A Blessing For Trees: Poems Upon The Skies

Dear Readers, if you have not yet encountered the work of Ilene Winn-Lederer you are in for a treat. I’m reblogging one of her posts so that you can acquaint yourself with her marvelous Torah-themed mystical art.

Imaginarius

BlessingOfTheTreesModel3ALike the universal languages of music and art, trees speak to us without words, inspiring us to describe them with our own words and visual expressions. In Deuteronomy (Devarim) 20:19-20, we learn that even in wartime is life precious and that trees are essential to our continued existence: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayst eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by thee?…” Equally eloquent are the words of the late Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in his collection of aphorisms, Sand And Foam: “Trees are poems the Earth writes upon the sky…”.


I was reminded of these ideas during our recent observance of Tu B’Shevat

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Thinking of Conversion to Judaism? 5 Things to Do

Interested in a place at the table?
Interested in a place at the table?

This is an update of a post I made two years ago. It seems like time to revisit the topic.

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, head for the exit. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

For advice about finding a rabbi with the proper credentials for your conversion, read Choosing A Rabbi.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is a religion embedded in a People. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different.  To find congregations, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

Lately there have been some websites offering conversion to Judaism online. Before you settle for that option, read my article Online Conversion, Revisited.  

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism. Keep in mind that not all books and not all online sources are equally good; some are downright poor, so choose carefully or look for recommendations from sources you trust.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. 

And if, along the way, you realize that what you wanted was to learn about Judaism, but that it was just one step on your spiritual journey, that’s OK. There are many paths to holiness; Judaism is only one of them. I hope and pray that you will find the right path for you.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Title Page, in the author's handwriting
Title Page, in the author’s handwriting

I just finished reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. The book was published in 2002, but I somehow missed hearing about it until I read a New York Times article this past September. I added it to my list of books to read, and it finally came to the top.

I love books that open up a window to history, and this one did not fail. “Hannah Crafts” is the pen name of Hannah Bond, a woman who was born and grew up enslaved in the antebellum South, and who as an adult made a successful run for freedom. The edition I read has both a Prologue by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and footnotes by Dr. Gates, which provide a context for the story, which appears to be heavily autobiographical. This is the only known written slave narrative that was not edited by white publishers.  The copy that was discovered appears to be the working manuscript, so we see not only the story as the author intended it, but also the rejected phrases and false beginnings that can reveal a great deal about the writer’s process, even her handwriting. As such, while the story in the narrative is wonderful and carried me into the history, Dr. Gate’s material and Ms. Crafts’ own notations offer the reader an even deeper trip into her experience.

Ms. Crafts makes clear that this world is not divided so neatly into black and white as many romanticists imagine, but that indeed, many if not most people in the novel’s world are or might be mixed race. Uncertainties about this form a major plot point, but it also led me to wonder how much of the later anxiety about “drops of blood” in the Southern psyche and legal system came from insecurity about this point. This carries me back to some of my other ruminations about authenticity (Who’s the Most Jewish?, The Problem of Legitimacy Part 1 and Part 2.) Sometimes I wonder if we human beings are cruelest to those we think may be a bit too much like ourselves.

The book itself was a page-turner. It’s clear she’d read some Brontë and similar novels, but her own voice shines through, and I’m glad that no helpful editor came along to “fix” it. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the difference small kindnesses can make in the world. I am horrified to think of all the Hannahs whose voices are forever lost.

The Torah connection to this? Do I even need to say it? Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt… [Genesis 15:15] We are commanded to pay attention to this topic, to continue to learn, to continue to fight injustice, to free the captive. Hannah Crofts voice speaks to us across time, reminding us what it is to be enslaved.

Overwhelmed by Shabbat?

2898151773_e0d5a0c656Shabbat begins tonight at sundown.

Some of us are already preparing: cleaning house, making challah, shopping.

And some of us feel overwhelmed at the idea of Shabbat: special dinner, Hebrew blessings, day of rest, no driving/money/shopping/etc…

If you are feeling overwhelmed, just stop.  Let that go.

Make Shabbat the day that you put down burdens, including the burden of a “perfect Shabbat.”

Some suggestions for an imperfect (but blessed!) Shabbat. Choose one, and see how it feels:

  • Make this Shabbat a day with “One meal together” in my home, with takeout if cooking is stressful.
  • This Shabbat, I will light candles and let that be enough.
  • For all or part of Shabbat, electronics OFF in my home.
  • From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, “No Nagging” in my home.
  • This Shabbat, I will go to synagogue for one service and just take it in. No judgments, no expectations.
  • This Shabbat, no shopping or errands. Whatever it is, it can wait.
  • This Shabbat, to any worries, say “Let that wait until sundown on Saturday.”
  • This Shabbat, tell each family member personally, “I love you.”

No, these are not traditional Shabbat observances. But when we feel overwhelmed by a mitzvah, then it is time to go back to the very basics. Try one or more of these, and see how you feel.  Let Shabbat be a day when you lay your burdens down.

May the peace of Shabbat enter our homes and our hearts!

 

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by RahelSharon

Jury Duty

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

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.

Martin Luther King Day, 2014

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr

Today we in the United States celebrate Martin Luther King Day. A few days ago, I noticed articles about it being a Day of Service, not a day “off” but a day “on.” And every year, I wonder how many people have already planned the day, and wind up just feeling guilty and avoiding the whole thing. I wonder how many aren’t “off” to do “service.” So here is a project for those of us who are not cleaning beaches or sorting coats or working at food kitchens:

If you are in school, and working one or more jobs to stay in school, and there is no free time….

If you are the parent of young children, or a sick child and there is no free time…

If it never occurred to you that today is anything but a holiday, and you needed a holiday, darn it…

If you are working two or more jobs just to keep body and soul together and there is no free time…

If you are a celebrity, and a million people are making demands on you…

If you are disabled by physical or mental illness, and your options are limited…

If you are overwhelmed by life, for any reason at all….

There are still ways we can do for others.

I can say “thank you” to the person who does me a service.

I can drive carefully, with regard for the lives and safety of others.

I can speak kindly to the person who is in my way.

I can give others the benefit of the doubt.

I can speak up for someone else who is being mistreated in a way that may seem small to me but may be big for them.

I can acknowledge the humanity of others, by my manner and my speech.

If in a world of billions, even a thousand of us do one or more of these things, the world will shift. The balance will be altered. Try and see.