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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Still one of the most compelling interviews I’ve ever heard that gets at the High Holy Days in such a wonderful, human way making life-giving connections between ritual, personal transformation, and relevance in the world. Sharon Brous brings it all to life.

When the rabbi’s words are too obscure
for my child’s mind,
I reach for your tallis.
I find patience in each thread,
and weave the melodies into them.
Journeying to sacred places on each strand,
my fingers braid the tassels.
Crisscrossing them into paths
that carry me across ancient desert sands.
They bring a quiet contentment,
moments of gentle peace between us.
- Anita Getzler, from this breathtaking meditation on memory and grief for the High Holy Days.

Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days. 

But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:

"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.

Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.

I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”


Can Fear and Burning Unite?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"I am more scared than I’ve ever been — more scared than I was after Sept. 11."
—Eboo Patel

Eid al-Fitr and Interfaith Flyer
A flyer calling for an interfaith peace vigil on September 11 lies on a prayer mat at the Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Fear is very real for many Muslims in America today. I don’t think I truly understood how real this elevated level of anxiety is until I read Patel’s quote in Laurie Goodstein’s article in Sunday’s New York Times. He is a man who has spent a good deal of time speaking to all sorts of people and members of religious groups trying to build interfaith dialogue and understanding; I’m sure he’s witnessed some heated arguments and outlandish actions. For him to make this statement is striking, and troubling. We should take heed.

So much is happening right now, and the confluence of popular opinion and current events must be weighing mighty heavily on the minds of many Muslims. There are decreasing favorability ratings of Islam. There are heated protests and debates surrounding Park51, the Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan. There are bricks being thrown and a taxi driver being stabbed. And, then, all this crazy media coverage of a Florida pastor pulling a publicity stunt by planning to burn Qur’ans on Saturday.

As to the Dove World church’s plans, there seems to be very little response from other faith leaders and religious communities. Where’s the outcry? But, as The Christian Science Monitor suggests Tuesday in “CNN covered interfaith call to oppose Koran burning. Who didn’t?,” perhaps it was in the lack of live coverage of events like this press conference at the National Press Club in which dozens of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders stood together while calling for a united front against Qur’an burning and other aspects of Islamophobia. The Dove World church’s fiery intentions are brighter than the stars in the night skies. Or are they?

I’ve noticed myriad secular and faith leaders, people who write and blog and tweet, vehemently protesting and uniting behind their Muslim brothers and sisters. They act not by decrying but by reading, reading the Qur’an itself — even at the holiest of times. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah services, the Velveteen Rabbi writes:

"In response to the rising tide of Islamophobia and especially to those who intend to burn the Qur’an on 9/11, my teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman suggested that as Jews gather to worship on Shabbat Shuvah, we might consider reading from the Qur’an as a gesture of respect toward our sister Abrahamic tradition. At my synagogue, we typically gather for Torah study after services, around 11am. On 9/11, our text for sacred study will come from the Qur’an."

And the Undercover Nun continues:

"On Saturday, September 11, 2010, I’m reading the Quran so that I can be a better American and a better Christian. Won’t you join me?"

Many more noble efforts like this are taking place. Look around. And as we non-Muslims try to pay attention and express our sympathies, we ought to remember that yesterday was the last day of Ramadan. It’s a time of celebration and thankfulness. It’s Eid.

When Sayneb, a young Somali woman and co-worker came through the office the other evening, we got talking about Ramadan, next year’s dog days of July and fasting, and current events, to which I gestured, “Boy, these are crazy times.”

She paused. Then she looked kindly at me, smiled softly, and said with no uncertainty, “These are good times.”


Sweetness to the Rotten Core

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Yesterday I posted this good morning message on our Facebook page: “Shana Tova! Special memories from New Years past?” Lauren Rosenfeld, an author and blogger living in Asheville, North Carolina, shared this wonderful memory:

Lauren Rosenfeld"One Rosh Hashanah I came home from a busy day at work and brought out the apples to cut up and dip in the honey to share with my husband and our four little children. When I cut into the apples, they were rotten to the core (literally!). I was more than a little freaked out (being admittedly a tad superstitious about such things).

I ran to our next door neighbor (who was not Jewish). She smiled and brought us fresh apples — and joined us to celebrate the new year. In the end I felt grateful for the “bad apples” because they allowed us to bring in the new year with the sweetness of friendship and generosity. Lesson learned: Even bad apples can be a gift! ♥”

These are the tales that overwhelm me. Thank you Lauren. Wishing you all the sweetness and friendship of a new year.


Catching a Carp on Rosh Hashanah

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Rosh Hashanah honey cake

It’s now officially 5771. Last night’s sunset marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year. The holiday typically falls in September (163 days after the first day of Passover). For me it always signals a shift from the light, fruity days of summer to a brisker and and more sober season.

Rosh Hashanah apples + honey

It’s common for Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey and other sweet foods to usher in a sweet new year. I grew up eating gefilte fish, which my mother prepares mostly from scratch with carp and pike from the local fishmonger.

Gefilte fish evokes a childhood memory of reading Barbara Cohen’s classic, The Carp in the Bathtub. It’s the story of a girl and her brother in Flatbush, Brooklyn who become attached to a live carp their mother intends to use for gefilte fish. The children try to save the carp from its fate. I won’t give away the ending but let’s just say it’s bittersweet.

The Carp in the BathtubApparently I’m not the only one with a fond memory of gefilte fish and Cohen’s book. Last night, a friend posted on Facebook that she’d rediscovered A Carp in the Bathtub; she and her son planned to catch a carp and keep it for a few days until the creature fulfilled its gefilte fish destiny with some help from grandma. But things did not go according to plan. The carp evaded capture and stole off with the family fishing rod. They ate salad at Rosh Hashanah dinner instead of gelatinous fish balls. There was one bright spot: everyone got to use the bathtub this week.

For those of you who observe Rosh Hashanah, how are you continuing or adapting family traditions during these Days of Awe? What Rosh Hashanah memories do you cherish and carry forward into this new year?


One Voice in a Jewish Spiritual Renaissance

by Krista Tippett, host

Rabbi Sharon Brous
Rabbi Sharon Brous (courtesy of IKAR)

At the beginning of my conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…

Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.

Our show "Days of Awe" (listen in the audio above) evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature’s messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like “living like there’s no tomorrow” into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and rituals of the High Holy Days that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshipers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.

We wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this show, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for “essence,” or “core.” Her congregation is bursting at the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.

Solemn words like “repentance” and “atonement” define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don’t capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.

There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other younger guests I’ve had, such as Shane Claiborne or Eboo Patel, but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.

In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that “the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.” And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.


Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days

Colleen Scheck, Producer

If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, "Days of Awe." You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.

As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:

"On Rosh Hashanah"
Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.

"On Rosh Hashanah" is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.

"Rivers of Babylon"
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.

As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”

The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:

"I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…

The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)

It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”

Check out the “Days of Awe" play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?