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Healer of the Broken Hearted

 

We had a solidarity service at my synagogue last Sunday, in the aftermath of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Four synagogues came together in one building, and by the time Mom and I arrived, twenty minutes before the service started, there was no parking left. People had to stand along the sides of the sanctuary after all of the seats had been filled. The clergy of all four synagogues led the service, with readings by the rabbis and songs by the cantors. There was an enormous amount of crying, but I couldn’t cry. The music was beautiful. The presence of clergy from all of the local Christian denominations was meaningful (the local mosque was planning another service for the following day). But the words didn’t reach me. I just wanted to find comfort, and to feel something, but I couldn’t feel anything.

Maybe if I could have brought Cricket and Ellie with me, things would have been different; maybe if we didn’t have to feel such a sense of relief at seeing the police officers lined up in front of the synagogue to protect us; maybe if it were just small service, with my fellow congregants, on a Friday night. I don’t know. Maybe if there hadn’t been so much violence leading up to the shootings, with two black shoppers targeted in a supermarket, and pipe bombs in the mail, and church shootings, and terrorist attacks in other countries and in our own. We can barely breathe between horrific events, let alone mourn.

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We’re all exhausted.

I keep swinging between anger, disbelief, fear, and confusion. At the solidarity service at my synagogue, the focus was on taking action against guns, which of course I agree with, but I can’t see that going anywhere now, any more than it has every single time this issue has come up after mass shootings in the past few years. More than a few years now. We can vote, certainly. We can stand in solidarity with the other victims of mass shootings, and against racist and anti-Semitic violence. But then what?

It turns out that one of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life synagogue was also a Reconstructionist group, and they had celebrated Refugee Shabbat, as we did in my own synagogue, a few weeks ago. The shooter had found a list of the synagogues that participated in Refugee Shabbat, including my own, and that’s where he got the address for the Tree of Life synagogue, and that was the final straw in deciding which Jews to kill.

The subject of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has come up a number of times lately at my synagogue. There was actually an educational seminar about HIAS planned for Sunday. And then Saturday came, and a man decided to kill Jews at prayer, supposedly because Jews, through HIAS, are to blame for inviting refugees to “invade” our country. To be clear, HIAS does not choose who comes into the country, it works with the state department, along with many other organizations, to help new immigrants integrate into their new communities. If I had to leave my own country and seek safety elsewhere, I would like to believe that there would be an organization like HIAS there, to help me settle in and feel welcome.

One of the songs from the Solidarity Service on Sunday at my synagogue was “Healer of the Broken Hearted,” or in Hebrew, Harofei lishvurei lev. According to my rabbi, the image of a doctor in the Hebrew Bible always refers to God, mostly because every heroic role in the Hebrew Bible belongs to God, the ultimate multiple personality. But this is the image of God that I like best: the comforter, the healer, the one who sees that we are suffering and takes our pain seriously.

Healer of the broken hearted

            Binder of our wounds

            Counter of uncountable stars

            You know who we are

            Hallelujah.”

 

This week has felt strange: fragmented and confusing. I wanted to be at Synagogue, and I wanted to hide away at home. I needed to watch the news, and I hated to watch the news. And then there was a hashtag encouraging everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to come to Shabbat services. This week’s Friday night service at my synagogue was going to be a Family Service (kid-friendly, loud, and short), but I decided to go anyway. The sanctuary was packed again, and the music was great again, and the neighboring churches sent their clergy to add their words of support again, but it was more than that.

Maybe it was because a few more days had passed since the shootings, or because all of the children in the room changed the atmosphere in the room to something like joy. There was one little girl doing interpretive dance (including cartwheels and high kicks) down the far left aisle, and the five member kids’ choir remembered most of their songs, and the Bat Mitzvah girl ignored the tragedy in the air to celebrate her special day with her family. It didn’t hurt that there was cake after the service, with pink cupcakes and chocolate covered pretzels and an enormous amount of chocolate frosting.

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“Frosting?”

 

But, in the end, it’s always the music. On Friday nights at my synagogue we often exchange one of the traditional prayers (Ahavat Olam) for an alternative version, written by Rami Shapiro:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled

ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.

Even if we can’t envision God as the healer of our wounds, we have something more

concrete to rely on: community. We have the power to see each other, and heal each other. Among all of the roles we can play in each other’s lives, this is one of my favorites.

Hallelujah.

 

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Sleepaway Camp

 

It’s probably the heat that made me think of sleep away camp. I spent five summers in upstate New York, supposedly in the Berkshires, pretending it was cooler out of town. The memory that started the ball rolling was of Friday nights in the dining hall. The whole camp would eat together for that one meal, eating half-burned, half-raw, Kineret pre-frozen challahs, and singing Shabbat songs.

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“I could eat.”

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“Food? Where?”

Friday night to Saturday in camp was a big production. First, on Friday afternoons, we had to clean up the field in front of our bunks, then we had to clean our bunks, and then shower, and then dress up, in something other than shorts and t-shirts. All of the kids on A-side (ages 8-12) would go to one Shabbat service, and all of the kids on B-side (ages 12-16) would go to another, and then we came together for dinner in the dining hall, with all of the counselors, and visiting parents, and staff, and various random adults. And we would sing. The acoustics were glorious! And everyone joined in, even the coolest of the cool kids.

Friday night services at camp were a little awkward, because we were all dressed up and self-conscious and mixing with the other age groups with kids we didn’t know as well. And it was formal and serious, something else we weren’t used to. But once we got into the dining hall something changed. Everyone knows food. We sat by bunk, with our counselors, and listened to the noise level grow as everyone else entered the building. Then we went up to the front tables to pick up extra challah and extra chicken and potatoes. And once we finished eating, and cleaned our tables, we started singing Friday night songs, and even if you didn’t know what the words meant, the huge sound of clapping hands and stomping feet pulled everyone along. There were call and response songs, and bouncy songs, and slow, sweet songs.

It was perfect. I could forget for a moment about the cool kids at the next table who wouldn’t even deign to make eye contact with me, and just sing and feel connected.

After dinner we went off by age groups, and the night dwindled down, and we returned to our bunks in the dark, with only the bathroom lights to guide us (because we weren’t supposed to touch the light switches until the Sabbath ended).

Saturday was taken up with prayer, and some sort of “meaningful” activity, or napping. We ate cold cuts for lunch, and macaroni salad, and egg salad, and Butterscotch pudding for dinner (because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).

On Sunday morning, we went back to the normal pace of life. We went to prayer services every morning, back in our shorts and t-shirts, and thinking about other things. We had to clean our bunks, and go to swim lessons, and play some god awful sport in the hot sun, and paste pompoms on Styrofoam cups or some such thing.

There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.

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My Delilah, looking much more serious than she really was.

I’ve always felt like there was a novel in those five years of camp, or a memoir, or something. But then, I tend to think everything belongs in a book, if it happened to me.

Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.

The memories come back in sharp bursts: like the campout on the hill; and the girl who ran through a glass door; and the girl who was stung by 39 wasps; Color War, when my bunk was split down the middle, and my counselor was on the opposite team; the Violent Femmes singing A Blister in the Sun; sitting on the stone steps by the lake, and singing Little Boy Blue and The Man in the Moon; or lining up in the community building to play Human Foosball.

In a way I felt outside of my body even when it was all happening the first time around, and not just now as I look back and try to narrate.

A lot of time at camp was spent keeping us busy, and keeping us Jewish, rather than doing things that actually interested me. There was no writing class, or voice, or dance, or acting class. I had no TV, or access to a phone. We had one musical show per year, per age group, and we had to audition, so sometimes I got a role, and sometimes I didn’t. We went swimming twice a day, and chose between aerobics, or softball, or basketball, or soccer for sports. In the afternoons there was woodworking, or radio, or arts and crafts, or photography, or nature, and I wasn’t much good at any of it.

But Friday night was my night. I didn’t feel left out, or weird, on Friday night. Everyone sang. Everyone was there, and I fit in.

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Just like baby Cricket,

Ellie between two beds

and not-so-baby Ellie.

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.

Candle Lighting

 

When we first moved into the new apartment, back in May of 2013, I promised myself a set of candle sticks for Friday night candle lighting. Usually I’m at synagogue for Friday night services and they light Shabbat candles for us there, but I thought it would be a milestone to light my own candles again.

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

I looked in a few brick and mortar stores, while we were looking for other things we needed, like shelving and couches and tables and other little things like that. But I couldn’t find anything. The ensuing online search was extensive, but I eventually found a set of candlesticks that I liked very much. And then I found out that the online store that advertised the special candlesticks had gone out of business, just leaving the web page up to taunt me. When the special candlesticks disappeared, I lost my nerve.

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

I used to be clumsy, or distracted, and sometimes I still am. I have memories of dropping lit matches into full garbage cans, dropping lit candles onto counter tops, setting tablecloths on fire, etc. My fingers would get numb and shaky in the presence of fire, and not act the way I’d trained them to.

Don't worry, that's just my house burning down.

Don’t worry, that’s just my house burning down.

I used to light the Shabbat candles in our house growing up. I’m not sure why my mom didn’t want to light the candles, maybe it was her way of rebelling against my father’s obsession with becoming more and more religious. So it became my job, and I didn’t feel like I could say no.

The fat white Shabbat candles never sat still in their candle holders, so I had to melt the bottoms a bit to make them stick in place. Lighting the wooden matches always made me anxious. If the strip on the box had started to wear down, because we got those huge boxes instead of pocket sized, I’d have to light the candle from the stove, and then worry about doing something ritually wrong by turning off the flame on the stove after the official Shabbat candles were lit.

I hated that fear of doing it wrong. I hated feeling like someone was watching me, just waiting to yell “Gotcha!”

There’s something universal about candles, in all religions, despite electric light being ubiquitous. The flickering, temperamental quality of candle light, or the heat or temporariness of it, seems to add meaning. The Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop doing things the way you always do them and be more conscious and aware, of your family, of nature, of love and joy. It’s a time to remind yourself that there’s more to life than work. I wonder if the flame of the candles is, in part, a symbol of how dangerous that rest day maybe be, or may feel, when you stop rushing around and start to really experience your life. There are a lot of shadows hiding behind our busy lives, and the light of the candles may illuminate them in a way we are afraid to face.

If I could make this ritual work for me, I’d want to light four candles: one for me, one for Mom, and one for each of the dogs. But I keep seeing the dogs getting burned and the apartment going up in flames.

There’s a custom in orthodox Jewish homes, and maybe in more liberal Jewish homes now too, of blessing each child on Friday night as part of the ritual of the Sabbath. I knew a family with six kids who did this, and it was a lovely thing to see. Each child went up to their father, in age order, and he closed his eyes and put his hands over the child’s head and said a blessing, including a special wish for each child.

Maybe I could adapt this ritual for my dogs, instead of doing candle lighting, and come up with a prayer to say for them once a week. Just the act of resting hands on their heads would have a calming effect. I could wish them good sleep, good poops, and exciting things to sniff.

"Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me." (That would be Cricket.)

“Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me.” (That would be Cricket, on the right.)

And eventually, maybe, I’ll find another set of candle sticks that captures my imagination and help me over the hump. And maybe a fire retardant table cloth to put under them wouldn’t hurt.