may have to become a writer. Can I become a bad writer? Worse, can I aspire to be a mediocre writer so I don't forget the blog? There are people who aren't really writers who become writers anyway. Some even sell books I had to read in high school though the writer was long dead and the books weren't important enough to be considered full-on dreadful. I'm talking about books that were excruciatingly middling to fair.

If a writer writes in the forest and nobody reads it, or someone reads it but doesn't enjoy it, is she still a writer?

So Hillel, thanks for calling and reminding me to write.

Am I grounded?







Sunday, December 23, 2012

I Love You More

That is what my daughter says when I tell her I love her. I love her so much, I've stopped arguing and let her win. I sobbed when I saw that a little boy who was murdered in Newtown, Connecticut would say something similar to his mother when she told him she loved him. He was in Kindergarten, I think. My daughter is in 5th grade. To have formulated that idea at such a young age -- he must have been a deeply sensitive child and way ahead of schedule in his emotional development. I don't know how to do the math of multiplying his singular death by twenty-seven. There is no exponent large enough.

We moved into this house shortly after returning from a sabbatical in Jerusalem. It is an ordinary house with an unusual feature. In its unfinished basement, there is the beginning of a tiny room with a low ceiling, concrete floor and walls and a metal bulkhead door. When my son saw it for the first time he exclaimed in the Hingish he spoke upon our return from Israel, "Mommy, its a Mik-lat!"

"Mik-lat," is the Hebrew word for "Bomb-shelter."

My son thought we had a bomb shelter in our new home.

Every school in Israel has a bomb shelter including the public school my son attended. When it wasn't being used to escape incoming, it doubled as a classroom. Baruch HaShem, Thank God, it was only used as a classroom in my child's memory. The school was guarded by a soldier with a machine gun. So is every restaurant, shopping mall and synagogue in Israel. They have good reason to secure soccer fields and elementary schools with armed guards. Israel is plagued by terrorists and neighboring enemy states who want to topple the country and kill its inhabitants. I understood this at a soul level long before I had children. At seventeen I learned about war. I was working on an archaeological dig in Northern Israel for a summer. Just a short hitch-hike away, Kiryat Shimona was bombed. That was the beginning of the first Lebanon war.

Years later I went to Jordan, shortly after the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan had been signed. I bought a map in Amman.  There was no country called "Israel" on the map. When one's neighbors believe you have no right to exist, that is the appropriate time to consider bomb-shelters and security guards.

So when I heard that the National Rifle Association was suggesting armed guards in our schools I wondered if we too are a country threatened with annihilation, not by other countries, but by American civilians with easy access to weapons of mass destruction. Isn't that what an automatic weapon is? Aren't they designed for mass casualties in war? In the great State of Maine, people hunt for food. They don't machine gun the deer.

There is a sign near my home that says "Hunting with Shotgun Only." The sign used to make me laugh picturing guys in camouflage and orange with handguns yelling at the deer to hand over their wallets. I'm not laughing anymore. The deer are not the only ones being hunted.

Civilians in this country are armed to the teeth and it is time for that to end. Assault rifles are for armies. Handguns are for police officers. Schools, in a country at peace, shouldn't need armed guards.

If we love our children more.




Saturday, December 15, 2012

"To Leap Up and Away"

Every Friday night I attempt to put my hands on my non-compliant son's head and recite the blessing for a boy, "May God make you like Ephriam and Menashe." Menashe and Ephraim were Joseph's sons with his Egyptian wife Potiphera. Coincidentally on the third annivesary of the Brainstorm, 12/13/12, Jews around the world who can read, were reading the story in Genesis about the birth and naming of Joseph's sons.

I say coincidentally because if I remember correctly Joseph named his first son Menashe because starting a family in Egypt caused him to forget his home and the family in Israel. He had a special amnesia for his brothers who threw him in a pit and tore his life to pieces when they tore his coat to pieces, dipped it in the blood of a goat and showed it to their father. The name "Menashe" literally means, "To Leap up and away," but figuratively it means, "To cause to forget." Who wouldn't want to forget the cold darkness of the pit into which Joseph was thrown by his own family?

Three years ago I didn't exactly leap but I definitely went up and away and it sure did cause me to forget. I forgot two years. Truly, the first two years after I hit my head are gone forever. Menashe's name intimates the oblivion of forgetfulness. Like Joseph living in Egypt I don't always recognize my new life but I am not clear about what my old life looked like either.

But there is also mercy in forgetting. Without the nagging past or the memory that something always comes after the present, there is only now. Today's insensitivities or outright insults are not tomorrow's memories. They are simply and mercifully forgotten.

If one takes the Hebrew letters of MeNaSHe's name and switches the order it spells, "NeSHaMa." There are no vowels in the Bible, just consonants. NeShaMa means, "soul," or "breath." When I first forgot, doctors told me to breathe. Breathe and meditate, that was every doctor's prescription.

There are places in my soul, places of mercy I would never have explored without taking, not a leap, but a fall, that caused me to forget. Perhaps someday all that MeNaSHe, all that forgetting, will be pure NeSHaMa, pure, kind, merciful soul.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anniversary Day 12.13.09

Anniversary week is still hard. My original plan was to engage in vigorous rehabilitation for two years and then get back into the rabbinate.

This is my third anniversary.

I'm late.

I don't like being late and I don't like when others are late. I think it is disrespectful. I used to tell couples getting married, "I'll be starting your wedding at 1:00 PM. I hope to see you there."

Mostly I have been mourning my tardiness but yesterday someone suggested a new plan. I hadn't thought of trying a new plan. It seemed so much more practical and authentically "me" to rigidly adhere to a plan that was not working.

So this is the new goal. Over the next year I am going to see if I can plan a scholar-in-residence weekend about Judaism and the disabled that I could bring to your shul. That way, if I do not succeed, I only have to be sad about the loss of a weekend, not a whole career.

And if I succeed, may it be God's will, I get to see you! With any luck, in Mauritius.




Monday, December 3, 2012

The Watchword of Our Faith

My daughter has a new friend. Her father is an Episcopal priest and her mother is an artist. They live with their three children in the church parsonage. He leads a congregation the way I once did, although we never lived on the property of the synagogue, even if my kids sometimes thought we did. Our children have much in common. We do not know each other well yet but there is the shared experience of living the religious life in public and out loud. Being with this family reminded me of why I became a rabbi and why I miss the work so terribly.

So picture this: My kids are helping to decorate the other family's Christmas tree and the priest is dusting off his seminary Hebrew with the words, "Shema Yisrael..." Of all the Hebrew phrases he could have picked... When I was a child the Shema Yisrael, the declaration of God's unity was called, "The watchword of our faith."

My own childhood rabbi did not recite, he declaimed. He had majesty. Who has majesty these days? "We now rise to proclaim the watchword of our faith," he would say, week in and week out in his sonorous baritone. We stood at attention and recited first, "Shema Yisrael...," then the English, "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is God's glorious kingdom forever and ever." The the choir would sing it yet a third time in case we missed the point.

Back to the tree and my kids and the Hebrew-literate priest.

I have never been comfortable with Christmas. The thrust of this holiday upon those of us who are not Christian by well meaning people is an intrusion. The shopping frenzy seems so out of touch with the Jesus I have read about. The celebration of the birth of the Christian Savior seems obscured by rampant consumerism that leads to debt, of which Jesus, if I have the story right, was not a fan.

"They bless their food before they eat too!" my daughter exclaimed with an enthusiasm kids her age usually reserve for shiny things you might find under a Christmas tree, not for the people whose tree it was and their prayer before a meal. It was as if she had discovered hidden treasure.

I think we all did.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Eulogy for A Man I Never Met

Our little town got smaller on Thanksgiving day. A greater teacher, a teacher of the year in the State of Maine, a forty year old husband and father died while out for a run on Thanksgiving and our town is much, much smaller now.

I did not know him.

Last night a parent told me she didn't know how to explain to her child why she should eat healthy food, if healthy-eating, Thanksgiving-running young people die.

When my mother died of cancer at the age of forty-five the first question out of every grown-up's mouth was, "Did she smoke?" They took comfort in the fact that she did smoke, heavily, as if that fact led to inevitable consequences and that they were safe, as long as they didn't smoke.

Life is not safe. People die because they smoke and some people live to be a hundred despite a life-time of bad habits. Some people have a genetic death sentence but some people just die. A woman dies in an accident that was nobody's fault. A man dies on a bridge coming home from work when the earthquake hit. A young man is lying in bed next to his brand new wife, so new he is still getting used to the word, "wife." He asks her to pass the highlighter because they are studying for exams. She had a silent aneurysm. She is gone.

When my son was in pre-school he asked for something he couldn't have and protested that it wasn't fair. I said compassionately that life was not fair. The other parents looked betrayed. How could I tell such a small child that life wasn't fair? I was scaring him. He would have bad dreams, they protested. When should he find out? When he can't have some silly thing he wants or when a teacher, younger and healthier than me, dies on Thanksgiving?

It is not the bad dreams of our children that frighten adults so much as our own. We are not in charge. We can have an impact on the world, but we are not in control.

We are not in control.

My town is smaller. Much smaller because a great soul I never met, died. There is nothing I can say. I can hold the people I know who are suffering in my arms and hold those I do not know in my heart. I can be present and not look away. I can take my children to the Memorial service and cry for someone we never met but whose impact was felt by so many.

It says in the Talmud, "Do not comfort the mourners while their dead lies before them." There are no words. No platitudes that will give this family comfort in their tragic loss. All we can do is be there, unflinching, present and aware. All we can do is leave off from the question of "Why?" and move on to the question of "How?" How will our town help this family through their pain, which will not subside on any timetable? How will we help the survivors survive? How will we be sure to show up for them six weeks from now and two years from now and when the youngest child graduates from high school?  All we can do is remember that future Thanksgivings will be the hardest day of the year for this family.

Life is not fair. All we can do is be there anyway.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Please Go to Israel Because I Can't

I did not know my sabbatical in 2008 was going to be my last trip to Israel. At least it was 6 months long. I started going to israel twice a year during the second Intifada. I was in the middle of giving a high holiday sermon about supporting Israel and I was boring myself. At that moment I decided I would never give a sermon about Israel again. I would just go there and take people with me.

A like minded angel made the trip so affordable, the bargain outweighed any fear people might have had about terrorism. Thank you to that angel. It only took one trip. The Intifada ended. More trips to Israel came and went, I started studying in Jerusalem during the summer and finally the sabbatical with my family. I did need to go home to do my job, get divorced and fall on the pavement ending the job or any job and making travel extremely difficult physically and impossible financially.

If I had to be brain damaged it would have been nice if we could have mixed up the order, like say, get divorced, go on sabbatical with the kids in Israel, fall on the pavement and have to stay in Jerusalem for the rest of my life.

I can't go to Israel. When I say "can't" I don't mean it is inconvenient or a financial stretch. I don't mean I would rather save the money for a time when I could see all of the country, not just the parts that aren't under attack. I mean I really cannot go.

If you are able to go to Israel, would you please go for me?

The last time Israel had a big problem Americans who were liberal minded stayed away. Travel to Israel remained steady during the Second Intifada among Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians but dropped precipitously among religious liberals.  Let us pray this is not a conflict with a name and Israel can soon worry about more important things like the crumbling schools or fixing the political system. In the meantime it would mean a great deal to me ,and I am guessing to the Israelis, if a whole lot of people from abroad showed up just to say hi during this difficult time.

I can't be one of them. Can you go in my place?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Acceptance Looks Like New Plates

I wish I meant dishes but I mean license plates with the little guy in the wheel-chair symbol. I am not in a wheel-chair. Neither are many other disabled people. There is a certain quality of degradation in the idea that every disability can be summed up in one universal symbol.

Before the plates I had something I was supposed to hang on my rear-view mirror that indicated I was disabled. I was only going to use it in icy weather because, let's face it, I'm one more head injury away from a starring role on the TV show Veggie Tales. I can't afford to fall. But once I returned to driving short distances I found I needed the plates for two other reasons.

I cannot remember where I parked my car.

I cannot remember to hang the sign on my rear view mirror.

Acceptance sounds like voice-enabled websites. Recently I have been listening to E-Daf, a voice-enabled website that contains the whole Talmud. My Orthodox coreligionists are ahead of the curve when it comes to using technology to deliver Torah to those who cannot access it by traditional means. There is no universal sign for the barriers to Jewish learning. The voice on the E-Daf is nothing like Alex, my smooth-talking MAC. Instead of the mellifluous patois of Alex created by the disabled-friendly people at Apple, the voice-enabled Talmud on E-Daf and Rashi's commentary on the Chabad website sound like a couple of Yeshivah guys from Brooklyn.

Finally, acceptance looks like my ski-pole, modified by the good people at LL Bean to serve as a walking stick, which is a euphemism for a cane. Now that the temperature has dropped hidden patches of black ice threaten in the silence of winter cold. The fellows in the camping department at Bean's told me that they sell a fair number of ski poles and the thingy's that turn ski-poles into canes for the "I'm too fit to use a cane," set. Baby boomers who don't feel old and don't want to look old have been snapping them up.

I'm young. Or at least, youngish. I may be in the second half of life but not the last quarter.

Acceptance is unpleasant and a relief at the same time.

I wish it just meant I could get new plates. Some handmade pottery perhaps. That is what my neighbors have and it is gorgeous, cozy-looking stuff. Acceptance is not cozy. It can be a whole lot more comfortable. I mean on the days I accept the acceptance.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How It Feels

6:00 AM: Wake up with searing head pain. Hate pain.

6:02 AM Wake kids. Shower, dress, eat, have coffee.

7:00 AM Kids fed, dressed, lunches made, homework in backpacks and on the bus.

7:05 AM Hate pain more.

7:06 AM Return emails, answer phone calls and write blog post.

10:32 AM Extreme pain and nausea. Have to keep eyes closed.

TBI, aka, The Brainstorm. That is how it feels.

10:38 AM Hit "Publish."

Celebrating Gay, Happy Weddings!

When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, I was unmarried. Completely single. I had tremendous focus and did not want any man distracting me from completing my studies, choosing and being chosen for the right first job.

I was an idiot. For my unmarried readers who wish to be married, you can always change careers. Put twice as much effort into finding the right spouse as you put into your most precious pursuit, whether that is a job, skiing or accessorizing and you should be ok.

The first openly gay student was and remains, a superstar. More talent, compassion and maturity than my whole class put together. If they had kicked him out of school there could only have been one reason, that he was gay, because he was an exemplar. If he had applied to rabbinical school as an openly gay man he would not have been accepted at the time. He came out when he was almost finished with his education. It was a bold, strategic moved of self-sacrifice for the greater good.

The did not ask him to leave. He had a hard time getting jobs worthy of his talents. I don't know how many years later my seminary started accepting openly gay students but now they do. They also no longer limit the number of women in a class to make sure each class has a majority of men.

We've come a long way baby.

When I interviewed for that precious first job I was told, quietly and discreetly by a faculty member, to make it clear that I was single, not a lesbian. I played along and it made me sick. I remember during interviews telling a search committee that I didn't attend Bar and Bat Mitzvah receptions. I had been to one extravaganza too many before I was ordained. Everyone joked around that I would be more likely to find a husband if I went to the parties. They meant well. They only wanted good things for me. Inside I felt I was betraying every rabbi I did not know was gay or lesbian because he or she was afraid to come out of the closet.

Remember, the separation between Church and State that is the bedrock of this country? The down side that comes with its profound upsides is that religious institutions are free to openly discriminate on the basis of anything: gender, color, religious ideas, disability, sexual orientation, a bad hair day or height.

My second year on the job on Yom Kippur I came out as a straight rabbi who did both straight and gay weddings. The next morning someone had spray painted on the building, "THE RABBI IS A DYKE."

This was San Francisco in 1993. Not Kansas in 2012.

I was married in that building. It was a terrible marriage but a beautiful wedding.

And I have lived to see the day when marriage, in this great State of Maine is a right, or in cases like mine, a partial disaster, afforded all human beings. I say partial because without the marriage I would not have the children I have. I delight in the two most loved, adored, precious angels in the world.

Besides yours.

I wouldn't mind officiating at one last wedding. I would love to see one of the couples I married in the eyes of God and more importantly, their parents and grandparents, become a married couple in the eyes of the state.

That is not going to happen. I cannot sit through a wedding let alone perform one.

I no longer perform weddings because I might zone out in the middle of the ceremony, forget the names of the bride and groom or lay down under the Chuppah to close my eyes for just a few minutes. The last wedding I did was after the brainstorm. It was a perfect last wedding for me to do because the bride and groom had no interest in perfection. They just wanted to be married to each other. I was afraid I would forget the names of these beautiful individuals under the Chuppah.

I do not remember the ceremony.  All I remember is the couple and their families accepting me as I am now. They knew how I felt about their union even if my memory didn't work. They were not embarrassed that the connection between my thoughts and my words was broken. They didn't even mind that i couldn't really read the ceremony. I signed the license. All the rest was commentary.

There are, God willing, a few weddings in my future to attend. Those of my kids, my nephews and wierder things have happened -- maybe my own? That is if Mr. Right is passing through Southern Maine and doesn't mind if we skip a reception and just take a nap.

Whomever the next generation in my family loves, they are free to marry legally in my backyard.

Thank you to everyone who voted "yes" for marriage equality in Maine. That makes nine states. Nine down. Forty one states to go.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Talent Pool

My daughter plays boy's baseball because there is no girls baseball and really, when kids are ten, it doesn't matter if they are boys or girls. All that matters is that they have reasonably good eye-hand coordination and most of all, a love of the game.

This winter she is playing in an indoor league with boys (and her) from all over southern Maine. In our town she is old news. At today's game Hannah got to pitch. She struck out a boy and a mother exclaimed, "That poor girl!" Did I miss something? She struck the kid out. I'm not much into sports but I thought that was what the pitcher was supposed to do.

The moms became like a Greek chorus expressing grief when my little girl played the game like any other kid her age.

Except one mom who hooted and hollered and cheered whenever Hannah touched the ball. Her son was on the other team. She explained she was the youngest of nine children. They were a baseball team. And a football team and every other team imaginable. But when she left the confines of the family playing field there was no place for her as a child.

What a waste of 50% of the world population. Both my children heard the Greek chorus and the lone mom who wished she had been allowed to play with the boys. They made the leap from ten year olds playing baseball straight to the White House. They could feel the potential ripple effect if two or three or a hundred dutiful daughters sitting in the stands picked up a ball instead of watching from the sidelines. If these girls could see themselves playing baseball, maybe they could see themselves as the leader of the free world?

With rare exceptions, no ten year old is all that talented. Some practice more or less. Some grow faster than others. But with the exception of the random prodigy, real talent will only emerge when they are much, much older. They love what they are doing or they are bored and would rather be playing chess or the clarinet or reading a good book or hanging by their knees from a tree branch or the parallel bars.

The push to specialize little kids, to wish them into millions of Midori's, when, in fact, a Midori or a Joshua Bell, is so very rare that Michael Jordan himself didn't make his high school varsity basketball team in his sophomore year because he was too short at 5'11". A year later he was four inches taller.

We are shrinking the talent pool in America when we leave out half the population as well as every kid who doesn't have a growth spurt before the age of twelve or a private coach from the moment  s/he can walk.  And what is worse, in our insane push for children to be prodigies instead of being children, we take the "play" out of "playing" music and sports or playing on the math team, the debate team or in the art room.

The only way to grow the talent pool in this country is to let everyone dive in, splash around, learn how to swim and have under-water tea parties. Every boy is, of course, invited to the tea party even if he does not yet show great promise for the baking of scones. He is just a kid. Give him time.