View from the Watershed

Image: Logan Pass in Montana, part of the North American Continental Divide, the great American watershed (skeeze/pixabay)

Certain experiences divide our lives into a clear Before and After. I can count those days on my fingers: the birth of my first child, my move to California, the day of my conversion, and rabbinic ordination. They are days when my identity shifted, even though the shift may have been a long time coming. Before Aaron was born, I was not a mother; afterwards, I would never describe myself without at least mentioning motherhood. I’m sure you have your own list of watershed events, those days after which you are never quite the same.

The funny thing about watersheds is that you cannot see past them. I thought I knew what my first marriage would be like – and what I thought was mostly a fantasy. I thought I knew what motherhood would be like – and some wonderful surprises lay ahead. Whether things went well or not, after each watershed, the common theme remained surprise. We set goals for ourselves based at least to some degree on fantasies and assumptions, and then we live our lives.

11 years ago today (May 18, 2008) I stood in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, receiving semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I had worked hard for that day for eight years: two years of intense Hebrew study, and six years of rabbinical school. For those six years, I lived without my family in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. There were big sacrifices involved.

Now I’m on the other side of that watershed, eleven years past it. As with the other watersheds, it’s all been a surprise: I never became a full time congregational rabbi, which was what I wanted when I applied to HUC.

Instead, I’ve served primarily as a teacher since 2008: I teach classes on basic Judaism to newcomers to Jewish community. I’ve developed an online presence via this blog and social media, also primarily focused on educating beginners and newcomers. My “Intro” classes moved online, too. I stay in touch with many of my students for years and years — one of the great pleasures of my life is watching them live their Jewish lives. This year I’m moving into a new phase of teaching by writing. I’m moving slower, but I have no less energy for the work. I have reached an age when many people are thinking about retirement, but I cannot imagine stopping now.

I’m grateful for the ways in which I have been able to serve, and very grateful for all the learners: students, readers of this blog, people with whom I’ve chatted casually. I love being a rabbi, even though very little of it has gone to plan.

What are the watershed moments in your life? Were you surprised at what you found on the other side?


The Tale of the Sick Dog

Image: My favorite picture of Jojo, who loves to sunbathe.

First, Jojo got sick. She threw up all over everywhere again and again. I felt sorry for her, and concerned. Her breathing was labored and she crouched as if in pain. She cuddled against me between retches, as if to implore: Help! None of this was her usual self; I was worried.

In the morning, I called the vet. Yes, they could see her at 3pm. Normally this would not be a problem but Linda and Jessica were both out of town.

I had to teach a class in Berkeley. I couldn’t take a sick dog, and didn’t know how long we’d be tied up at the vet. Moreover, Linda usually takes the dogs to the vet, because their office is inaccessible, and I have trouble mixing my cane with dogs. Jojo is heavy and would need to be lifted into and out of the car.

So. Many. Problems. I called Linda to get help thinking it through. She said, “Call Dawn!”

Dawn’s our friend and a fellow Jewish professional – aha! She could help me figure it out. She reminded me that a retired rabbi friend had offered to help me with classes – Yes! Then she offered to call him, so that I could work out the puzzle of how to get Jojo to the doc.

I called my son, who has two jobs and whom I try not to ask for things too often because he is busy and I don’t want to impose but sure, he would help, glad to help.

So I picked him up, and he picked the dog up, and we all three went to the vet’s office. He dealt with sad little Jojo while I got myself into the building and we saw the vet.

Turns out, Jojo is OK. No obstructions, no fever, just a tummy ache, likely from eating something in the garden – a Jojo experiment gone wrong.

There is a moral to this story. When we feel stuck, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and say, “I can’t deal with this!” That is the moment to call upon friends: friends who can help, or friends who are calm. Get help thinking it through. Get help assessing resources.

I knew Rabbi Chester had offered to teach for me, but I needed to be reminded of it when I was in a panic. I knew Jim would say yes to helping, but I needed time to remember. I needed my whole village to make it through this puzzling, upsetting day.

And at the end of the day, Jojo felt loved (except by the vet, maybe.) I felt loved and cherished by my wife, my friend, my rabbi, my son, and the dog. I touched base with a friend I don’t talk with often enough. I got a chance to visit with my son. My class got a treat: Rabbi Chester is a wonderful rabbi and teacher.

Everyone in that chain of connections is part of my Jewish community. This isn’t the first time that they’ve saved me, and it won’t be the last. My synagogue is my rock; there are people I love and people I don’t love, but that is where I met most of the people who will show up for me when things are a mess.

None of us are equipped to live our lives like the mythical Marlboro Man, stoic and alone. Secular culture often idealizes the capable loner, but that’s bunk. We are social creatures, we human beings, and even more so, we Jews.

If you are reading this bitterly, and thinking, “I have no connections,” I offer you this: reach out to one person. Someone you know, someone not too scary, and exchange names with them. Be willing to show up for them, and then – voila! you will have a connection. Community helps with that, but it all starts with a friend.

I know you can. Years ago, I felt that I had to do everything alone. I spent most of my time drowning in anxiety. I still wind up back in that state, and I have to be reminded. That’s OK. I’m human too.

The Torah of Dog Food

Image: Linda holding Princess, the poodle. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

My wife and I have three aging toy poodles. They all came from Poodle Rescue, and we have had almost ten happy years with them. Now we’re all getting older together: Linda and I are 70 and 64, and the poodles are 14, 15, and somewhere past 20. Their names are Jojo, Princess, and Gabi; we call them our Jewdles.

Princess is having the hardest time with aging. She’s Exhibit A for “Why Puppy Mills are Bad” – she has every kind of deformity or ailment associated with toy poodle inbreeding. She’s an affectionate little bundle of fluff, and when she stopped eating last year, we were distraught. She didn’t have extra weight to lose, and soon she was nothing but fluff and bones.

The vet looked at her sadly, and suggested that maybe if we offered her a bit of chicken and rice, it would tempt her. Sure enough, when I gave it to her, she showed the first interest in weeks. Apparently “people food” was the ticket. I got instructions from our vet, plus a cookbook by a vet in Hawaii, and went to work. Since the food I prepared started out with chicken as the protein, we called it “chickie.”

It was wonderful seeing Princess return to life. She gobbles chickie as fast as she can (not very fast, since she’s missing a lot of teeth.) But we were amazed at the changes in the other dogs, as well. Gabi (age 20+) had never seemed to care about food – until chickie. Now she is a chow hound, and her coat has returned to its original silky beauty. Jojo has always been a chow hound, but she’s looking good, too.

It has made me wonder what was really in the expensive commercial dog food we used to give them.

I’m committed to chickie-making now; there’s fresh in the fridge and frozen in the freezer. I make a couple of batches a week. As I said, it’s my new hobby. I thought that I’d write it up and add it to the blog, in case someone out there in Internet-land has an old dog that has quit eating.

The master recipe is simple:

  • 1/3 protein, usually meat or leftover meat.
  • If the meat is extremely lean, I add a bit of olive oil.
  • 1/3 pureed vegetables and fruit
  • 1/3 whole grain (brown rice, oats, or quinoa)
  • Plus enough water to cook that amount of grain.
  • A bit of sea salt, for the minerals. (The vet’s recommendation.)

I make chickie in an Instant Pot or a dutch oven in my oven. Cook the meat, add salt and olive oil, add the veggies, grain, water, and cook. In a pressure cooker, I cook it for 1 hour. Otherwise, I cooked it on low overnight in a Dutch oven in the oven.

For protein I’ve used turkey, chicken, beef, or eggs. Occasionally I’ll make “cold chickie” which includes some leftover yogurt, cottage cheese, and hardboiled eggs that have been sitting around in the fridge.

Leftovers are also great for the vegetables. I include produce that is past its prime. I puree all of it so that it mixes into the protein and the dogs don’t just pick out their favorites. I’ve thrown in everything from old lettuce to seaweed. If you decide to make chickie, please do check out this list of foods that are bad for dogs – don’t use those!

Grains were easy. I started with the rice, but then got close to the bottom of a box of quinoa, and thought, why not? They loved it. Same with oats. I buy the grains in bulk now, which cuts down on packaging.

The water is usually just water, but when I have cooked a whole chicken or something else that has bones, I boil the carcass to make a broth that I can put in the freezer to use for chickie. Bone broth has good stuff in it for arthritic joints – and everyone in our house has arthritic joints!

This has also cut down on waste at our house. I keep an eye on the produce in the fridge, and chickify anything that’s still healthy but past the point of us picky humans eating it. Proteins are often leftovers, too, although to keep up with the demand I’ve used ground meat from the store, too.

There’s one more thing: because our dogs are very old, and Princess is in the early stages of kidney failure, the vet suggested some powdered supplements that we sprinkle on top of their food. If you decide to go the Chickie route with your dog, check with your vet for breed-specific or dog-specific needs.

You might ask: why is it worth my time to cook food for three old dogs? And why is it worth space in this blog?

Torah is not limited to “holy things.” A life of Torah is one in which everything is made holy – even pet food. Here are some of the Jewish values I experience and act out in making chickie for the Jewdles:

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is the Hebrew name for kindness to animals, an important Jewish value. For example,Rebekah extends hospitality to the camels as well as a human visitor in Genesis 24:19.

Hakarat tovah is gratitude. These little dogs have been our faithful companions and comforters for ten years. I express my gratitude by taking care of them now that they are old.

Bal tashkeet is the Torah commandment not to be wasteful. A lot of things I used to throw away now go into the chickie: faded produce, leftovers, and little bits of whole grain from the bottom of the package. I don’t buy packaged grain at all any more: rather than buy a plastic bag or box of grain, I buy in bulk, using reusable bags, and store the grain in permanent jars in the kitchen.

So there you are: the story of my peculiar new hobby. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see Princess gumming her little dish of chickie, while Jojo and Gabi gobble theirs up.

Gabi, Princess, and Jojo

Greetings from Cincinnati!

Image: The opening meeting of the 130th annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Photo Ruth Adar)

I’m writing this message from a hotel room in Cincinnati, OH, where I am meeting with the rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) the association of Reform Rabbis in North America.

It’s a combination old-home-week, school reunion, continuing education and prayer festival. The elevators are full of people seeing dear friends they haven’t seen in years. The meeting rooms are full of discussions about everything from social justice, Israel, making worship better, dealing with anti-Semitic incidents, and nonprofit business practices. In the lobby there are pairs of rabbis putting their heads together, having conversations about everything from family to ethics.

I’m looking forward to posting thoughts inspired by the conference. Watch this space!

The Red Zone of Overwhelm

Image: Tachometer with “red zone” on fire. (visualgeneration/shutterstock.)

Some of us are well into the red zone of Overwhelm. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

I’m still digesting the message of Pittsburgh, which is that anti-Semitism is back in a big way in the USA.  My Facebook feed and email are running over with evidence of that: destructive acts and cruel taunts and nasty stuff galore. I am sick of swastikas.

My nose and eyes are still recovering from the Butte County Fire – both are still running like faucets. I peer uneasily at the golden hills not far from my house and check to make sure that I’ve opted in for ALL the fire warning services in the area. It has begun to rain – that’s good! – but now we have to watch for mudslides.

The news is beyond horrible. We’ve gone from putting innocent babies in cages to tear gassing them. The second biggest Federal “holding facility” (read: prison)  in the United States as of this week is a center in Tornillo, TX, where over 2300 teens are held without due process.

I twisted (sprained?) my knee on Thanksgiving and it is taking its sweet time healing. There is nothing to do but be patient and RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevation. Everything hurts.

A number of people in my support networks are hurting, too. We try to take care of each other, but it is hard when everyone is running on fumes.

So this morning I put my nose to the grindstone to do what needed to be done so that Shabbat could be a shelter of peace. My to-do list isn’t empty, but it’s a lot better than it was.

For the next 24 hours I will take the opportunity to say the ancient words, to ground myself in the tradition, to count my many blessings. I will rest the knee. I will recall that I have family and friends and students and work that I love. I will give a little tzedakah before the sun sets, and I will remember thereby that it all could be worse.

If there’s someone you love, hug them. If there’s something good in your life, cherish it.  Remember that none of us are much good to anyone when we are physically, emotionally, or spiritually depleted.

Let’s take care of ourselves and be as kind as we can be. Ok?

Prayer for a World Afire

Image: The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in California on 9 October 2017. (Photo from Wikimedia, click link for rights.)

I found myself praying this afternoon, “Please, God, could we just get a little time to breathe?” Between the shooting last night in Thousand Oaks, CA and the anti-Semitic incidents that have been pouring into the news for the last month, I felt overwhelmed.

That was right before the smoke poured south from the Camp Fire in Butte County. The fire is nowhere near here – 175 miles away! – but the air outside makes my throat close up and my eyes burn. Sunset was a muddy smudge against the horizon. So much for breathing.

Last week it was bombs and gun violence. This week it’s climate change and gun violence. Tonight giant fires burn in Butte and Ventura counties in California within 24 hours of a shooting in Ventura County that killed 12 people, including an officer from the sheriff’s department and a survivor of the mass murder in Las Vegas last year.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. The most sickening part of it is that these are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every week, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he’s mad, or he’s sick, or he believes conspiracy theories, or he just feels like it. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, Tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or liberals or conservatives.

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the billionaire business people and corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.






The Art of Staying Present

Image: The flowers in my front yard. Despite the inconveniences of plans made and thwarted, there is still beauty in the world if we choose to notice. Photo: Ruth Adar.

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט.

Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Man plans and God laughs.

This Yiddish saying speaks to all the times we make plans, only to have them collapse in the face of events. I’m meditating on it now as I deal with a new round of body aggravation.

Things had been going so well. After a rough year of pain problems, a new therapy seemed really promising. I got a bit more ambitious about projects. I began getting more exercise.

This past Monday night I noticed I was particularly exhausted in the evening, with a lot of unsteadiness. I didn’t sleep well, and by morning it was clear that a bunch of familiar bio-mechanical problems and pain problems were back with a vengeance. What a drag.

It is so tempting to get caught up in fake moral thinking about these things: What did I “do wrong?” Friends, expressing their concern, say things like, “What did you do?”

What I have learned is that sometimes there is no “what” that I “did.” I can frustrate myself by looking for causality or I can turn my attention to living in the present, paying attention to things as they are. Exercising mindfully and eating mindfully are more challenging when the experience of being in this body is painful or unpleasant. It is an important challenge both for healing and for spiritual well-being.

Judaism pushes us to pay attention to the present moment. Blessings make us stop before we eat to appreciate the food in our hands. Other blessings demand we pay attention to our bodies, to the sun in the sky, to the fragrance of a flower. The day begins not at an abstract time but when the sun rises, and it ends when the sun sets.

Does God really laugh? The Yiddish proverb used to sound cruel to me: “I make plans, and God says, ‘Gotcha!'”

Now I read it a bit differently. I get a little too involved with the future (plans) and God reminds me to stay in the present. It isn’t a cruel laugh; it’s more of a gentle chuckle. I am still learning, still growing, not dead yet!