The sound of the shofar

It’s that time of year: I’m the shofar chauffeur for the next few weeks as Sophie fulfills her duties as our congregation’s baalat tekiah.

It’s customary for Jews to hear the shofar almost every day in the Hebrew month of Elul, when it serves as a sort of wake-up call urging us to engage in this period of introspection and repentance.

This has become a special part of Sophie’s connection to Judaism, but the mitzvah is actually *hearing* the shofar, not being the one to blow the horn. We recently recorded Sophie blowing the shofar in two of the traditional patterns at Hickories Park in Owego, on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

To my white friends

A note to my white friends:

I’m thrilled to see so many of you posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram about racial justice and police brutality. Some of you took another step and joined Black Lives Matter protests during the past week.

Perhaps you’ve spent years examining your racial privilege, working on acts of antiracism and committing your time and money to lift up black lives in your community and beyond. If so, awesome. You probably don’t need to read the rest of what I’m going to say here.

If you’re less experienced talking about racism, don’t understand why I talk about it so much — or if you think posting more Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is going to fix the system, this is for you.

I know this feels overwhelming. I know some of you may feel blameless. You think you aren’t overtly racist. Maybe you had your own struggles along the way to where you are now. You feel you earned your good job/nice house/college diploma on your own merits.

It’s time to take a deep breath and start learning. When I say learning, I do not mean calling up a black friend and crying. I do not mean wistfully listening to speeches from 1968. I do not mean sharing a cute picture of the Obamas, either.

Get yourself some books, for starters. My suggested reading list would include:

This will be hard. You will recognize yourself in some of the “what not to do” elements of the books. You will notice that you serve on committees without a single black voice at the table. You will cringe thinking back on a conversation you had with someone about Malcolm X.

Keep going.

Next up, continue decolonizing your bookshelf with fiction. If empathy is a muscle, perhaps these will give it a good workout. I am not recommending To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help or any novel that sets up a white person as the hero. I’m talking about books by black authors, both well established and brand new. Toni Morrison is a great choice here, but you can also try some new fiction such as:

Getting uncomfortable?

Take out your credit card. Donate to a bail fund. Find black community groups working near you and support them. Seek out black-owned restaurants and other businesses.

Follow black journalists and activists on Twitter or Facebook. Look up Color of Change, Black Lives Matter and other organizations working to foster social change. Pause for a moment before you share a news story or video and ask yourself: Who is being served here? What narrative am I building?

Listen more than you speak. When someone says something that you find rude or surprising, that’s a moment when you can grow. Go Google things when they seem unbelievable. Maybe a piece of information has been debunked; maybe your whitewashed high school history class got it wrong and you never realized it.

After this, it gets better but also harder. You will have a bit of data, a few anecdotes, some foundation from which to speak. Talk to your racist uncle/aunt/cousin/grandparent. Speak up at work when the next committee is forming, and demand a seat at that table for your black colleague, even if it means you don’t get to join the group. Go to a march and shout: No justice, no peace!

You will still make mistakes. You need to keep going anyway. Keep reading, keep questioning, keep talking to your white friends about whiteness. Resolve to have honest conversations about race and racial privilege with your children.

Now you might be ready for that phone call. Check in on your black friends, not for praise and not to cry, but so that they can cry. You’ll be ready to listen.

Accidental pioneers in the land of the zoom-mitzvah

We began planning for the day when our daughter would become a bat mitzvah about two years ago. The occasion called for intense Hebrew study as well as a large celebration. A DJ was hired, a photographer booked. We went shopping for a dress and mailed invitations to more than 150 friends. Arrangements were made for an ice cream truck to pull up at the synagogue. It was supposed to be a Big Deal in the life of our family.

Then a global pandemic struck, and suddenly only a fraction of our preparations made sense anymore.

Early on, Charlotte said she wanted to go ahead with the day if we could still be in the sanctuary and if her grandparents could attend. What about the party? She understood it might be small, or perhaps get canceled. It was a good reminder that the religious ceremony is the whole point of the day, not a mere prelude to doing the Cha-Cha Slide. (My childhood rabbi wrote a book called Putting God on the Guest List, and there were moments when it seemed God would be the only one on this guest list.)

Hebrew lessons moved to FaceTime and Zoom once schools closed. We canceled the photo booth, then the DJ, then finally the caterer.

As synagogue president and a Zoom nerd (thanks to my day job), I began assisting with the livestream of our Friday night services from Temple Concord, the Reform congregation in Binghamton, N.Y. Quickly, Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell figured out ways to share prayers and other readings effectively for online worship. As the weeks passed, we both got better at managing the mute/unmute buttons and sharing our screens.

Charlotte, meanwhile, was adjusting to online school and continuing to work remotely with her Hebrew tutors. She still had to write a speech, too. I was concerned that continuing the bat mitzvah preparations put her under extra strain, but she was eager to reach this milestone and said she’d also feel stressed if she had to continue tutoring indefinitely.

With a few weeks to go, plans solidified for a “zoom-mitzvah” with just 10 people in the sanctuary. Our local paper featured Charlotte on its front page in a story about how the pandemic was affecting religious observances this spring. We began testing different technology in the space and thinking about an entirely different set of logistics. Where do we place cameras? How do we get the sound right? Who will act as moderator/usher/producer for the Zoom session? Can we show the montage as part of the livestream?

In the end, we had three laptops on the bima and placed a fourth a few rows back in the pews. (The sanctuary isn’t set up for livestreaming.) We bought an external microphone for the bat mitzvah girl, who was less likely to project her voice than the rabbi or cantorial soloist. A family friend signed on as our Zoom director for the morning. My aunts agreed to read the English of the Torah and haftorah portions from their home in Florida when it became clear that they couldn’t attend in person.

Here’s the full service, recorded via Zoom.

With those details in place, we had a little time to think about extras. We bought a big “Mazel tov, Charlotte” yard sign that doubled as a photo prop. The bright purple yarmulkes stamped with our daughter’s name and the date were mailed with cards indicating our change of plans. We hand-delivered party favors to Charlotte’s BFFs and encouraged people to take a selfie the day of the bat mitzvah to share with us. We confirmed arrangements with a photographer, who agreed to document the day, even though it was quite a different job than the one she was originally hired to do.

Our friends and our community showed up for us in ways large and small in the days leading up to the bat mitzvah. Charlotte’s music teacher delivered exotic flavors of ice cream one night. A friend who’s a talented seamstress created a set of color-coordinated masks for everyone attending the service. Charlotte received her first delivery from a florist, thanks to one of my closest friends from high school. Two different Jewish moms ensured we had home-baked loaves of challah for shabbat dinner and Saturday morning. A colleague created amazing balloon arrangements and brought them to our house.

We found a local baker who delivers “COVID cakes” and made plans for a delivery back at our house after the bat mitzvah. When it looked like the weather was going to cooperate, we arranged for a picnic lunch (with individually wrapped meals) and invited the grandparents and two families we’re close with to join us. They set up camp chairs in our yard with lots of space between them and we all got to visit for a little while and enjoy seeing each other outside of a Zoom-sized box.

I worried throughout the planning about the virus-related risks inherent in any gathering, even one as small as this. Our sanctuary is large, but we’d be indoors and there would be some singing. My mother, who has been isolated since early March, would be exposed to more people that day than she had been in months. It was hard to see my father and brothers, who live out of state, and not hug them. People might need to come into our house to use the bathroom, which I knew would be an odd moment after months of not letting anyone outside our family inside.

There were losses, both large and small. The joy of having all of my favorite people in one place for a day: gone. The idea of what we’d look like with new outfits and fresh haircuts and manicures: suddenly unimportant. Seeing Charlotte lifted on a chair while dozens of people danced the hora with us: just impossible.

In the end, the day was nothing like we imagined — and still pretty wonderful. The grandparents were able to travel. Charlotte smiled as she read from the Torah and led us in prayer. The technology worked. Friends who wouldn’t have been able to attend in person dialed in from as far away as Nairobi and London. My husband gave an amazing speech. The rain held off just long enough for a picnic lunch.

My heart is full.

Pictures from the bat mitzvah, featuring lots of selfies as well as professional photography by Samantha Rigo.

Rachel’s recommended reading

I read about a book a week. Want some recommendations for reading during your unexpected downtime? I primarily read literary fiction and nonfiction. Recent favorites below with links to mini-reviews.

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Our whole family loves to read! Here’s Charlotte curled up with a book a couple of years ago.

Fiction

The best new book I read last year was “All This Could Be Yours” by Jami Attenberg, about a family living in the thrall of a violent, selfish, criminal man. Review here. 

I also loved “Fleishman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Lots of hype, yes, but it’s as good as you’ve heard. Feminist manifesto tucked into a compelling novel! Mini-review here.

I’ve heard it said that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. “The Dutch House,” Ann Patchett’s latest novel, explores that idea with some interesting embellishments. Review here.

How good is “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn? Real life will be a distraction until it’s finished. Perfect in these crazy times we’re living through! Review here.

If you have a stack of unread issues of The New Yorker somewhere in your living room, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy “The Grammarians” by Cathleen Schine. Review here.

“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead is spectacularly written and evidence that fiction can sometimes illuminate dark corners even more brightly than journalism. Mini-review online.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin is just as spectacular as everyone said: suspenseful, touching and, most of all, full of interesting questions about life, family, love and death. Mini-review. 

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones feels so true, so urgent that it’s like a story you’re hearing about two people who are friends of a friend. Mini-review. 

“The Female Persuasion” will resonate with women who have mentored or been mentored. Meg Wolitzer doesn’t just remember what it feels like to be in your late teens/early 20s; she *understands* the way that small-scale stuff can feel so very high stakes. Mini-review. 

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward really isn’t like any other novel you’ve ever read. Pieces of it will shock you with their violence and cruelty while other pages may make you gasp at their beauty. Mini-review. 

I read “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez in 2015, but I still think about it a lot. This is a love story, a reality check on the American dream and a very good read. Mini-review. 

 

Nonfiction/reference

If you write for a living (which I do), then “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” by Benjamin Dreyer is a must. It can be used as a reference book, but it’s so readable you can also just read from front to back. Review.

If you’re committed to racial justice and equality, I recommend “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s like taking a college seminar in the way racism has shaped American history and politics. So troubling and important. Review.

Susan Orlean writes so beautifully that I could get into any topic she cares to treat with a book. When I saw she was writing about libraries, I had high expectations. “The Library Book” managed to live up to all of them. Review. 

 

Consider this a call to anti-racist action

Rachel shared these remarks during Shabbat services on Jan. 17 at Temple Concord in Binghamton:

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us at the very beginning of the Book of Exodus. It’s an action-packed reading, with many details you may recognize from the Passover story.

A new Pharaoh comes to power, one who does not know Joseph. He enslaves the Israelites. Pharaoh orders all of the Israelite baby boys to be killed, but two midwives disobey him.

Moses’ mother puts her son into the river in a basket, and he is rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s household.

He flees to Midian after killing a taskmaster who was beating a slave, and there he marries Zipporah. God appears in the burning bush and tells Moses to free his people from slavery.

That’s a lot – and we’re not done yet!

Next Moses goes back to Egypt and, with his brother, demands that Pharaoh free the slaves. Pharaoh refuses.

In this reading, the midwives Shifrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill boys born to Hebrew women. They might seem to be the lowest of the low — women who are working in service of enslaved women — and yet they defy the ruler of Egypt.

As scholar Hannah Graham Pressman notes, in their refusal to obey Pharaoh, these two women assume a key role in the collective birthing of the people of Israel. “Fearing God rather than the political authority of the day, Shifrah and Puah are rewarded for their insistence on life rather than death.”

It’s interesting that this week’s portion features the first example of civil disobedience in the Torah and we’re reading it during a weekend when we honor the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

I like to reread King’s Letter each year around this time. In it, he quotes the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and other thinkers including Socrates. He also compares the unjust policies of the Jim Crow South to Germany under Hitler, noting that what is legal is not always what is right.

The letter also expresses King’s disappointment with white moderates. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” he writes.

I think there’s room for reflection in that statement for many of us, right up to this day.

Do we extend our support for just causes only when it is convenient? Do we critique the Black Lives Matter movement or athletes who kneel during the national anthem the way some white people criticized Martin Luther King’s efforts to end segregation?

My thinking about racial justice has been shaped by reading the work not only of Dr. King but also of modern activists such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me” and Ibram X. Kendi, author of the new book “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”

Kendi opens his book with a couple of crucial definitions:

He says a racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”

An antiracist, on the other hand, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

All of us, even members of so-called minority groups, may find that we have racist sentiments. We’ve lived all our lives in a society steeped in white supremacy, after all. Kendi says that it’s up to us to sift through these thoughts and to find ways to act in opposition to them.

We have to get past our feelings — including our wish that no one ever sees us as “racists” — and focus on our actions.

If we do, if we find a way to root out racist policies that perpetuate racial inequality, we can begin to undo the damage caused by voter suppression, mass incarceration, health disparities and opportunity gaps.

That kind of action and commitment could turn this new decade into the start of an anti-racist era in American history, an era worthy of Dr. King’s hopes for our country.

 

How do you make sense of a loss like this?

Daniel and I were friends, but the kind that feel more like cousins. Our moms met while we were still babies. He knew that lasagna was an eggplant dish at my house. I knew where to find the big bins of Legos at his house.

I flip through photo albums, and there we are: At a petting zoo. Our younger siblings’ birthday parties. My backyard. His kitchen. Halloween. A giant sandbox.

Our dads took such pride in raising nerds. For months, Daniel and I competed to see who knew more of the state capitals.

He took piano lessons. I went to ballet class.

At my house, the deal was that smart people were never bored. And I was never bored when Daniel came over. We once played for a whole afternoon in a giant cardboard box that had held my parents’ new refrigerator. In our game, it became the trash compactor from Star Wars; we were Luke and Leia.

Years passed. We started high school, then college. Dan took up guitar. I got a job at the newspaper.

The photo albums, tucked away after both sets of parents’ divorces, still find us together sometimes. At Christmas. On New Year’s Eve. Sitting on a sunny hillside listening to folk music.

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In the concert photo, we’re grown but not yet really grownups. Our hair is a little wild. My mom snapped the photo with a film camera, so it’s probably the only shot of the two of us that day. The sunlight makes the whole thing a little hazy.

When I see it, I can use my imagination — strong from those afternoons playing in the woods and turning cardboard boxes into trash compactors — and picture what should’ve been: Daniel at my wedding. Both of us cheering as his baby sister gets her doctorate. Celebrating our 40th birthdays.

But those images are not in any photo album.

Suicide took Daniel from us in 1999.

How do you make sense of a loss like that?

It’s impossible, really. The hole in all of our lives won’t ever be mended. Not by time, not by new friends or lovers or babies or jobs.

I thought Dan would be there forever, pulling up a chair at his mother’s table, next to me on that hillside for another concert.

Losing him taught me not to make those assumptions. It taught me the importance of showing up for the people I care about.

I go to the party, the lunch, the hospital.

And I say it: On the phone. In cards. Via text.

I love you. I’m so glad you’re here.

I wish I could go back in time and tell Dan that.

Our year in one-second increments

Thanks to a cool app called 1 Second Everyday, we can look back at 2018 in one-second bites. You’ll see it’s snowy where we live, that we all laugh a lot and that our kids are into swimming and music. We took some fantastic trips this year, taught a class at the university where we work and enjoyed time with friends and family along the way.