Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"They stole it from us."

8 Sivan 5779.

For Goldie. May you be comforted.

Reb Velvel Pasternak, zt"l. Photo credit: Naava Pasternak Swirsky
Oh, man.

I hurt every time light and music leave the world.

In 1986 or so, the Dearly Beloved and I began to become enmeshed in All Things Jewish.

We didn't know where this would lead us — but we were entranced. Part of what grabbed us was the music. And the humor. And the love of culture, old and new.

One friend gave us books to help us on our path toward understanding. Another gave us cassette tapes. (Remember those?) One of the most precious was a lecture by Velvel Pasternak about the origins and history of Hasidic music. I think I listened to it a hundred times. His humor and his love of all things Jewish made Reb Velvel's class a lot deeper than "bidee-bum-bidee-bee." I fell in love with the music of my European ancestors, and felt as if I had a door into my people's culture. Spouting bits of wisdom from Reb Velvel's lecture made me sound as if I understood a little about Jewish music, and that gave me a foot in the door...

I remember our wonder when Reb Velvel taught about music that was "rescued" from non-Jewish sources, music discovered floating outside the windows of churches and taverns, that later found expression in holy Jewish niggunim. (You think we invented "Maoz Tzur," right? It came from "Rock of Ages," a very not-Jewish hymn. Some Jewish farmer was walking past a church after plowing his field, and suddenly, a lovely tune filled his mind and soul. All he had to do was put words to the music in his heart...)

"If it's used in a Jewish way, it becomes Jewish," Reb Velvel intoned. And how we laughed when he quoted an elderly Jewish man regarding the tune of a niggun which proved to have a non-Jewish source: "Don't vorry. Zeh stole it from uns."

Years later, after a few more wonderful teachers and much blessing, my family and I were able to make aliyah as full-fledged members of the Jewish tribe.

Ruti and Shira. Photo credit: a kind Israeli passerby
The passion I had since childhood found expression at last: a word-person without any particularly grand ideas of her own finally had What To Say, thanks to the holy land of Israel. And I found other writers who shared my vision about this precious land and its people, and we became friends...

And one of those friends was the daughter of Reb Velvel — because God loves to put people's hearts together.

Shira Pasternak Be'eri is one of the people I consider to be a gift to the Jewish family. Like her dear father, her heart swells and beats and dances for the Jewish people. She takes such pride in encouraging and teaching. She is known in the J-Blogosphere as the Fairy Blog Mother. Even when she has been going through the loss of her father — for such loss never happens overnight, in an eyeblink — she has continued to pop up in our writers' community, encouraging a writer who is just starting out, teaching another about the ins-and-outs of publishing, reminding the "old hands" to read the stuff of newcomers and to comment, to keep the fire burning...

Just like her dad.

May those who know continue to teach and encourage.

May those who are privileged to learn remember the source of their wisdom.

Thank you, Reb Velvel, for all the gifts you have added to the world of music, of writing, of ahavat Yisrael. May you rest in peace.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Playing with the Grave Issue of Conversion Annulment

7 Sivan 5779.

It's unusual for a play to keep me from sleeping well. But I was in for one of those patented tossing-and-turning nights after watching Miriam Metzinger's play at Jerusalem's Khan Theater a few days before Shavuot.

Directed by Yael Valier as part of her debate-provoking Theater and Theology series, In a Stranger's Grave strikes very close to home for me. Two religious Jewish sisters prepare for the funeral of their mother in Israel, only to receive the shocking news that the burial society will not allow her to be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery next to her husband. Their once-pious mother had discarded Jewish observance after the death of her husband, resulting in the rabbinical court questioning her original commitment at the time of her conversion to Judaism decades before.

When my husband and I converted to Judaism in 1989, we were deeply touched by Frankfurt's Chief Rabbi's words just prior to our immersions in the mikvaot: "What was before no longer is. Once you go through this process, there is no undoing it. If chas v'shalom you would decide not to live as Jews, you would still be Jews, and would have to answer to God for failing to live up to your responsibilities." He said these words as a "last chance" for us to change our minds. But what resonated for us was "once a Jew, always a Jew," and with that privilege came responsibility. We understood that our Jew-ness could never be taken away.

In 2008, our world shifted tectonically. The unprecedented annulment of conversions that had been supervised by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman changed the lives of some of our friends, and created a ripple effect causing converts everywhere to doubt the security of their status within the Jewish family.

Throughout the following decade, we were personally affected by the Rabbinate's hesitation to accept conversions as valid which had been performed outside Israel. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of our yishuv Rav in advocating on our behalf, not one of our four sons would have been permitted to have a kosher wedding in Israel.

Metzinger's play fairly addresses many questions. In the words of Yael Valier: "Can anyone but the convert judge the sincerity of her conversion? Can Jewish status be annulled? Can the pain of the individual ever trump the needs of the community? Must a society take risks that could lead to the erosion of its own values?"

The play's characters struggle with these questions, and the audience feels them, along with the conflicting and shifting loyalties toward and between the sisters, portrayed by Devorah Leah Jaffe and Avital Macales. Macales plays Esther, the central figure in the drama, whose sanity threatens to desert her under the weight of this life-altering emotional earthquake. Jaffe plays her sister Chana, struggling to keep her family together, even as she and Esther face the reality that it is not only their mother's Jewish status that is in question...

As a convert, I found all my anxieties welling to the surface, as the debate raged on stage. I tried to be fair to the rabbi representing the burial society. Played by Howard Metz, the rabbi's concerns for the larger Jewish community were deftly but compassionately expressed. Bakol Ruben Gellar, Charles B. Davies, Mordechai Buxner and Syma Davidovich all played the roles of friends, family and colleagues whose loyalty to the two sisters fluctuates sadly and believably throughout the story. (I joked with these actors after the play that it was good there was a question-and-answer period following their performance, because it gave me a chance to get over being mad at them.) Our hero is Rabbi Aaron, played by David Golinkin. In essence "playing himself," as Valier pointed out, Rabbi Golinkin argues passionately on behalf of the inviolability of conversions, bringing many textual proofs to support his position. Happily, the play is allowed lighter moments through Aharon Naiman's characterization of a police officer, during humorous and tender moments with the volatile Esther.

After the play, there was a discussion between Valier and Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, himself a convert. Their discussion and the audience's questions touched on the personal as well as the larger Jewish community's needs. Not surprisingly, a large part of the discussion centered on whether the needs of the Jewish community are being met by the rulings of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

I hope that the discussion will continue well beyond the drama depicted on stage in In a Stranger's Grave. It is an important discussion with far-reaching ramifications. This is not an easy play to watch, but I strongly recommend you take the chance of a sleepless night. Our Jewish family — our greater Jewish family — needs to address the questions Miriam Metzinger's story so adroitly presents.

In a Stranger's Grave is sold out! To be put on a first-to-know list in advance of our fall run, you are encouraged to send an email to Contact@TheaterAndTheology.com.

Photo credit: Yael Valier

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Mental Gymnastics and the Holy Shabbat

9 Nisan 5779.

Years ago, when the boys were young, we played board games or card games on Shabbat. It was a great way to spend the long summer days and made wonderful family time. My sons were competitive, a trait they inherited from their dear father. Their wizardry with reinventing games, rewriting rules, and creating their own games still astounds me. The games were never boring. But how to keep score, when you couldn't write things down on this very holy day?

One of the boys came home from yeshiva with the idea of bookmarking page numbers in books. No writing, and scores were logged. This was later replaced by the many-sided dice that came with role-playing games. Give each person three dice, and scores into the hundreds could be tallied. Oh these ingenious Jews...

This clever device has been extrapolated to fulfill other Shabbat needs met so easily during the week with pen and paper or keyboard. You know how you only remember certain things on Shabbat? When you can't write yourself a note to take care of it later? God has such a witty sense of humor... Well, He created us, and He gave us the gift of innovation.

Today I remembered two things I had to take care of. I only have the time to notice the dust and spider webs on Shabbat. Honestly! I never see them the rest of the week! But how was I to remember? I laid a packet of plastic flies used for the Pesach Seder on my desk. When Shabbat ended, the flies would remind me of spiders, which would remind me of spider webs...

Later in the day, it suddenly occurred to me that a friend had written a really lovely note to us about an interview the Dearly Beloved had given about American football in Israel. I had shared it with the Dearly Beloved, and we had both enjoyed it -- but to my chagrin, I realized that I had never responded. The email must be nearly two weeks old! Not wanting to risk forgetting again, I placed a clown decoration near the flies. Why? Because the clown would remind me that I owed a response to our friend -- a medical clown.

The human mind may be fallible. Jewish law may be challenging. But with God's help, we can always come up with ways to keep the rules, and still remember what we must do for the other six days of the week and for our commitment to our fellow man. I like to think that God approves of His children's efforts to keep His rules while using the creativity He gave them.

Shavua tov! What memory tricks work for you when you can't use pen and paper?

Monday, January 21, 2019

I am planting for my children

Tu B'Shevat 5779.

"May your roots go deep while your branches reach toward Shemayim." -- Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak "Jay" Novetsky of Michigan

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of life in Israel is watching established communities or homes destroyed in pursuit of an elusive peace. Or destroyed punitively in a property dispute, as if monetary compensation -- you know, the way the rest of the civilized world handles such matters -- simply isn't enough.

Those of us watching on the sidelines feel so impotent. What can we do? In the words of twelve-year-old Zipporah Nuszen, "Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands. Sometimes, you just have to take responsibility."

Moved by the plight of the residents of communities such as Amona, Ofra and Kfar Tapuach in the Shomron, and our own neighboring village here in Yehuda, Netiv HaAvot, Zipporah decided to do something with her own hands to protest the destruction of her fellow Jews' homes. Her bat mitzvah project was to plant 72 trees -- one for each destroyed home in those four communities -- at the entrance to the new yishuv of Amichai, where the displaced residents of Amona will live.

While the whole family gave its blessing in a heartfelt video at Zipporah's bat mitzvah celebration, Mrs. Shannon Nuszen, Zipporah, and her sister Samantha were the only members of the clan who were available this sunny Tu B'Shvat to actually participate in the planting.

I appreciated Sam's usual sense of humor. "Mom would never let us dig holes in the ground in Houston. But here, we get to dig holes everywhere to our hearts' content!"

There were speeches from the rabbi of Amichai and other members of the community, most of which were in Hebrew (so I could only understand the gist of the message). One resident, Manya Hillel, gave a lovely talk in English, quoting an old Chinese saying reminiscent of our own Jewish story of the man who plants a fig tree: "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. And the second best time to plant a tree is today."

Manya spoke about the trees planted twenty years ago, with all of the hope that planting entails, and the tragedy of having those trees violently ripped away. "One day, maybe twenty years from now, you will be able to come to Nuszen Park here in Amichai... and tell your children about when you planted trees here, and perhaps pick some olives."

People came from throughout the Shomron and Yehuda (Judea and Samaria) to participate in planting trees, which is considered one of the special mitzvot when dwelling in the holy land of Israel. It was cathartic to "get our hands dirty," to feel like we were doing something positive toward ameliorating a terrible situation. No, of course, the problem will not be solved until we choose sovereignty over poor political band-aids, and until our legal system is restructured so that property disputes are solved financially rather than destructively. But in the meantime, we build.

Women, men and children worked and dug, gently settled young saplings into new nests, lovingly placed fragrant soil around their roots to give them a safe home in holy earth.

There was energy here, and hope, and a quiet defiance.

Most admirably, people who had been displaced came to support the project. The presence of Rabbi and Anita Tucker gave us all a lot of strength. Trees were planted by residents of Ofra and Netiv HaAvot. I complimented them on not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves -- which would be completely understandable! -- but instead coming to be supportive of their brethren.

"We're all family," said David Den Heijer, a resident of Netiv HaAvot whose home was recently destroyed for the sake of a meter of disputed space.

And Anita Tucker summed it up. "You have two choices in this situation," she said. "You can choose this [a thumbs up], or you can choose this [a thumbs down]." Anita always chooses to add light, rather than to succumb to the darkness.

Much like the Nuszen family.

How do you fight darkness and the destruction of your people's homes?

I admire that the accepted Jewish way is not to meet destruction with violence, but with planting, creating, building, bringing new life.

The Dearly Beloved sporting his Gush Katif orange sweatshirt ('just for the Nuszens") while breaking through rocks to make way for his olive tree.

Our future is the children. That has always been true, and especially here in these holy, disputed communities.

"You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall!"
My brief moment of fame: a selfie with "the selfie king," MK Oren Hazan. I admire that he took the time to come and speak in a location that may or may not get him piles of votes, and that he said beautiful words about the project of this remarkable family.

On our way home, we and our South African friends, Razi and Chaya Baruch, decided we should make a pilgrimage every twenty years to visit "our trees." With his typical pragmatism, the Dearly Beloved recommended we drop by every five years. It was agreed, and now it's a date!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

There But for the Grace of God...

the Atar family of Netanya, BDE
I can't blame.

I hurt so much for the loss of the Atar family, of eight precious neshamot, of six children, little seeds not even fully germinated... Everyone is in pain over you, over the loss of you. As we should be.

But I also hurt for a man and his family. A man who stupidly decide that he could drive and text / who reached for something that fell to the floor of his car / who tried to drive and answer the call of a loved one in crisis / who chastised a child driving his sibling crazy in the back seat / who spilled much-needed coffee on his leg and glanced down / who argued with his wife about her mother / who was momentarily distracted by something on the side of the road / who changed the channel on the radio to please his teenager, with whom he'd been struggling to make peace for the last tumultuous six months...

He is/was no doubt a normal good guy just a few days ago. He probably worked hard. He perhaps played with his kids, and did what he could to make sure they didn't drive their mother up the wall. Maybe he was trying to lose a few kilos. He had a letter on his desk that he meant to finish and send to his grandmother... but in a moment, his definition as a human being changed. In just one moment...

Everyone needs a good phobia.

I am not afraid of heights. I find spiders and lizards fascinating, snakes and rodents mere annoyances.

I don't like crowds, even though I love human beings individually...

But I am terrified of driving. Why? All of the above. So, though it inconveniences me and my family, I don't. I just can't.

I am terrified that I will make a small, stupid decision that will steal someone else's child from the world. That's my phobia of phobias.

Most of you have no choice. You have to drive.

Before ye judge... just be sure that you are absolutely certain that you will never, ever be distracted. Do your due diligence. But don't judge. We can't afford the luxury, in a world that moves too fast.

Rest in peace, precious Atar family. Rest in peace, soul and conscience of one poor, momentarily stupid human. I cannot imagine your pain. But you have my sympathy. I would probably have a very hard time continuing to live if I were you. I hope that the people around you can help you to remember that you still have work to do in the world. It's what any one of us would want, if we let ourselves down so completely, in a moment of carelessness. Please God... don't let all of us around you fail our tests.

NB: Since I wrote this post, more information has come out, some confirmed and some speculative. Readers have informed me (with a lot of grace and sensitivity) that there may be much more to this story than we knew in the hours after it happened, which is usually the case. It is possible that the driver didn't merely make an error in judgment, but has a history that I prefer not to express here for two reasons. I don't know for sure about the details of what is alleged, and don't want to misspeak. And the overall message could apply to so many situations we have all been in when a small error in judgment can change our lives... and I want to remind us to learn from them, but to leave the judging to courts of law, and to The Judge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Returning from Choiceless Times

(Courtesy, Yael Shahar)

What if you could go back in time and fix that one terrible error you made in your youth? Or even if you couldn’t fix it, you could at least seek resolution and absolution…
There were moments in Yael Shahar’s book, Returning, that resonated deeply with me, certainly with a me of the past. One such moment was when she “took advantage of the many eighteen-wheelers that plied I-35 on their way south. She would single out a truck, throttle the bike up to its full speed to get into the giant vehicle’s slipstream, and ease off the throttle as they were carried behind the truck.” After reading this passage, I knew I could connect with this very down-to-earth author. We already shared a common history.
But very quickly, Ms. Shahar and her characters took me beyond myself, into an excruciatingly different time in history, and to a wondrously different focus on the meaning of reality.
The trip through Returning is an excursion between times, foreign countries, and extremely foreign concepts. Alex, the main character, was a 17-year-old boy caught in the horror machine of the Holocaust. His primal need to survive caused him to accept a role in the hated and feared Sonderkommando in the Birkenau death camp. Several decades later, he struggles to find a way to atone for his choices. God blesses him with a handful of rare individuals willing to hold his hand and heart through this painful process.
I like all five of the principle characters very much, and find myself thoroughly caught up in their ordeal, hoping desperately that they find the answers they are seeking, and absolution. This is difficult writing at its best, allowing us to feel sympathy for the plight of the historically unlovable and seemingly unforgiveable. Ms. Shahar causes the reader to care about two people broken as much by their desire for survival as by the Nazis and their campaign of wanton evil.
The wisdom of the man who is Alex is by turns painfully poignant and inspiring. In his own voice, he allows us to travel inside the tragedy of the Holocaust that stole his family, friends and identity, as well as his relationship with his Creator:
“Will God torture us forever for being Jews?”
“Is this how we’re to be a light unto the nations, as fuel for the fire?”
“The foundation of my existence has been cut from beneath me, leaving me hanging in emptiness. Where once was a vibrant web of ties to others and to God, I find only singed and blackened threads leading into nothingness.”
These poetic words convey for the reader the abject emptiness of spirit wrought by daily life in the camps, especially for those manipulated into being “partners” in crime against their brethren.
Returning also carries with it the terrifying aspect that reality isn’t as we imagine it. Is the apparent time- and space-travel in this story true? Ms. Shahar certainly renders it believable, even for someone like me. I have never had a “spiritual” or “supernormal” experience. No one has ever reached out to me from the beyond. Unlike some of my dearest friends, my dreams have never been touched by visions of angels or demons or predictions of the World to Come. Returning makes me want to believe that such “touching the beyond” is possible, that there is always time to repair what we’ve damaged.
There is so much life-wisdom in this book:
“…beauty is to be found in working within the constraints imposed on us by life.”
“…when we imbibe ‘willingness’ to die for our sacred principles, then there is some hope we will be driven to find meaning in living for our sacred principles.”
“Sometimes the answer to our prayer is the ability to pray at all. Fortunate is he who can see his personal deliverance when it finally comes.”
And more, from wise Alex, who found a miraculous way to carry his story and life-lessons into the future:
“I thought of those times when one quiet smile lit up that impenetrable night, and gave me, if not joy in life, at least a reason to live. There was more power in one of those smiles than in all the weaponry of despair with which the enemy reduced us to silence. In rising above despair, the courage in that smile raised us all – if only for a moment – to the level of immortality.”
“These are my heroes…. Not those who take up arms against the Germans in a hopeless battle, but those who take up words against silence.”
“How could one remain resolute in despair when even the act of returning a lost hair pin was a form of communion with God? How could one remain distant from life when the act of biting into a piece of fruit was a motion toward holiness? Judaism is not so much a religion as a civilization. It has inherited some great wisdom and outstanding morals that have stood the test of time, honed down through centuries of caring for one another through hardship and exile.”
Returning is not for the faint of heart – but if empathy for the lives of some of our most misunderstood brethren is important to you, it is a very significant work. One leaves this journey with as many questions as answers, perhaps the most haunting a question to the self: What choices would I have made, in the “choiceless time” of the Shoah? And what should be my opinion of my brothers and sisters and the choices they made?  This powerful telling of a terrible tale has the potential to silence earthly judgment – and replace it with compassion.
Returning, by Yael Shahar
with an afterword by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Originally published at the Times of Israel under the title "Returning to the Land of the Living"

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Mother-Child-Grandmother Circles

     Like Russian nesting dolls, we hold people inside ourselves.
     At first, we are in awe of our ability to share with God the art of bringing life into the world.
     It doesn't matter how many births there have been throughout history: we think that we invented it with each new child.
     Poetry and radiant light hover around us and these new beings. We are in perfect harmony with the universe... briefly.
     Then comes the day when we are mystified and made small and helpless by their uncontrolled fits of unhappiness for which we have no cure.
     Later, they can be understood, somewhat better – but they are made entirely of hands. A blessing! She found her own feet. She understands that they belong to her! But then... Hands that must explore everything, destroy with a dance in their eyes, with a dance in their hearts, but totally free of evil intent. Hands that are seemingly everywhere at once.
     We discover that our time is not our own. We only want to experience going to the bathroom by ourselves, without them banging on the door, crying for food, comfort, attention, amusement... for just five freaking minutes.
     We cannot remember what it's like to take a shower alone. Exhausted, we feel guilty for loving them most easily when they are sleeping.
     They grow larger, more beautiful, more amazing... they take our breath away.
     They drive us batty.
     The memes we share on Facebook speak of our common understanding and our common frustration.
     We open our mouths, and our mothers come out.
     We roll our eyes together and nod in shared understanding: 15-year-olds should take over the government quickly, while they still know everything.
     Our shared love of the video of the lady singing to her daughter to the tune of the William Tell Overture will never fade, not even when we are grandmothers.
     Only then, we will laugh softly together at how our grandchildren are carrying on the tradition, and how we are coming out of the mouths of our daughters.
     And we will marvel at the nearly painful sweetness of watching our babies holding and teaching and crying over their babies...
     Like Russian nesting dolls, we will always be holding people inside ourselves.

If you haven't seen this, you must: The Mom Song to William Tell Overture