by Carly Lesser (Ketzirah), guest contributor
(photo: Love Fusion Photography by Kelsey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
It’s Jewish tradition to read Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul, which falls during August and September. In this month of Elul, we have no holidays. It’s the month where we are supposed to turn inward and prepare for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It always seems like this month should be one of quiet reflection, but it never is for me.
I started to adopt this practice a few years ago, and found that the words of the Psalm were exactly what I seemed to need to get through the month, which seems to have become a time of trial in my life each year. This year, like so many recent ones, seems to be following this pattern.
I’m conscious of not only my own personal trials and tribulations this year, but also our societal ones. So far this month, there have been hurricanes and floods on the East Coast and terrible droughts and fires in the South and West. We’ve also had bad economic news and the beginning of the remembrances of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th.
When I read the words of Psalm 27, it resonates deeply within my body. It doesn’t matter which translation I read. The words feel like mine. They feel like my cry for help to deal with a world that seems to be spinning out of control, whether personally or globally.
Each day as I read the Psalm, I’m aware that I am one day closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the days of remembrance and judgement. I think of the imagery we use: the gates of heaven open on Rosh Hashanah and close on Yom Kippur. I think this is sad to think that the gates of divine blessing can only be open to us during this short nine-day period of time.
Then I think, ‘Maybe this is why Elul is always so hard. Maybe the infusion of divine energy that is opened to the world so fully at Rosh Hashanah is fading out? Maybe thousands of years of this pattern has ingrained itself so fully on the world that we all feel it? Maybe what we need to do is be extra kind to each other and the world during this time, not for “repentance,” but rather because we need to support each other?’
I believe in the cycles of time. I believe in mythic calendars that move our souls. I look to the “land of the living” to see the beauty, wonder, and mystery of G-d/dess, but it is hard to see in the fading light of the year. I will be strong. I will use these ancient words to remind me of my priorities and to sooth my fears. I will take refuge in Psalm 27 during this time of twilight because I know the sun will rise again and we all will be renewed and refreshed.
*Note, the translation of Psalm 27 is from the JPS 1917 edition of the Tanach.
Carly Lesser (a.k.a. Ketzirah – קצירה) is Kohenet, celebrant, and artist whose passion is helping Jews who are unaffiliated, earth-based, or in interfaith/interdenominational relationships connect more deeply with Judaism and make it relevant in their everyday lives. She is an active blogger and prayer leader on PeelaPom.com and PunkTorah.org.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Tisha B’Av, also called the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning for Jews around the world. On this day, they commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including events reaching back to ancient times — the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The Holocaust and the start of World War I are also associated with this day.
Also called the "darkest day" of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av is observed with prayers, fasting, and very specific mourning behavior which prohibits bathing, marital relations, wearing luxuries like leather shoes, and idle chatter or leisure activities. At night the synagogue is darkened, and The Book of Eicha (Lamentations) is read by candlelight.
Mourners also gather at the Wailing Wall (remains of the second temple) to recite kinot for the dead, and in some communities blow the shofar at the end of the fast as an expression of hope for the future.
Blowing the Shofar at the Wailing Wall. (photo: Johnathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)Comments
by Habeeb Alli, special contributor
A Charlottestown mosque in Canada invites all. (photo: level 5 vegan/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
I’m thrilled again to have been a part of recent history. While someone burned the Qur’an in the United States, another presented us with a Qur’an in an expression of solidarity. I told this to my congregation during a Friday service and they were all moved by the gesture.
For the eighth year, an exercise of interfaith exchange between Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Ontario has progressed in good faith — and the gift of the Qur’an was this year’s highlight. The Abraham Festival in Peterborough originated on the premise that all three faiths have a common heritage, which needs to be explored and shared. Walking through the symbolic tent of Abraham — referring to the biblical prophet’s tent, a place of hospitality and engagement with strangers which was open to the four winds — in order to enter the St. Andrew’s United Church gave attendees the sense that history can be relived, even in a modern-day setting.
Dr. Dan Houpt, a Jewish partner, facilitator, and doctor who has been keen in bringing the three faiths together in Peterborough, presented the Qur’an to us Muslims during the festival last month. He first suggested the idea to his Muslim counterpart and co-founder Elizabeth Rahman, who then consulted with the Canadian Council of Imams about the gift. Rahman is a convert from the UK and first became active in the community in the 1970s, with her late Indian husband.
The Muslims Students Association at the nearby Trent University hosted the Friday service, on the first day of the festival this year, so that Christian and Jewish neighbours could observe the presenting of the Qur’an. Houpt offered some thoughts on the gift, stating, “It shows we stand with [Muslims] in solidarity,” and then added that this offering “shows it’s a terrible act to burn a holy book.”
I offered my gratitude and reminded the audience — comprised of people of all three faiths — that it is a tribute well received on behalf of all Muslims and that the desecration of any holy book is an attack on all Holy Scriptures. I also reminded them that this act was in line with a historic tradition when the Muslim Ibn Rushd, Jewish Maimonides, and Christian Thomas Aquinas learnt from one another’s works in 12th-century Spain, which even John Paul II recognised as being of significant historical importance.
This year’s theme of the Abraham Festival was forgiveness. Many facilitators were present to share what their faith offered on the subject of forgiving others. In my speech, I told attendees that “forgiveness is an interesting topic because you often need it for people you love the most. The person you love the most can hurt you the most. And forgiveness lightens the burden.”
The presentation of the Qur’an by the local Jewish community was a way to show goodwill and remove any misunderstanding and hurt that Muslims may have experienced in today’s unfortunate atmosphere of Islamophobia — something Jews can relate to given their long years of dealing with anti-Semitism.
I also told festival goers that recently a group of Jewish people had donated money and time to build a mosque in Toronto. Television producer Kenny Hotz will highlight this daring project, the Peace Mosque, in his documentary to be shown on the Showcase Television channel this spring.
Rahman was recognised during the event and I handed her a card of appreciation along with the Qur’an, which she will use during her tours to the area’s schools and prisons. Muslims have been overwhelmed by and thankful for this token of solidarity, for such is the tradition of Abraham.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 10, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.Comments
by Iris Tzafrir, guest contributor
A balloon flies over Eisenmann Memorial in Berlin. (photo: Danny/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Our household was a heavy one. I always felt the presence of sadness and loss; those emotions were part of everything that took place in our family, including birthdays and personal achievements. I knew where the sadness and sense of loss came from, to an extent, from stories that Aba (my father Yehoshua) told — and from his writings.
Growing up, I did not want to touch those places where the sadness and loss came from. Ouri, my oldest brother, calls these hard to touch places hamekomot harotetim, “the trembling places” inside of us.
As I matured, I came to believe that, if I got courageous and got close to these trembling places, I might be able to help myself and those I love to heal from that sadness and sense of loss. And maybe eventually this package of sadness and loss would not be so overwhelming and heavily present in my life.
A wall at the entry to the Belzec extermination camp in Poland reads: “This is the site of the murder of about 500,000 victims of the Belzec death camp established for the purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, whose live where brutally taken between February and December 1942 by Nazi Germany. ‘Earth do not cover my blood; / let there be no resting / place for my outcry!’ Job 16:18’.” (photo: Iris Tzafrir)
Last year, my siblings and I traveled for the first time with Aba to Poland and Germany to visit places of significance in Aba’s life before and during the Shoah. Belzec is an extermination camp located in Lublin county in eastern Poland, where we believe Aba’s parents and four younger siblings were murdered during the spring of 1941.
We prepared to conduct a memorial ceremony with kipot (head coverings), memory candles, and poetry written by Aba. My brother Assaf opened the ceremony, saying that we were gathered there in memory of our grandfather Tuvia, our grandmother Miriam, and our uncles and aunts Schiendel, Israel, Tzvi, Sara-Eitah, Roza, and Yehudit.
We then read Aba’s poem, “In the Illumination of Lightning”:
In the illumination of lightning
I saw a frightened boy in an open field
Distancing himself from a well-branched aspen that is being severed at once.
Gashes of a downpour are beating on his back
And the tears of his face mix with the water columns.
As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.
It was hard reading Aba’s poems to completion without choking and spilling into tears. Working our way through the ceremony was about courage. I felt courageous standing and reading Aba’s poems in Belzec, memorializing with purpose our murdered family members whom we had never met.
The ceremony made our murdered family more real than before because I now had a place to associate with the sense of sadness and loss absorbed from Aba over the years. I knew that it made Aba feel good to see us being courageous. It was an attribute that was held in high esteem in our family: you don’t run away when a situation is hard; you stay and grind through it, if necessary, because something beneficial, albeit hidden, might come out of such situation.
We concluded our 10-day trip on the grounds of Block 66 in Buchenwald, Germany, where Aba arrived after a death march that started in Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). Aba described his liberation moments on April 11th, 1945: an American tank went through the main gate of Buchenwald, and from the top of the tank a black soldier came out and said: “You are free.”
Standing on the grounds of Block 66, Ouri pushed Aba for details, reaching to touch a trembling place, trying to frame the enormity of the moment.
“How did you see the black soldier? How did you hear him say ‘You are free?’”
Aba answered crying, “You hear these words everywhere; after all the atrocities we went through, these words come from the heavens.”
Between Tishah Be’aav, the day memorializing the destruction of the Temple, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish people read from the book of Isaiah. In chapter 54, verses 7-9, God promises:
"For a brief moment I forsake you, but I will gather you with great compassion; in an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says God, your Redeemer; this is like the waters of Noah to me; I swore that the waters of Noah would never again submerge the earth; similarly, I swore that I would not be angry with you and would not rebuke you.”
—from The Living Torah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
When I listen to Aba recalling himself as a small boy holding on to his mother’s hand when they walked together to the Thursday market in Dombrova, near Krakow, I ask, “How could You leave us, even for a moment? In the one brief moment that the prophet Isaiah talks about, I feel that You have forsaken the boy in the ‘Illumination of Lightning’”:
“As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.”
We read from Isaiah during the transition period from destruction to renewal. The trip we took is part of our family’s attempt to get closer to our trembling places where we feel anger, sadness, and loss of trust. Now that we have visited the trembling places as the real places that they are, we are able to continually use them as sources for reflection in our journey to renewal and healing. We find such renewal and healing by creating anew:
What is good in life is to create.
To create, from what is and from what is not.
To breath life into a clean fresh page,
Line to line, crossing and toasting each other.
Forms coalesce in the real and in the abstract
Leading you in awe among mazes.
Do not fear, Ariadne in a thread of grace
Will bring you into light.
Mix the colors, knead the material,
Slightly swing with your hammer and determinedly remove
Oddments that seize beauty.
Creation is born in pain,
Because you have to start anew.
What is good in creating, is that you never conclude.
—“What is Good in Life” by Yehoshua Tzafrir, translated from Hebrew by Iris Tzafrir
Iris Tzafrir is an Israeli who has been living in the United States for the last 20 years. Trained as a scientist, she manages intellectual property transactions in the agriculture industry. She regularly speaks and writes about being a second generation of Shoah survivors.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Seder plate (photo: Dana Skolnick/Flickr)
Today is ta’anit (“fast”) bekhorim (“of the firstborn”), the day before Passover begins, when only the first-born males of Jewish families abstain from eating. In our show on Exodus, Avivah Zornberg describes the tragedy of the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, and how the tradition of eating unleavened bread during Passover came about from that story:
"And that God passes over the Israelite houses as the firstborn in the Egyptian houses are dying. It’s actually rather a terrible. One can just imagine the sounds, the crying. And I think there is really a feeling of pressure at that moment. This is not an ecstatic moment. The word that’s used in the Hebrew text, here and in later retellings of the story in Deuteronomy, is chipazon. Chipazon means “panic haste.” And you should eat the paschal offering, the sacrifice that the Israelites were supposed to eat on that night, you shall eat it in haste, which is always a strange commandment. Ahead of time, you should prepare to eat it in haste.”
It’s not the tempo. It’s the — the people are being told ahead of time that the way in which you will experience this will be pressured, there’ll be a sense of pressure. The Egyptians will be rushing you out of Egypt. But most of all, what’s called the haste of God himself, a sense of history, a sense of the redemption as something that God is making happen rather faster than people can really assimilate it. Things are happening very fast at that moment, and people are almost not capable of registering what is really going on, as one often is not at critical moments of experience, cataclysmic moments.
Unleavened matzo bread (photo: paurian/Flickr)
The uninviting, dry, brittle matzo bread is meant to remind Jews of what nourished them in the midst of that “panic haste” created out of great trauma.
The religious symbolism of fasting is an act of gratitude for the life you have and the time when you can eat again.Comments
by Kevin Douglas Grant, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Editor’s note: Krista and the On Being team are in Israel this week and working with Diane Winston’s graduate students from the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. We’ll be sharing some of these students’ reports as part of our collaboration and to add to the diversity of observations of this complex place.
As we cruised southeast from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem’s Old City, our Palestinian driver Yasser — “like Yasser Arafat,” he reminded us — pointed out Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, just to our left. The West Bank, we realized, was immediately adjacent to the Highway 443. We passed village after village, walled and fenced, the minarets of mosques visible in the distance. Ofer Prison, where a year ago 200 Palestinians "rioted" against the detainment of Fatah leaders there, slipped by. Its gray guard towers and barbed wire almost matched the rainy sky.
Yasser said he has the proper card that allows him to work as a driver, which means he “belongs to Israel.” As we passed another village, this one with uniform cement buildings lined atop a craggy hill, Yasser said that particular Palestinian area had achieved the same status from Israel. Later, two of us caught a ride into the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumium on the same Highway 1, invited to attend Shabbat dinner at the home of a Jewish peace activist and construction worker. The guard at military checkpoint outside the settlement waved us through without hesitation.
“Palestinians have to have a permit,” explained Leah Lublin, originally from Canada. She and husband Al immigrated to Israel with her husband 17 years ago. They chose Ma’ale Adumium because the cost of an apartment there was right, far cheaper than one in Jerusalem a few miles away. Over more than a dozen courses, the two took turns lamenting the way many of their neighbors fear Arabs, and said they’re working through their own ingrained mistrust:
“When the Arab laborers are working on the street, people get on edge,” Al Lublin said, explaining that he loses some construction jobs because he employs several Arabs. ”They’re just focusing on their work, but everybody gets nervous.”
Talk ranged from their children’s service in the Israel Defense Forces to Egypt to The Rolling Stones. Leah leads interfaith dialogues to try to bring Jews, Muslims, and Christians together without getting too mired in politics. The husband and wife said they both preferred to focus on day-to-day living and peacemaking, blocking out somewhat the fact that they live in disputed territory. ”I’m more spiritual than religious,” says Al Lublin. “For a Jew, living in Israel is more important than all the other 613 [mizvot, “commandments”]. So I have more freedom to focus on the people in my life.”Comments
by Robyn Carolyn Price, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Rabbi Rochelle Kamins has not always felt Jewish enough. No youth group or summer camp. She never did all of the things that young Jewish people were “supposed” to do. But she always wanted to feel like she fit, and that she could belong — tattoos, motorcycles, and all. Relaxed in her office at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades where she is the youth activities director, Rabbi Rochelle talks candidly about her non-traditional road to the rabbinate and why she doesn’t plan on conforming anytime soon.
“I think everyone has an image of a rabbi,” says Rabbi Rochelle laughing. “They think old white man with a beard and big hat. Just like when you ask most kids what God looks like, he is still the man on the cloudy throne in the sky.”
Rabbi Rochelle is a bit of an anomaly. Adorned with tattoos, albeit inconspicuously, she drives her Honda CBR F4i motorcycle through Los Angeles traffic en route to perform one of her rabbinic duties. Ordained in 2009 as a Reform rabbi, she has built an image on being different and welcoming people into Judaism that might not fit the mold.
Her goal is to make change in the Jewish community — in the way that Jews look at other Jews. She has a passion that stems from a lifetime of feeling like people were looking at her as if she could not be a part of the community, because she didn’t participate in all of the things that constituted being a “good” Jew. As a rabbi, she aims to help people foster connections within the community while being a reflection of what she believes are different, yet acceptable routes to Judaism.
She tells the story of a couple who asked her to perform their wedding on a Saturday, the day of rest in Judaism where working or getting married is against tradition. The couple grew up Jewish and were interested in maintaining a Jewish household, however were not currently connected to a synagogue. They shared with her horror stories of other rabbis who had refused to perform the ceremony and told the couple that they were not Jewish because of their decision to get married on Shabbat.
"I had a conversation with them and explained the tradition," recalls Rabbi Rochelle. "The date and the place for their wedding was already set. Is it the worse thing in the world? No. The worst thing in the world would be if the next rabbi said no. And the next rabbi said no, and the next. Then they would be lost. Why would anyone come into a community if they feel like the door keeps getting slammed in their face?"
Raised in San Francisco by her mother, a more traditional Jew from the Bronx, and her father, an L.A. Socialist Jew, Rabbi Rochelle’s experience was anything but traditional. “How the two of them came together and created a rabbi is anyone’s guess,” chuckles Rabbi Rochelle.
Her upbringing, however, cultivated a sensitivity for Jewish people whose lives did not fit perfectly within the boundaries of traditional Jewish practice or thought. “My dad’s parents were basically communists,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “You know L.A. Socialists had meetings in their house. One of my grandparents’ good friends was a lawyer who was defending people at the Supreme Court during the Red Scare and all of that. My dad’s father was very anti-organized religion. He was all about science and reason. My grandfather was like, ‘Oh sure you can have a bar mitzvah, if you believe in that.”
Her father, who is in his sixties, never had a bar mitzvah until she performed it last November. “We had a deal,” says Rabbi Rochelle with a smile. “He said he would have a bar mitzvah when I could be the rabbi. It was pretty cool.”
Her mother shares that her daughter’s decision to become a rabbi came as a huge surprise: “I knew after she went to college that she would do something with kids and Judaism, but had no idea that she would take this route.”
Veering from the beaten path has become one of Rabbi Rochelle’s hallmarks. She successfully petitioned UC San Diego to allow her to create her own undergraduate major in Modern Israeli Society and Israeli Culture. And in rabbinical school she wrote her thesis on the question of tattoos in Judaism, "The Illustrated Jew: A New Jewish Perspective on Tattoos," hoping to give a reference to people like herself that were trying to find a balance between the secular world and their Judaism.
"I did a ton of research before I got my tattoos," she says. "And I eventually came to the conclusion that body art did not make God angry with me or make me a bad Jew. I am not a bad person and I live my life with integrity.”
Rabbi Rochelle’s body is adorned with two tattoos, although the second one can hardly be considered a single tattoo. It initially started off as a tattoo on her back that spelled the word “love” in the shape of a heart. It has since morphed into an olive tree, which makes the heart appear more like a carving in the tree. The olive tree has special significance in Judaism.
The word emet, meaning “truth” in Hebrew, is tattooed on her hip and was designed to look like it was written on her body with a black Sharpie. The tattoo’s placement was carefully chosen, as she wanted it to be a bit hidden, just for her, and to serve as a reminder to always walk in truth and integrity.
Walking in truth and integrity for Rabbi Rochelle has not always been an easy road to travel. Adopting the unpopular position that someone’s sexual preference, body art, or piercings has nothing to do with their spirituality has presented its fair share of challenges. She is aware that she might be looked at as a bit of an outsider, and is sometimes referred for jobs that quite possibly nobody else will take. Weddings on a Saturday. An interfaith wedding with a minister. She gets the impression at times that people refer these jobs to her because they think, “Oh, it’s Rochelle, she’ll do anything.” That just because she is open in some ways, that she has no boundaries or rules, that there is no method to her madness.
“So many people go through the motions,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “They go to religious school. They do the things, but there is no real connection. I want people to stay connected and to let people know that even if they feel different, like they don’t fit or they don’t belong, there is still room here. You know, they say that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides, so that visitors or people coming from any direction — he could greet them. I really think that is what the synagogue should be and that is what a rabbi should be. A rabbi is like Abraham, open on all sides and ready to welcome anyone in when they are ready and from whichever direction they come.”
Robyn Carolyn Price is native of Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University, and studied in Florence, Italy. She is currently a Masters Candidate in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism. Her specialization is American politics and its effects on marginalized communities.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments