The Most Beautiful Sukkah

October 12, 2014
"Red Door with Lock"

“Red Door with Lock” by Liz

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he put a roof on the sukkah that was more secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much, and he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

And the building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the protective roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” he asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. He saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. He saw the pallet on the floor. He looked up at the roof. He sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my dear, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep anything forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what wind will come tomorrow. What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.


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.


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