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


Goodbye, Mr. Phelps.

March 20, 2014

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Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church died today at age 84. Baruch Dayan emet.

“Baruch Dayan emet” is what Jews say when anyone dies. It means, “Blessed is the True Judge.” It’s appropriate for anyone, saint or sinner or mystery.

Watching twitter today, I saw many responses to Mr. Phelps’ death. Some were thoughtful, some were angry, some were clever, but this was one of those times when I’m glad to be an observant Jew. “Baruch Dayan emet,” I said, grateful for the tradition.

I have no idea what drove Mr. Phelps and his followers to picket funerals and spew hate. He hated a lot of people, including LGBT people, Jews, and a long list of others.

Death is often called “the great equalizer.” Rich or poor, famous or obscure, we all die, and our bodies turn to dust. Fred Phelps is no different in that respect: his body will turn to dust.

But what is not equal after death is the memory we leave behind us.  Jews are apt to say in comforting a mourner: “May the departed’s memory be for a blessing.” That one won’t be used much for Mr. Phelps, if it is used at all. I don’t know what he was to his family, but he made his life into a curse for many LGBT Americans, and for the people mourning at funerals his church picketed. He has left behind an entire generation of people to whom the name “Fred Phelps” will mean cruelty, hurt and disrespect for the dead.

Each of us has some choice over the memories we leave behind us. Choose wisely.

Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by haldean


Two Pockets, Two Notes

February 20, 2014

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Rabbi Simcha Bunam Bonhart of Przysucha (1765–1827) used to say,Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” – from Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.

I’m not sure which pocket I should reach into or which note I should read. For the last week, this blog has seen its readership increase nine-fold from about 200 “hits” per day to 1800. I’m not sure how this happened but it’s certainly very gratifying. Thank you for reading my work.

The ridiculous part is that it is also rather alarming. When I thought only a few people were reading, it was easy to write. Now that I have what I hoped for, the words don’t flow so easily. I click “delete” more often than I click “publish.”  Tonight I decided that maybe the best way to get over it was to simply admit what was going on, have a laugh at my self-importance or shyness or whatever it is, and get back to writing.

So, done.  Now I’ll click “publish.”

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by danielmoyle


Jury Duty

January 23, 2014

juryduty1

Today I was scheduled for jury duty. I kept the day clear, called last night to see if they wanted me at 9 a.m., and then phoned again at 11 a.m. to see if they wanted me at 1 p.m.  They didn’t want me. I’m done for the next year.

This year jury duty was no big deal. Some years I go in for one cattle call, and then they release me. A couple of years ago, I went in for my cattle call, and then back again and again as the jury was selected, until I was Juror #8. That year it was a two week job.

That time, I got to see the whole process, including the process of people trying to get released from duty. The judge was tough but fair: single proprietors of small businesses and single caretakers of small children went home almost immediately, serving almost no time. People with long-planned nonrefundable vacations were released, too. A couple of folks who did not have the ability to follow the arguments were gently sent home. People who merely couldn’t be bothered were held to serve, at least one of them on the jury itself. He quit whining about it about the third day, as I recall.

We worked hard. Even the whiny guy who didn’t want to be there worked hard, by the time we got to deliberations. During the days of testimony and waiting, we worked hard at following the rules: no chatting about it, no opinions, just take it all in. We understood that years of a man’s life depended on our behavior and decisions. We saw that witnesses had been unwilling, and we saw the damage to the victim. We heard conflicting testimony. We knew, too, that there were many things we were not allowed to see or hear, and we had to accept that. We knew that the crime in question was too common for the newspapers, but that it represented a small piece of a big problem in our community. We intuited other crimes that the defendant may have committed, but those were not the matter at hand.

After the testifying was done, I served as foreperson of the jury as we processed information and slowly re-covered what we had seen and heard. I took vote after vote, stopping to discuss and process some more after each vote, getting us closer to a verdict. As I said, we all worked hard.

At the end of it, we convicted a man of a felony. At the end of it, I felt that I’d done my very best, that we’d done our very best, and I hope justice was done. At the end of it, I had learned that nothing on television even approximates reality, especially reality shows.

I would just as soon not serve on a jury again. The thing is, every defendant is some mother’s child, a human being who needs a fair trial whatever he or she deserves at the end of that trial. It is an imperfect system, but as the judge said to us at the end of it, it’s better than any other system human beings have devised.

As a Jew, I’m proud of the many contributions of Jewish civilization to the processes of law. As a rabbi, I am conscious of the requirement of Jewish law and tradition that I obey the law and serve: dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” I did jury duty today serving my responsibilities as an American and as a Jew.

Now: back to life!


A Visit to Bugville

January 21, 2014

1973_volkswagen_super_beetle-pic-2146168177213912377

Today I did something different. I drove up to Chico, CA and I visited Bugville.

My friend has wanted a VW bug for a long time, and she found the right car online. It is a bright red 1972 SuperBeetle with all-new brakes, transmission, and a mostly pristine exterior. It was waiting for her at an outfit up here in Chico that specializes in “Air Cooled Rides:” Late Night Air Cooled.  We spent a chunk of the afternoon discovering a whole subculture of folks who love those little rides.  Do not call them “cars.” They are not “cars.” They are “bugs” or “vans” or “air cooled rides.” They are wonders of engineering, pieces of art. They are air-cooled rides.

The proprietor spent a long time with her, teaching her the fine points of caring for her bug. He did it before he accepted her cash. I have a feeling that had she not been appreciative of the wonders of Bugville, he’d have politely, kindly, sent us away bugless. She passed muster, and now the SuperBeetle is hers. She’s still thinking about its name.

Why am I babbling about this in a Jewish context? Because today I was like the person who visits a synagogue for the very first time.  There was terminology (NOT “cars!” NEVER “cars!”) Lots of talk about “air-cooled” and “carburetors” and “rpms” and shifting and kinds of oil and gasoline and goodness knows what else.  I was clueless. I just smiled a lot. Once I looked into an engine and thought, wow, yeah, engine. Air-cooled, yeah.

I remember that’s exactly how I felt on my first trip to a synagogue: lost. It was good for me to feel that feeling again, to remember how it feels to be a complete beginner in a culture with its own language and codes and jargon.

If you are a newcomer to Bugville, or to synagogue, it’s OK to be new. The owner of All Night Air Cooled was glad we were there, glad to tell us all about the wonders of his world. It was OK that we didn’t know the jargon yet, that we weren’t sure where to sit. It felt weird, because no one likes to feel so completely out of it. But if you hang in there a while, you’ll begin to pick up the lingo. (See what I learned, in just an afternoon? Air-cooled! Super Beetle! Yay!) You’ll develop your own tastes. You’ll make friends, you’ll become attached, and before long, you know, you’ll be one of the regulars gazing into the engine, nodding knowingly. The next newcomer will see you and think, gee, she knows this stuff. She belongs.


American Jerusalem

January 16, 2014
LeviStrauss

Levi Strauss & Co. on Battery St. in San Francisco

Normally I save my writing about film for the Jewish Film blog, but I want to alert readers to a new film I saw this past week.  American Jerusalem tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

If you want to see the film, you’re in luck. DVD’s are available through the film’s website, and screenings are coming up at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the National Museum of Jewish History in Phildelphia, PA, and at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival.

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org


Report from Rabbi Camp

January 6, 2014

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. I have been engaged with something my spouse once called “Rabbi Camp.” Once a year the Reform rabbis on the Pacific Coast and thereabouts meet in the desert in Southern California. We don’t camp. We stay in a hotel, we eat, we pray, we study, we sleep, we schmooze, and we catch up with old friends. That’s what I’m doing.

The first night here I sat up all night and chatted with my usual roommate here. She’s another rabbi who teaches Intro classes, and we have marathon conversations about all sorts of things. There’s a lot of professional stuff, and also discussions about our dogs.

This morning, at breakfast, I saw a dear friend from my ordination class, and we had a lot of catching up to do, since we hadn’t seen each other in almost six years. She’s back on the West Coast, so she’s here at PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis). Yay!

We did some text study this morning as a group, and more study sessions later on, along with some plain ol’ schmoozing later. Prayers, of course. And then more connection.

When we are rabbinical students, we’re like puppies in a litter – we live in each other’s laps. Then after five or six years of that, suddenly we are scattered all over the country, some of us even farther than that. And suddenly folks who were part of every single day for years are no longer around. Also, most of us have little time to spend learning with other rabbis. We teach, we officiate, we counsel, we study with our students – but study with other rabbis is very precious.

So this is a special time, getting all “filled up” with new ideas and old friends. I’m not posting much now, but just you watch, lots of good stuff is coming soon. Because I will be renewed!


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