Thursday, 30 July 2015

Inside Out: Mixing Joy and Sadness

I saw the Pixar film Inside Out last week and just cannot stop thinking about it. There were 100 sermons in that film—actually the film was, in essence, one big sermon. 

A seemingly innocent "children's movie," the premise is simple: we get a peek inside the mind of an 11-year old girl to meet her emotions: disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and anger. Throughout the film we see how those emotions battle each other, how they end up working together, and how, in the end, the girl's life is put back together when her parents acknowledge that her feelings of sadness are real, valid, and shared. 

The "morality message" of the film is clear: we will have—nay, we even need— some sadness in our lives so that others reach out to us in empathy and love and so that we ourselves grow and change. Professors of psychology Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, the scientific consultants on the film, write: “In real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help.” Unmitigated, unending joy is annoying, unrealistic, and superficial. Let's be honest: we'd all like all joy all the time and we erroneously believe that if we squash the other feelings—disgust, fear, anger and sadness—we will have it. But one thing every basic psychology textbook will tell you is that joy can only be real when it is part of a whole spectrum and panoply of emotions.

Avoiding pain seems to be our society's number one goal. We feel a need to "cheer someone up" when they have suffered a loss or been through a challenging time. People avoid going to shiva calls because they don't know what to say in the face of all that sadness. In the book of Job, the quintessential Biblical story of sadness—it's about a man who loses everything good in his life—Job's friends try and "comfort" him in the face of his loss. They toss phrases of artificial joy his way: "it could be worse!"  What they should have done instead is empathize, and admit with him just how hard life can be. 
The Jewish calendar is a perfect example of the mature mixture of joy and sadness. We move from the saddest holiday of the year when we commemorate the destruction of both Temples, Tishe B'av (observed just two weeks ago) to the happiest holiday of the year, Rosh Hashana. We move from a solemn day of reflection and self-judgement, Yom Kippur, to a day of dancing and singing, Simchat Torah. On Yom Kippur itself we move from the memorial service of Yizkor in the morning to the raucous and joyful ending of the final service of Neilah. In real life, there is "a time to laugh and a time to mourn" as it says in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Obviously I understand that sadness taken to an extreme—depression, anxiety, apathy—are not healthy. It is managing our sadness that makes us strong. That is why, for example, the period of intense mourning for a loved one is never longer than 11 months. One year less a month, not even a full year. NOT that we are supposed to "move on" and forget the loss; rather, that we are supposed to start learning how to manage the loss and live with, around, and despite the sadness.

During the film there is a clever use of "core memories"— pictured as small rolling balls— that help bring joy to the 11 year old. But interestingly, when sadness touches one of the core memories, it doesn't shatter or even disappear. It is also collected into the storehouse of memory and that core experience, touched by sadness, becomes part of who we are. That piece of the film made me think of my mother Terry who suffered "two deaths," the first when Alzheimer's robbed her of those core memories, and the second her actual physical passing. The loss of my mom reflected the duality I speak of above, as she had a very joyous and successful life although her last years were agonizing for us. And while I was very sad, I received much joy from the comfort of many of you, as well as from the strong and beautiful life she lived. It was the embodiment of joy and sadness intermingling—I'd say even cooperating

In Judaism, there is a teaching that every person has within them two inclinations: a yetzer hatov (the inclination towards doing the right thing) and a yetzer hara (the inclination towards doing the wrong thing.) These two inclinations live together, sometimes battling and sometimes cooperating. Sometimes one wins and sometimes the other. Sometimes one is dominant and sometimes the other. The two sides make us fully human, as do the full array of emotions we feel. Too bad Pixar can't make a Jewish version of Inside Out with those two characters, but I imagine joy and sadness to look very similar to the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. 

The strength of Judaism is that it recognizes our full humanity and gives us a way to think about how we manifest that humanity from the Inside Out.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Passover KISS

The weeks before Pesach I see countless Facebook posts lamenting how much people “hate” Passover, and what a hassle it all is. Pesach is often so overwhelming that cruises and hotels offer Seders so we can get away from home at this special time of year.

Taping shut the closets, turning on the house alarm and going far, far away is one alternative to the cleaning, kashering, expense and—dare I say it—obsession over Pesach food. Passover bagels, spongecake mixes that literally taste like sponges, and the worst excuse for breakfast cereal I have ever seen feel like some kind of slavery. 

Simplifying Pesach is another answer.

I'd like to share with you 5 tips for an easier and meaningful Passover this year. Take what you like and throw the rest away with your left-over matza.

1. First and foremost: Let's build the "festival of liberation" into what we buy. Here's one easy way: many of us go through dozens of eggs during Passover. Buy them free-range so at least you know the laying chickens have some measure of freedom. Yes they are more expensive than factory-farmed white eggs from chickens with beaks clipped, stacked in pens on top of each other.  Fair-trade coffee and tea, closed and fresh for the holiday, is about as kosher as you can get from an ethical standpoint: it keeps us from purchasing the products of child and slave labour. Isn't that the very essence of Passover?
2. Skip all processed food. Your food bill will be cheaper and you will feel less overwhelmed in the store aisles. Do you really need duck sauce for one week? Kosher-for-Passover noodles that you keep promising you’ll never buy again because you end up throwing out most of the gloopy mess? Learn to make easy blender mayonnaise with eggs and oil. Throw some cherry tomatoes, olive oil and salt into the broiler and you’ve got tomato sauce. Toast some chopped nuts and matzah farfel in melted butter and honey and you’ve got granola. Enjoy the produce of spring: isn't that the very essence of Passover?
3. Learn which foods need to be marked with a label and which don’t. Don’t get sucked into the kosher-for-Pesach product vortex. This year I saw kosher-for-Passover pre-mixed salt water for your Seder. A clever marketer turned Passover anxiety into profit. Jewish knowledge: isn't that the very essence of Passover?
4. Let's talk about kitniyot—the legumes that Ashkenazi Jews “do not eat on Passover” like rice, beans, chickpeas. I was once a triumphalist kosherer-than-thou ethnocentric Askenazi Jew about this, believe me. I wouldn’t even eat green beans—which are a vegetable and not a bean—because of their name. But if it’s good enough for the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, it’s good enough for me. The Conservative movement ruled that Ashkenazi Jews may eat kitniyot. The Reform movement said it was ok way back in the 1880's. In Israel, many religious Ashkenazi Jews eat kitniyot— so much so that it's become a kind of "minhag Yisrael" or Israeli custom. There is even an Orthodox “Kitniyot Liberation Front” website populated by Jews giving serious challenge to an Eastern European tradition which has outlived its original concern: the accidental mixing of wheat kernels into rice. We can now buy hermetically-sealed-and-separated packages, so what’s it about? Because it can be made into a bread-like product or mistaken for wheat or rise if it gets a bit of water thrown on it? But not for Sephardic Jews? Tortillas look alot like matza, less bread-like than those packaged spongy roll-up cakes. And when my cornmeal gets a bit of water it doesn’t rise, it becomes polenta.” Jewish unity: isn't that the very essence of Passover?
5. Go outside every single day and walk. It’s a spring holiday but how can we feel it if we are constantly indoors? Your stomach will thank you. And your ability to bless the flowers and sun and sky once again will be activated against the post-Seder sluggishness that arises from simply too much heavy food. Each day of Pesach try and experience one measure of freedom. Practice gratefulness: isn't that the very essence of Passover?

What can be more meaningful than celebrating spring, freedom, family, community, knowledge, gratefulness, and Jewish unity? Don't let the food get in the way! Embrace the challenge and enjoy a change of diet for a week. Did you know you don't "have to" eat matza at all except for at the Seders?

My formula is what I like to call KISS: Keep It Simple, Semites! You’ll find yourself lamenting and wanting to run away alot less.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

On Saying the last Kaddish of 11 months

Last night I could not sleep. The night before my final daily Kaddish of 11 months for my mother felt just like the night before the funeral again. A weird floating feeling of being untethered, without an anchor back to earth. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”—today it hit home. 

I know I will stand again for her yartzeit yearly. But this year of daily Kaddish has given me an identity as a mourner that is difficult to let go. “I’m in the 11 months for my mother” feels right. It feels like something I can hold onto, a way of speaking her name and our relationship daily. Not being to use those words feels like a small betrayal of her. As I wrap myself in her tallit— and I may be one of the few women of my generation who can say she wore her mother’s tallit— and bind my tefillin, I have a way to literally wind a ribbon of memory of her around my finger each morning, and a way to smell her perfume ever so faintly, and then, she is with me.  

I remember the last day of shiva, when I took off the torn black sweater, which identified me as a mourner. I felt raw, exposed to a world that did not know my sorrow.  Today I feel as if I have taken off the torn black sweater again, walked around the block, and am commanded to come home to some kind of new normalcy.

I must admit I don’t like this command, but I understand it totally. 

For 11 months I went to all sorts of minyanim all over the world. Some were very liberal, saying Kaddish without 10 being present. Some were very traditional, where half the time I was stared at and whispered about in my prayer-garb and the other half welcomed warmly and asked about my mother. Some were other people’s shiva minyans where I found comfort in sharing tears. Some were study-groups where people thanked me for ending a class in a spiritual way. I said Kaddish at the Taj Mahal with a tour group and at a Rabbinic conference with 500 other Rabbis and many times with my own shul, while reading the names of other people’s yartzeits and feeling their memories move across the room. Some services were incredibly tedious and some were incredibly moving. Sometimes I resented the happiness of the Bar Mitzvah family, the aufruf couple’s glow, or the babynaming’s promise of continuity, but mostly I marvelled at how life just goes on.

I noticed the liturgy, too: how three times during the morning service we declare G-d holy with Kedusha, reminding us how much we mourners need to see the holiness in our lives again. Three times in the morning service we tell of God’s forgiveness with V’hu Rachum reminding us how much we mourners have to forgive our loved ones for leaving us! All during the year the liturgy changes to reflect the season, and how much we mourners need to see that time flows and moves and Purim turns to Pesach, spring leads to summer, mourning leads to...well...not mourning. 

A strong, spiritual woman who should have been a Rabbi herself, I knew this tradition would mean alot to my mother, but I didn’t know how much it would end up meaning to me. I will miss the daily Kaddish and when I left the minyan I have been attending regularly today, I saw how much the community of mourners turned to me with both jealousy and sadness. They understand. I will be back tomorrow to support them. I cannot promise I will continue to go daily, but I have seen through these months of mourners coming and going that those who sow in tears will someday, somehow, with some effort, reap in joy.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Why I am Marching at the Pride Parade

I was mentioning to someone that I am marching at the Pride parade under a City Shul banner. We’ll be marching with Kulanu, Toronto’s Jewish LGBTQ social, cultural and educational group. We’ll be wearing rainbow kipot knitted by Mayan women in Guatemala. 

“But you aren’t gay!” the person exclaimed. "And City Shul isn't a 'gay synagogue!'" Right. And I guess if I’m not homeless, I shouldn’t march for better conditions for homeless folk. And if I’m not Darfurian I shouldn’t march for Darfur. And if I'm not a settler I shouldn't pray for the kidnapped Israeli teens. And if I don’t keep kosher I shouldn’t care when they start talking about outlawing kosher slaughtering in Denmark. And if I’m a man I shouldn't worry about sexism. And if I’m a Christian I shouldn't protest what they say about Jews get the picture.

No, I am not going to the parade in order to outshout Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. They may or may not be there and though I find their participation in the parade and their message wrong, biased, and ludicrous, their presence doesn’t determine whether or why I go. I'm not going to show support for Israel, the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East, even though I do support Israel and am proud of its LGBTQ inclusion. I am not going to be politically correct. I'll be honest—there are things about the parade I really don’t like: the sexual nature of some of the clothing and floats, the excess, the plastic beads lying around the city for days afterwards, the proof of your being “properly pc” if you do go. I actually don’t like parades; they are long, hot, dusty, loud, filled with a kind of over-the-top revelry, and I’m not really into crowd scenes. But I’m going, and I’m marching.

I am marching because as a Jew I support Pride for being who you are. So many Jews have no pride in being Jewish. So many Jews are ashamed of their Jewishness, and they let the world’s caricatures and ignorance define them. Shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt are in the Jew’s spiritual vocabulary and lived experience, as they are in the gay world. So Pride is a Jewish concept I really “get”. We champion it for every minority, every oppressed group, every human who feels stripped of his or her selfhood in the light of the vast and strong Other. Yet when it comes to Jews who aren’t heterosexual, we suddenly become squeamish. 

If pride is an awareness of our own dignity and worth, a deep pleasure from our own and others’ achievements, and a delight in who we are and what we do—then I cannot help but feel aligned as a Jew. As Gabrielle Orcha wrote in the Jewish Women’s Archive, “At its best, it’s inherently part of the Jewish make-up, the feminist fabric, minority’s manuscript... for thousands of years systematic attempts have been made to strip us of our pride , and yet, we are here, all of us standing, many of us wearing the mantle of our Jewish identity with: pride.” We Jews have had to reclaim our self-worth time and time again. We too have been closeted, shut out, trying to “pass,” expected to assimilate and “fit in”, advised to tone it down, change our style, be like everyone else. Our very existence has been a thorn in many sides. I am marching because I know what it’s like to feel like a thorn.

I am marching because I remember as a woman what it meant to be told I cannot, I should not, I must not. I remember breaking glass ceilings so that others would not have to cut their heads. I remember the fear, the surprise, the shock, the anger, the verbal and public dismissals of my personhood and my place in the Jewish community time and time again, not so very long ago. 

I am marching for the Jewish kids who grew up hearing in shul that homosexuality was an "abomination" and then dutifully squashed it out of themselves until they were twisted inside and considered their lives not worth living.

I am marching for the Jewish men and women who must still hide their true selves behind the mask of traditional marriage and then seek satisfaction outside that marriage, betraying and even physically endangering their partners.

I am marching for the desire of a Jewish couple to have a chupah, sign a ketubah, and break a glass to declare publicly the building of yet another stable and loving Jewish home. 

I am marching to say that Jewish life doesn’t look just one way or like just one type of person. It’s not all mom, dad, 2.2 kids and a dog. We don’t all wear shtriemels and we don’t all eat gefilte fish. We aren’t all white. We aren’t all married. We aren’t all successful middle class businesspeople. We aren’t all heterosexual. The Jewish community is as complex as we human beings all are. I am marching because the Jewish community should—and  could—be as vibrant and diverse as this wonderfully diverse city.

I am marching for the right of every human being to love and be loved, as it says in Genesis 2:18: "לא טוב היות האדם לבדו: It is not good for a human to be alone."

And I am marching because it reminds me that G-d’s Image is mysterious and manifold, and does not look only like me.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Thoughts on My Mother's Shloshim


Time takes on new meaning when you are a mourner.
My days used to be bounded by what time my work out class is; now they are bounded by what time minyan is. I counted the Omer different last year; this year I count the Omer by what minyan it is, keeping a minyan journal every day of where and when I say Kaddish: Minyan 1 the day after the funeral; minyan 30, today.

The day of my mother’s death moved very slowly- I was walking in quicksand. The shiva moved at a snail’s pace and now I can hardly believe shloshim is ending.

A mourner lives in between 2 worlds- this one and the one their loved one is in. Shiva keeps us in that limbo world, but Shloshim pulls us back, slowly but surely, to live again in this world. At shiva we are curled up like fetuses, craving protection and wating to go back into the womb. In shlsohim we are like babies just learning to crawl. The 11 months will teach us how to walk again. Wen we are done, we will hopefully stand upright and be “among the living.”

Judaism is all about sacred times: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, festivals. Abraham Heschel reminds us that Jews do not live in the world of space: cathedrals and sanctuaries. We lost our “space”—the Temple—and so we cling even more tightly to time. 

We Jews seem to start our days backwards: from the night. Our world started in darkness, in chaos and disorder. Sanctifying time brings light and order into the world. The end of shloshim marks the first sight of light. Tomorrow I will see a sliver of the moon, and I will be commanded to know that celebration is once again possible, even if difficult.

Tradition has it that Rosh Chodesh Sivan is the day on which the Jewish people camped before Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah. When describing this encampment, the Torah emphasizes that it came after the Jews left Mitzrayim, the narrow place. It is hard to imagine leaving this narrow place of mourning, which has become comfortable, but in order to receive revelation, I absolutely must.

When we leave the narrow place, time once again expands.   

Pirke Avot 2:15 we read,

משנה טו
[יד] רבי טרפון אומר היום קצר והמלאכה מרובה והפועלים עצלים והשכר הרבה ובעל הבית דוחק:
“Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

This phrase marks the end of shloshim for me. Hayom katzar. The day is short—but—lets read it differently, with just a twist of a vowel. Katzar=katzir, harvest. 

In the short days of shloshim I tried to reap from the harvest of support of friends, community, and the daily recitation of Kaddish.

In the days ahead, I will take comfort from the words of Psalm 126:5: Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

 הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה--    בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

10 Tips for "Surviving" The Seders

  1. Do Song Parodies
  2. Autographs: each guests signs the inside cover of their haggadah. That way, you have an ongoing record of who shared the holiday with you in past years. It’s also fun to see who used your haggadah before you.
  3. Have each guest bring a different haggadah and offer insights from “their” haggadah.
  4. Fond Memories: Go around the table and share your fondest memory of Passover as a kid.
  5. Assign parts to each guest (e.g. 4 questions, 4 chldren) and tell them to come prepared with a song, a skit, a question, an activity for that section.
  6. Ask interesting questions throughout. Examples: If you were a film director and could hire any actors you wanted, who would you have star as Moses, Miriam, Pharaoh? If you could invite anyone in the world to this Seder, who would you invite and why?
  7. Iron Chef charoset: have each guest bring a different ethnic charoset and have a “contest.”
  8. “New” Seder plates: what would today’s symbols of slavery be and who are the oppressed? Example: chocolate, coffee, etc.
  9. Do Torah study at “Arami oved avi.”
  10. Don’t use a haggadah at all- write up the “rubrics” and improvise!
  1. Personalized Mats: Use large, white poster board or construction paper to create place mats decorated with Passover games and age-appropriate questions. 
  2. A maze (children can use their fingers to trace their way from slavery to freedom).
  3. Matzah Man, and other silly stuff: Draw a blank square and say it’s a piece of matzah. Or give each kid a square of matza. See if the child can imagine ten, twenty or thirty different ideas as to what the square could become. Matzah Man? A matza house? etc.
  4. Purchase some dollar store “prizes” for kids. When they ask a good question (which is the point!), they get a prize.
  5. Build “tents in the desert” out of sheets etc and let the kids climb in, have time out, come back in. Stock the tents with toys and even sand to play in!
  6. Paper bag drama: Gather together various household items (a tennis ball, a sponge, a timer, a remote control, a sock, a light bulb, a bar of soap, etc.) together into a bag.  At various points during the seder, invite someone to pull an item out and offer an explanation of how the item fits into the Passover story!
  7. Passover “mad libs”
  8. Passover “taboo”- make cards with Passover themes (e.g Pharoah, charoset) and the person has to describe them without using hint words (e.g. leader, apples) while others guess what they are.
  9. Have kids walk around and “wash” everyone’s hands at Urchatz.
  10. Afikomen: have the kids hide it and adults have to find it!!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

This Ain't Your Father's Reform

A few Shabbatot ago I prayed at a Baptist-style tent-revival Amen-Halleluyah neo-Hasidic Jewish service. Yes, that was Biennial Shabbat and although I was prepared for the spirit of it based on my years at NFTY, I wasn’t quite prepared for the spiritual of it.

I grew up in the Reform movement, through Eisner Camp and youth group. But something shifted in me while in university and I felt myself move slowly away. Maybe it was going to Brandeis and meeting all those deeply committed Conservative and Orthodox students, while my Reform friends drifted away and stopped coming to services, stopped celebrating Shabbat. Maybe it was the year in Israel where I studied in yeshiva and went to the Wall regularly and davenned in traditional circles. Or maybe it was the memory of my Confirmation class when my teacher said “Kashrut was for health in those days. Nowadays its outdated and dumb. No Reform Jew needs to practice it.” Or the day of Confirmation itself when the Rabbi flatly refused to let a classmate wear a kipa. (We were rebellious in those days. As the strains of “God is in His Holy Temple” began on the organ, each one of us—girls included, which was still unheard of— drew a kipa out of our robe pocket and put it on as we marched down the aisle.) Our parents sent us to URJ camps – what was then UAHC– but the Rabbis made fun of our new-found passion for Judaism by telling us we were bordering on “Conservative.” The youth group joyfully did Havdala before our movie nights but the presidents of our congregations refused to add Havdala before a Saturday night social for families, saying it was “too religious.” The Reform I grew up with was, quite frankly, more concerned with not looking Orthodox than with teaching me any positive value of being Reform. 

I tried being Orthodox for awhile, but my feminism got in the way. I tried being Reconstructionist but my strong supernatural concept of God got in the way. I tried Jewish Renewal but I fall asleep in meditation and I’d rather shuckle than do yoga. I never toyed with being Conservative because my need for consistency got in the way. I just couldn’t grasp hold of a positive, joyful, traditional and spiritual Judaism within any of the movements and I wandered around for many years looking for home.

This past Biennial helped me find it. First, they sang O Canada and put up a Canadian flag which opened my now-Canadian heart. Then they said we could sit for Shema if thats our custom— a custom I’ve practiced for 20 years and one that I instituted at my synagogue— which publicly valued and normatized that choice. Then the gathering of tzitzit on my tallit, something I’ve done silently and privately all these years. Then asking mourners to rise separately, something I longed to do at a Biennial many years ago when I was in the year of mourning myself. Ok, it was also the clapping and dancing and 13 Torah reading tables and Bibliodrama along with a silent Amidah. My traditional side was finally recognized. My spiritual side was finally satiated.

I came to Biennial with trepidation, as it was not universally accepted in my new synagogue for us to be Reform affiliated. Many members doubted this idea and many still identify with the Conservative movement. They did not feel moved during the application process no matter how I preached the vision of Reform and it’s “best practices.” They fear the Reform they remember as being churchy and sterile. They fear the Reform they remember of lack of kipot and lack of Hebrew. Traditional Canadians, they honestly worry about flying the flag of Reform in a community where Conservative still is the norm. I knew the workshops and plenaries would be fine. I knew the call to tikkun olam would be loud and clear. I knew the speakers would be powerful. But would the davenning be davenning, or would it be “services”?  Would “we rise and recite the watchword of our faith?” Would we sit for the standing prayer? Would we drone on in responsive readings? The chair of our Leadership Team came with me, with some degree of doubt. I couldn’t quite explain how far the Reform movement had come for him. He had to see it with his own two eyes. His response? “This is awesome. Next Biennial our whole Team should come.”

This ain’t my father’s Reform. It can finally be mine.