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.