Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


Blue and white dominate Israel this week. The country is in high gear for Yom Ha’atazmaut – the 61st Annual Day of Independence. Israeli flags flap everywhere – roadsides, billboards, balconies, rooftops. In the paper goods section of Ace Hardware today a saleswoman shrugs in reply to a customer ‘we are totally out of all white and all blue paper plates, paper cups, napkins and tablecloths’. But they do still sell flags – in every shape imaginable, including cocktail umbrellas and queen size sheets. For 10 shekels you get a plastic flag that attaches easily to the car. My mother bought one last Friday, raised it high and drove off, with fresh chicken soup, to visit her sister who lives in one of Jerusalem’s Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. When she came back out to her parked car thirty minutes later– the flag was gone. Only the plastic handle was left dangling. She was furious as she told us about it over Shabbat dinner. ‘It had to be some kid or yeshiva boy, anti Zionist, ungrateful and rude; As though they don’t benefit from national health insurance and basic plumbing!’

Happy Birthday, Israel!

But not everybody is celebrating. Many among the Ultra Orthodox Jews are mostly indifferent. And at times hostile to the Zionist project. Palestinians in the West Bank will be under curfew for 48 hours through the Day of Remembrance for Israel’s Fallen and the Day of Independence that comes right after. They will be marking the ‘Nakbah’ – ‘the disaster’ – their version of what happened here 61 years ago. Israeli Arabs are torn between loyalties, foreign workers will work harder or perhaps get a day off and join the millions of Israelis who will celebrate independence by grilling meat on every available traffic island. It’s a complicated holiday. “At age 61”, my friend D., an ageless hippie who just turned 65, tells me, “you got plenty of wrinkles to worry about, even if the sun is shining and you still got all your teeth. You have to love yourself no matter what – just get up in the morning and vow to look at the cup half full. All you need is love…”

But my mother, a devout Zionist, is definitely among those celebrating Israel. She came here from England in the 50’s, eager to be part of this growing country’s evolution. Not one to give in to hooligans she gets another flag up on the car first thing on Sunday.

Today, just one day before the holiday begins, I borrowed the car for a run of errands, rolling the driver’s window all the way down, and cranking up the volume on the best selections of heart wrenching classic Israeli songs in pre-memorial-day-mode on the radio. These songs, perhaps more than anything else, mold the mood of these national holidays. I got onto one of the highways, singing along with the familiar ballad, tears in my eyes, when this strange loud rattle starts behind my left ear, and my first thought is that a tire burst. But it was the flag, made in china, flapping in Jerusalem, screaming ‘I LOVE ISRAEL’ at 80 KPH.

But do I? Do I “love” Israel? The land of Israel? The State of Israel? The people of Israel? Do I love being identified with this noisy, public, unabashedly Israeli flag?? When was the last time I’ve waved a flag, of any kind? (The Salute to Israel parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, circa 1983: I open the parade, dressed in white, carrying a giant Israeli flag. I march for hours, right behind the police horses, careful not to step in their shit, and remembering to always smile and look proud and dignified, representing Israel).

I’m not a flag waver. Just not into it, never really was – Israeli, American, Rainbow - maybe I’m too ambivalent about everything, too suspicious of sweeping affiliations and collective symbols. Maybe I am an actual product of the post modernist global reality. I was born in Israel (on Yom Ha’atzmaut), raised in Israel, served in the army, use an Israeli Passport, an Israeli cellphone, pay Israeli taxes, have lots of criticism, but overall care a lot about Israel and consider it my home, even though I’ve spent the past decade in NYC – so what was it that felt so strange to be driving a car with a big, public, flag? I stopped at a red light, surrounded by ‘my people’, all busy with their lives, buying flags, and selling portable grills, and singing on the radio, and crossing the streets, and I looked in the rearview mirror and asked myself: Do I love Israel?

My smartass reflection in the mirror replied, looking me straight in the eye – ‘what is love’?

Back home I turn to Leviticus for the answer. In this week’s Torah episode, I recalled, ‘love’ makes a big appearance – as a verb, a recommendation, and perhaps even as a law. Does the verse that will one day be known as ‘The Golden Rule” have anything to say about national affinity?

The weekly Torah episode is called Kedoshim, meaning ‘Sacred’ (it will be read this coming Sabbath along with the previous episode, Achrei Mot) and it contains a long and somewhat random list of social, civic and religious instructions. In verse 18 of Chapter 19, love is introduced:

“Do not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against your people; love your fellow as yourself; I am God.”

The verse in its entirety is fascinating, but it’s the middle bit that caught the world’s attention. As “Eat, Pray, and Love” roughly puts it: First figure out how to love yourself – then you will be able to love the other, and vice versa, and so on. No wonder this little paradoxical law became the winner of the Judeo-Christian ‘what’s the most important human law’ competition. It says it all.

Self love is something I struggle with. There are elements about myself - aspects, decisions, behaviors - that I am proud of and are loveable. Then there are others – lesser known, lesser shown, shadows, habits, thought patterns that make me uncomfortable and eager for change. Do I love myself? On a good day. Do I love my country? Same answer. Is it ok to be loving AND ambivalent at the same time? Is it ok to say ‘maybe’ and hold off for a bit on waving the flag?

‘Love’ in Hebrew is ‘ve’ahavta’ – the same word used elsewhere in the Bible and throughout liturgy when describing the ideal relationship with the Divine. The usage of the same word in both contexts seems to suggest that there are important connections between the ways we humans could relate to each other and the ways in which we should relate to that which unites us – God, soul, mystery. But love of self or God or neighbor or lover is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ demand. It is one word used to describe too many relationships and maybe it isn’t the best word to suit all of them.

One could translate ‘ve’ahavta’ as ‘care’ or ‘honor’. It will be easier for me to say that ‘yes, I care for Israel’, and ‘of course, I honor my people’s courage’. But love, when it comes to one’s country just doesn’t feel right to me. Not this year anyway. This is not where my country and I are in our relationship. She at 61 and I at 40 – we’ve done a lot together already and will hopefully keep working at it. Love, after all, is a perpetual ‘work in process’. And what is love after all? My love is not for an abstract notion called ‘country’. It is, as the Torah reminds me, about love for people – the people that make this place what it is. Those who are living here, and those who gave up their lives, and all of us who make this place into what it is – a lovable, complicated, challenging reality called home.

For 24 hours, starting with a siren last night at 8pm, and until 8pm this evening, the flags in Israel are at half mast. The civic rituals of grief call for a flag partially raised, conscious of the loss. At 8pm tonight, as the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen will awkwardly become the Day of Independence, the flags will be raised all the way up. The music will shift from somber to festive, the grills will grill, and the fireworks will sparkle in the sky.

“Flags are the shrouds of history” wrote Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s loved poet, in a special poem dedicated to the Day of Independence. He goes on to describe the fireworks that remind me of “the colorful moans of the Jewish people.”

And I will celebrate tonight with friends, and we will quietly mark the transition from grief to joy, and metaphorically raise our flags, hold hands with each other – Jews and Arabs, Israelis and foreigners, committed to living together and loving each other’s differences as well as that which unites us, and honoring our shared destiny, and, hopefully, blow out 62 candles on this big birthday cake and make the wish for peace, and optimism, one love at a time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Amichai as This Week's Narrator
for G-dcast
Click, view, enjoy!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

40th Birthday party
in downtown NYC April 11 09

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


I’ve been back in Jerusalem for about 24 hours after 2 weeks in NYC, and now it’s the middle of the night and I wake up in bed and for about 30 seconds have absolutely no idea where I am or what time it really is. My alarm clock shows 3AM, as does my cellphone, but my watch is 9PM as is my laptop, and I’m wide awake, in dual zones, and I think it’s Tuesday, and that tomorrow is my birthday. But maybe it’s Wednesday. And I have this mini panic attack that i slept through a whole day and totally missed the party.

A cup of tea later I sit on the little balcony, as Jerusalem sleeps its pre dawn hour, and there’s jasmine in the warm air, and I wonder to myself if I am not obsessing too much about time, and is this just jetlag, or perhaps has something to do with turning 40. Which is, sort of, maybe, a big deal and gives me lots to think about, plus, I’m jetlagged.

Anyway, it IS Tuesday, and the sun rises slowly above the balcony and over Jerusalem, and Israel prepares to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Sharply at 10AM a two minute siren is heard all over the country and I get to my parents’ home just a few minutes earlier, making sure to be with them at the exact moment and not get stuck in traffic. We stand where it finds us: my mother in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, looking vacantly, outside, through the window. My father and I stand in the living room, he is looking at the floor, clutching the newspaper he was reading, and I am leaning on the wall, looking at him. When the sirens fades out I set my watch to Israel time: 10:02.

It is a curious and uniquely Israeli ritual, this ‘memorial siren’ – heard here on the days of remembrance for the victims and heroes of wars and the holocaust, commanding the public sphere into a compulsory, uncomfortable silence. Mandated by Israeli law since the early 1950’s, the siren (‘tzfira’ in Hebrew) is one of Israel’s most original (though British inspired), powerful – and problematic - civic ceremonies. But it is also the descendent of the classic Jewish Shofar – the ram horn that called the community for reflection – and for combat. Today, it’s a clarion call for making meaning of the (carefully chosen) collective (Jewish) memories, and for marking larger than life moments loom larger yet -through singular, ticking, manipulated minutes.

Can life’s big moments be captured by single minutes?

It is a bold ritual, this ‘memorial siren’, and one wonders what it means to the millions of people who stop in their tracks all over Israel in the middle of life when 10am on this random Tuesday happens. It’s a brave attempt at making meaning of history - as brave and beautiful and fragile and perilous as the Passover Seder, or the mourners Kaddish, or Fourth of July fireworks, or ‘happy birthday to you’ at some random or not so random party. Brave because it is so small in comparison to how bigger than life, life really is. And beautiful because it’s so real, and fragile and perilous because it can so easily fall flat and fail and end up with giggles or shrugs.

Who was it who said that marking moments in time is like hitting a nail with a hammer in the middle of the ocean?

Not the Torah, that’s for sure. Time is the oldest Jewish weapon in the fight against chaos – culture trying very hard to make sense of nature. Jewish life - on whatever level of practice - demands constant counting - the counting of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years is what gets the Jewish engine to tick-tock through eternity. Not only are we in the midst of the fifty day count from Passover to Shavuot, and not only are we two days into the end of this lunar month – we also find time in this week’s double-portion Torah Tale – Tazria-Metzora, where father-time is honored as the great healer of disease.

Way before ‘take two and call me in the morning’ these chapters in Leviticus extended the period of healing to seven full days – regarding a long list of ailments. This coming Seventh Day, in a synagogue near you, some lucky Bar or Bat Mitzvah will courageously chant about all sorts of curable and incurable conditions, infections, pores, sores, sorrows and cures. The one common theme to this list of bodily emissions is the insistence, perhaps radical for its time – that all medical procedures be carefully monitored and checked per specific time grids based on the cycles of seven. Counting each day on the road to recovery constitutes the essential element in the early Hebraic medical system – in an attempt to construct order on chaos – both physically and spiritually.

Take for instance the person who has had a discharge of some sort – (and never mind right now the specific socio-medical-religious meanings of this STD related condition:)

'When one with a discharge becomes clean of his discharge, he shall count off seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in fresh water; then he shall be clean.' (Leviticus 15:13)

Mazel Tov! But what if it takes four days to heal? And what if it takes ten? Can this one-size-fit-all grid really help all people stand up to disease and decay?? Can these attempts at regulating the body’s health be any more effective now than they were in Biblical times? Or are we still just trying to squeeze reality into spreadsheets of convenience and ‘order’? What if it takes more than seven days to grieve one’s dead? Can one sit Shiva longer? And what if you don’t want to mark the turning of the years on the specific day assigned to you by fate (and now, facebook) and what if 100 days of presidency are not really enough to achieve anything and what if two minutes worth of silence are simply not enough, never enough, to contain the enormity of pain?

Are all these, perhaps, just perfectly imperfect attempts at the art of living with awareness? In some ways, I find that Leviticus is offering more of a metaphor than a medical recipe: counting the days means taking account of time itself and making life count – all of it, every messy and grand bit.

As I write this, on the balcony, it’s just past midnight and is already Wednesday, the 22nd of April, the day on which, according to official government records and astrological signs, I came howling into the world. But until a few years ago, because of some confusion, we thought it was the 21st of April, and anyway - according to the Jewish calendar, my birthday is not for another week – and it is that date which I will really celebrate – and it also happens to coincide with the date of Israel’s Day of Independence – yet a whole other time-management system, and a whole other excuse for taking time out to be with people I love. So I guess I’m celebrating in multi time zones and not even trying to contain the notion of turning 40 in a 24 hour period or inside a box of any kind. My ‘Now’ is as real as the NOW that your eyes are NOW reading, even though it already happened or maybe hasn’t yet. Across the oceans of time and space, here I go hammering another nail in the ocean. Bang.

Seven days of hopeful cleansing, two minutes of fragile silence, sixty one years of furious independence and forty years of living out loud – stopping to make sense of it all and make these moments count – priceless. And timeless.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

The lights went out with the last chord of music and for a few seconds a great hush fell over the packed theater. Then the lights came back on stage, the actors bowed, holding hands, and all of us in the audience leaped to our feet for a standing ovation. Next to Normal, a powerful new musical about the perils of mental illness (!) opened on Broadway this past week and I was lucky enough to be invited.

A lot of excited chatter followed as people left the theater and congregated on 45th street to exchange opinions. There was much to talk about – the show is a provocative and inspiring rollercoaster– but I had nothing to say, or rather – nothing I could yet say. I needed more time to digest quietly. My friends went off to have a drink – and I walked away, into the city night, slowly and in total silence. Sometimes, a great hush is all one needs. Sometimes, it is all one can handle.

There is a moment of great revelation in ‘Next to Normal’ – a revelation of great grief. I won’t give it away – but it has to do with mourning – with the unspeakable pain and loss that refuses to let go. Walking away from the theater that night, ending up along the Hudson River, I kept thinking about the people in my life who have recently lost a loved one and how they cope - or how they don’t. How, so often, silence is all they need, all they can handle. Friends who have lost a teenage son to sudden illness, a friend whose parent died on the eve of the Passover Seder, a friend who lost his lover to AIDS, after years of struggle.

Then I thought of Aaron, the High Priest of Israel who lost two sons in a single moment – victims of a freak fire accident that takes center stage in this week’s Torah installment ‘Shmini’. The only reaction that is attributed to Aaron in the aftermath of this Biblical tragedy is total silence. Volumes have been written about his choice of action/reaction and what it may mean for us today. Over the centuries, different biblical translations also struggled with this single moment and chose to tell/describe very different reactions.

The fatal fire happens on the eighth day of the official inauguration of the Tabernacle. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, driven by zeal, enter the tent with burning incense and go up in flames. They broke the rules and were set up as an example for the other priests and Levites – ‘don’t play with the sacred fire’. They die in verse 2 of chapter 10 in Leviticus. In the next verse Moses turns to his brother Aaron with this cryptic explanation:

‘Moses said to Aaron: 'this is it what God meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.' And Aaron was silent.’ (Lev. 10:3, The New JPS Translation)

Never mind right now what Moses meant. I want to focus on Aaron’s reaction. ‘Silent’ is elsewhere translated as ‘speechless’, or ‘calmed’ or ‘held his peace’. These are very different descriptions – or suggestions – for handling grief. What does ‘holding one’s peace’ mean? Is it noble courage or emotional constipation? And does the (Orthodox) translator who used ‘calmed’ mean to say that Aaron was soothed by the theological explanation given to him by Moses – ‘only the good die young’? The Hebrew word argued here is ‘Va-yidom’ – a word that has in it both the allusion to great silence – ‘demama’ but also the word ‘da-am’ – Hebrew for ‘blood’. It is one of those loud Hebrew words, loaded with many meanings.

Why is Aaron silent? What is there to say?

A few months ago, at a funeral for a religious Israeli solider who died while on active duty (in Gaza), Aaron’s silent grief was mentioned by the eulogizing rabbi as the best way for the family to deal and heal.

I have to admit it made me uncomfortable, suspicious of this rhetoric. How is this linked to the norm of ‘boys don’t cry’ and to the ideology in which sacrificing one’s life, children, or happiness on the altar of the collective/higher cause demands a stiff upper lip?

Was Aaron really silent? What might he have said?

Or is hushing just something that happens, that must happen, when no words suffice. Often, in public Jewish events of mourning, such as the upcoming Holocaust Memorial Day (April 21) when there are few or no words to address the pain – Aaron’s silent mourning is remembered and cited – like a poem, like a wordless nod of the head – all tools for the human exchange of acknowledgment: unspeakable grief is part of our human existence.

Now that Passover is over, and the many words and books with which we mark out history of bondage and freedom are back on the shelf, it is perhaps a good idea to take a few minutes for wordless reflection. In the great aftermath of a great new musical, or a Passover Seder, or a devastating funeral, or a heartfelt conversation – there’s that hush moment that lets the experience sink in. And in that pause between words, that quiet breathing – there is great comfort, great silence, stillness, still here, keenly aware of the blood pulsing through veins, one drop at a time. I find that I need it – in the midst of daily dramas, emails, voicemails, txt messages, meaningful exchanges and endless chatter and all that rush: just hush – and strike a pause.

Monday, April 13, 2009

“A Little Taste of Freedom” at JCC Manhattan
by Jess Lenza
A Little Taste is a Lot of Fun!

When Shawn Shafner and I were paired up to create an interactive performance for the JCC that incorporated the entire story of Passover and chanting verses from the Torah, we were a little overwhelmed with the amount of information we had to integrate. With some hard work and guidance from the lovely Sarah Sokolic and Jake Goodman, we were able to build a solid structure. That was the first and most challenging step, but with that in place, we created a fun, educational experience for the JCC families and hopefully for future Storahtelling performances.

Our play focused on a young boy, Mo, who aspires to be a great drummer, but instead of being able to practice he is saddled with the responsibility of setting the seder plate. He receives help from his mysterious "aunt" Miriam who he has never met. She helps him discover the symbolism behind each of the foods included in the seder and how they relate to the story of Passover. Miriam draws Mo and the audience into the story with the aid of a few catchy songs and simple props.

We had a great turnout at the JCC. People of all ages attended and enjoyed the performance. Afterwards, Shawn led an amazing workshop that incorporated basic acting techniques and reinforced the main concepts of the show. The audience seemed pleased that the show appealed to both adults and children and that we tackled a lot of challenging ideas in a very short amount of time.

I am so proud to have been a part of this production. It was really rewarding to see all of our hard work materialize into a successful experience for our audience and I think it has the potential to be adapted and used in a variety of settings in the future. We were in a theater with a large audience, but this could easily be set for a religious school class where each student gets his/her own seder plate and a little taste of everything on it. There were a lot of great moments in the show, but my favorite part was being able to sing my signature song A Little Taste of Torah!

Storahtelling at BBYO
Allie Hershorn
BBYO teen

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of being introduced to a phenomenon known as Storahtelling. Usually, I am not a fan of Friday Night Shabbat Services, but the mavens that came to join my friends and I, truly brough Torah to life. I was overwhelmed with joy as I realized every single person in the room was feeling the same connection to G-d that I was experiencing. I can not thank the Storahtelling Mavens enough for creating an experience that I never will forget. They bonded my community together in a way that I have never before witnessed. I am eternally grateful.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


I counted the keys on my key chain this morning: NYC and Jerusalem, offices and homes, front doors and lockers, family and friends. 22 total.

Open a door: We do this daily. In, out, home, work, shops, bathrooms, with a handle, with a keycard, revolving, automatic, doorman – our lives are marked by these careless crossings of thresholds and we rarely pause to notice and reflect. A door is just a door.

Then comes Passover, complete with the rituals and symbols that invite us to stop and think and grow and improve the quality of our lives and of all those around us. One of the most simple, startling and lesser celebrated ritual moments of Passover is the moment that gave the holiday its name – the moment in which we remember the threshold of freedom and open our front door, blurring, briefly, the boundaries between private and public, past and present. Back in Egypt, the front doors of the Hebrews were shut tight, dripping with blood, and the Lord of Hosts passed over, and spared our lives. As dawn rose, the doors opened and we were free to flee. This week, blood-free, our front doors will beckon, ready to be opened once again with intention and purpose: these nights are different - a door is not just a door.

‘Opening the Door’ is supposed to happen twice during Seder – once at the beginning, and once towards the end. Thus, I interrupt the weekly listing of biblical verbs from the annual Torah Cycle to bring you a the holiday version of a verb deluxe – including a super brief guide and an accompanying collection of inspirational sources for why and what and how to open wide and make it matter.

1. The first open-door moment comes when we first sit down to the Seder table and proclaim ‘let all who are hungry come and eat’. This grand gesture made it into the Hagaddah inspired by an obscure Talmudic reference to a rabbi who wouldn’t sit down to dinner before opening his front door and inviting the local poor to sit at his table. Nowadays, the gesture is mostly an empty one. Whoever is sitting around our Seder table has already rsvp’d. But imagine – this year – with so many out of jobs, so many in need of nourishment and support – can we really, literally, open our front door to those in need? Can you, right after reading this, review your guest list and address book and maybe make one more phone call to make sure the doors are open to let all, even those invisible, who are often the most in need of love, enter the door, sit and eat, and celebrate this night of hope?

Try this: as you sit down to Seder and proclaim the opening lines – open the front door. Let the chilly night air enter and pause briefly, silently perhaps, to count your blessings and bless the roof over your head and the faithful door that protects you from danger and provides you with shelter. Then get conversation going – what are we inviting tonight? Who are we inviting this year to sit at our table? What does it mean to open a door to the world? (check out this video clip, courtesy of UJA Texas – they nailed it: OPEN THE DOOR)

2. The second door opening comes at the end of the meal, as the fourth glass of wine is raised and Elijah the Prophet is invited for dessert. It’s a dramatic moment, but we don’t always get there or remember what it’s all about. Opening the door to Elijah is tied up to the historical evolution of the Seder, as Jews, often persecuted minorities in foreign lands, relied on supernatural forces to help them survive. The front door, closed for protection from hostile neighbors, was opened ceremoniously, and briefly, to express trust and hope and let in some optimism. This, anyway, is one of many reasons cited for this custom. The Hagaddah also has a text that goes along with that door opening moment – a problematic proclamation beseeching God to pour wrath upon the gentiles.

For many of us today, this text proves to be a problem. Many non-Jews will be sitting at our Seders and many more, outside our front doors, are our friends and, often, family. How can we open our doors to the rest of the world not with fear but with affirmation? What do we do with this historic but hostile text?

In the 1870’s, Leopold Stein, a German Jew and one of the first reform rabbis Rabbi, struggled with this part of the Hagaddah and replaced the wrath with spirit – providing us with the first of several modern alternatives:

‘Pour out Your spirit on all flesh May all nations come to serve You Together in one language..’

So try this: As you open the door to Elijah invite your guests to come up with wishes for tolerance between people of all different faiths. Invite prayers for open doors for prisoners like Gilad Shalit, and for the people of Gaza who are not free to leave their city. Spark a conversation about what it would look like to have a world free of fear from the other. Yes, antisemitism is on the rise, and yes, the plight of our ancestors that led to these ancient prayers is honored and remembered – but can we move beyond and open our hearts and front doors to the hope of progress? Yes, we can.

The keys to freedom are in our hands, and we have to turn the handle. And open the door.

Yehuda Amichai, the late Israeli poet prayed it like this:

“I want a God who is like a window I can open
So I’ll see the sky even when I’m inside.
I want a God who is like a door that opens out, not in,
But God is like a revolving door, which turns, turns on its hinges
In and out, whirling and turning
Without a beginning, without an end.”


For more sources for the Seder, click here: open the door - inspirations and sources

Monday, April 06, 2009

“One Giant Leap” at Merrick Jewish Center
Storah on the Road
By Jess Lenza

On Sunday (3/28), Isadore Alexander Wolfson and I, Jessica Lenza, performed the Storahtelling classic, One Giant Leap, at the Merrick Jewish Center. The community couldn't have been more gracious and welcoming! Considering how well loved this endearing show is, Alex and I had a high standard to live up to as first time Leapers. The script explores the experience of Nachshon Ben Amindav, a midrashic character the Rabbis say was the first person to step into the Sea of Reeds. Alex masterfully wielded our blue Nachshon puppet and I joyfully played guitar as Miriam. The children and families were very involved in the story.

Before One Giant Leap, members from the Solomon Schechter School choir performed Passover songs, including, I'm told, a parody of a Hannah Montana song. These students participated wholeheartedly in the talk back we had following the performance. This was an opportunity for audience members to ask us questions about the story we told or how we had told it. The children were particularly interested in our puppet Nachshon. They wanted to know how he worked and how he was made. They also wanted to know if the story was "real" and if the people we mentioned were "real". I think this is a common concern for an age group that already has a permeable barrier between reality and imagination. From their questions and comments, it was clear that they related to Nachshon's stuggle to be brave and Miriam's commitment to freedom. It was a great way to experience the Passover story in an interactive and introspective environment.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Flour Power
Maven Shabbaton Weekend for BBYO Gold Coast in Florida

By Annie Lewis

“You own the past. You sacrifice. You become something different.”

This past Shabbat, David Loewy and I went down to Sunrise, Florida for the annual Gold Coast Regional BBYO convention, set this year to the theme of Fiddler on the Roof. Teens quoted the classic, “Without tradition, our lives are as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof,” as each local chapter competed for spirit points, with their traditional name and mascot and original garb and skit.

Our Maven for Parshat Vayikra explored the messy tradition of the guilt offering. Torah offers a recipe for getting rid of guilt, which ideally includes animal sacrifice. Those feeling unfit for society due to exposure to animal contamination, bodily fluids, broken promises or complicity through silence may go before the Cohen with an offering tailored to their means. The assigned sheep, pair of birds or measure of flour is then transformed to smoke on the altar. A connection is re-established between heaven and earth, between the guilty party and the best self, between the Source and the community.

We told the story as a talk-show called “Cooking with Cohen,” described as “Two-Parts Dr. Phil, two parts Top Chef and a healthy helping of Fear Factor.” I played the role of a woman consumed by Jewish guilt, who, desperate to do something, appears as a guest on the show. She is appalled by the Chief-Chef’s prescription for animal sacrifice and turns to the studio audience for alternative suggestions for coping with guilt, and for a way to transform the tradition into something relevant for our day. In the end, my character opts for an immediate, symbolic, hands-on ritual transformation through flour, a way to move forward with a traditional ingredient.

This was my first time performing a Maven. We packed a wheely-suitcase in New York with a sack of flour beside the giant purple Storah Talit, which the BBYO-ers dubbed the Storah-Snuggie. I took my own Jewish guilt carry-on, as always - the stuff in my stomach that is individual, residual and collective. The stories of my family and my people, the broken hearts and shattered tablets. It is the bewilderment I experience sometimes, a few hours after waking up in the arms of life. Why me? How I am I so lucky to be here? It is one of many responses I have to the mystery, yet the questions of worth can nag and weigh and muddle Divine messages. So there in the Gold Coast room at the Holiday Inn in Sunrise, I exhaled, giving flight to a cloud of flour in my palms. With the teens and Torah to witness, I let go of some guilt. I am here and I am grateful.

“Some of us did not die

We’re still here

I guess it was our destiny to live

So let’s get on with it.”

- June Jordan


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

April 2, 2009

Earlier this week, my mother was standing in front of the linen closet with its doors wide open, with that look on her face that says ‘do not disturb’. Whenever she stands in front of the linen closet to launch a reorganization campaign it is best to let it be: she is busy rearranging things much more subtle than sheets. Tidying up the closets (by the way, being British born, she calls them ‘cupboards’, and even referred once to the notion of people ‘coming out of the cupboard’) is her way of re-arranging what’s going on inside her mind.

For me – it’s washing dishes, or sweeping. For my friend J. it’s mowing the lawn. For S. it’s deleting old emails, one by one. For Aaron and the Levites of Leviticus – it’s all about the careful attention to the daily maintenance of the Tabernacle – God’s kitchen.

There are certain types of domestic chores that get done not only because they've got to get done, but also because they have an additional, more subtle function: they give us focus. It helps to have concrete, doable, achievable goals that move us from chaos to order and from confusion to clarity. A pile of sheets or dirty dishes, stacks of bills or unruly lawns: metaphors for our cluttered minds, symbols of transformation at our fingertips. Of course, sometimes, a sheet IS just a sheet and a dish is just a chore – but still – I think that there is more going on here, especially at this time of year - with spring cleaning in the air, and Passover prep moving into high gear. it’s all about the details.

Reading through this week’s Torah Tale – ‘Tzav’ – Hebrew for “Instruct” or “Command”, is like reading a very, very detailed voodoo cook book, with every instruction laid out, including the kitchen sink. Like most of this third book of the Torah, these chapters are about the art of sacrifice – what animals to bring onto God’s altar, when, why, how to kill, dismember, eat, and discard hoards of herds in the service of the Divine. Though these details were clearly instrumental for the ongoing activation of the tabernacle and temples of yore – today they are nothing more than historical relics. And yet, here they are, still read carefully, chanted lovingly, and freely interpreted. Why does this bygone technology matter? Perhaps because it can also be read as a mystical text – as a code for human conduct. Leviticus is about good housekeeping – but the house is not just the ‘house of God’ – it’s also the human body - the home of the soul.

Take for instance, the incidental pot in which the ‘Hatat’ or ‘sin offering’ was cooked after being sacrificed to God. Never mind what it meant exactly – let’s just say that a specific offering , in the form of a live domestic animal, had to be brought to the priest-on-call, in atonement for some personal act of transgressions. It is assumed, according to the Biblical laws of contamination, that the specific animal that happened to be carrying this ‘transgression’ on its head and onto the altar and into the pot inside which it will be cooked, symbolizes the actual transgression – and is therefore ‘spiritually contagious’. But what then do you do with the pot? Is the vessel equally responsible for the content? (Is the body responsible for the soul?) It depends, says the Good Book, on the type of vessel::

"But the earthen vessel inside which it was cooked shall be broken; and if it was cooked in a copper pot, it will be scrubbed, and rinsed in water."(Lev. 6:21)

I love this image of the priest, or of perhaps of the person him/herself who was guilty of the transgression – scrubbing that copper pot until it shines like a sunset, transformed, new and improved.

We don’t often get second chances in life. (Prime Minister Netanyahu being a brand new notable exception to the rule) but the complex teachings of Leviticus are a reminder that change is possible and that certain acts, as mundane as scrubbing a pot, can bear significant consequences with potentially great impact on the deepest strata of our individual and collective wellbeing. Read as metaphor, Leviticus is about tools for focus, and about transformation - about coming closer to our inner selves, and about making sense of the mess that sometimes becomes our life.

Yesterday, my upstairs neighbors, an ultra orthodox family, carried out their rugs to the small courtyard behind the building and banged the hell out of them, raising clouds of dust. It was nice to see the father and his sons take on this ‘domestic chore’, usually the domain of the women. Passover cleaning is taken very seriously in homes that take Passover ‘by the book’ –and men are often part of the team. The laws are strict – no bread or its kin are to be left over. Closets, cupboards, bookshelves and pockets are meticulously searched and scrubbed. Not unlike sterile conditions for medical procedures – Passover cleaning demands all or nothing.

I watched them from my balcony and was wondering if banging the rugs was also helping them to be thinking (or feeling) the cleansing process within. I didn’t’ ask them but just watching them reminded me of what I had to do – and I went back inside and opened wide the doors of my cupboard, and got to work.