Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 43 - Praying

At Day 43 initially I thought 4-3-2-1 and to do a countdown as we are a week away from Shavuot and I should have made some progress in helping to draw a conclusion or at least a concept on our story and how it's coming together. But I determined that in an attempt to do that there has been too much straying and too much conversation about that very issue.

So taking a completely different tack on a day that's had challenges and questions I thought we might discuss the difficult and much differing idea of praying.

Not knowing how many of you feel about this I go back to my favorite source (the dictionary) and define, as best I can, the word itself and how it manifests itself in our lives and when and even how. I imagine that at multiple times in our lives the act of praying has come at milestones, at times of sorrow and hopefully at times of joy and thanksgiving.

It is not something we come to easily or thoughtlessly. The modes of prayer are also varied. Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands, some native Americans dance, some Sufis whirl, Hindus chant mantras, Jews (even non Orthodox) sway back and forth, Muslims kneel and prostrate themselves and Quakers keep silent. There's private prayer, communal prayer and there's music and there are many I am sure I have left off.

As for me I have been known, at least to myself, to do all of the above but mostly use the Quaker model with a little bit of this and that and a variety of combinations. No special format. Please note this is not about the rights and wrongs or whys and wherefores, this is about the model and sometimes the need and sometimes the personal result. It is not about who we are addressing if anyone. It is about the act.

If we begin to examine the important times in our lives, the times that move us, change us we should be able to find some form of prayer as a part of it. Or for those of you who question the concept some conversations. That's what we might consider for an important part of our sacred narrative.

It has been a day. A day when a prayer might have been needed or contemplated. There are few days when that is not the case. As we close in on journeys' end and our story as it stands it is time to go within.

And who says or writes it better than Mary Oliver on A Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and

down -

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated


Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 42 - A Memorable Memorial Day

I don't remember as a kid going to a Memorial Day parade. But about 8 years ago we drove out to spend the day with my then agent who lives in a tiny little town about 90 minutes west of us and spent the day. Their property abuts a sod farm (yes, one grows sod on farms) and about 2 lots from them is the local cemetery and then 'city' hall and then the school/library/post office/community center/catering company and coincidentally Joann's office. We schmoozed for a little while, although schmoozing in Kanesville is unheard of, and then we went down the 'street' to the community center where the townees and surroundings had gathered. Standing in the front of the gym like room were representatives from every branch of the service in full uniform. Flags were brought in. The volunteer band (and probably volunteer fire department) played each song from each brand of service and we sang along. The crowd of about 100 cheered, cried and applauded for his or her father or mother or favorite or own favorite or own memory. The kids were quiet and awestruck by the flags and ceremony. Then we marched down the 'street' two blocks to the cemetery and there was a 21 gun salute followed by a BBQ lunch. There was little we could eat there but the bread and chips but I remember clearly that the occasion didn't call for haute cuisine but haute respect. It was memorable.

My daddy didn't serve in WW2 but worked in an artillery plant as a welder. My grandpa had a baby girl in 1917 and did not serve in WW1. Roger clerked for a Federal Judge during Nam and my brother was a chaplain protecting the country at Fort Leonard Wood. My Uncle Buddy was in the entertainment division for the USO and I remember hearing many stories of our ancestry who rode out of the Russian Army on a 'borrowed' horse to come to America. We are not a people who serve but a people who respect those who do. Watching our flag fly above our house from Friday until today it is hard not to think of the tribes of the Israelites getting ready to march across the desert on the way to the land they were promised. I often think that this land of freedom and opportunity is that land as well.

As corny and as sappy as you might think it when I walk out the door on this day of gratitude for freedom and in respect of all who take care of us - I touch the mezzuzah and salute the flag. It takes a little longer to get to where I'm going but it makes the journey richer.

Today is the 42nd day of the Counting of the Omer. We enter the week after a memorable day filled with BBQs and maybe a beer and see what the work week will bring us.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 41 - Uncle Mary

One sure way of getting to who you are is to do some research on your geneology. One sure way to not make yourself crazy in the search is to have someone who loves to put puzzles together do it. Enter the recently retired Roger Price who has always been interested in the family history but now has a little more time to devote to it. So he found an avenue to Ancestry.com, the holder of all we find dear to us and was on a tear. There were joyous sounds of 'wow' and 'no kidding' and 'who knew' but that was just his family of origin. Late Saturday evening he started to look up my mom's family. Not so easy as the spelling was changed, etc. Then he came upon her grandparents (David and Mary Sholdar) and their children in a 1910 Heritage Quest listing. It was as clear as a bell except there was a girl named Mary. This was a great revelation to me as I knew Gertie, Frances, Mabelle (my grandma) and Jules but there was no other Aunt. So I brought out the wonderful tinotype picture and showed him - Gertie, Frances, Mabelle, Jules and Matt. No Aunt Mary.

For the average human this bit of information would have been interesting but not worth a second look. Not so for these intrepid searchers. Long story short the documenters misread the information and I have a Great Uncle Matt who now forever will be called Uncle Mary. I remember Uncle Mary very well. He was tall, probably about 5'9" (tall for us), funny and he traveled. When he showed up at my grandparents it was a joyous occasion. He had a wife who was a bit mad (not angry) but slightly off and a little mean.

All this added together made for larger memories of sitting with (not under) the family tree. None of these experiences do I recall were Jewish experiences. This family in its entirety was not a family that gathered around ritual. I remember being taken to an annual Christmas party by my Aunt Fanny on my grandpa's side and being embarrassed and a little afraid as I knew I was Jewish and shouldn't be partaking in the grab bag (or so I thought). I remember knowing instinctively that I shared a common experience with these people, these cousins and now if pushed must have known that they traveled from Sinai with me albeit by different routes.

Aunt Frances went to New York and then ultimately to New Orleans. She was always fascinated that I grew up still playing with 'dolls'. Aunt Gertie moved to Waco, Texas and lived long enough to teach Matt Price how to dance at 13 months old, my grandma deserves a writing of her own, Jules (the youngest) died first and I keep in touch with that family. As for Uncle Mary he was the mystery solved. These are the people who made up some of my family and who I am.

As we travel down the road to Sinai and our narrative ravines step carefully and don't take lightly the people who came before you. They may not be who they appear to be.

Hoping your tree has some interesting branches.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 40 - Sheherazade tells stories

There's a lot of ways one can play off the number 40. Certainly it is a number we have some familiarity with especially as we are in the midst of a 40 years Torah journey, survived 40 days of rain not only in Genesis but it feels like across America and beyond and enumerable age related forties as well. 40 is a milestone number.

But for our 40 I return to a notable story.

.......In days of yore and in times and tides long gone before, there dwelt in a certain town of Persia two brothers, one named Kasim and the other Ali Baba, who at their father's demise had divided the little wealth he had left to them with equitable division, and had lost no time in wasting and spending it all....

So begins the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves as told by Sheherazade to save her life. One unfinished tale a night for 1001 nights. She finished the story the next day and started another. The stories and the storyteller so entranced the king that he did not, as he had previously to all wives before her, kill her so that she might tell him another story. Seems a small price to pay to keep your head on your shoulders. After 1001 nights her stories captured the king's heart as well and she became his beloved Queen.

Stories are magic and the telling and listening no matter the tale make for life changing experiences. A story read at night to children, a friend, an aged parent, a story curled up on the couch with wee ones on your lap or a story read on command by a two year old who says "Grandma, read!" then points to the floor and you sit and you read. Stories from books, from your heart and head make any occasion notable.

Tonight at the close of Shabbat I lost my head and always my heart when I read Ms. Romy two stories at her request. Granted it was pitch dark in her room and I can't read without cheaters anyway but I did and then I said I'd like to tell her a story from my heart. She said and I quote "OK". I told her the story of her and sang her to sleep with the Havdalah Niggun. As the eyes lowered and the sweet head got heavier I lifted her and put her in her bed. With visions of Elijah and her baby tucked close I wished for her and hers a sweet week, a week of peace and stories.

I wish the same to you. Tell someone you love a story - yours. Lose your head a little and your heart.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Days 38 and 39 - Family Vacations

This week we have been reading the first parashah of the fourth book of Torah entitled Bemidbar and the parashah is of the same name (1 to 4:20). Bemidbar means 'in the wilderness' and that's where the Israelites are and will remain for this book and the fifth. There is much attention to detail in this reading with limited guess work as to where each tribe is to stand and what their task is to be. There is attention given to the encampment and the placement of each tribe (family) as well. Given the opinion of most that to actually lift and move the Mishkan would be virtually (or in reality) impossible. It has been estimated to be at too heavy and very dense. The particulars of each of the more moveable parts are not easily moved as well. And then there are the numbers of people casually moving together like a beautifully choreographed troup. A mere 600,000+ (and that's just the count of the men over 20) are projected to be heading toward the mountain approaching their future home. A careful look at this parashah will help you visualize this experience.

But what can we make of it? The immovable part is easy. We've all tried that and unless there is courageous adrenal or a village to help us it doesn't work. So maybe that's a thought. What does it take to help us move seemingly immovable objects or other impediments in our lives?

But I'm really fascinated by the way the Mishkan was surrounded to be protected. That's the piece I'd like us to think about as we proceed on this amazing Family Vacation of all Family Vacations. Forty years of Family Vacation. I shudder. So here's how they packed and here's where you sit in the 'car' and here is how we make sure that all the things we hold precious are protected. Seat belts, not then, but now. Positioning so that the cherished are in safe places on the ride and care is taken to pack all that we need to keep us healthy and safe. If we surround too carefully or made too many precautions where is the fun part?

I remember very well Family Vacations. In memory they were perfect and filled with stories. In reality they had their moments. Even loving the people involved dearly as we did, often the juggling acts were monumental, albeit overcome. But the precautions were always the same. Everyone needed to be in their special places so they could be watched over and protected. On one outing Sarah wandered off firmly attached to a blue jean leg (knee high was all she could see) and the leg did not belong to a member of the family. It became an indelible memory and a lesson. Complaints about who picked what and the 'who knows best' rule was obeyed. I need not even go into "are we there yet?"

Now this trip was different in more ways than our FVs. Everything they wanted or needed had to be with them and there was no going home to get it. Much depended on who was where and how they stayed there.

I don't know if the journey across the wilderness happened. I do know that in my life, the memory and lessons of FVs and even short sojourns were filled with preparation. May your Shabbat be filled with enough caution and care to protect the ones you love and enough time to appreciate the ones you prepared for.

Shabbat Shalom, marilyn (who's bringing the suntan lotion)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 37 - Face to Face for the People of the Book

First don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Facebook. It is a wonder to me and I am so pleased that people have learned to use it to find old friends and make new ones. To keep in touch and to collect buddies like charms on a bracelet. But when push comes to shove there is nothing like a face to face friend. I don't think anyone would disagree. So today after meeting with friends who are colleagues and getting hugs and telling tales out of school and connecting through the eyes and heart I would like to speak on the subject of friends and what they mean to all of us in our stories. Lots of e blasts come out about the power of friends - and please, they ask, send these on to ten friends and something wonderful will come in the mail or through an open window to you. Okay. That's nice. But I'm writing about those friends who are there for a hug, to cover your back to give you a shoulder to cry on or lean on or just to listen, to laugh, to dream and scheme along side. There are friends that help you with your crossword puzzle and friends that may disappear for a while but will come back - stronger or different but back. Friends are family we choose and they are priceless in our story.

One of my favorite Jewish tales is the story of two friends who went to cheder (school) together. They were so close that they would quite literally save the other's live by giving their own. It happened that one of them was wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to die. He asked if he could go home to say goodbye to his family and was denied. As the hanging was about to proceed his friend watching tearfully from nearby came quickly and offered himself in his friend's place until he returned from saying goodbye to his family and getting his things in order. The King was incredulous and asked him if he was 'crazy?' "What makes you think he will return and take his place and you will be put to death in his stead?" The King was told that his friend was an honest man innocent of this crime and he was sure he would come back as he loved him as surely as he was loved in return. Astonished by the generosity of the gesture and willing to prove to the other that he was indeed wrong he allowed the convicted man to leave for 24 hours and if he did not return his friend would be put to death. As the time passed neither the King or the stand in lost their faith that they would be proven right. As the 24th hour approached the King summoned the hangman to get ready and as he was about to pull the rope the convicted man appeared to take his wrongful punishment.

The two men embraced and the King was astonished. So astonished was he that he reviewed the case and freed the prisoner. "Your friendship and faith in each other are lessons for all of us. Taking a long look at his own quick decision served the King well in his future judgements. I do not need to tell you the outcome of the story for two such friends.

This is of course an extreme case and I'm relatively sure that most of us haven't been near hangmen lately so let's take this one into our own experiences. Friends leave an impression on us in many ways. Think of what a difference some of yours have made in your narrative and maybe give one, if you can, a call. And if one or more of those have gone to a place that you can't call spend some time thinking of them and smile at the memories. Friends are people we choose or who choose us. It is a gift and even sometimes hard work to keep at it. But it is a gift well given and returned. And if I remember my Girl Scout days well enough here's one of those oldie but goodie songs.

Make new friends but keep the old,

one is silver but the other is gold!

Here's to making new friends and introducing them to our old (duration not age) ones.

marilyn, panim el panim!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 36 - Double Life

The subject may not be what it seems to imply. A Double Life. Very spy like and mysterious so allow me to explain and then muck it up by going back to my intent. The number 18 in hebrew stands for life 'chai' and therefore 36 is a double 'chai' a double life. If it were possible to be twice as blessed with life - 36 would be it! Often people use it as an excellent amount to give as tzedakkah implying that one life is good and twice as much is even better. The multiple of 18 is also used in much the same manner. But today is a doubly blessed day in the Omer count and now that we have established that I will return to 36 and living in two civilizations - a double life.

The statement living in two civilizations harkens (I love that word) back to the time of Mordechai Kaplan (1881 - 1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. In 1934 Kaplan published his masterwork, Judaism as a Civilization, and raised a question that still challenges American Jews in the 21st Century. In essence he questioned whether it was possible for American Jews to sit by as reluctant bystanders or as bitter critics of American society and culture but as deeply committed Americans and Jews able to embrace the best in both civilizations. Another one of his standards was that people should be not 'men' on the street and 'Jews' at home but both. He called for Jews to develop a creative Judaism that in his words spelled 'nothing less than a maximum of Jewishness'. Times were different and more challenging then (Kaplan came to America at the age of 9) but are things any easier now, now that things are easier? Not at all.

Do we need to live a double life? Can we be the best of both? Many of my friends in the business of being Jewish are worried about these issues of creativity and mediocrity. As for me i am the eternal PollyAnna. I see progress in places where others don't and I see all of you out there - whatever the number - who have the ability of creating a creative force of Judaism for yourselves.

The stories we create around our own Jewish quests are a part of that. The Everyday Spirituality that merges the two gifts we have will help to make that happen. Here's a start for you. Today I received a copy of a new book from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press entitled "Everyday Spirituality", The book is from a series entitled A Guide to Jewish Practices and the main text is written by Rabbi David Teutsch the Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at RRC. T here is more commentary than text from a variety of contributors and in particular his dedication is what makes this fitting for all of you.

For Jewish spiritual seekers -
may they find what they seek
and bring their clarity and energy
to transforming our world.

Kaplan would be pleased! We find partnerships in our dual lives. Ways to combine the everyday and make it sacred and bring them together on our paths. The guide is available on the RRC website and if you have trouble finding it let me know and I'll make sure it makes it to your door.

Today is the 36th day of the counting of the Omer. We are doubly blessed by being Jews in freedom in America and although we might be frustrated by both if we bring them together and inside of us we will be richer for it.

Marilyn, proud of both

Monday, May 23, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 35 - Look Both Ways Before You Cross

Day two (aka 35) of getting our story together is a day of getting ready to leave the house. We live across from a Jr. High School. It has its moments. But every school day the crossing guards are there. First thing they do is to change our two way street to a one way street. Then they change the alley signs, then they put up temporary blockades for people who don't understand all the other indications. Then with the appropriate neon colored vests they get ready to protect and serve. It happens twice a day and no matter the weather they are there. In spite of all these careful preparations, in spite of the yelling and jumping up and down, the tickets issued there are still people who don't pay attention. So the ultimate message is no matter the precautions we still have to teach 'look both ways before you cross.'

Once a year when my brother was the 'patrol boy' and my mom was the 'patrol boy's mother' they had a luncheon to honor both mothers and patrol children and his job needed to be tended. I was the 'patrol boy' for a day. It was quite an honor. I took it very seriously and learned an important lesson. One - the patrol boy's belt was very cool. Two - people listen to you if you're wearing the right uniform. Three - there is more to looking both ways than to the right and the left. The important lesson is remembering the looking inside and remembering the lessons we were taught while learning to walk. The kids who were left untended on the streets didn't need us looking for them, they looked inside and remembered that lesson and more. Then before they leapt into the fray they got it themselves because the lesson was well learned. We hope.

What does this have to do with our story? The rules about how we live are engrained in us and hard to forget or ignore. The rule givers are the people we are remembering today and the ways they taught us whether related or not are good to honor on this 35th day of the Counting of the Omer. The older I get the longer I look both ways. I can hear the voices all the way from the desert telling me and mine to look out for the dinosaurs, the camels, the model T Fords and those other distractions.

Do not let us be distracted but cross carefully. Look both ways please!

marilyn, have you seen my patrol belt?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Counting of the Omer 5771 - Day 34 - Once Upon A You

First. A reminder about our journeys to date. Unlike taking an Omer of Barley to Jerusalem each day of the Count we are taking something different on a trip to make our personal stories stronger and more grounded and hopefully even healthier than they already are - we are taking ourselves. During the last 33 days there have been writings to connect you to memory links via photos, Torah, childhood memories, stories, and daily reports. Snippets of life. Now it is time to narrow the path to your story in some organized fashion. Beginning, middle, and on!

During the course of the next 15 days I'd like you to think about the basic outline of your story starting from the beginning. We will take steps along the way to add parts and because we all were born at different times and are at different phases in our lives there might be some that don't fit your profile. As always I'd like to connect you to your surroundings with the information that is closest to me - mine - and as always I'd like you to convert it to your own lives. And as always the spiritual parts will be very important.

This is where we should start: The beginning. I have no memory of that very start and imagine that most of you don't either. So what's the first thing that clearly comes to mind. A little table in the kitchen of the one bedroom apartment we lived in painted red that could only fit two little people - me and my brother. As if it were yesterday. My first secular memory. My first Jewish memory, sort of, was the Christmas Day that Phillip Lewin dressed as Santa knocked on our apartment door. He was the furrier who lived across the hall and the Santa costume was elegant. Scared us half to death - we ran and hid under the living room chair. The next week, when Religious School started we joined Temple Emanuel. The beginning.

Santa Claus will always be part of my Jewish journey. In December when there are multiple Santas I get multiple beginnings for my Jewish journey.

Today is the 34th day of the Counting of the Omer and the beginning.

I've always loved the color red. marilyn

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Little Schmaltz and Brisket

We may be weeks past Passover, but for Jews who love food, it's never the wrong time of year to talk about brisket and chicken fat.

My friend Nina Barrett, a James Beard-nominated food reporter for WBEZ and Evanston resident, interviewed Ina of Ina's Kitchen last week to look at the uses for chicken fat that you may never have thought about before. In 2008, she spoke with Rabbi Knobel to get his take on brisket.

Have a listen!

Getting Schmaltzy
May 2011

Battle of the Briskets
April 2008

Monday, May 9, 2011

Beth Emet Oozes Talent

For Two Consecutive Weekends

Not only does Beth Emet have talent from the inside out, the congregation sure knows how to attract it from the outside in.

On April 30th, the sanctuary and Weiner Room were transformed into Beth Emet Bistro and the bima was thick with talent. There was Gilbert & Sullivan, original piano and guitar songs, a three-part harmonic opera, guitar, voice and saxophone solos, a hypnotist, a piano duet, belly dancing, and a guitar-mandolin-fiddle-voice band was born (and recently played a local coffeehouse.) Ticket sales, a cash bar, a silent auction and our hosts Mark Caro and Mary Dixon helped Beth Emet raised some money as well as a few glasses to cheer the talent on. The evening was topped off by an inspirational drum solo by the Grammy-winning Paul Wertico. Judges were Elaine Knobel and Andy Shaw.

First prize was well earned by 12-year-old Rena Newman.

Here is a taste of Rena’s talent, singing a Beatles tune with her father Dave Newman:


The following weekend, the same space where we pray each week became an intimate nightclub setting featuring improvisational harmonica and piano from Howard Levy and friends. This time, the bima was crowded with drums, a bass, a guitar, microphones, two pianos and a whole lot of harmonicas. Howard Levy, who, with Cantor Arik Luck, took Jewish music based on Mi Sinai themes including Kol Nidre, Oseh Shalom and several prayers from the high holidays played it and sang it like none of us have ever heard it played before and we will never forget.

To give you a taste, here is Howard Levy transforming “Modim” with our former Cantor Jeff Klepper in 1995 (not at Beth Emet)


Side note:

Off site, but not too far from the bima, during the weekend of April 30th, an entirely new generation of talented Beth Emet kids were knocking the musical “Hairspray” out of the park at Evanston Township High School. Some of the Beth Emet kids included Ben Nidenberg, Leah Chernoff, Max and Daniel Antman and Oliver Manheim.