Friday, October 24, 2008


I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted by obsessing about the economic crisis and how it will affect me and those I care about. I’m exhausted by months of worrying about who will be elected President. I’m exhausted by Selichot and Elul and Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and self-examination and apologizing and forgiving.

But after a month of prayer, reflection, music, stories, sermons and meditation, I’m also relieved. I’m relieved because I might have a line on some freelance work. I’m relieved because I think Barack Obama is going to win. And I’m relieved because I have come out the other end of the holidays filled with peace, a small amount of self-acceptance and a whole lot of love for my community.

So I sit down to work on this dvar torah. I’m feeling good. And Then, I read the parsha, Ha’azinu. Oh My (as Joe Biden would say, literally) God.

The parsha, ha’azinu, “meaning “give ear”, listen, is an archaic and strangely beautiful poem, known as Shira Ha’azinu, the Song of Moses, and it’s ostensibly one of the last things Moses says to the Hebrews before he dies. In it Moses tells the tale of a wonderful generous awesome God who saved the Hebrews from the Egyptians and then gave them everything they could possibly want and then is horrified and really pissed off when they ungratefully screw things up. They become an idol-worshipping, treacherous nation of fools.

Much of the poem is taken up with the various ways God intends to punish these ingrates, with wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, fanged beasts, venomous snakes and much more. And the only thing that stops God from wiping these irksome people off the face of the earth is the fear of what it would do to God’s reputation if the other nations of the world see what a failure God’s chosen people have been. God decides it would be more embarrassing to kill us than to let us live. So God brings the Children of Israel low but promises to watch over them and eventually save them from their enemies, transformed though they may be by their suffering.

Happy New Year!

So what is one to make of this? For me, there are two possible explanations. One, this is Moses speaking to the Hebrews who are about to cross over to Israel. He’s dying, he knows it, this is his last chance to speak and he’s telling them everything he thinks they need to know before they leave him. He reiterates all the rules and regulations, and in the next parsha he blesses them before they go, but here he gives in to his anger and sadness and disappointment that he will not be going with them. After everything he has done for them, they are not thinking of him, they are only thinking of the future. Without him, they are sure to make many. many mistakes. And he so wants to be with them when they do. It’s sad.

Then God reminds Moses that he is dying before he can go to Israel because of his own mistake in the desert. So perhaps Moses was only yelling at himself.

Another explanation of this poem is perhaps to be found in its placement in our calendar, occurring right after Yom Kippur. This year you get all of two whole days before your inner peace is shattered. This parsha is a direct challenge to any complacent serenity you may have managed to achieve. Have you repented of your sins? Is your slate clean? Is God smiling down on you? Well, don’t go counting any of those chickens, because you are bound to make many mistakes, sooner rather than later. Sin and repentence, happiness and grief, prosperity and recession, triumph and defeat, it never stands still.
In her sermons this year, Rabbi Lippmann’s overarching theme was, in many ways, change. Some things we change on purpose, some things change on us, but everything changes: Our economy, our political situation, our mortality. We can’t stop it, but our connection to our community and to the oneness that that we might call God, this may somehow save us, transformed though we may be by our suffering.

(Deut. 32:45-47) “And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Set your hearts upon all these words with which I bear witness against you today, that you charge your children with them to do all the words of this teaching. For it is not an empty thing for you, but it is your life”

Friday, August 22, 2008


Because if you do obey these rules and observe then carefully, God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors.

Mutual obligation. Why? Because that’s the deal.

There’s no archeological evidence that any group of Jewish ex-slaves made the Exodus journey, in fact the evidence points to something that should comfort those of you who hate all the invasions and slaughtering in the Torah, because the evidence indicates that in fact the kingdoms of Judah and Israel rose up organically, from Canaan, that Jews were in fact Canaanites . And they differentiated themselves from their neighbors with their God and with their stories, Jews like stories. And this parsha, Ekev, comes near the climax of one of their better ones, with a great hero and a happy ending. Well, happy if you end it before the Tanach continues because lots of people get killed and everybody screws up.

So this parsha, Ekev, this is another one of those Moses standing in front of the Hebrew hordes, giving yet another very long last speech about what happens if you do this, what happens if you do that, blahblah if you’re good, blah blah if you’re bad… it’s a good speech, there’s some very memorable words but it boils down to mutal obligation. Fairly dry, obvious and I gave a dvar torah on this a year or two ago and what more could I say?

Nothing, until Friday morning. I had a dream, this is true, and in my dream Rabbi Ellen Lippmann appeared, and she said,
“I want to hear the desert wind in their hair.”

Whoa. Okay. So inspired by The Dream Rabbi…what was it like to stand there, in the desert, b’midbar, the wind blowing through your hair, poised to cross over and start that new life.

Moses, enough with the speech. We get it and we don’t care about that old stuff, those people you’re yelling at are all dead, talk to us, not them. We’ve signed on to the program, we’re ready, we’re not afraid, but blahdy blah blah, allright already Old Man, we got it…fear God, observe Shabbat, don’t commit adultery…prosperity. Worship idols, disregard Shabbat or fool around..punishment. Yeah, we’ve heard it a thousand times, now let us get on with it., let us get on with the future.

Forty years ago, our parents came to the border, near where we are now, and they were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, just like we are, so they sent in twelve scouts and two of them came back and told the truth, it was a fantastic country and well within our grasp, we only had to go and take it. And ten were scared and they lied and said the natives were giants and we didn’t stand a chance to get there. And our parents chose to believe the ten, they were frightened and cowardly, slaves to the core, so cause and effect, they have to wander in the desert until the cowards die off. But there are 600, 00 of them, how long is that going to take? Every year, on Tisha B’av, all of them, starting with the 600,000, go out into the desert and dig a grave, each of us digs a grave, our own grave, and each of us lies down in that grave, the desert wind blowing over our open graves and we all fall asleep. And in the morning, the wind wakes us up, hurray, all but 15,000 of us. 15,000 of us are dead, every year, each conveniently already lying in a grave ready to be covered over.

And this goes on for 40 years, 40 times 15,000 equals 600,000, and we never knew if this Tisha B’Av was the year they were going to die, or their mother or their husband, or their sister, until 40 years in, one Tisha B’Av, no one died and they thought they must have the date wrong, so the next night they all went out and dug their graves and slept in them, only that night no one died. They went out again and again, four nights in a row and no one died and on the fifth day, Tu B’av, they realized the punishment was over and it was time to go into Eretz Yisrael. That was last week. We had a party and made Tu B’av the Jewish Valentines Day. But the desert wind, it’ coming from behind us, pushing us away from the wilderness, pointing us to Eretz Yisrael. Which is great, we’re not our parents, we’re not scared. No, we are ready. But Moses, he’s not so ready, he’s putting off the inevitable and he’s an old man, we love him, he’s boring but we love him and so we have listen for the eight millionth time, if you do this, then you get this, if you do that, then God will punish, blah blah blah blah blah. Mutual obligations: Yeah, we get it. But Moses, sweetie…the desert wind is blowing through our hair. It’s time to go home.

Home. A little more than a week ago I was in Israel and now I’m home. But it feels weird to be here. I keep looking around and going, Oh yeah, Brooklyn. I remember. I like Brooklyn, I love Brooklyn but it’s confusing. What’s confusing is that after only five weeks and despite all the mishegas and the pain and the injustice and the racism and the denial, I fell in love with a place where I am not a visitor, not a minority, not in opposition to the culture but an integral part of it, where people look and act like me even when they really piss me off, especially when they piss me off. Because they’re free, from the diaspora anyway. Amazing.

So, without forgetting for a moment all the contradictions and injustices, almost especially because of them, because they are not a light among the nations, but just a nation, at least as flawed as any other, because Israel is not special because it is special, it is special because it is mine and so I love it even when I hate it. As a professor said about the Wailing Wall, the Kotel is the holiest place in Israel until you go there and I loved it. And now, because I love it, I think I’m now obliged to be an activist in its behalf, to make it a better place as best I can which probably isn’t much.

The desert wind is in my hair and I found another home and home means obligation. Which is kind of a drag because obligation a real pain in the ass, obligation is. But I don’t think I hav

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stuck on a Bus In 1968

My father told me that because and only because I am Jewish, every single solitary gentile, in their heart of hearts, wants me dead and if I'm going to die, I should die in Israel.  So, when my mother announced that we were going on a UJA tour of Israel in August 1968 "whether you like it or not", I was all, what's her problem?  Land of Milk and Honey, Paul Newman in khakis, L'Shana HaBa B'Yerushalayem and the place where I'm supposed to die: hey, what's not to like?  And who knows, maybe I'll have some great super Jew experience, I mean, if you can't find God in Israel, you can't find God, right?

When we landed in Israel and got off the plane, I seriously considered getting down and kissing the hot, black tarmac, but my enthusiasm quickly waned after we got through customs and got on the tour bus.  It was as if we'd never left home, filled as it was with loud middle-aged Long Island Jews, my always-warring parents and an older sister who was pissed off that she’d been dragged along when all she wanted to do was stay home and hang out with her friends.  So mostly my sister sulked, except when she was making out with the only other kid on the tour, Ira, a geeky wiseguy whose main attraction was that he was there. She was seventeen, Ira was sixteen, and I was fourteen so by rights he was mine, but that summer I was still a four-eyed geek and my sister was a high school hippie, so naturally Ira preferred my sister if he could get her, which he sort of could, in a stuck-on-a-bus-with-our-parents kind of way.  It was not fair.

I was 14 and i thought Israel was soooo boring. We didn’t meet any real people or go to anything that wasn’t for the tourists. When we weren't seeing some dreary site with the tour guide yammering away, we were in a hotel or on the bus.  And no matter where we went—to Crusader castles or to a kibbutz, to Roman ruins or to the Negev, to the Galilee or to Yad Vashem—the middle-aged men took photographs of each other in front of the bus and the middle-aged women bought amber beads, the same amber beads at every single stop.  Emmis.

Our tour guide, Rafael, had served in the army during the war, and he spent Day One of our nine days in Israel telling us all about it, and Days Two thru Nine telling us what fat lazy disgusting Americans we were for only sending our money instead of putting our bodies on the line and dying for Israel. The successful middle-aged Long Island Jews, guilty, I’m guessing, about surviving the first half of the 20th century in relative comfort and safety, loved this manly Sabra and his tips got bigger every time he insulted them.   

But I hated Rafeal.  It's not that I disagreed witH him, like I said I was fourteen, so to me the Long Island Jews WERE big fat lazy disgusting Americans.  But honestly, only sending our money?  Only??  Where would this Manly Jew and his hot boring country be without our money?  And anyway, I was an American and I wasn't going to die for any place but America and even there I had my doubts.  And yeah, maybe they were big fat lazy disgusting Americans but they were MY big fat lazy disgusting Americans, so screw you!

Mommy at The Kotel
Rafeal took us to the Wailing Wall.  I thought, wow, I mean, it was THE Temple, the one in the Torah. For a nice Jewish girl only one year out of her bat mitzvah, this was big, like meeting the Beatles.  If the super Jew experience was going to happen, if God was going to be found, I guessed it would happen there.   So I went with my mother to the women's side, which in those days was the same size as the men's, and I wrote down on a piece of paper what I wanted from God.  I stuck it in a crack in the wall.  

In the summer of 1968, this was what I requested of God:  
  1. Safety for Israel
  2. End The War In Vietnam Now
  3. Ira Will Make Out With Me And Not My Sister

Need I say that none of these wishes came true?

After the Wailing Wall, we went for a walk in East Jerusalem, which had only recently come under the control of Israel. The Long Island Jews were ecstatic. East Jerusalem had been forbidden to Jews since 1948 and now, here we were, at last, face to face with the Arabs who had just tried to push Israel into the sea and failed. 

First we went to an open air market.  I’d only ever seen food laid out in an antiseptic supermarket and it kind of grossed me out to see raw meat in big slabs hanging on hooks, covered in flies.   Fish were laid out in stalls, spices were in open bags, fruit piled up, garbage on the street. Now I glory in such open air markets and shouks, but then all I noticed was that it smelled. My America rarely smelled. It made me a little nauseous.

It wasn't just that.  
Ever since I can remember, my father always called all Arabs, “The Animals”. It was like he was talking about anti-Semitic Neanderthals—capricious sub-human beings who hated Jews because they were literally incapable of rational thought and civilized discourse and normal human motivation.  So when we walked into the busy open market place, I was confused.  These Arabs looked like people to me. 

I saw this one old guy wearing a black and white scarf on his head, he was standing by the meat and glaring at us, really angry, maybe even glaring directly at me. I worried that he could tell I thought the market wass smelly.  Then I though, no, he hates me because I’m a Jew, because Israel won the war.  Well, I’m glad he lost, I want Israel to exist but he must think he’s right and we’re wrong, this man who just lost this war and we’re walking around his neighborhood like it’s ours, It IS ours, I guess, now, so he must feel bad, and I’m in his neighborhood, making him feel worse. 

And suddenly I understood, walking around here, lording it over the Arabs of East Jerusalem, taking a tour of their defeat, that we are being very rude.  More than rude, kinda mean.  I wanted us to leave, I asked my mother if we can go.  But my big fat American tourists were laughing and having fun and she ignored me.

I looked around and saw, or thought I saw, that every non-Jew we passed on these streets really, really hated me, hated us, and wanted us dead.  My parents and their friends either couldn't see or didn't care that they were hated, they were in fact glorying in their ability to degrade the locals, and I was not imagining that, because the whole time we were walking through the market, Rafeal was telling stories in a very loud voice of the taking of East Jerusalem by the Israelis, rubbing it in, watching the Arabs' reactions as he boasted of the victories.  But I had eyes and I could see that they’re not animals at all, that this was bad behavior on our part and that we shouldn’t be there.  I was embarrassed for my big fat American Jews, I wanted to dive into the garbage and disappear.

And this moment in East Jerusalem when I smell raw meat and defeat and garbage and poverty and shame and fish and invasion and pain and smugness, when I want to puke from it all, this moment is the actual moment, no joke, the actual moment when my life gets changed forever, the very moment when received truth loses much of its power over me, when I realize that just because my parents or my rabbi or my teacher tells me something is true doesn't make it true and I realize, oh shit I am on my own and moreover, and you may not believe me but it's true,
I knew it was that moment and being aware that you have just become aware is very disorienting, a lot to take in when you’re fourteen and stuck on a bus with a bunch of middle-aged Long Island Jews only twenty-three years away from the Holocaust who see themselves as victims in every scenario and there I am, beginning my rejection of my parents' suburban Judaism and Jewishness and having, though I won't realize it until about thirty years later, that super Jew and God moment I was looking for when I landed on that tarmac, that all this emotion and and resentment and fear and shame was only possible because of how much I cared and wanted from and for Israel and my people and my God and somehow, in a line that would end up being extremely jagged and interrupted, this would somehow nevertheless lead to me entering rabbinic school at the age of 58.

I threw up.

Later, in our hotel room, I tried to talk to my father about my revelation that Arabs were people and not animals and he yelled at me, literally foamed at the mouth. For years after that night, he'd introduce me to his friends, “Hello, have you met my daughter, Patricia The Anti-Semite?"

Anway, after that my parents had a screaming fight with my sister and she stomped off somewhere to sulk and they went out to dinner and I was left in the room to think about the error of my ways. Ira came over looking for my sister. She wasn’t there but I was and we spent the evening throwing water balloons off the balcony at passing tourists.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.