Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Coming Back to Tehillim, with the Help of Precious Jews

 25 Tishrei 5782



“Tehillim changes us. And when we change, our world changes.”  ~ Orly Wahba                                                                  

 

I was that girl. The one who was always saying Tehillim, morning, noon, and night. I had typed a six-page list of names to daven for, and I always carried that list with me. People who needed prayers because of illness took up most of the space, though there were sections for those looking for their life partner, for people trying desperately to have children, looking for work so they could feed their families, trying to find a way to pray a child who had left Judaism back into the fold. While Tehillim wasn’t always easy for me to understand (certainly not in Hebrew, but even in English translation), I was taught that reciting Tehillim might change an evil decree and save lives. There were plenty of miracle stories, and I wanted to participate in changing lives for the good.

 

A couple of factors derailed my efforts. The first was being taught that one oughtn’t say Tehillim at night, as it might add power to the forces of darkness in the world. This frustrated me, because as a working mother of four rowdy lads, sometimes the only opportunity I had to recite “my” designated Psalms was at night after the boys were in bed. But to this deeply thoughtful rabbi’s credit, he met with another important rabbi in our community whose viewpoint might be different enough to give me the answer I was seeking. Unfortunately for me, the rabbis agreed. So, I stopped saying Tehillim at night.

 

The real killer, if you’ll pardon the dark word play, is that it seemed people only left my Refua Shelaima list one way: by dying. And I didn’t see many of the people for whom I recited Tehillim getting married, having babies, finding jobs, or bringing back their children to a religious lifestyle. There were people who could claim such successes, but I wasn’t among them. I finally concluded that reciting Tehillim on behalf of the sick, sad, lonely, or lost was someone else’s specialty. As time passed, my Tehillim book stayed on my shelf for longer and longer periods.

 

Three people or teams get starring role credit for bringing me back to the recitation of this magnificent poetry, and three other people get supporting role credit.

 

First, Rabbi Yitzchok Leib Bell wrote a very beautiful and accessible translation called Psalms That Speak to You: A Meaningful Interlinear Translation for Our Generation. I would not have heard of this book if it weren’t given to me as a gift by our daughter-in-law’s father, Nisan Jaffee. But the book sat on my shelf for a little longer…

 

Then, my dear Rebbetzin Bracha Goldberger of the Baltimore synagogue Tiferes Yisroel asked me to join a WhatsApp Tehillim group saying prayers for a man in the community who had been seriously injured in a terrible car accident. The rebbetzin required no “set” chapters to be recited within the day, as in my past experience; rather, one could simply pick up where the last reciter had stopped and say as many or as few chapters as she chose. I explained to her that I had my issues with the curative power of Tehillim, but that if this didn’t disqualify me, I could be a team player. After that gentleman unfortunately passed away, the focus of the group was changed to people with COVID; and when the pandemic numbers seemed to be going down but there was war again in Israel, the focus changed to include safety for the soldiers and citizens of Israel and anyone in the greater Jewish family who needed prayer. The supporting cast member of this episode was Yehoshua Shalom ben Dovid Yirmiyahu, may his neshama have an aliyah.

 


As time went by, my thoughts about reciting Tehillim undertook a subtle but life-affirming shift. Through Rabbi Bell’s sensitive translation and my daily “conversations” with King David, I began to see Tehillim as a means of understanding depression in a world going mad, and as a means of connecting with my Creator to express gratitude. I love King David when he is beseeching God, wrestling with himself, with mankind, and as he questions God’s involvement with immediate challenges, yet reaching for God even when he is exhausted and feeling hunted and betrayed. I love him when he speaks with a certain hubris about his holiness, and when experience and God remind him to be humble. King David reminds me with his words that recitation is not – at least for me – about magically changing God’s decree and saving a life. It certainly is about being deeply mindful of others, about caring deeply for them and for their plight, and about expressing to God my deep yearning that He will care for the sick and others in need in a way they and I can perceive.

 

Finally, Orly Wahba and Naomi Journo created a new opportunity with #MyTehillimTime. I had been anxiously searching for a special kind of learning to make this Rosh Hashanah more meaningful, especially in the sea of lockdowns. My friend Emunah Murray sent me a notice that I otherwise would have missed, and I signed up for one of the most wisely constructed online learning programs I’ve ever encountered: roughly half an hour every evening for the holy weeks from before Rosh Hashanah through the middle of Cheshvan, different teachers each night, women teaching with all the power and faith and joy of our sex.

Abraham's Legacy app
Download the Abraham's Legacy app!


I look forward to these nightly meetings with happy anticipation. I love the concept of the Abraham’s Legacy app and recommend it to everyone. Imagine! Saying Tehillim with everyone in mind who needs something with people all over the world, all trying their best to help other souls!

 

May all our efforts bring an aliyah to the neshama of Avraham ben Pauline, and much pride for the inspiring granddaughter with whom he gifted the world.


Friday, September 24, 2021

The New Jews and the Blind Bubby

18 Tishrei 5782
 

Today is a powerful day for the Eastman family. It is the 32nd anniversary of our geirut, our conversion to Judaism. A week from now, Avi and I will celebrate the anniversary of our chuppah, our Jewish wedding. This is a period of such sweet memories, all colored by the people who surrounded us. If I sit still with my eyes closed, I can see all of their faces, all of their smiles…



It is also the 19th anniversary of the passing of my dear Mama. Being the 19th year, both the lunar and solar calendars share the date. This would delight my mother. While she was not Jewish, she respected Jewish people and Jewish tradition.

One day when she was nearly blind but hadn’t yet been warned by the police that Reisterstown Road wasn’t a safe place for a blind lady alone – there had been officers keeping an eye on her to protect her for months – she was sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts, her usual hangout during her walkabout circuit. I can picture her smiling, listening to the chatter of people around her, sipping her sweetened coffee and nibbling the pastry that was slowly taking her from us…

At another table, a New York bubby was sitting with her grandsons. Mama loved accents just as I do, and enjoyed painting pictures of people using the colors in their voices. If she squinted, Mama could just make out the bright shapes on the boys’ dark yarmulkes.

“Bubby, what’s the bracha? I can’t remember the bracha,” said one little boy.

 “Don’t worry about the blessing,” responded the grandmother. “Your mother isn’t here right now.”

 To hear her tell it, you would think my mother actually flew from her chair to the family’s table. “Why are you trying to put a wedge between yourself and the boys’ mother?” she challenged. Yes, indeed, she did just that. And then my non-Jewish mother proceeded to remind the boys how to say “mezonos.”

 She didn’t make a friend that day, I am sure. And it was probably not as dramatic as she told it. My inclination toward storytelling comes from both my parents, after all. But sometimes one can admire those who have so little left to lose in the world that they can say whatever is in their hearts and minds, to remind the rest of us to build bridges rather than walls between ourselves and our families. Mama was a great bridge builder, and her children and grandchildren still balance upon that foundation to get to each other and to those who think differently.

 Mama, I hope you are still proud of all of us from your well-earned perch in Shamayim. I think you are. I can see your smile in each of your grandsons and in the faces of their beautiful Jewish children.


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Fullness Yet Amidst the Droplets

25 Tamuz 5780.

After we’ve pulled our boat’s anchor out of the stars

and reinserted it in the now-calm sea

We’ll laugh at the sweat glistening on our arms

and gratefully pass the bottle of joyful relief

and mind-numbing forget

 

Fullness. From our individual boxes of fear

we will soar and join hands, laughing faces

unmasked, droplets of song appear and disappear

and dance freely in the most unexpected places

Will we have lost our mind

 

Fullness? After we return our ship to its course

will we remember what we have learned, or forget

to put each other first, and to remember the Source

of all the good and bad that we have ever met

the One from Whom comes all fruit

 

Fullness? May it be that we will retain the gifts

COVID-19 inadvertently gave us

And if our vessel ever again begins to drift

off course, will you remind me to thank and to bless

and to avoid my careless sin

 

Fullness?


Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Good, Bad and Ugly of the New Normal


8 Sivan 5780.

Our photographer, Micha Paul, illustrating social distancing before it was a thing.
 “So, Ema, when do you think you guys will get back to normal? You know, for Shabbat visits from all of us?”
COVID-19, how I hate you. The lives you’ve taken, the businesses you’ve shattered. The weirdness for those of us who haven’t had horrible losses, b”H, but are still living a surreal existence…
There have been, as there often are, silver linings.
For one thing, I have never been “in the same boat” with so many human beings of diverse backgrounds, countries, ethnicities, religions… and we talk about this thing we all share in common with more genuine warm understanding than ever before.
I am exercising and practicing yoga and meditation more regularly. Because we’re not dining out, I am nearly 100% in control of my calories, and we’re saving money. We are calmer, more mindful, about everything.
Supporting local businesses willing to deliver has climbed to the top of our shopping list. Physical shopping, when it (rarely) happens, is extremely directed: get in; get what we need; get out. Gloves, masks, distance… Don’t touch your face holes and wash your hands like Lady Macbeth.
The Dearly Beloved points out that the minyan at “Beit Avi” is faster, because there is no long, drawn-out singing of the prayers, and nobody talks during davening. We were much more focused on counting the Omer (with a bracha!) without error than ever before. We both focus more on our prayers, because there is nowhere to rush to be.
We have the opportunity to take many free classes that used to cost money and travel time, if we could afford them at all. Famous musicians whose concert tickets were beyond our means now perform for free on YouTube, with the added sweetness of being surrounded by their talented family members.
Throwing away trash is simple. Without five containers for various forms of recycling, we just throw a thing we no longer need into one bin. (Yes, I know, I know… recycling is better for the environment. But the vacation from thinking about it has been a mind-relaxing pleasure.)
People don’t shake hands or hug anymore. This may seem like a bad thing to many people. For those of us who prefer eye contact to physical contact, it has been a blessing. I miss hugging my kids and wrestling my grandkids – but all the rest of y’all – Namaste. 🙏
We are spoiled by our young people, who are worried about us. We each learn via Zoom for an hour or more every week with one son (poetry for me and American history for the Dearly Beloved), get phone calls every week from the one who used to be allergic to phone calls, have regular communication with another via Whatsapp video at least once a week to chat or to study Hebrew, and another checks in from far away to share his ride to work via Whatsapp. Others pop in now and then, and best of all: they are communicating even more with each other, albeit virtually. Sometimes, we have even been treated to “taxi rides” to do our errands, and regular (masked and socially-distant) visits. They loved us before, but they are even more solicitous of us now.
We have very focused time with each other.
But.
As young people begin to move out of full isolation to get back to work and school… it feels otherworldly to have to treat everyone – including our own kids and grandkids – as if they might have the plague. Reminds me of “cooties” in grade school. One feels revulsion at the revulsion…
Best coffee on the planet.
I miss traveling by bus, walking freely in the holy city of Jerusalem, visiting the ocean and the Kinneret, even wandering around a mall and the Mahane Yehuda shuk and Ben Yehuda Street just to visit favorite shopkeepers and artists. (Inbar and Uri and Assaf & Co., I’m talking about you guys.) I miss my favorite coffee shop (though I still get their coffee, delivered, thank you Stephanie and Brandon).
I miss my favorite book store, though the Pomeranz lads still take the trouble to bring books and news and smiles to my door.
I miss dropping by to see friends, jamming with friends and family, having the delightful surprise of guests, chatting freely with neighbors on the street or at the makolet, hosting and being hosted for Shabbat.
“I don’t know, Son. This ‘new normal’ may last a while for Abba and me.”

The "olden days." May we see and touch those days again, soon.
“It’s okay, Ema. You and Abba have to take care of yourselves. We love you and need you in the world. We’ll do the ‘hug’ thing later.”
Yes, my dear child. We will have saved up some bodacious hugs. Stay safe and sane. Don’t touch your face holes while you’re out in the world… and wash your hands.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

"God gathered the scattered of Israel"

"God gathered the scattered of Israel and freed its prisoners at the right time of year." ~ Tehillim 68:7


Today would have been my father’s 84th birthday.

My father and me
He and my mother parted ways before I turned three… and I never saw him again – until last year.
I did research over the years, hoping to meet him. I found his social security number, his mother’s maiden name, his US army record… eventually, I found out that he had died at the too-young age of 53. My information pretty much stalled out there for several years.
Then a miracle of modern science presented itself. I signed onto Ancestry.com and did the DNA test in hopes of finding out more about my father’s side of the family. I found a few links to family tree builders on my mother’s side, but nothing about my father. Then Ancestry.com offered its annual half-price sale for full access for six months. With a certain amount of trepidation (because it was costly, even at half-price), I asked the Dearly Beloved if I could indulge. Of course, being the Dearly Beloved, he said yes. I signed up, and spent the night in self-recriminating dreams, wondering what was in my mind, spending all that money for perhaps a clue or two... or maybe nothing. And then it became morning…

The photo that started it all
I logged onto the site and found a photo of my father I’d never seen before. I wrote to the woman who had posted the photo.
  
Hi, Jeanne. My name is Ruth Eastman, and I am Norbert Winston's daughter. I was delighted to find a photo of him I'd never seen in your file! Can you give me any other information? Are we related, or was he in some way a family friend? At 62 years of age, finding even a glimmer of my past is fascinating and inspiring. I look forward to hearing from you. Regards, Ruth (Ruti) Eastman

Jeanne  the wife of a half-brother I never knew I had  was quick to answer, and we began a lovely correspondence, sharing pictures, memories, small bits of information about Daves and my father, about his and my dear mothers, and about our children.

My brother Dave and my sister-in-law and new best friend Jeanne

A few days later, I awoke to a very special message:

Dear Ruti, I have a link to something you may be quite surprised and happy to see. Several years ago I found a video record of your Dad speaking of his Holocaust survival. It is quite amazing and was particularly interesting to see how much he looked and gestured like my husband Dave. It is under his nickname Kip Winston and the site is United States Holocaust Memorial. I think you will be fascinated. Looking forward to future correspondence. All the best, Jeanne

Jeanne was right. I was and remain fascinated. One Generation After, a Boston-based oral history project conducted by the children of survivors, had interviewed my father. Thanks to Janet Seckel who conducted the interview and the videographer, Wolf Krakowski, I spent an hour and a half with my father, recorded almost exactly a year before he died, listening to him tell his story. 
My father was three years old when the war began, and six when he arrived in the States; so most of his impressions of the war are made up of feelings: terror, panic, confusion. But a few memories are clear.
Norosz and his cousin Yanusz were playing in the yard with a pony. Yanusz was a year or two older than Norosz. Suddenly, bombs were being dropped from planes. The mother of Yanusz, Bronya, called out to the boys in a panic to come inside... Norosz ran toward the house, but Yanusz was slow to respond. A bomb landed on his head and and blew him up... all over little Norosz.
My fathers memories of those years included bad smells and bodies and looks of hatred on the faces of Poles... There was a lot of death in the ghetto. I dont remember a day towards the end, walking outside, when I didnt see bodies. Then all of a sudden, we started hearing of people being taken away...
It was January of 1941. Little Norosz and his parents were on a train in a cattle car with about 200 other people, destined for Treblinka. My father was now four years old, and the war, too, was young. When the train tipped over in the snow and Jews began to stream out into the woods, the German soldiers apparently were perplexed. Were they expected to deliver live Jews, or would dead Jews be acceptable? No one wanted to bring down the wrath of the Reich with a bad decision. So they faltered for a few moments before they made the choice and began shooting. Those few moments allowed a brave and decisive man  my grandfather, Samuel Fienjstien  to grab his wife Rita by the arm and his small son Norosz by the hair and save their lives. 
We ran and ran and ran into the woods... it seemed like hours! We marched around for days. I dont remember how we ate or slept or where, sometimes in barns. We were more afraid of the Poles than of the Germans. The days and hours became weeks... At some point, we found a hunters shack... In order to keep people away, my father put out a sign on the shack that said cholera. That kept people away. My father was a very clever man,” he smiled proudly. 

My father remembering his father
One day a man came to the door  Dr. Braun  who said that perhaps he could help us.” Dr. Braun, a Polish Jew, stayed with the family in the cabin for several days, sharing their food. My father remembered a very significant moment during those few days. In an eerie reprise of the experience he had as a small boy at the beginning of the war, he was playing outside near the cabin when a German plane decided to use me for target practice. Dr. Braun heard the airplane, saw what was going on, ran out and jumped on top of me and got hit, he caught about four of these slugs in him...  they didnt kill him, but that was the end of our staying in the cabin. Sam persuaded a farmer to take Dr. Braun to a doctor. They knew this was dangerous, but they knew he would die of his wounds if he didnt get care. 
There is more to the story of my familys survival and eventual emigration to the United States. But this and one followup story resonate for me, a few days before we observe Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day.
Twenty years after he was almost strafed by a German war plane, my father ran into Dr. Braun in a Tel Aviv cafe. They renewed their acquaintance, and my grandfather flew from America just to meet the man who had saved his sons life.

Dave has often wondered where you were and if you are healthy and happy.  

Thanks in part to you, lovely lady  my sister!  I am indeed very happy; and thank God, we are healthy.
We are all living through this horrible COVID-19 plague, and I dont know when we will finally meet in person. But I am so grateful to you for filling a big empty space in my personal history. And I am grateful to God for the friendship with you and my brother and your dear family. May our friendship grow for long, healthy, happy years!

Some of my family on the Dearly Beloved's 69th birthday -- Photo credit: Micha Paul
Important postscript: There would only be three people in this photo, if our forebears hadnt escaped or otherwise survived the Holocaust. Thank you, God, for the amazing gifts You have given us. Sam and Rita, Norbert and Sandra... I know you are all smiling from your places in Heaven. A lot of courage and blessing built a special family. May we continue to make you all proud.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Happy and Kosher Pesach to You!

13 Nisan 5780.


Here is a little drash I heard years ago from “A Famous Rabbi.” (I’m always embarrassed that I cannot remember which famous rabbi...but the concepts are of no less value for my lapse in memory.)

Mere weeks ago, we were greeting each other with the words “Chag Purim sameach!” Have a happy Purim!

At this time of year, we greet each other with “Chag Pesach kasher v’sameach.” May you have a kosher and happy Passover.

But we have that backwards, says the famous rabbi.

Photo by Shannon Nuszen from Purim 5778
At Purim, who cannot be happy? We don’t need to be reminded to be happy. With all the costumes and makeup, kids’ games and parades, feasting and copious amounts of alcohol... who could not be happy? What we need to be reminded of is to keep it kosher: eat and drink for the right reasons, in the right amounts. Remember why we’re doing this. It’s not just mindless drunken revelry, chas v’shalom.

During the buildup to Pesach, it’s all about kosher. Not a speck of chametz anywhere. Clean, clean, clean. We are immersing ourselves in learning and relearning elevated thoughts about the meaning of the holiday. The last thing we need is to be reminded to keep the holiday kosher. (We must be reminded, of course. But last.) What we might forget is to be sameach, to be happy. We get so caught up in the minutiae of cleaning and clearing out the chametz that we forget to have fun. We worry ourselves and our families into unnecessary stress, leaving out the joyfulness that is part of renewal.

The Dearly Beloved was doing the "Box of Plagues" before there was a box of plagues.

Our kids have always looked forward to the yearly signs of the times.
This year, we’re trapped in our homes either with too many people in too little space, or by ourselves in a seemingly vast and lonely cave. Now, more than ever, we must figure out, each at their own Seder table, how to be happy in this holiday. This may be more challenging than the backbreaking work of scrubbing and sanitizing and searching and destroying every hint of chametz. But we are up to the task. In crisis, we find out what we’re made of. I know we can find joy in the work of becoming our finest selves. We can make the pursuit of excellence fun for our kids and satisfying and pleasurable for each other.

What the well-dressed shopper is wearing to the makolet: pearls, mask, matching gloves.
Wishing you a chag Pesach SAMEACH v’kasher!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

How will you live in the post-Coronacaust era?

11 Nisan 5780.


Our lovebud tree, struggling bravely to overcome a blight
Locked inside our homes, we have some time on our hands to be introspective. Some people are alone or have only a significant other at home. Others are busy from morning till night trying to entertain and occupy children of various ages. Still, even for busy families, there are moments to reflect.
Funny how little the stuff matters now. When will I wear my watches again? They are tucked into a drawer with the other nonsense that I used to cram into my little purse, such as ID, credit cards, the bus pass... all the formerly-critical "don't leave home without it" flotsam and jetsam. I haven't touched my change purse in weeks.
On the other hand, the lipstick and blush, the pearls and the earrings… I am still making a point to wear those, as the Dearly Beloved still must look at me every day. What does it cost me to make his heart happy with a little color and fru-fru? (And lest I be accused of being sexist or too 1960s, he also is going to the trouble to look charming for me. You kids will do things your way…)
How much clothing does a person need? Certainly not all that I have in closets and cupboards. I'll probably spend this time deleting it from my possession. (Or at least preparing it for deletion. Who is accepting other people’s things these days?)
What angry words, moments of ego, careless jokes have I uttered that didn't need to be shared, and certainly will have no place in a better, fresher, cleaner post-Coronacaust world?
What really matters?
More than 30 years ago, I was in the US army. Cold showers were the rule during basic training. Even now, decades later, I will never, ever take for granted a hot shower.
Less than 30 days ago, I was able to travel about freely with and among other people. I was able to hug my children and grandchildren, record music in a tiny studio with my husband and sons, join together with friends on Shabbat, sit in a café and listen to the chatter of families, sit in a movie theater surrounded by my fellow humans and the smell of popcorn, watch people gathering together at the Kotel to cry and pray for those they love and for redemption... Whenever this ends, I will never, ever take for granted the freedom to be around human beings.
I will remember to appreciate the feeling of sun on my face (without a mask), the sounds of neighborhood children, the little kids in the neighborhood who would surprise me with a hug. I will think carefully before acquiring. What do I really need besides food and beverages to eat and drink, warmth and shelter, something to read, a little paint and music, the company of kind people? There is a lot I can give up to others, because time is of the essence – and fleeting.
When this Coronacaust ends, I hope and pray that those of us who are privileged to survive will treat each other better, without harsh language, with the considerateness born of knowing that everyone has lost someone they loved, that no one has missed out on being affected in one way or another. In this we are all equals. I hope we will strive for cooperation for the greater good rather than fighting for the biggest piece of the pie. 
May we learn whatever we can from this terrible tragedy, and come out of it our very best selves yet.