Ten Books That Influenced Me

September 15, 2014

Rabbi Steven Fuchs published My Ten Most Influential Books on his blog today and invited his readers to post theirs. I thought it made an interesting exercise, and perhaps an interesting blog post. Here goes, in no particular order:

Bible1. Exodus – I read the second book of the Torah for the first time when I was in second or third grade, in a Catholic Bible. I was absolutely riveted by the story and the characters, so much so that I read it over and over, memorizing parts of it. The story of an enslaved people making their way to freedom thrilled me. I was as impressed by their cowardice as by their courage: every time things got tough, the Israelites got scared. I could identify. I still love that story with all my heart.

2. Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. Ceram. The summer before sixth grade, I came down with mono. In the 1960s that meant that I spent the whole summer on bed rest and teasing (it was “the kissing disease,” and I got very tired of insisting that I hadn’t kissed any boys.) I found this book on the shelf in the den at home and it entertained me for hours. It is a history of archaeology, with an emphasis on glamour and adventure that probably makes real archaeologists laugh, but I loved it. I’ve been interested in ancient civilizations ever since.

Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends3. Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends – Part of the reason the previous book appealed to me was that my mother had read to me from Myths and Legends from the time I was little. Greek and Norse mythologies were as real to me as the Disney Princesses are to little girls today. This book led me to read and love Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The illustrations enchanted me, too.

4. To Raise a Jewish Child, by Hayim H. Donin – I read this book because back about 1990 I had had several conversations with Jewish friends that left me feeling embarrassingly ignorant. I saw it in a used book store, and thought, “that should answer my questions.” By the end of the book, I was on the path to Judaism. Why that book? I have no idea. It was there. It was cheap. I was ready.

5. Judaism as a Civilization, by Mordechai Kaplan – This book made me think deeply about Jewish life and Jewish theology in ways I hadn’t dreamed were possible. I don’t subscribe to it 100% or even 80%, but Rabbi Kaplan approached his enormous subject with such creativity that the phrase “blew my mind” applies.

6. Berakhot, Artscroll Edition – Not too long after my conversion, I joined a little group in Oakland who were reading books of Talmud together. It wasn’t traditional Talmud study. We gathered once a week and read the Artscroll edition of Tractate Berakhot to each other, including all the footnotes. Reading it, I developed an affection for the rabbis and a fascination with the literature from which I hope I never recover.

7. Anne of Green Gables, entire series – I loved these books as a little girl, and over time I’ve come to realize that a lot of my values came into focus reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne. Not a bad choice, really: the books advocated for kindness, honesty, and education for women.

The Marvelous Land of Oz8. The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum – This is the second book in the Oz series. It stirred up all sorts of interesting ideas in me. It raised questions about feminism, about politics, and most of all, about gender and orientation. Most of the story was about Tip, a boy who’d been raised by a witch. It eventually comes out that he’s not a boy at all, but an enchanted girl, Princess Ozma of Oz. When I was small I identified powerfully with Princess Ozma. Now I think that I was looking for a role model to help me make sense of my feeling that I didn’t quite fit in the role conservative Southern society laid out for me. Granted, Tip/Ozma was more transgender than anything else, but that was as close as I got to a lesbian role model for my first thirty years.

Engendering Judaism9. Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler – Rabbi Dr. Adler is my teacher and dear friend, but even if she weren’t, this book would have changed my view of Judaism and the rabbinate. I began reading the book with the idea that halakhah (Jewish law) was too inflexible to deal with some of the complexities of modern life. By the time I finished, I understood that what was inflexible was my (previous) understanding of halakhah. I would never again allow myself to be cowed by someone citing a medieval code as if it were the last and only word on a subject involving real human beings.

Margery Kempe10. The Book of Margery Kempe – Margery Kempe (c.1370 – c.1440) was an English Christian mystic who dictated the first autobiography written in the English language. Margery was a businesswoman, the mother of at least 14 children, and she was prone to depressive episodes and visions. She believed herself to be called by God to a life of devotion, prayer, and tears in public. She annoyed many members of the clergy by crying loudly during their sermons. She traveled the great pilgrimage routes of Europe, and left her account of them in a book that was “lost” and rediscovered in an attic in the UK in the 20th century. Google her – she’s a trip. During the period when I’d left Christianity and was not yet Jewish, I found in Margery a fellow-traveler.

So, which ten books have influenced you?


What I’m Reading – June 2014

June 24, 2014

Vacation time is reading time for a book junkie like me. Here are some of the books I’ve been reading this month:

schamaSchama, Simon – The Story of the Jews – Finding the Words, 1000 BCE – 1492 CE – This is a fascinating take on Jewish history. I liked the PBS special based on it, so I decided to read the book. Schama is a British art historian, which gives him an interesting point of view on history. He focusses on things we didn’t talk about a lot in rabbinical school, like the Jewish community of Elephantine in Egypt, so I’m fascinated. Almost done with this one; I recommend it highly.

Piketty, Thomas – Capital in the 21st Century – I’m not far enough into this book to say much about it, other than it is another unusual point of view on an important economic topic with huge moral implications. My undergraduate degree was in economics, so this stuff is catnip. I may have more to say about it later.

Levi, Primo – Survival in Auschwitz – Yes, I know: I should have read this a long time ago. Holocaust books tend to leave me in shreds, so I have been slow in getting some of the classics. This is a wrenching, beautiful book, rich in humanity.

LaPlante, Eve – Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother – A page turner. I planned to drive through Concord, MA on this trip and thought it a good time to read the new biography of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother and the model for “Marmee” of Little Women fame. The book was a page-turner – I read it on the plane in full – but by the end I was very aggravated with Bronson Alcott. No wonder Louisa never married!

 

 


Bret Harte on Korach

June 20, 2014
Bret Harte (public domain)

Bret Harte (public domain)

When Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth in this week’s Torah portion, I am always reminded of Bret Harte’s quip about Oakland’s relative quiet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “There are some things the earth cannot swallow.”

It really isn’t a funny line, if you’re an Oaklander, especially if you remember Mother Earth shaking us all in her teeth during the 1989 earthquake. Or, I guess, if you’re Korach.

I am traveling and at the wedding of dear friends. Posts may be sparse and brief for a bit.


A Season of Growth – #36rabbis

May 6, 2014

A little over a month ago, I wrote about shaving my head at the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” event in Chicago. A group of rabbis, mostly but not all Reform, shaved our heads in an effort to raise consciousness and cash for pediatric cancer research. Our inspiration was the life of a little boy who did not survive leukemia, the eight year old child of our colleagues, Sammy Sommer.

The experience has given me one surprise after another.

It turned out that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to shave my head: I actually felt freed by it, and after fulfilling a promise to a friend this summer, I intend to get rid of the hair again. I liked the bald look: elegant in its own way, and striking.

In the meantime, I’m walking around with what looks like a bad crew cut as the hair grows out. My hair is about half an inch long. If I put on a hat, my scalp itches. Every day, I’ve gotten a little more upset when I looked in the mirror, and today I finally figured it out.

I had gone out today without makeup or earrings. While I was pumping gas, I caught sight of a reflection in the car window. The image looked to me like a middle aged man with a bad crew cut. “Who IS that guy?” I thought, annoyed.

Then I realized: That guy is me.  

My next thought was: Never, ever leave the house again without lipstick.

I am quite aware that just as shaving my head was nothing like having cancer, this tiny bit of gender discomfort is nothing like the reality facing transgender people. On the other hand, it does seem that there may yet be more to learn from this experience, especially since now I know why the clerk at Staples seemed to be looking at me funny, and hesitated in speaking to me.

So – if you would like to join me in supporting childhood cancer research, you can still donate here. Truly, it’s a good cause.

And if I learn anything worth passing along about being mistaken for a middle aged guy with a bad crew cut, I promise to print it here!

 

 

 


#36Rabbis Shave in Grief and Hope

April 2, 2014

I’m nervous. One last photo of my hair.

It’s very late, but I want to write this before I forget anything.

The mood tonight before the #36Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was giddy. We milled around in the common area in the B2 level of the Fairmont Hotel, waiting for a program to end. The noise level was high; the group was noisy and discombobulated. Rabbi Julie Adler and I talked about how strange it seemed that we were in such a manic mood, when the heartbreaking story of Superman Sam had given birth to the whole project. We were gathering in our grief and our rage that children suffer with these terrible diseases. Pediatric cancer destroys young lives and it is brutal for the families who suffer it, even when the patient survives. We had come to raise funds for research to find a better way via the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

My own mood was unstable – on the one hand, I’ve been working towards this event for months. Every time I think about Phyllis Sommer, and imagine losing my own child, I begin to cry. Every time I remember the children in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope, I feel great sadness. Those feelings warred with my personal feelings of vanity:  I was about to go bald! My hair is a major source of vanity for me, especially since it has stayed thick and dark as I’ve aged, and letting go of it was a big deal. I was acutely aware that it was too late to back out. I was glad my brother and his wife were there; I leaned on their presence.

The mood in the room was giddy. That seemed inappropriate until I asked the question: what IS the appropriate response to an obscene event, the death of a young child? We do not have the wherewithal to digest such a thing. It is, literally, unthinkable. Then it didn’t seem so strange that the children ran around in circles and adults took nervous photos of one another. We had no way to respond, so we circled in nervous energy.

Finally it was time, and we filed into the auditorium for a brief evening service. Rabbi Rex Perlmutter led a service of quiet and calm, centering us for the task ahead, reminding us why we were there with a memorial of all those we’ve lost of late, including Sammy Sommer. The giddy mania stopped, and a quiet expectation filled the room. We “shavees” were called up onto the stage for a br

makingfaces

It felt weird.

ief final song, then lined up for the shave.

I was the last rabbi shaved. I watched my colleagues go before me, and I saw that for some, especially women, it was difficult. I cried a little bit watching them. But when my own time came, I sat in the chair and the barber checked with me briefly, “You OK?” I said, “Well, I figure that this is one time I will get exactly the cut I wanted.” He laughed, and began to cut.

The cold air hit my scalp in patches. I had worried that I might cry, but it was such a peculiar sensation that I didn’t feel like crying. My head grew colder, and I felt a breeze. I felt a weight falling away from me. Then some hair dropped across my face, and I scrunched my face against it. I could hear my brother teasing me about the faces I was making, so I made more faces.

It was a moment of intense life. A moment of loss, and a moment of freedom. It was a moment of extreme closeness with colleagues, some of whom I had only recently met. It was a moment of rabbis coming together to mourn and to insist upon making the world better, and I feel blessed to be part of such a group. All the nerves were gone; what remained was a holy peace, shalom.

Now I sit here with my cold head and my heavy eyelids, trying to process it all. The fundraising continues: I am not yet at my goal. But whatever happens, I know that I have been present for something I will never forget.

It is not too late to participate in this extraordinary project. You can donate through my page on the St. Baldricks Foundation website.

Women Rabbis Shave for the Brave

Women Rabbis Shave for the Brave


It’s a Disability Adventure!

March 26, 2014
Getting ready to travel

Getting ready to travel

I’m preparing for a big adventure. This week I am traveling to Chicago to attend the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. That’s the organization of Reform Rabbis in North America. I’ll see old friends, we’ll study and pray and tell tall tales, and it will be grand. The night of April 1, I’m going to shave my head.

This is the first time I’ve traveled so far in a long time, and I am a bit nervous about it. You see, my world has gotten rather small in the last few years due to troubles with chronic pain and arthritis. Nowadays, if I want to go farther than a couple of blocks, or if I am going to need to stand in line, I use a scooter. This will be the first time I’ve traveled with it. So there is a lot on my mind: the airports, the airplane, transport from O’Hare to the hotel, the reactions of colleagues when they see me on wheels — it goes on an on. I’m still self-conscious about using this thing. But if I don’t use it, I can’t go. And I am tired of letting my life get smaller; I have work to do!

I had coffee today with a friend who is an old hand at wheelchair travel. He was very encouraging – I might say he even gave me a gentle little kick in the tuchus. It’s easy to hide at home, but here is too much life to be lived, too much Torah for me to live, to give in to that impulse. I’m glad we had coffee, and I’m going to keep him in my heart as I buzz down the hallways of OAK and ORD and down the sidewalks in Chicago.

So wish me luck! Life is about to get really interesting.


We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

March 22, 2014
Food grows where water flows in the Central Valley of California.

The Central Valley of California:
food grows only where there is water.

This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth.  By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water. 

So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.

I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?

Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year.  That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.

Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.

And that is a good thing, because we  – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.

So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.

This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Adam Reeder


Uncertain Pilgrim

Stuff I'm thinking about

Voices of Glass

One man's journey through Paranoid Schizophrenia, Mental Health, Faith and Life.

WISDOM STORIES TO LIVE BY

Life will go on as long as there is someone to sing, to dance, to tell stories and to listen — Oren Lyons

Looking for Lucy

I blog on my journey of recovery from a chaotic place to a [hopefully] more stable one and finding my true self in the process.

Dr Nicholas Jenner PsyD MA

Psychologist, Online Therapist and Counselor

A.D. Martin

writing - novels - film - television - video games - other stuff

AS I PLEASE

Follow me on twitter @RichyDispatch

The Kingdom

His Kingdom come, His will be done, on Earth ... as it is in Heaven.

Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

Humanistic Judaism by the blog

Amoeba Kat Musings

blogging in between sunbeam naps

itsalljules

Sharing what little wisdom I've got

Heathers Helpers

My healing journey through trauma recovery.

The Thesis Whisperer

Just like the horse whisperer - but with more pages

myrainbowmind

This is where I come to explore the rainbow of emotions that we all feel

Soul Destruction

London Call Girl Book & Diary Series - Exposing the dark world and the harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl

Cairns

markers along the way

MOONSIDE

TRIUMPH OF SPIRIT IN LOVE, NATURE & ART

the secret keeper

truth; creativity; bipolar; sexuality; child abuse; secrets; animals; psychotherapy; fantasy; art; poetry; haiku; music; films; writing; painting; inspiration; muse; books; reading; meaning; purpose; intuition; feelings; thinking; dreams; visions; fiction; reality; illusions; imagination; ideas; storytelling; learning; supernatural; soul; spirits; ghosts; evil; mania; depression; suicide; lgbtq; lesbian; life; death; news; serendipity; mentally creative; relationships; being here now; fun; peace; truth; beauty; freedom; love; but most of all LOVE

bi[polar] curious

poppycock from the bipolar spectrum

Sunny With a Chance Of Armageddon

The Beta Project in Textual Stimulation

Grace and Truth

...all the words of this life...

Life in the Married Lane

Marriage. Motherhood. Music. Mesorah.

depression comix (WP.com)

main site: depressioncomix.com

Every Journey Traveled

"The journey is everything---to another country, another time, another person's life. And everything is a journey." --- Montaigne

Travel Lightly

Life at my own Pace

GRACE in TORAH

Leaving Egypt is only the beginning of our journey...

52 Flashes of Fiction

Flash fiction (n.) - fiction that is extremely brief, like peering into a window for a single moment in time.

M. Fenn

skinnier than it is wide

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,842 other followers

%d bloggers like this: