#BlogElul 1 – The Past in the Present

Giving credit where credit is due:  August 19th began the Jewish month of Elul - a time for deep reflection before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Two of the blogs I follow (and undoubtedly more) have begun to post daily using a list created by another blogger that has a specific topic for each day of the month of Elul. Click here to see the list and follow the author’s blog.

I’ve always loved this time of year. Advertising circulars that urged us to buy swimsuits, sandals, and beach chairs have given way to Sunday morning newspapers filled with ads for pencils, pens, and notebook paper. Store shelves once lined with sand buckets and shovels are now filled with binders and folders carrying pictures of the latest television show or singer (I guess Pee-Chee folders aren’t all the rage anymore). Children, teens, and adults return to school, the earth returns to its natural time, and I return to a place I’ve been only twice before.

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, this time of year held no real significance. Easter had come and gone and Thanksgiving and Christmas were soon to be. There was a chill in the air (in the small town in Iowa where I grew up) and walking down the tree-lined street in front of Corpus Christi Catholic Church/School  I could smell the onset of Fall. Soon, my classmates and I would return to our assigned seats in the church and attend daily Mass where Sister looked on making sure we weren’t talking, laughing, or passing notes. What Sister didn’t realize was that a too-large-for-her-age 4th grade girl with a red and white checkered book bag sat in the fifth pew from the front, worried that although she prayed the prayers she had memorized and attended Mass daily and on Sundays she was frightened and confused as to why she wasn’t able to feel the presence of God in her heart or her soul.

For me, discovering Judaism was connecting with the God I so desperately wanted to feel when I was a child. The pages of the Torah, the stories of our Sages, and the ritual of our liturgy reach out to my soul and cause my heart to feel a happiness that becomes evident on my face and in my words and although I experience Judaism in many ways, I do so especially as I step through the gates of Elul. As I begin my journey I not only return to a time when I first discovered my connection with God, but I look to the future and reflect on the ways in which the connection can become stronger.

I’ve always loved this time of year and now that I am a member of the People of Israel, I have another reason to look forward to the onset of Fall. During this time of new pencils, blank notebook paper, and fresh folders I oftentimes remember the too-large-for-her-age 4th grader with the red and white checkered book bag and I return to my place in the fifth row from the front. However, I am no longer a scared child so desperately trying to feel the presence of God. Instead I am a Jew who, for the third time, is returning to the beginning of the road that is Elul.

The Long Goodbye, Part II

One year and six months. That’s how long I’ve had to say goodbye. One year and six months. But instead of saying goodbye, I’ve fooled myself into thinking this day would never come.  And yet here it is.

Tonight, I will stand with the rest of my community as the Rabbi that founded our shul leads his final Shabbat service as our “official” Rabbi. After 36 years. He will, for the last time, share the bimah with his daughter (also a Rabbi) whom I said goodbye to last year and they will both lead us in prayer, she with music sung from her soul and he with words spoken from his heart.

I wasn’t one of the founding members of the shul and I didn’t help get things off the ground but I feel connected to the Rabbi as though I had. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand unless one has taken the journey of conversion him/herself and although my perspective of Rabbi E is somewhat different, it is seared into my heart and my soul and will remain with me forever.

You see, Rabbi E is my Rabbi. He taught me the academics of Judaism. He allowed me to ask questions, make comments, and be enthused about things that I found fascinating. As I sat in the Social Hall of another shul, Rabbi E stood in front of a room full of students (undoubtedly for at least the 100th time) and showed me that it was okay to be excited about learning and when I needed a new Rabbi to sponsor me through the conversion process, Rabbi E agreed to the task.

Rabbi E is my Rabbi because after inviting me to his shul for the first time, he sought me out after services and made sure I was introduced to the individual in charge of those going through the conversion process. He periodically came by during the oneg and asked how I was doing and as I was leaving, he went to his study (leaving his community for a short time) to retrieve his date book, solidifying for me that this leader of the Jewish community actually wanted to sponsor me – I mean, he really did!

Rabbi E is my Rabbi because during the time he and I studied together, he taught me that the Jewish Sages used their intellect to become closer to God and I could use mine in the same way. He allowed me to share my thoughts about God, not just my feelings about God. He learned about my family, my soon-to-be former faith, and my non-Jewish spouse and he listened when I told him why I wanted to become a Jew.

Rabbi E is my Rabbi because he stood next to me on the bimah one brisk evening in April and he officially welcomed me into the People of Israel. He took the Torah from the Ark and placed it in my arms, chanting with me as I sang the Shema for the first time as a Jew.

So although it may sound selfish, Rabbi E is my Rabbi because I could not have become a Jew without him. The journey toward conversion is both a shared experience and a personal experience and it is a journey that must be taken with a Rabbi that one trusts completely. I can’t imagine having traveled that journey with anyone other than Rabbi E.

One year and six months ago I learned my Rabbi was retiring and tonight I will face that reality. One year and six months is a long time to say goodbye, but nowhere near long enough.

 

The Meaning of MY Life?

“[One] must fill [one's] life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning.”

I stumbled upon this quote, taken from Chaim Potok’s brilliant masterpiece, “The Chosen,” as I pursued the Internet and as I sat at my computer, I began to cry. Potok, in his simple yet eloquent way, articulated beautifully what I’ve been feeling for months.

Let me be clear - I’m not questioning my faith or my marriage. Judaism truly gives my soul purpose and I love my wife with all my heart. The “meaning” that I’ve been so desperately trying to discover in my life is something outside of the things I know to be true (both my faith and my marriage), something that will challenge my mind and cause my heart to dance and while there are times I believe I’ve found the elusive “meaning,” there are times when the “hard work” involved  is greater than my body can withstand.

Since this past summer, I’ve had trouble with my knees. Initially, my right knee was periodically sore and a prescription anti-inflammatory all but made the problem disappear. Unfortunately, a nasty fall tore the meniscus in my left knee and left me facing surgery in August. After a series of MRIs and x-rays and despite what turned out to be unnecessary surgery I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis, an extremely painful condition that has left both my knees without cartilage and made knee-replacement surgery an absolute necessity. However, before a surgeon will agree to the surgery, I must lose at least 20% of my body weight which in-and-of-itself is a tremendous struggle for me.

The pain I experience is constant and is currently controlled with a narcotic pain-reliever. I will not (and legally can’t) drive and/or function while taking the drug so throughout the day I make do with Tylenol and walking very deliberately and very slowly. Fortunately, my insurance company finally authorized a series of three injections (directly into my knee) of a drug called Orthovisc that will hopefully surround my knees with a gel-like fluid, easing the pain I experience (the first injection was painful and after nearly a week, I’m still sore but can walk slightly better; injection number two is this Friday).

What does this have to do with finding “meaning?” It complicates the hard work. It’s all I can think about. It creates a cloak of depression that acts as a barrier between what I am physically able to do and the things I know I should do to help me achieve my goals. It infiltrates my thought process and makes concentration an exercise in futility. And it keeps me from focusing on the things that, at 50, I should be focused on.  Instead of working at tasks that give my life “meaning,” I work at making it through the day so I can come home, take a pill, and stop hurting.

In an odd way, Potok’s words give me a sense of hope. Something tells me that if I am able to endure my current physical challenges, I have the capacity to one day work hard enough to indeed fill MY life with the “meaning” I not only want but so desperately need.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

I will not say that I can understand his pain. What happened in his life was both shocking and completely unexpected. And he has every right to be devastated. That being said…

I find myself infuriated by his own exploitation of what occurred. The rush to engage the swarm of reporters that seem to follow his every move. The strategically placed paraphernalia. The inflammatory remarks meant to illicit sympathy and incite protest.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech but before I can feel confident in drawing a conclusion, I need to know that I’ve gathered as many facts as possible. Despite what others believe, the various media outlets are NOT aware of all the facts and spin most of what they say/write toward one bias or another. News broadcasts have become little more than tabloid television, capitalizing on another human being’s pain, suffering, misfortune, or misery and society is ready to watch and listen to every horrible moment, unable to look away. He clearly understands this and will announce that he’s simply executing his “freedom of speech.”

Speaking from all-to-real and very unfortunate experience, I’ve found that it’s literally impossible to make an informed decision based on what one sees/hears/reads on television, the radio, or the newspaper.

Although it’s tempting, don’t believe everything you hear. The results will be disastrous if you do.

Nine Years?

 

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A lot has changed in my life over the past nine years. I’ve earned a Master’s Degree, become a Jew, buried my Dad, had weight-loss surgery, said goodbye to friends that didn’t support me and said thank you to those that did, bought the house I grew up in, got married (although the State of California will deny this), and soon I’ll say hello to 50. Despite all I’ve done, there’s one thing I haven’t done – talk to my Mom.

Nine years ago today, September 6th, 2002, my Mom lost her fight with breast cancer. I watched the essence of who she was leave her thin, frail, body behind to enter a space or time or place where pain is non-existent and worry is no more. I often think of that moment and feel thankful that I was there as she passed from one life to the next. I know it’s not for me to understand what happens after death but I truly hope that every dream she had somehow, in some way, shape, or form, came true. 

At her memorial service, I played the song, “For a Dancer,” by Jackson Browne (I’ve included a YouTube link above and hopefully it works because I’ve not tried it before)because the melody moves me and the words describe many of the feelings I have about not only her death, but death in general. When I listen to the song, I can sometimes hear her voice telling me what to do or how to dress or what to say. I never thought I’d miss that voice, but I do.

I miss you, Mom.

Zichrono Livracha

A Day for Remembering

Five years ago today, August 24, 2006, my Dad died. Because I am a Jew, I especially remember my Father today on his Yahrzeit (Yiddish, meaning “a year’s time”). Of the several occasions throughout the Jewish year that the dead are memorialized, the Yahrzeit is the most significant and while, according to tradition my Father’s yahrzeit is to be observed according to the Jewish calendar, because my Father was not Jewish, I choose to observe his yahrzeit as it falls on the secular calendar.

In the 16th century code of Jewish law known as the Shulhan Arukh (which is literally translated as “set table”) Joseph Caro writes, “One should not grieve too much for the dead and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else.” Although I don’t “grieve excessively,” I often grieve for “someone else” and on this day set aside to remember my Dad, the “someone else” I grieve for is me. 

After I light a candle and recite Kaddish, I begin what will be a day filled with memories of my Dad. The things he taught me and the things he didn’t. The rollercoaster that was my relationship with him. His weathered skin and tired eyes. The deafening silence of the look on his face as he sat in the back yard, petting the dog, smoking a cigarette, and drinking his 20th cup of coffee. The way he lived and the way he died.    

But on this day of remembering I also find myself questioning. What would my Dad be like today? Had he left the hospital would he have looked at life differently? Would he have succeeded in his millionth attempt to quit smoking? Would he have grown to like my sister’s boyfriend? Would he, unable to shoulder the ache of losing his wife of nearly 45 years, simply have given up?

Today more than any other, I seem to sense  his spirit accompany me as I go about my daily tasks. I can almost smell the scent of Old Spice mixed with cigarette smoke and hear the heels of his boots as he walks down the hallway toward the front door. He is somehow here, looking over my shoulder, offering suggestions on what book I should read next or how to set the sprinkler so it reaches every corner of the lawn in one pass. He sits next to me in the car reminding me to “slow down and drive safely,” and he gets irritated when a clerk at the drugstore takes more than a minute to fill my prescription.

As the day continues, I not only remember but I also grieve. Grieve for the loss of his presence in my life. Grieve for the fact that, in two short months, he won’t be there as I turn 50. Grieve that he won’t be there waiting as the surgeon fixes my bad knee. Grieve that he wasn’t there as I received my graduate degree and grieve that I turned down the opportunity (more than once) to take a ride on the back of his motorcycle.

Today, I remember my Dad and for a short time, I grieve for myself. I miss you, Dad, and sometimes I just can’t believe that you’re really gone.

I love you.

Zichrono Livracha

When It’s All Just Too Much

As I begin this post, I notice the time – 11:08 pm. Shabbat has been over for several hours and a “new” week has officially begun. I should be filled with anticipation, excitement, and wonder at what this week will bring but if I’m to be completely honest, all I feel is fear.

When my Mom, z”l, used to tell me that if I “had my health I would have everything,” I used to sigh heavily (the way teenagers do) and say, “Mommm! You say that all the time!” I knew she had breast cancer but my teen-aged mind wasn’t able to comprehend what that really meant – the severe sun-burn-like redness the replaced her breasts, the nausea and vomiting brought on by chemo, and the effort it took for her just to do the dishes. Looking back, I imagine she was so concerned about my health because she had lost hers and I seemed to take mine for granted.

Although I don’t have breast cancer and can’t imagine what my Mom went through, I do understand what she meant about “having” my health. For the past few months my body has begun to exact revenge for the years and years of abuse I’ve put it through. The migraines have been severe and closer together, the flu struck quickly and violently, and my knees are damaged to the point of requiring surgery. It is painful to perform the normal household chores that need to get done and the longer I put them off, the more overwhelming they become. Emotionally, I seem to spiral downward until I’m so upset that I begin to cry when friends are unable to meet for dinner.

So as a new week dawns, I find myself asking if this is what my life beyond 50 will become. And I’m terrified that the answer is “yes.” Cognitively, I understand that  things will get better. The surgery for my knee is scheduled for August 31st and the orthopedic surgeon assures me the problem I have will no longer be an issue. I trust that the small pink pills I take twice a day are having some kind of positive effect on my brain, and I know that as my body begins to heal I’ll begin to feel better emotionally. Unfortunately, feelings aren’t always rational and right now, mine are whispering in my ear that the way I feel today is the way I’m going to feel from now on.

It’s been over an hour since I began this post and I am physically and emotionally tired. The whispers in my ear have become shouts and I know that before long they will become deafening. At the same time, I know that once I am in bed and have recited the Shema my mind will quiet and I will find the sleep my body craves and perhaps in the morning the fear I feel tonight will have somehow morphed into hope.

“Call My Dad…”

Author’s note: Thank you to Frume Sarah for her post last week that gave me the idea for my post today. Although born of what could have been a very serious (perhaps deadly) accident, a piece of her post touched me in a way I didn’t expect. Thanks, Frume Sarah, for once again inspiring me.

“Call my Dad.” After a nasty tumble last week at a roller skating rink, a fellow blogger asked her husband to contact her father to take her to the local emergency room. As she told the story of the fall and its aftermath, she continually mentioned her Dad and his care for her during their unexpected trip to the hospital and as I listened I began to think about my Dad (z”l) and the many times I said to myself (or someone else), “Call my Dad.”

 - Almost every Saturday night during high school I went with a group of friends to a near-by skating rink. There were two sessions, one from 6:00 to 9:00 and one from 9:00 to midnight. My Dad used to drop me off at 5:45 with the admonition, “I don’t want to get a call at 8:45….” Usually around 8:30 my friends would start discussing the possibility of staying until midnight and I found myself (against my better judgement) saying enthusiastically, “I’ll call my Dad,” secretly hoping he’d forgotten about his warning, yelled to me three hours earlier as I slammed the car door.

- At 17, my Dad allowed me to attend Halloween Haunt, a special event held at a local amusement park. People dressed as ghouls, zombies, vampires, and various monsters roamed the park and the normal docile rides were transformed into rides with names like, “The Tunnel of Terror,” or “Mazes of Mayhem.” The event went until 2:00 in the morning and my best friend’s Mom arrived to pick us up. Suddenly, her car sputtered and stalled and despite her best efforts the engine wouldn’t turn over. Getting out of the car, she looked at us and said, “I don’t know how we’re going to get home,” and in an instant I said, “Call my Dad!,” knowing that he’d be there in 30 minutes or so, adorned in a collared shirt and clean Levis to satisfy my Mom’s  worry that he “look nice for Sara’s friends.”

- When I summoned the courage to leave my physically abusive husband, the only thought I had was, “I have to call my Dad” because I knew he would help me gather my things, drive me “home,” and help me decide what to do next.

- Despite the fact that my Dad was not a mechanic, plumber, electrician, or tradesman of any kind, every time I had car trouble, water leaking from somewhere, an appliance that didn’t work, or anything I couldn’t figure out how to fix, I sighed and thought, “I guess I’ll have to call my Dad,” knowing that although he most likely couldn’t fix the problem, he would at least help me figure out who to call.

- While reading a book I knew he would appreciate, watching a TV show that we both liked, hearing a song on the radio that reminded me of him (usually something by Merle Haggard), or seeing a great play by the Chicago Bears (his favorite team), I’d say excitedly to my spouse, ” I HAVE to call my Dad,” hoping to hear a smile in his voice or listen to one of his tired, heard-it-a-million-times jokes.

- After nearly 45 years together, I watched as my Dad held her hand and said goodbye to my Mom and for a year or so after she died I made sure to call my Dad every day, just to make sure he was okay. 

- An hour or so after he died, when the nurse asked me about “arrangements,” I sat in the nearest chair and sobbed because for the first time in my life I knew I couldn’t call my Dad to ask him what to do.

Today, on a day when Father’s are celebrated and honored, I thought about my Dad and how much I miss him and I thought about the countless phone calls we shared, especially during the last years of his life. I thought about my fellow blogger and the experience she shared with her Dad after her frightening fall. And in the back of my mind as the day wore on, I wished that I could pick up the phone and call my Dad

Happy Father’s, Dad. I love you.

Zichrono Livracha.

 

Sara’s Not Laughing Right Now

I’m in a bad mood. It’s been a long day. I’m tired and should be in bed. Instead, I’m checking e-mails too late and trying to get caught up with the things I should have done yesterday.

The Incredible Hulk (when he was Bruce Banner and right before he “transformed” into the Hulk) used to say, “Don’t make me angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry.” To the author of an e-mail I received this evening I offer the same advice – don’t make me angry. Because despite the fact that I may appear to be lazy and undisciplined, I’m neither.  You may think I’m easily intimidated, but I’m not. And it might seem to you that I don’t really know what I’m talking about but I assure you, I’m quite smart. 

I can put up with a lot. Treat me badly – fine. I’ll let it go. Tell me you don’t like me very much? Great. I’ll apologize and walk away; hell, I’ll even try to avoid you. But DON’T tell me I don’t understand Judaism. You see, THAT makes me angry, and I guarantee, although you may not have seen it yet, you WON’T like me when I’m angry.

 

The Long Goodbye, Part I

Six months is a long time to say goodbye – or at least it seems like a long time. When I initially received the letter announcing that one of the Rabbis at my shul would be leaving in six months (and the other Rabbi in a year – but that’s another post), I was both surprised and saddened but I told myself that I’d have six months to get used to the idea. That first service after receiving the letter was tough – I had a hard time looking up from the Siddur and just hearing the Rabbi’s voice brought me to tears. Gradually, however, things got better. After all, I reasoned, six months was a long time. So, I put it out of my mind and continued on as if nothing had really changed – or was about to.

A week or so ago, reality began to seep back into my consciousness with the announcement of a going-away celebration. This was followed by a reminder that one of the Rabbi’s last services would be held just a few weeks from now. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of the fact that six long months had somehow become one very short month and now, I must begin to come to terms with the fact that before the “official” start of summer, the Rabbi will be gone.

I met Rabbi FS several years ago when I initially began the formal process for conversion. I was attending the required Introduction to Judaism class at a different synagogue and Rabbi FS was a substitute for the Rabbi that normally taught the class. It was a two-hour, one-time meeting and I remember thinking that besides having excellent teaching skills, Rabbi FS had something else that I felt “connected” to – a true passion for Judaism that expressed itself through both the forcefulness of the words and the animation of the facial expressions that radiated naturally from the Rabbi .  At the time, I couldn’t have known what the future had in store for my life or that this Rabbi would be a part of it.

The death of my Dad and the purchase of the house I grew up in brought me to the synagogue that I am now a member of. When I realized that Rabbi FS was one of two Rabbis at the shul, I was both surprised and delighted.  As I continued to move toward my conversion and got to know Rabbi FS I realized why, a few years before in that one Introduction to Judaism class,  I had felt a connection to the Rabbi. It was the passion.

For years, I had attempted to articulate to anyone that would listen why I felt so driven to study Judaism. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, each time I answered the question, “What’s your major?” I looked for a glimmer of understanding and recognition in the eyes of the person or persons staring back at me and for years I was met with the same puzzled, glazed look and the familiar refrain, “What are you going to do with that [degree]?” After the first conversation I had with the Rabbi, I knew I had found someone else that not only understood my passion but shared it as well. I no longer had to keep my excitement over a point made by  Robert Alter to  myself or hide my enthusiasm over discovering a brilliant Hebrew pun in Torah and through study, sermons, conversation, and written word, I was given the opportunity to learn from the Rabbi things I never imagined I was capable of learning.

It is simply impossible for me to convey, in one blog post, the impact Rabbi FS has made on my life and the loss I will feel after this incredible person has left. I know the Rabbi has touched each and every person at my shul and I know that the going-away celebrations and final service will be filled with people who love, respect, and will genuinely miss Rabbi FS. I know that the next few weeks will be an emotional whirlwind for the Rabbi and I know that out of the hundreds of members of my shul, I will get lost in the crowd. I knew, six months ago, that saying goodbye to Rabbi FS would be both logistically and emotionally difficult for me and for the last six months, I’ve been trying to figure out how I would do it. Sometime along the way, I began working on this post. 

Thank you, Rabbi, for what you’ve taught me about God and thank you for showing me what it means to be fully Jewish. Thank you for sharing your passion with me and thank you for allowing me to share my passion with you. Thank you for giving me the courage and confidence to do things I never thought I could (or would) do and thank you for helping me become a better person. Thank you for being uniquely and genuinely who you are and for being unafraid to show that person to those around you. And finally, thank you for changing my life in ways you will never know. Six months is a long time to say goodbye – but not nearly long enough.

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