Author Archives: Hazzan Jesse Holzer
Our lives are marred by inconsistencies. Some of us are formulaic, by-the-book people. Others, we march to the beat of our own drum. Neither type of person escapes the truth that we inhabit a world filled with both uncertainty and order. Life is complex. While I may not agree, I have still found common ground with those who think Israel is an apartheid state. I have found common ground with those who demonize liberals.
I am constantly uncomfortable. I resist posting responses or sharing articles out of fear. Sometimes I feel that liking a status is my form of silent rebellion. This isn’t a healthy way to live. And so today I’ll be as honest as I can be about the complexities and inconsistencies that I see layering on top of one another.
During the 10 days of repentance, I look to two distinct lessons of this season: God is ultimate judge; and the idea of cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul. We are reminded that we should not judge others, especially if we have not sat in their place. Maybe we can look inward before expressing outwardly. Maybe we can see that those who protest do so not out of hate. We have professional football players kneeling during the national anthem—intently, with purpose. Not lying down, or spitting on the ground, or burning a flag. Kneeling intently, with purpose; with deep love of this country. When you love someone, you expect more of them; you challenge them. Some will use this platform to expect more of our country.
We have the right to feel offended, and we have the right to feel proud. And we have right to be curious about motivations. There is nuance to this movement.
As Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, put it: “What Colin and Eli [Harold] and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we’re doing is un-American. Because it’s not. It’s completely American.” (Update: Reid expands on his intentions here)
There is a debate about standing or sitting for the Shema prayer. Many Reform congregations stand for the Shema because standing signifies its importance. Most Conservative and Orthodox congregations sit because of a tradition that one sits as if in chevruta (study partnership) when reciting words of Torah. Nuance. There is meaning in both choreographies, but one has to ask the “why” to further your own informed perspective and create a layer of respect for the other practice.
And while we debate a choreographic move, Colin Kaepernick has followed up on his symbolic gesture with action—he’s done a lot of community outreach and philanthropic work in the past year, so much so that he was honored a few weeks ago by the NFL Players Association.
To those who wonder about the “right time and place” of the protest, I have begun my own research into the Star Spangled Banner, and would like to share a few thoughts. The anthem is a symbol of patriotism, of our love and respect for our military, and of those who have served our country. That’s what it means to many, but not all.
Francis Scott Key, the author of the anthem and District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833–1840, defended slavery (as a slave owner) by attacking the abolitionist movement. A few highlighted articles:
The anthem’s third stanza (of four) speaks about slavery. And yet, during Civil War, the Star Spangled Banner was an anthem for Union troops. Talk about confusing. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors.
It’s hard to unpack the author from the message, even if the message became a rallying cry for the opposing team. The (first verse only of the) Star Spangled Banner became our national anthem in 1931. It has been standard to play the anthem before sporting events since World War II. Its original use at sporting events is undeniably bound to our honoring of the military.
And yet, Jackie Robinson spoke about playing in his first World Series game, “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion…As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
It was only recently, in 2009, that NFL players came out to the field during the national anthem. Soon thereafter, the United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard [paid] $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment budget-line items.
The anthem protest controversy is what is making headlines in a sport plagued by issues regarding domestic violence and other criminal offences, a sport that has widespread concussion issues. Yet for all the claims that the players are entitled rich little kids, this is a sport in which many of its players would be otherwise unrecognizable without a jersey number, where players wear helmets covering their faces and who are looking for a time and space for introspection as well as action. This is a sport that since 2008, the average career across all positions is only 2.66 years, where bad financial advice often leads to bankruptcy. The lifespan of a playing career and a social impact career is shorter than most realize.
At the end of the day, the NFL is a private business. The owners have expressed their views just as owners of other enterprises share their own views on issues of the day. One can boycott Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby or Target or the NFL. Whatever path you do take, I hope it’s one filled with openness to learning and building together. That message was clear from owners and players alike this past weekend.
Praying to God is often in the polarities of life—in the comings and goings, at the rise of a new day and in the tucking in at night. We pray before games—for success in our craft, in triumphing over life’s challenges. We pray following games. “God is good,” the athlete proclaims after scoring the winning touchdown.
I pray for a time when I won’t open up my social media feeds to find friends judging others, friends combatting fear. I pray that I find this not out of a skewed friendship list or algorithm, but because I hope that the weight has been lifted by the many acts of kindness and moments of introspection. This won’t happen tomorrow, or the day after. Pain and fear will unfortunately always exist, but it is how we show support and love for one another and how we fight for positive change that lessens the hurt and the sorrow.
I am uncomfortable. I am searching for answers. When I prostrate to the floor during the apex of our Yom Kippur service, I will commit myself to being better in the year ahead. I will commit myself not to finding the answers, but to continuing the search for good throughout the world. And I commit to listening, being patient when patience is required, and acting when action is necessary. May we bring light and understanding in the year ahead.
We have a lot of sports metaphors in this week’s parsha. First and foremost we have the description of the Red Heifer, which happens to have been my high school mascot (going 20 years strong). We talk about animal sacrifice- one key animal is the GOAT, or for sports enthusiasts, the “Greatest of of All Time”; Moses “hitting the rock” sounds like either a curling play or something that happened in the WWE. Maybe the greatest sports pun of our torah portion is the story of those who have touched a dead body, aka those who have been “near death.” The torah states that these individuals are anointed with fresh water from a vessel” – Mayim chaim el kelly. This could be in reference to the “near death” experience the Buffalo Bills had 24 years ago, when second-string signal caller Frank Reich, subbing for an injured Jim Kelly, led The “Greatest Comeback in NFL History”, as the Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point deficit, near death, to defeat the Houston Oilers in their 1993 playoff matchup.
So sports, therefore, become a natural connector to the stories of the bible. For some, sports have a more accessible set of liturgy- the rules of the games are fairly straightforward (and we know why they exist), We are mesmerized by the individual feats. We kvell in success and are filled with tzuris in times of great angst. Above all, we are moved by the storylines that trascend the Xs and Os of a game.
I grew up hearing “Havlicek stealing the ball“, watching old footage of Flutie’s Hail Mary and Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair; seeing Bobby Ohr fly through the air. THat’s Boston for you. These were photographs on a wall that told a story of our people. But I didn’t live through them. I more vividly remember Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook’s Hail Mary connection propelling Colorado over Michigan, Joe Carter’s series clinching home run for the Toronto Blue Jays, Bryce Drew’s miracle shot versus Ole Miss, and Brett Hull’s controversial series clincher for the Dallas Stars. Removed from earlier great moments, The winning guarantee was not Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III decree but Mark Messier’s Stanley Cup finals pledge.
Each of these moments de-emphasize the journey, focusing on those final few seconds. How we perform in the clutch final two minutes is somehow more heroic than how we perform for the first 46. A horrific display of athletic talent can be redeemed through one magical moment that we lift up higher than the sum of the work. And vice versa, a glorious career may be clouded by not having won the big game.
This past Super Bowl, a tale of two halves, is a perfect example. A few weeks ago, my family visited Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios. While participating in the Frozen Sing-A-Long, one of the actors made an Atlanta Falcon’s joke, referencing “28-3”, the lead the Falcons had over the New England Patriots. For Patriots fans, the 28-3 stat line references the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, not how poorly they played for most of the game. For Falcons fans, it reflects a failure to close out the game rather than how they outperformed the Patriots in every way for the earlier parts of the game. How we do in the big moment seems to matter so much more.
Moses’ big moment comes in this torah portion. He’s almost at the finish line. After hearing the complaints of the Israelite people for yet another time, Moses proclaims
“Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (NUmbers 20:10-11)
The story focuses on disobeying God’s command to speak to the rock. But we’ve been here before. In Exodus 17, the people complain, and God instructs Moses to hit the rock; out came the water. Moses ignored God’s new decree because he knew what worked the first time. He took the shortcut. But something else changed between the two narratives. Moses rebukes the people- “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” reminds me of Russell Crowe’s line from the movie Gladiator:” Are you not entertained?”
Rashi and Ramban debate the sin of Moses. One says it was the act of striking the rock, the other saying it was this line, “Listen you rebels” Yet they are intertwined. The Kedushat Levi contends that it is a total lack of patience with the people that led Moses to sell them sort, rather than uplifting the people. He insists that ordinary people can and indeed must be raised to the highest rung.
For my own sensibilities, more than the clutch playoff performance, I am often moved by the mundane sports moment that suddenly becomes extraordinary. A preliminary race, a regular season game, takes on new meaning.
As the Baseball Hall of Fame puts it:
It was July 1, 1945 (72 years ago today) – less than eight weeks after Germany’s surrender ended the European war and a little more than two months until the end of the battle in the Pacific. Hank Greenberg, who entered the Army Air Corps four years earlier in May of 1941, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 1 of a Tigers vs. A’s doubleheader. It was his first game in the majors since his discharge two weeks prior, and Greenberg was already 0-for-3.
No one – not even the two-time American League MVP himself – knew for sure if a player could return from war and regain his previous form.
But with one swing – a blow that sailed into the left-field stands at Briggs Stadium and electrified the crowd of 47,729 fans – Greenberg answered the all the questions.
The heroes of baseball were on their way home.
An ordinary game, an ordinary moment, became extraordinary. Greenberg, not only as a baseball star, but a Jewish baseball star, returning from the atrocities of WWII to lift up an ordinary July 1 day.
Another favorite sports moment comes from Barcelona, 1992. Sprinter Derek Redmond blows out his hamstring in the semifinal heat of the 400meters. Grimacing from the pain, Redmond hobbles on one leg as he makes the turn around the track, determined to finish the race. His father jumps his way through security to the track, helping his son finish the race with arms draped around one another. It becomes a symbol of determination, of the love a father has for a son, of perseverance through adversity.
A few years ago, a number of high school and collegiate videos went viral for showcasing an opponent helping out the other side. These are the examples of greatness when you least expect it. A simple act of sportsmanship, like carrying your opponent around the base path after they’ve torn their ACL, carrying your teammate across the finish line, we remember those moments long after you remember the rest of the stat sheet. These sports moments are a manifestation of the credo to have faith in people.
The ordinary becoming the extraordinary combats our highlighting of the failures when we expect greatness. But for every Lance Armstrong or Ben Johnson, there is a Derek Redmond to lift us up. For every person who shaves points and cuts corners, we have teammates who carry their fallen friend on their backs.
We are people of the book- Am Hasefer. The book, the torah, is a collection of laws, of does and don’ts. But it is also a parable, a collection of stories. Even this week’s torah portion, Chukat, taken from the root “Khok” (meaning law), we are driven to the narrative rather than the list of instructions. And so if we are truly a people of the book, we are also bound by the stories we read, the insights gleaned. We learn from Moses not only from his great leadership, but from the times when he comes up short. We learn that Moses is punished not only for his lack of faith in God’s instruction, but more importantly, his lack of faith in his people. We glorify the greatest feats, but we must remind ourselves that the ordinary can become extraordinary through faith in another. In believing in one another, our moments on this earth become more memorable; our marks more indelible than we could have ever imagined.
Hazzan Holzer’s Top 10 Biblical Sports Comparisons
- Mr. October = Kohein Gadol, The high priest (High Holidays, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah)
- Kerri Strug (she scored a perfect 10) = Minyan of a routine
- Miracle on Ice = defeating the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds
- Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run = teaches that you can really learn all of Jewish thought and practice “on one foot”
- Tebow’s “The Promise” = Ruth’s “The Promise” to Naomi
- Buster Douglass vs. Mike Tyson = David vs. Goliath
- Broadway Joe’s Super Bowl III guarantee = God’s decree that Abraham’s decendants will be as numerous as the stars
- UCONN women’s basketball 111 game winning streak = “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights”
- Bill Buckner = the scapegoat (or the sacrificial lamb)
- Former Jaguars GM Gene Smith = one of the 10 scouts who described the land as being filled with giants while we were grasshoppers
Excerpts from sermon delivered June 17, 2017
Each of us is tasked to scout into the “Promised land” for all who make up our tribe. How we perceive of what we are seeing and the impactful words we use to describe these moments, shape our reality moving forward.
The scouts of Shelach Lecha were seeking out, exploring something new. They were in search of a way to access this new frontier. But they got scared. The 10 Spies weren’t lying- they reported an accurate depiction of the land, but they saw themselves as grasshoppers, the text states
“and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13;33)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught
‘You are certainly permitted to say that you feel like a grasshopper in your own eyes. But what right do you have to imagine how you appear to someone else? To them, you might have appeared as angels.”
Imagine you invite a friend to synagogue for the very first time. Or maybe someone visiting for a world religion class. If you had to pick one ritual experience that you might consider a “weird moment in judaism” to be their first exposure to Jewish communal practice, what would that be?
I distinctly remember a morning in high school when our interfaith encounter partners from a local catholic high school attended our chol hamoed succot service at school. Phylacteries, prayer shawls, chanting back and forth as we processed around in a circle with our lulavim and etrogim. The entire time I felt like the grasshopper, but afterwards I discovered that our visitors were fascinated by our rituals, and deeply respected our commitment to our faith. “But what right do we have to imagine how we appear to someone else? To them, we might have appeared as angels.”
In accepting his Tony for Best Actor in Musical, proud Camp Ramah alumnus Ben Platt stated the following as the music played him off stage:
“Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”
Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.
We hear something might be “different” or “strange” and we interpret as dangerous or in the wrong. But what if what is different, what is challenging, what is strange, empowers us as individuals and community.
When we journey through the unknown, when we see something different, we should remind ourselves that we all connect to the world in different ways. We all have different points of access. It’s important to acknowledge that fact. We are stronger when don’t label ourselves or others. We are stronger when all have access. We are strong because, admit it, we are all a little strange. As we remind ourselves throughout our sacred texts, for we were “strangers” in the land of Egypt. Doubling down, our text this week states:
For the generations to come, whenever a stranger or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the stranger residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the stranger shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.’” (Numbers 15:14-16)
It is who we are. Let it strengthen each of us for generations to come.
Having just returned from a short time away, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacations. Vacations make no promises. What we immediately think of as periods of recreation, they commit to nothing more than the act of vacating one space for another. Yet to be away for even a short period of time can be therapeutic and refreshing, regardless of how many deep tissue massages or rounds of golf are on the docket. There can be fixed plans- meeting up with friends at a predetermined location, attending a sporting event at a fixed time. Even spontaneous road trips can be fixed when you plan even remotely ahead of time. On the other hand, preplanned road trips can be spontaneous, when the GPS malfunctions or someone has an allergic reaction to their veggie burger and requires Benadryl. No matter how much you plan ahead of time, life throws curveballs, fastballs and knuckeballs daring you to adjust the game plan.
Driving back from South Florida on Thursday night, I had a car full of Holzer ladies sleeping soundly through the second leg of a 5 hr journey home. Long drives remind me of when I ran cross country in high school- no walkmen to blast music, just time to think. While I was thinking about the sermon I had wanted to write a week ago, a car zoomed up beside me. Realizing that his lane, the right lane, was somehow moving under 90 mph, the driver decided to create a previously unopen space between my car and the car in front of us. I honked for a moment, proceeding to a take a look at the license plate of the car now nestled in front of me. H, U, T, Z, P, A, H. Hutzpah. I thought to myself, well he did warn me by clearly stating his intentions with a license plate like that!
Our sages teach of a balance between Keva, fixed, and Kavanah, the spontaneous. While we may focus on their relationship vis-à-vis prayer, that as 11th century moral philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah stated, “prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” the balance is vital to the fulfillment of mitzvot as well. To be so obsessed with process without allowing room for purpose, mitzvot will lack meaning and intention.
In this week’s torah portion, Joseph tests his brothers in an elaborate plan that our sages struggle to rationalize. Joseph makes the climb from “Hebrew youth” in an Egyptian jail cell to Vizier in charge of all the land of Egypt at the age of 30. He seems to have it all figured out. The text states,
“And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” Genesis 41:41-2
Like the coat of many colors beforehand, or the robes that Mordechai wore around Shushan as reward from the King, Joseph looks the part of special individual amidst the unrobed masses. He looks like he has it all figured out. Yet there are allusions to where Joseph’s heart lies. As the text puts it:
“Joseph named the first born Menashe because, ‘G-d has made me forget all my troubles and even my father’s house'” (Genesis 41:51).
Has Joseph assimilated into Egypt? Yes. But son #1 is a constant reminder of what he’s supposedly forgotten.
“He named his second son Ephraim because “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52).
Assimilated into Egypt? Maybe not so much.
A somewhat spoiled, self-centered, pretentious young man is now the man honored by the king with the compassionate task of feeding others. Once again, the text is straightforward.
Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. (Genesis 42:6-7)
Joseph devises a plan to test his brothers, not out of bitterness, but hope. He needs to see if they are remorseful for their actions. Teshuva, repentance, comes when they show intent to do something different this time. Amidst this plan he listens to his brothers go back and forth:
They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them.
And how does Joseph respond?
He turned away from them and wept… But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes.
Later, upon seeing his brother Benjamin for the first time, the text states:
With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Serve the meal.”
They had just left the city and had not gone far, when Joseph said to his steward, “
Up, go after the men! And when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why did you repay good with evil?’” (Genesis 44:4)
He’s almost there, allowing his private emotions to become public. This will be the key to his brothers opening up to him…but then we go back to this master plan. As a reader, I keep thinking, “he’s gonna blow this chance again.” Joseph hides behind the process, waiting for the plan to unfold rather than letting his intentions be known.
While we can ask why Joseph did not reveal himself earlier, it’s hard to ignore the power of his emotions at that moment. Whatever plan this is, whatever Joseph has built up in his mind, it almost destroys the potential for renewed relationships with his brothers. From every word and every action, the bitterness towards his brothers continues through the plan he has set out. Commentators explain that this was all a master plan to not embarrass his brothers. However, Joseph’s emotions speak volumes as to how he really wanted this all to go down.
We have to wait until next week’s parashah, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. At that moment,
“his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.”
Joseph’s unadulterated tears break the curse. Moving forward, Joseph is able to provide for his family during the years of famine- food and land for his brothers, burial needs for his father. But the text never speaks of an embrace with his brothers again. There is reconciliation, just not the founding of a new healthy relationship. Joseph was too caught up in the fixed plan, the formality of Egyptian society, that he almost misses out on the much needed moment of healing.
We sit here on Erev-Rosh HaChanukkah, the eve of a new year. It’s a time in between last minute donations and those first minute resolutions. We look during these liminal times to recommit ourselves to causes, to lifestyle changes, to fostering friendships or a stronger work/life balance. We are all well-intentioned people, but life gets in the way and sometimes, we don’t hit a bullseye, or even the target itself.
These yearly markers are, in essence, no different than a random Tuesday in the middle of the summer. We can plan to make a call to an old friend for the next holiday or birthday, or we can make a call tonight. If you’ve been holding in, waiting to find a time to reconnect, connect and just spit it out already. We can plan to visit someone on the mi shebeirakh list when our “schedule allows,” or we can send a note to let them know we are thinking of them. Don’t wait for the perfect plan to take shape. Things will undoubtedly come up, but within the pockets of time filled with the mundane, fill those with intention.We have to learn to get over ourselves. Show our intent through our words, our gestures, and our actions. Intention is not everything, but it is vital to our relationships to share it with others. Be transparent. Be raw. Be real.
Tonight we finally end 2016. Scientist were even kind enough to add in a leap second to this tumultuous year. For many this was a, “ughh” year- we lost family, friends, sports icons, rock and movie stars; we lost our fantasy football championships thanks to Dez Bryant’s heroics. This was the year that lacked civility, the year plagued by hidden government plots and politic agendas- we continued to demand more transparency. And yet, for all the transparency we desire from our leaders, we should demand the same for ourselves, expecting nothing less from our own relationships. In this age of speaking you mind, really whatever is on your mind, it is imperative that we speak from the heart.
The modern miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasts for 8 days, but that there are Jews who continue to be committed to lighting it again each and every day. When the lights go out, we fill the chanukkiyah with new candles. We are partners in that miracle. We may usher in a new year amidst the mitzvah of Hanukkah- pirsumei nissa, the publicizing of the miracle. As Joseph gave in to his emotions, so too may we publicize our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for the coming year. Shana tova im kavana– a year of health, happiness, and intention for us all.
Where do we find the pulse of a people? How do we engage and inspire those around us? We look to music; we look to art; we look to entertainment, as the outward manifestations of our own hopes and desires. In my case, you need only look at what’s on my DVR to see what’s going on in my head and in my life. Surely our TV shows have shifted over the years. What began as a series of Law and Order and crime shows has morphed into a collection of narratives that now parallel our own life experience (luckily the crime shows were not an outward manifestation of my own hopes or desires OR parallel to my own life experience). “New Girl,” the story of loft-mates trying to make it as young professionals, comes in third now behind two new shows. The first, “Life in Piece”s, has four interconnected storylines- one for each branch of the Short family. There is an older couple with three grown children, who have their own relationships that develop throughout the show. When the show debuted last year, I would often gravitate to the narrative of the couple with a young child. While the story takes place in Los Angeles, it is very Jacksonville- the intergenerational day-to-day involvement in each other’s lives; every day is like Thanksgiving.
To top our show list is a new drama, “This is Us.” It is the story about the family lives and connections of several people who all share the same birthday. A key birthday takes place during the fall of 1980, 36 years ago. Each week, I cry a little. Each week, I reminisce of what it meant to grow up in the 80s. Each week, I obsess with the historical inaccuracies of the storyline.Each week, I am reminded of how relationships are formed: where the notions of grudges and favorites are cultivated and how a moment in time can affect our future. The more we watch, the more we affirm that the story of This is Us is the story of “us.”
This week, we encounter another storyline spearheaded by another late-30something character experiencing a life change of his own. Medieval commentator Rashi estimates that Isaac was 37 years old when his mother passed away. At the age of 40, Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).
Three years after her death, Isaac brings his wife to his mother’s tent. Three years of mourning. Three years of not being able to talk about his feelings, of not being able to enter his mother’s tent- to be able to reflect upon his mother’s life as well as his own upbringing. Only through Rebekah is he finally able to come home.
Coming home- for holidays, for liminal moments both bitter and sweet, takes us to a familiar, albeit disorienting place. A Huffington Post article from last December entitled, “How to Avoid Reverting to your Teenage Self Over the Holidays” stated:
There’s a joke that captures the feeling of “regression” that many adults experience when they go home to spend the holidays with their families. It goes like this: For every day you’re home with your family, you lose five years. So you should keep your trip short enough that you’ll be old enough to drive away.
“It’s variable. At different stages of your life you might regress more or less,” Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Emory University and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology, told The Huffington Post. “Maybe you go back to your room, which may still be more decorated like a child’s room. You return to the patterns you had when you lived there. It’s challenging, especially early on, to find your way as an adult.”
We all fall into old habits. Grown adults talk to their parents with teenage drama, while parents treat grown up children like middle schoolers. We revert. We take steps back. We hold grudges from years long ago. And even when we are not attending a family gathering, we could easily be attending one of those gatherings where we pray none of our real feelings slip out at the dinner table.
Coming home means sometimes moving backwards- in time and in relationship building. As a recent S.C Johnson campaign put its it, “When families gather, things get messy.”
There is one tradition related to coming home that has changed my outlook. It is the nostalgic art of “going through stuff.”
Our family is currently undergoing a process of high level de-cluttering. I would characterize it as a “triangle of memory” in constant rotation. We inherit toys, books, and outfits from friends who are gracious to share so that our girls might enjoy what their children once enjoyed. As our own parents downsize, we inherit books, tchotchkes, art projects and more from our own childhoods, while simultaneously deciding what we should retain as keepsakes for our own daughters. It is a unique position to decide which of my own handprints to hold on to as I think about all of the take-home projects I continue to stockpile. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by watercolor and who by puff-paint?
One such heirloom in my possession is a time capsule from almost a quarter century ago, intended to be opened in the year 2000. Well I opened it up…two years ago. Most obvious was the folded up Worcester Telegram & Gazette sports section dated Wednesday, May 12, 1993. At first glance I noticed the 4-0 shutout pitched by Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, an article entitled, “Baseball Ignores Tradition,” chastising the creation of a wild card. The NBA and NHL playoffs were in high gear, with Michael Jordan once again wrecking the Cavs’ dreams. May 12,1993 was a week before one of the most highly anticipated series finales of all time. Sam Malone, played by actor Ted Danson, would finally close up the bar “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name.
My eye gravitated to the scoreboard and transactions section of the paper, a somewhat mundane and trivial section, yet an area I would routinely memorize each day as a child. Some notes elicited a smile:
“The Seattle Mariners optioned Mike Hampton, pitcher, to Jacksonville of the Southern League.”
That probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if I had opened the capsule back in 2000. Other notes elicited a sadder response:
Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis was cleared to resume his basketball career after doctors discounted an earlier diagnosis of a possibly life-threatening heart ailment. Doctors say Lewis suffers from a neural condition that can be treated with medication.
Two months later, Lewis collapsed at an off-season practice at Brandeis University and died at the age of 27.
We often look into the mirror to ask, “What if I could go back? What could I tell my younger self? How could I guide me through stages and events in my life differently?” Or, we look at childhood as an escape…a world oversimplified, naïve, pediatric, scheduled, ordered.
I realized I should look at this the other way around: how can my childhood, my view on life, my hopes and dreams, reenergize me to be a better father, a better husband, a better person?
And so the time capsule continued to convey messages in a series of letters to my future self:
“Favorite Superhero in my time”: Superman
It’s shifted to Batman, but a strong choice nonetheless.
My hobby: Politics
My future: Chief Rabbi and lawyer of the state of Israel
My family’s hobbies:
My father’s are going shopping at either BJs or Spags, making corny jokes, and acting like a very little kid. My sister doesn’t have any hobbies or interests now because she has a well organized social life and relationship. My mother’s hobbies are just being nice, helping others, and just being happy.
The letters go on and on. Much of the language of my messages to my future self revolve around peace, love, and harmony, reading very much like a personal prayer at a Bar Mitzvah. So…what would we think if we read our Bar or Bat Mitzvah speech? Would we find it trivial and over-simplistic? Or would we gravitate to its positivity, to the message of change and to the aspirations of a maturing young adult?
Our story, every story, has a beginning. As the animated film, “Inside out” envisioned, the core memories from our childhood power different aspects of our personality.
When we dismiss the frustations of our youth, when we dread turning back to our teenage self, we may inadvertently block the thoughts and dreams that make up our core self. We may be swift to dismiss or shove it all aside as being over idealistic, but I believe that kids have it right. While each of us may not have a physical time capsule, we all have windows into our childhood.
So when you do revert (we all do), when you step back in your relationships with old family and friends, when old grudges take center stage, take that step back as an opportunity to delve into your youth once again. What would it mean to thank God at night for your 3 closest friends rather than the 30th like from a friend on Facebook? What would it mean to sing loudly without inhibition because no one’s taught you yet that doing so would be embarrassing? What would it mean to take the stigma out of the word “juvenile” to appreciate the teachings that our childhood brings to the table?
Look back at your earliest aspirations. Transform that innocence, that hope into action; reaffirm who you want to be. And if we look back only to see pain and frustration, take the struggles of our youth as a guide through the pain that tomorrow may bring.
Every story has a beginning. It grabs our attention and brings the reader in. As we give thanks to all of the gifts in our lives over this holiday week, it seems most important to appreciate our own narrative. We look to other stories to inspire, when sometimes, we have to turn our own story on its head. In knowing ourselves, embracing our opening pages as much as the latest chapters, we allow a rich narrative to take shape.
I’ve never had luck with jerseys. Maybe it was the allure of free-agent money, but it always seemed like a player would be traded or sign elsewhere the second I bought his jersey. Later on this manifested itself as owning “retro jerseys” even if that was not the original intent. Early victims included Charles Barkley’s #34 Suns Jersey, Grant Hill’s #33 Pistons Jersey, and Shaquille O’neal’s #32 Magic Jersey. When my parents moved to Seattle, I immediately bought a Ray Allen SuperSonic’s jersey. He was traded 6 days later (to the Celtics!!).
My sour luck extended to baseball. I would try to select a jersey of the Red Sox player LEAST likely to join the Yankees. After the 4th jersey went to the graveyard (thanks Damon, Lowe, Ellsbury, and Youkilis), I threw in the towel.
A few years have gone by since the jersey curse of the 1990s/early 2000’s. While today is in fact Jersey Day in my office, jerseys are now normally relegated to a day off or the weekend errand run. The question, “What jersey to wear?” wouldn’t normally cross my mind.
With the return of football, all eyes have been on San Francisco backup QB Colin Kaepernick and his decision to not stand during the national anthem. The easiest way for fans to show their support has been through jersey sales. His jersey sales have skyrocketed to #1 in the National Football League. Kaepernick, in turn, is donating the proceeds of his jersey sales to communities in need. Wearing gear with a company logo, an athlete’s name, has more meaning than just fandom.
I’ve joke of the prospect of treating my high holiday kittel like a NASCAR vehicle, decked in potential endorsements. While I may never go to that extreme, I have found meaning in supporting causes, victims, and research in the garments I choose to wear. Modern fundraising allows those of us fortunate enough to buy a new t shirt once in a while to support in dollar and in visual manifestation of such causes.
In the past few years, I was fortunate to donate to a number of what I would call “wear it, share it” causes:
I showed support to a number of causes through charitable gifts, but receiving something tangible in return allows me to be a transparent advocate moving forward. When you are picking out that t-shirt to wear to do grocery shopping or to attend your kid’s soccer practice, what would it mean to find meaningful causes close to you, to go beyond your checkbook? Wear those shirts that show who you’re thinking about. Wear it, share it. At the very least, it’s a conversation starter, but at its peak, you have the chance to share important causes with others.
We packed up our bags, and a song hits my brain- Machar Ani Babayit (definitely more political than my reference, but it means “tomorrow I’ll be home.”)
It was a potluck last day as we made our way from the Galilee to the ancient city of Tzippori, home to some exquisite mosaic floor designs. Tzippori also housed the ancient rabbinic Sanhedrin court following the Bar Kochba revolt, at the time of the Mishnah codifier himself, Judah Hanasi. Seeing the zodiac symbols on the ancient floors (and also learning how they used a “Botox” approach to restoring it) reminded me of a synagogue in Boro Park that also has zodiac symbols in its sanctuary (guess they caught on).
From Tzippori we traveled to meet our P2G friends from Hadera at the youth crisis village Neve Michael. We meet Hava, who I met 3.5 years ago on a Federation Educators’ Mission, as she reiterates a common need to heal the world: love. I was happy to be wearing a t-shirt with words of love inspired by the words of Lin Manuel Miranda. We tour the facility and learn about Sulamot (http://adipose.org/support/music-for-social-change/ ), an organization that partners the village with members of the Israeli Philharmonic. All the kids want is a sense of normalcy and to be loved. Quite powerful.
As a side note, I didn’t think I could have a greater adventure than meeting another doppelgänger on Wednesday morning. But alas! Hana mentioned jokingly that she may lock the door to our meeting room until we raise enough funds to support their cause. I subsequently got locked in a bathroom stall and had to climb out a window and jump 15 feet to the ground! I WILL make it back in one piece for Koltrain Friday night!!!
We returned to Tel Aviv after a photo stop by the Roman aqueducts (a short drive from Hadera). We tour Tel Aviv’s first street as well as learn about the craziness of May 14,1948 and all that had to transpire to create that moment of David Ben Gurion announcing Israel’s independence. We had a celebratory dinner by the airport before heading in many different directions.
I hope that our trip was transformative for everyone who participated. Our guide, Morgi, was knowledgable and sensitive to the needs of all. You can feel her love of people and country when we ended up meeting a few dozen of her friends/fellow guides/students along the way.
Our youth guide Shira really connected with our families and our driver Adi was also fantastic! I’ve never experienced parallel parking like I did these past few weeks.
The Keshet director, Yitzchak Sokoloff, described his logic in creating trips that parallel those life altering teen tours- this was an active trip, a journey for people to push themselves physically, mentally and spiritually. It was an opportunity to take a different path.
Israel is constantly growing- upwards and outwards. There are so many layers to Israeli history, Israeli society, and Israel’s future. On the first day of the trip, Assaf Luxembourg gave us our first image of Archaeological layering- comparing it to startups being acquired, one on top of the other. Just as an archaeological site grows and expands as we unearth more of our history, visiting Israel, being part of its awesomeness, allows us to dig deeper and appreciate the foundations on which it was formed and the newest layers that add it to its flavor.
Wherever you travel in Israel, there are mezuzot on the door posts of Hotels, restaurants and other public spaces. A mezuza is not only a reminder of God’s presence in our world, but where we come from and where we are going, a reminder of where home is. Like our Torah reading Masei, it’s important to recognize the slalom posts on our journey. When we were leaving Ben Gurion Airport, heading through the tunnel before boarding our plane, I noticed that the mezuza was on the left side of the doorway (the opposite side). As we leave Israel, it’s a subtle reminder that Israel is home. I hope everyone who journeyed to Israel, many for the first time, feel that sense of home.
L’hitra’ot- see you again soon!
Breakfast in Israel (and more specifically in Israeli hotels) has no equal. People may talk about the great Schwarma or Falafal joint, but as we know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Each hotel tried to outdo the other- in Hagoshrim, a kibbutz known for its hospitality, we have pizza, fish, chocolate milk, shakshusha, fresh fruits and vegetables, cakes and more. What’s most interesting to me is the chaotic beauty of watching people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds (a large Muslim guest list) all eat together. Food does seem to be able to bring people to the table!We also happen to bump into a native Jacksonvillian, Bobby Brochin, who was childhood friends with Bruce Horovitz!
On our way to Tzefat (or Safed, or Zafed, or Zafad), we make two pit stops. The first is the Naot factory store- a place I went to on Ramah Seminar, but during my rebel phase, when I refused to watch Titanic or wear sandals like everyone else my age, I never even entered the store. I’ll be sporting from stylish shoes next week for Israel Shabbat. My how times have changed!!
Our second stop is in the border kibbutz Malkiya, steps from the Lebanese border. The head of security describes the matzav (mood)- there are two things he prides his community on- strength and identity. The kids are happy running around outside while we get a tour of one of the bomb shelters decorated with wall to wall animal murals. He is honest with us- when they do use the bomb shelter, all bets are off- up above everyone is cordial, but if two families share a tight space below ground, bickering is a common language. Moral boosts are a must- it reminded me of the film Rock in the Red Zone!
We meet a few soldiers who appreciate our gifts before heading to the base itself to meet with more soldiers.
I encounter my long lost son; or kindred spirit; or 2nd doppelgänger. Barak is in the Golani brigade (check out Facebook for pictures) but is a trained musician who has played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center! My first doppelgänger experience was at an A Capella festival- who knew lookalikes had talentalikes!?
We head to the center of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism (think life is like an onion), the city of Joseph Karo and Isaac Luria, the city where I once searched for 7 hours in a cemetery looking for my great grandfather’s grave only to realize it had been destroyed during an early 20th century earthquake, the city of Safed, the city where “anything can happen.”
We walk through the artist section of the old city, where I highlight a great micro calligrapher, who shows us the entire Torah written out in one painting. I stop by a familiar art gallery and notice a painting of a familiar face- the artist Kaszemacher. The gallery owner asks me to stop taking a picture, thinking I’m taking a picture of his works. I tell him I am taking a picture of the man (see below), since my family met him on multiple occasions. Kaszemacher passed away a few years ago, but have painted an photographed even after he became blind. I tell him how 25+ years ago we used to get a tour of Kaszemacher’s studio across the street as he explained the meaning behind his work. The man appreciates my own appreciation of the artist. The man is his son.
I look through many of the galleries and find one with 200 hebrew name charms for females. No Dafna. No Rena. No Leora (photo attached) What is the world coming to?!
We meet with an expat Avraham, who gives us a brief summary of Kabbalah and how it inspires his own work. He talks about the power of a name and how each letter is intertwined into the Kabbalah map outlined in the Zohar. He shows us a series of paintings which are the computer imprint of the sound waves of the 100 shofar blasts we make on Rosh Hashana.
We tour two of the Safed shuls, including one of 4 Ari (Isaac Luria) shuls that had been bombed.
Dinner is at the Adin winery, preceded by a delicious wine and cheese tasting. When we return to Hagoshrim, we finally get the darbouka out for some festive singing and dancing. We also get to taste the date liquor I had purchased from the olive Oil factory! Highlights of our kumzitz include Shabchi
And our Israeli dance set, including Mayim, since we love drinking copious amounts of water!
Tomorrow is our last day (technically we have 30 minutes between midnight and 12:30am on Friday as well). It is great to see how much everyone has enjoyed the experience and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say next week at our Israel celebration Shabbat!
What a magical morning!
Mazel tov to the Levine family as Christina and Ethan celebrated their bnei mitzvah together in the egalitarian worship space adjacent to the Kotel. Christina and Ethan worked with me over the past few months studying the Torah portions (in a quirky way, we actually split the double parsha this upcoming week into two separate Torah portions, one last week and one this week since Israel was reading one Torah portion ahead of us in the diaspora) as well as major parts of the service. Our prayer service began shortly before a number of other bnei mitzvah would take place alongside ours. Noise was somewhat of a factor, with a “siman tovs” echoing throughout the area. We couldn’t use the darbuka or tambourine, but I was able to use the shtender/eggs to add a percussive sound to our service. Ethan and Christina did an amazing job, aided by the energy of our kehillah. We came in close together for the entire service, so we were able to hear their leading/divrei Torah as well as sing along to the service in one voice! There were a number of other participants who had never had an Aliyah or who desired to have one in that space- alongside the place where the temple once stood, as we read of Zelophahad’s daughters who fought for equal rights, as we prayed man and woman together. What a gift!
As we concluded the service with Mourner’s Kaddish, I reminded the group that the prayer has nothing to do with death, but rather a hope for completeness in our lives. How we live our lives is the true testament to ensuring that those we’ve lost will have their name be a blessing for us, for we need to lead impactful lives to realize how much they are a blessing.
Speaking of gifts, I remember visiting Yad L’kashish as a student on Ramah Seminar a number of years ago. They have since expanded into a well oiled operation that provides work and a hot meal for senior citizens. The group interacted with the workers, most of whom came from the former Soviet Union.
We head over to East Jerusalem and on to Emek Turim, sifting through unexcavated archaeological remains looted from the Temple Mount. We divide the buckets of chazarai into 6 salvageable materials. We find bones of kosher animals, glass, pottery, and even 2 2000 year old coins (way to go David and Steven- picture of David below).
After lunch in Jerusalem, we headed to Maalei Adumim to meet Adina, who emigrated from Ethiopia by way of Sudan over 30 years ago. She tells the story of a thousand people journeying to Sudan, only to be robbed half way of all of their precious belongings. Only 500 made it to Sudan. A few takeaways: Adina is so welcoming, as I assume she is to the many groups she talks to in partnership with Keshet. She says, “If you have a place in your heart you have a place in the home.” She mentions how she often feels her life was easier growing up in Ethiopia than it is for her 6 children and their kids. There are issues of racism, and the lack of funding/financial support (it’s not like they had some uncle or cousin to lean on when they made Aliyah) does not enable her kids to attend university. One of her children wishes he wasn’t in Israel. Having heard this kind of story in the news, it’s hard to hear this from the source. However, Adina says she talks to God- that makes her happy. What does she pray for? Every mother wants to see her child happy and healthy. “Baruch Hashem” she says, “everyone is healthy.”
Heading up north to Tiberias, we pass a few spots where I have a deja-vu moments to my childhood family trips to Israel- almost falling of the giant water slide and staying in a hotel with a set of ruins right out front (now called the Leonardo Plaza). At our celebratory dinner at Refaello, I share a few stories of “connection” that lead us all to this joyous occasion- the bnei mitzvah, Rachel’s birthday, and more!
Ivy and Josh celebrated their 10th anniversary a few weeks ago and wanted to travel with their parents. Michael and Barbara suggested the synagogue trip, their chavura followed, and there was a chunk of our group. Ethan deciding to share his bar mitzvah moment with his mother brought on another set of participants. I made the claim that Yitzchak Sokoloff, head of Keshet, mentioned his grandfather had started a hebrew school in Worcester MA some hundred years ago. Maybe if he doesn’t do that, my mother doesn’t move to Worcester to run a Hebrew school, I don’t move next door to a cantor and become inspired to be one myself, and this trip doesn’t happen. Small decisions in life have ripple effects enabling such a joyous day, and such a powerful journey to Israel!
We get a late wake up at Kibbutz Hagoshrim in the upper Galilee. We had passed an area where the Israeli poet Rachel was buried (her request was to be buried overlooking the Sea of Galilee). Rachel wrote many poems that were later set to music. In particular, Naomi Schemer (who is also buried near Rachel according to her wishes), wrote music to many of her poems, including the poem Kineret.
We walk through the ancient ruins and lush Tel Dan Nature Reserve and Archaeological site, where a group is still excavating during our visit! We enjoy seeing the greenery, a stark contrast to the unshaded blandness of the dessert. Ascending the Golan heights, we view former volcanic activity as well as the new vegetation the Israelis are cultivating. Looking over from Kuneitra we see Syria, the UN outpost, wind turbines and more as Morgi explains the border situations over the years.
I remind some of the group about a sticker (of which I still have many in my office) that was popular in the late 1990s.
I was also trying to think of a song about the strategic and moral boosting position of the Golan.
Our lunch is in Katzrin, the only city in the Golan. We split into two groups as many of us try out our Catrina Ruby impressions at the De Karina (should have been Katrina) Chocolate Factory, while others taste wine at the Bahat Winery. We come back together for an olive factory tour, where they make olives into beauty products of all things!
I kept singing these songs during our chocolate tour:
L’hitra’ot- share with you more tomorrow!
Today was a heavy day. We started early as Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, opened just as we arrived. 3 hours passed by quickly as we barely made it through the main exhibition hall. I visited Yad Vashem briefly three and a half years ago on an Educator’s Mission, and was thankful then as I was today that there was a conscious shift in pedagogy from my childhood/teenage memories of the memorial. Tell the stories. Share the pain as well as the hope. Our guide Morgi did an exceptional job setting the stage for our morning and walking the group through the timeline. We also heard fascinating stories of perseverance and pain from Kim, who shared the story of her father in law’s journey to Shanghai, and Ivy, who shared a few stories including one of a 29 yr old Leonard Bernstein, who brought light to the darkness the DP’s had experienced under Nazi horrors. A few things stood out:
Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, is quoted on the wall of the exhibition, questioning why the world didn’t turn back to water (i.e. The flood) when the Nazi’s began their horrific acts.
At one section of the timeline, the visitor follows a pathway portraying the unthinkable Death marches that took place from Birkenau beginning on Jan 18, 1945 and ending May 10, 1945. At each stop you learn who survived and who did not. By the time of their liberation, only 120 of 3,000 survived the war. There were similar stories of agony, coupled once in a while by a story of perseverance and hope.
Having visited a half dozen concentration camps and a number of ghettos, museums typically don’t emit the same level of emotion for me. The end of the museum experience was much more difficult this time as I had remembered. As I watched a video of DP kids singing a version of Hatikva, just as my daughter sings around the house, I began to choke up. If that wasn’t enough, I heard the story of Uziel, whose parents survived the war because the mother’s mother took Uziel away during selection at the Death camp, so that his mother would survive. The parents later helped create the Children’s Memorial in his memory. Uziel was 3 years old, the same age as my eldest. That did me in.
We had a respite in between Yad Vashem and visiting the graves on Mount Herzl. After lunch we visited the Herzl museum with an epic film starring Ben Stiller’s doppelgänger (see below). This late 90s film telling the history of Herzl and the state of Israel finished up with a clip from the peace accords (skip to the last minute) with Bill Clinton helping to sign the deal (and play with the balloons)
Josh Weingram, husband of Ivy and son-in-law to Barbara and Michael Schneider, shared his personal connection to one of the Lone soldiers, Michael Levin, who always dreamt of joining the IDF. We visited Herzl’s grave, Golda Meir’s grave, and then the graves of Hannah Senesh, Max Steinberg and Michael Levin. Morgi points out the way the graves themselves are peaceful, tucking in those the country has lost, as well as how recent soldiers who died have a wider variety of ways people are remembering them at their burial sites. We said an El Malei as Michael’s 10th yartzeit is this upcoming week. I thought for a while as Morgi called all of the lone soldiers shlichat am, emissaries of the people, quite unlike a prayer leader being called shaliach tzibbur.
We drove over to the Menorah in front of the Knesset before a night out on our own, our last night in Jerusalem.