This Shabbat, I’m grateful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the last several weeks, every time we’ve gotten to Shabbat I’ve thought, “WHEW! Glad that week is behind me!” and I’ve thought naively that surely next week will be better. Here I am again, with the WHEW, but I find that I’m learning to find the things for which I am grateful even if they are small.

I am grateful that Captain Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol has shown such humanity and genius in his approach to the people of Ferguson. May we all learn from him!

I am grateful for cease fires in Israel, Gaza and everywhere, however long they can last.

I am grateful for journalists, even though they inform me of scary stuff.

I am grateful for my opportunity this past June to meet Rivka Selah z”l, a beautiful soul who departed this week, mother of a dear friend and mother-in-law of another.

I am grateful for all the small blessings of the week: for the gorgeous sunshine pouring in my windows, for the cucumbers and tomatoes growing in my garden, for the hummingbirds who put on a continual carnival in the back yard. I am grateful for zinnias and milkweed and those weird strong tendrils that help grape vines climb.

I am grateful for the friends who got in touch after reading my blog post on depression. I am doing OK, and all those caring friends are a part of that.

I am grateful for a number of things that confidentiality bars me from posting anywhere public. I am grateful for work that I love, and for students who learned from me, and who taught me wonderful things.

I am grateful for my sons. They rock. And for my beloved spouse, and for the little dogs who snuggle and dance and make us laugh.

I am grateful for my synagogue, Temple Sinai, where I will go to services tonight and count more blessings, and hear familiar words, and sing familiar songs with people I’ve known for years.

I am grateful for the blessings I haven’t noticed yet. May the peace of Shabbat make them apparent to me.


Shabbat shalom!

Just Before Shabbat: My Week

BH14_10th_Fundentity_v4_0This week I’ve been having an interesting time at the BlogHer ’14 Conference in San Jose. It’s the 10th annual gathering of women who blog, and it’s fascinating. I’m about to step back from it for Shabbes, but I thought it might be a good time to share a little of what I’ve learned.

1. I don’t get out enough. This is the first big event I’ve been to in years that was not specifically a Jewish event, unless you count the occasional Oakland A’s game. Now that I’ve got the scooter, I may be doing more of this kind of thing, since I’m interested in expanding my tech and social media skills.

2. There are some amazing women doing amazing work online. I’ve identified a number of women whose skills and savvy inspire me. Watch this space as I try to learn and grow from watching them.

3. The corporate world is looking to make money from women bloggers. Mostly this is good news – those amazing women I mentioned are making money on their blogs. And I love seeing women get respect. Also, I was grateful for the coupons for toilet paper and Skype and other goodies that I was given today, just for tweeting; on the other hand, I understand now that monetizing one’s blog comes with a price. I think I’ll stick with the “free” site from wordpress.org paid for by their ads, and forgo the responsibilities that come with monetizing.

4. Accessibility is an ongoing project. On the one hand, my scooter and I were able to go everywhere I needed to go. On the other, heavy doors are a real pill. The San Jose convention center is going to get a letter from me. Also, someday I’m going to lose it and blog about bathrooms and so-called accessible hotel rooms, but not today, because I’m in a good mood.

On other fronts, my heart remains in the East – the news from Israel saddens and scares me. Honestly, it’s been a relief to think about something else, but it never entirely leaves me. I am deeply disturbed at the anti-Semitism rising around the world, and at the horrible words aimed at some of my colleagues. Even at the conference, when people saw “Rabbi” on my name tag, some wanted to talk about Gaza and some clearly wanted to avoid talking about it.

Shabbat shalom, folks. May the Sabbath bring us all rest and recovery, insight and wisdom to deal with a very difficult world.

Fragments

My heart is too full for me to post anything coherent. Some disjointed thoughts:

• I love my brother. I feel loved by my brother. I love and feel loved by his wife. I wish I knew how to communicate to him what a blessing he has been and continues to be in my life.

• I am proud to be a Reform rabbi.

• Chicago is my city of revelation. I have no idea why, but something about this Midwestern city lifts me towards growth.

• Shaving my head really opened it up. I feel new breezes blowing, literally and figuratively. What that means I am not yet sure.

• I love my home. I love my spouse. I love my sons. I love my friends. I love my dogs. I miss them and I want to go home.

 

 

 

We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

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

30 Years Ago Today

Big Guys Now.
Big Guys Now

It’s been 30 years today since I last gave birth.

I remember knowing that this one was my last. I felt very strongly that one for each hand was my limit, a decision I still feel was the right one. My marriage was in terrible shape (it would end three years later) and I was still very unsure who I was or what meaning I was going to make of my life. I was depressed. Having children was what I thought was expected of me.

Having children in that state was a terrible idea, but we were lucky. As Joseph points out at the end of Genesis, sometimes people do things for stupid or bad reasons, and it still turns out for blessing.

Part of what turned my life around was the act of giving birth. I was terrified of the popular “block” anesthetics, so I opted for so-called natural childbirth. I used Lamaze for the first birth and hated it, but when the second pregnancy came along I was still not going to let anyone put a needle in my spine if I could help it. The nurse-midwives at the University of Tennessee Hospital suggested that I might be a good candidate for autohypnosis, and that’s what I did.

Hypnosis doesn’t work for everyone, but I swear to you that I have no memory of pain from Jamie’s birth. It was fast, it was free of pain, and I felt totally in control (a big issue for me at the time.) I remember a labor nurse was worried that I was so quiet and relaxed something must be wrong. What I did have was an experience I can’t adequately describe. I will just say that it was a key milestone on the spiritual journey that ultimately would bring me home to Judaism.

I feel sad at most of what I read about natural childbirth. There’s been quite a polarization around it since that morning in 1983. Seems like every article is either by someone saying it’s the only “right” way, or someone else saying that only stupid people go into childbirth without chemical help. My own feeling is that every woman’s body is different, and every woman’s mind-body connection is different, and it pays to try things and see what works. Don’t try the non-medicated stuff if it scares you, but certain adventuresome souls may find it satisfying as all get out.

The great lesson of motherhood for me was that control is an illusion. I could plan the labor and delivery, and all those plans could have been changed had the medical situation demanded it.  I was sure that I had detailed plans for proper child-rearing, and then real human beings fell into my life and I fell in love with them, and it turned out that they had other plans. And then there are things no parent wants to think about: an accident or an illness can change everything in a blink. Those have happened too.

Parenthood continues to be an engine driving my spiritual life. It has drummed humility into me. It has bathed me in wonder. It has made me cry and laugh, often at the same time. I love my sons, and I love being their mom.

Remembering Kennedy

Serious Steps

It’s 50 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1

On my scooter.
On my scooter.

When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing.  OK, I’ll click that.

And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.

That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being.  I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.

Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ‘em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.

It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.

So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all  of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing.  I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.

So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.

I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.

I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.

As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.