Monday, March 25, 2013

Happy Passover!

Passover has always been my favorite holiday--at least since I've been an adult. As a child, Passover, like the rest of Judaism, was something I could not quite claim as my own.
My parents assiduously avoided religion, though my father was quick to condemn me for dating non Jewish boys and eventually marrying a non-Jewish man. They were maddeningly irrational, and I guess religion is irrational, and so is family in general, most of the time.
We went to my Orthodox uncle's house for Passover, and while I have some fond memories of playing with my cousins, who were just a year or two older than me, the seder, conducted all in Hebrew, and thus incomprehensible to a child who had not been either to Israel or to religious school, was no fun. It went on and on, way past midnight. And it required me to drink thimbleful after thimbleful of cough medicine-sweet Kosher wine. A tiny, skinny child, I was usually asleep under the table before long. And I couldn't have sung the questions anyhow.
Part of the seder features four sons (liberal Judaism like the branch to which I belong later changed this to "four children."),  one of who was wise, one wicked, one simple. I don't remember the other. At various parts of my youth, I played the simple child, who didn't know how to ask, because I had been taught nothing, and playing the wicked child, who questioned the faith. And as I got older and began investigating Judaism, I did that questioning a lot. It was how I learned.
It strikes me as odd, looking back, that this was a holiday whose major reason for being was to tell the story of the exodus, an event that scholars now declare never actually happened. Yet it is so important, so central to the tradition that it is repeated over and over in the Torah and in the prayers.
How could they claim to be telling the story if one person at the table at least had no clue what they were saying at all?
But once I was an adult, married to said gentile, and I had a son, he was going to be Jewish in a different way from the way I had been. I reveled in my new role as Jewish educator, for I had to educate myself first, and I did that, in the way a convert might have.
I sampled lots of different kinds of synagogues, approaches to the faith, etc., and ended up with one that made me feel comfortable and unaccountably at home.
I would preside at these seders and explain things to a table full of round-eyed innocents who didn't know what they had let themselves in for. They only knew I was a good cook, but not that they would have to wait for so long to eat.
By the time the meal was served, they could identify with the rag-tag bunch of former slaves in the desert, wishing there'd be something to eat besides that damn manna stuff. Bitter herbs? Parsley in salt water? Enough already, Dayenu!
I organized Jewish-Palestinian seders, anti-modern-slavery seders, feminist seders, peace seders... there was a seder for every day of the Passover week and then some. And most of the attendees were celebrating the holiday for the first time.
My son was initiated into Passover from an early age, and although the haggadahs I used were child-friendly,  in gender-free, nonsexist, polically correct English, and contained activities a young child could understand and enjoy (puppet shows! plays!), he also became bored and tended to wander away from the table.
On the other hand, as he grew older, he brought his friends home to show them Passover at his house, obviously proud and pleased to have a tradition the others didn't have to show off.
He attended religious school for a while before the teachers at the synagogue threw up their hands at him, and we allowed him to enroll in baseball, which became his refuge.
Later, the frequency of the seders at our house tapered off. I sometimes didn't attend any at all. There was no use trying to have one at our house because I couldn't get anyone to cooperate, and having two or three people at a seder is just sad and pointless.
Now that he is grown up, I attend the choir seder, and sometimes, if I'm lucky, am invited to a friend's first or second night meal.
I don't organize these things anymore. I'm happy to sit back and be part of someone else's seder.
Whatever celebration this season brings you, I hope it is a fine one.
Chag sameach!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Another year, another trip through the Torah

Last night in Torah class, our group discussed what is probably the greatest portion in the entire book: Genesis 18.1-22.19, AKA Vayira.
This is the portion with the mysterious strangers, one of whom may be God, telling Sarah she is going to give birth, even though she's already 90 and her husband is even older. Of course, Sarah is listening through the tent flap.
And the second time Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister to save his own butt.
We also see Sarah and Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert to die, where God rescues them.
And Lot and his lot fleeing Sodom and Gomorra (sp), where his wife turns into a pillar of salt.
And of course, the Akeda, the binding of Isaac... probably the greatest of greatest hits of the Torah, as far as I am concerned.
It was a lively discussion, with lots of juicy disagreement, fertile questioning, great jokes. We went over our usual time, but no one cared. There was too much to discuss, to wonder about, to shake our heads over.
What is Abraham being tested for in the Akeda? Is it, as traditional readings of the passage would have it, whether he will be scrupulously obedient to God, no matter what he is asked to do? In which case, these readers say, he passed.
Or is it to see whether he will be as cold and uncompassionate to Isaac as he was to Ishmael and Hagar and Sarah? If so, he flunked that test. Maybe he's thinking that God promised him untold numbers of progeny. What's one fewer in the face of that promise?
If Abraham was supposed to get the point, he doesn't seem to, but the text is so mysterious, so full of silences... more silences than not. That what makes it so irresistible---our desire to fill in those blanks.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Moses on Trial

Every year my synagogue stages an interesting mock trial of biblical figures for crimes committed (or not, depending how you view the status of Biblical texts) in the course of their lives, as recorded in the Torah.
This year, it was Moses who was being tried for his murder of an Egyptian task master and subsequent flight out of Egypt.
The lawyers and judges were real enough. In fact, Moses had a Ace in the hole. His defense lawyer was the famous expert in Constitutional Law, Irwin Chemerinsky, who happens to belong to my synagogue.
The Prosecution was no slouch either, and neither was the judge. All did their jobs efficiently and well, making arguments that were clear and easy to understand and even amusing.The prosecutor, Laurie Levinson, even did a Power Point to accent her points.
It was a privilege to be there to see how a courtroom is supposed to work, which was quite unlike the mockery of justice I recently witnessed when I joined my friend in the courtroom as she filed for an extension of a restraining order. And that was a real case. This was not. Ironies.
As I sat in the sanctuary pondering whether this was justifiable homicide, by the California definition of the term that had been offered (and asking myself what law should serve as the measure for this case anyhow), I realized that this issue was really beside the point.
Moses had his turning point in the moment he responded to the beating of his kinsman. Whether he had merely spoken out or, as he chose to do, outright killed the taskmaster, his life would have been forfeit by Egyptian law.
Like a fugitive slave, he had decided to drop the act and taken on his destiny as leader to a bunch of whiny former slaves who loved their chains more than they realized.
Since there were no courts or juries or jails at that time, and really not until quite late  in human history, he had no choice but to run. He had become, defacto, one of the slaves he sought to aid.
And where would we all be if he had decided to stay in Egypt?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spring Forward

I've lost track of time. This morning, I had to check the Internet to see that an hour of my life had indeed slipped away unnoticed while I was sleeping.
Now I feel regret because every minute is precious, begging to be filled with something, and there are so many things I should be doing. But I suppose I'll be forgiven for not filling that hour at 2 AM, though my cats might have other ideas about this.
Yesterday I had lunch with an old friend I haven't spoken with in years.  I won't go into details here, but the rift was my fault. Instead of confronting this person with feelings I had about things that had happened in the past, I just quit talking to her.
I've done that before and since. And always I regret it. It's hard to understand why I do it because I'm hardly shy or short of words, generally speaking.
This person reached out to me, and I accepted. She was gracious, saying nothing about what had passed between us. I didn't let the moment pass though.
And when I got home, I heard from another such person on LinkedIn.
It's the season of second chances. I've missed an hour, but not these opportunities to patch up old quarrels.

Also yesterday I saw the film Amour. I can't say I was unwarned. I had read many times reviews on films by the director, Michael Haneke, speaking of his tendency toward relentless, almost diabolical film-making. Being emotionally squeamish, I avoided his films up to now, even though I admire fine film and he had won many an award.
This time, I was drawn to the film because of my experience with my parents, I suppose, but I should have known how I would struggle with it, and I did.
Like Bergman in his crisis of faith films, Haneke doesn't let the viewer off for a moment. There is no music swelling in the background. The camera remains on an image for an uncomfortably long time, though it is generally a middle distance from the figures on screen rather than being a close-up of the kind that Bergman favors. Haneke won't even give us this. Everything is distanced, and this makes it all seem much more cruel to me than Bergman, who is openly emotional and can veer sometimes in his films into sweetness. I can't imagine Haneke doing that.
The acting was superb, the writing as well. And all the decor, costumes, writing was spot on. But did I enjoy it? I wouldn't use that word. Glad I saw it, even if it made me squirm.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

End of the Tunnel

 When I was a small child, my parents often used to drive to Brooklyn to see elderly relatives. I loved to explore their musty apartment, with its smell of mothballs, footed hassocks, and the building itself, with its equally elderly elevator man, in his white gloves. However it wasn't the destination I remember most but the route.
  We would frequently drive through the Holland tunnel, which seemed to me nearly endless.  Now perhaps it was not coming from Philadelphia but in the course of other travels that we actually employed it, but we often did.
  I was familiar with tunnels aplenty, since we often rode the Frankford Elevated subway in Philadelphia. These were frequent and short, plunging the rider into a totally dark world that would end as suddenly as it began when we emerged, blinking, back into the bright sunshine.
  This tunnel was something else, more elemental. Tiled and dimly lit, like an underwater world, the narrow walls would seem to close upon us, alone among the multitudes. The cars would nose forward, like startled fish, borne by the movement of their fellows, having totally surrendered any individual will.
  It went on and on, so long that I forgot the world before and after it, and when we finally emerged into the light, it was a shock and surprise, a glad one.
  In my current life, I have been in a very long tunnel, it has seemed to me. Years long. I felt that I must have wandered into it at night, and in the morning, lost, I was unable to find my way out.
  Mile after tiled mile the tunnel would wind, and I was in it alone. Once in a while, a light would wink somewhere, and hope would flare up, like a candle, then be gone.
  But now, I think, even this long dark route has started to give out. The faces of others are before me, and doors that seemed closed have begun to open.
 The chief thing about tunnels that I had forgotten is that they help a person to get somewhere otherwise inaccessible, the road hewn through a mountain, the portal from one world into another.
 I set foot on these new continents with trepidation, like an explorer, ready to map the new world.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

New Open Reading In Fullerton

Yesterday R and I went to a new reading in Fullerton. I had been invited to it by a young man who is a FB friend and did a featured reading there. He was among 7 readers originally scheduled to appear, along with musicians.
As it happens, the majority didn't show up. Strangely, they kept texting the poor organizer throughout the three hours or so we were there at that restaurant, Steamers, where that reading took place, tantalizing her with promises that they were on their way, stuck in traffic, etc. I tend not to believe it, though traffic in L.A. can be horrendous.
Open readings can be odd. You never know who is going to read. On this day, an 87 year old fellow with a vanity-press book was there. I hadn't run into him before, but I have never read in Fullerton before, so perhaps that explains it.
There were also some people from Redondo poets reading work that was as unlike my own as poetry could possibly get, except for one fellow, Larry, who I had run into at the Mug previously, whose work I admired.
Like me, he is waiting for his manuscript to be published, but I gather that someone has promised to publish his, though he didn't say who that was. He seemed to have proofs that he was reading from.
Most of the poets read very emotional set pieces, with the emphasis on performance.
Lately I am having trouble projecting myself and my voice when I read. The poems are fine, but for some reason, I am not getting along at all well with the microphone.
Of course, I am so short that I have to maneuver it so people can hear. Sometimes I end up clutching the mic stand, just so that I can be heard. R thinks I shall have to grasp the mic itself from now on, leaving the pole to fend for itself.
I hope for featured reading sometime, but first I will have to learn to deal with this problem.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

Last night I went with some fellow choir members and R to Laguna Playhouse to see a youth theater production that also featured my friend from choir, Steve Hirsch,  the Holocaust drama, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."
The original book featured poems and paintings done by inmates of the Terezin Concentration Camp, most of whom subsequently were transported to Auschwitz, where they died. Only about 100 were left of the thousands who had gone through that camp. Most were all alone by the end of the war.
Then in the 1950s, a nun, Hana Volavkova, who saw the poems and paintings in a bookshop in Prague, turned it into a short novel including the poems. By all accounts, it was hard to get Jews to talk to a nun so soon after the Holocaust. Some of the people she spoke too probably had bad experiences with the Church, which often was indifferent to their sufferings. But she did persevere, and wrote a lovely play making use of this material.
There were many children in the audience, and the cast was largely composed of children as well, some quite young, as young as 7 or 8, I would say.
It might seem shocking that a work like this, as frank and dark as it was, would be presented for children, but Jews have customarily taught quite young children about the Holocaust, and presented them with books and dramatizations without too much ill effect. It is all in the way it is done. I certainly know of people from my childhood whose parents were in the camp who terrified their children with stories of the camps, but told this way, it doesn't seem to have that effect. I know that though I was unusually sensitive as a child to horror films and frightening tales, it didn't trouble me that much, though of course it made me sad and raised a lot of questions.
But the play was very well done. I was so impressed by the professional performances by the children, in particular. The lead in the play, a young Asian actress, expressed the enormous range of emotions the part demanded like a pro. At the start of the play, the character, Rya Englanderova, was totally traumatized by witnessing the death of her father at Auschwitz. The actress convincingly portrayed this, as well as the slow emerging from trauma with a child's resilience, to become part of the community of bereft children at the camp, then a young woman feeling first love. The other children also did a wonderful job with everything, from singing the snippets of the camp opera telling in story the tale of the imprisoned children to playing the roles of children later murdered in other camps.
Steve, as Rabbi, expressed the gentle intelligence and cultivation of a lost civilization.
The play was engrossing and well done. I think its run is now over, which is unfortunately, as I'd love to recommend it to you.
After the play, a wonderful real-life character, an 86 year old concentration camp survivor from Berlin, spoke for a long time about his experience. Before he spoke, he showed a short documentary film made by his grandson about his experience in the Holocaust. His story was very moving because after his father deserted the family, when his mother was quite young and he was just a baby, she remarried to a non-Jewish German, who converted to Judaism just to marry her. She subsequently had three more children, who passed for non-Jews, as did she, somehow. And she cast out her 15 year old son to fend for himself because he would make it impossible to pretend that she and her young children were not Jewish.
He was a young rebel who in the place of the yellow star sewed to his clothing, wore a dime-store star of a deputy he could take off whenever he wanted to, hiding out in department stores and using his quick wits to make escapes from the Nazis until that became impossible.
That was the sort of spirit that helped him to survive, to cover over his tatooed numbers from Buchenwald with the tatoo of roses (tatoos are forbidden to Jews, but he clearly never let any orthodoxies stand in his way of living). And at 85, for his birthday, he went sky-diving with his grandson. He says he'll do it again at 90 if he's feeling good. I fully believe he will. I felt privileged to feel his zest and appreciation for life and to be among the last to hear from the mouth of a survivor himself about his experience in the camps.