Bring Leonard Cohen into Your High Holy Days

The most chilling song I have ever heard is Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” His deep, haunting voice is perfect for the lyrics, which acknowledge that none of us knows how our lives will come to an end. In case we are morbidly curious, the song lists some possibilities: “Who by fire, who by water, who for his greed, who for his hunger.” And it gets darker: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand.” For those familiar with the legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, it’s not the only time he takes us to that place we have been trying to avoid.

But this idea wasn’t actually his. Cohen, well versed in Jewish practice and liturgy, based these lyrics on a dramatic piece of the High Holy Day liturgy called the “Unetanetokef.” The prayer is named for its powerful, opening words, “Now, we declare the sacred power of this day.” The Unetanetokef brutally reminds us of how fragile we are by asking who, in the year to come, will live on and who shall die. Who will die by the sword, and who by the beast. It sounds like a dirge, adding to the drama of the prayer. The perfect melding of these two artful pieces, the prayer and the song, is when some synagogues sing the Unetanetokef to Cohen’s melody.

The tough part of this piece of liturgy, theologically speaking, is that it sounds like all of this is preordained: On Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed! I think the prayer is saying something else. In a world in which we think we are totally in control, we have to be reminded from time to time that we aren’t. The High Holy Days bring our mortality front and center.

From the Yom Kippur fast that makes us feel like we are barely alive to the custom of wearing white or even a kittel, a burial garment, we are asked at this time of year to face our mortality and fragility head on. Hopefully, that confrontation affects how we will enter the New Year and how we will live our lives. Both the prayer and Leonard Cohen’s version are a calling to keep it all in perspective and thank our lucky stars that we are alive another day.

P.S. If you haven’t heard the song, check out a great rendition from YouTube before the holidays:

Ask the Big Questions

10QWhen I was young, my sister taught me one of the most important things I needed to know about the High Holy Days: Always ask the big questions.

As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.

She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?

My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.

One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day.  People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.

However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.

Use Our eScapegoat to Carry Your Sins Away

eScapegoat logo

Sad goatsAs the High Holy Days approach, I like to start thinking about what I want to do differently next year, and that means atoning for last year’s sins. I find that if I wait for the act of Tashlich (tossing your sins, in the form of breadcrumbs into a flowing body of water) to think about my sins, I don’t give them very much thought, and I forget about things that might benefit from more reflection. Now is a great time to start thinking about the Jewish New Year and what you could have done better last year.

Thanks to the creative folks at G-dcast, you can now do some tossing of your sins ahead of time and VIRTUALLY! Check out the fun “eScapegoat” they set us up with, find out what goats have to do with Tashlich, and enter your sins at the bottom.

Family Fun in Preparation for Rosh Hashanah

apple pickingI always laugh when people say “the High Holy Days are early this year” or “Rosh Hashanah is late this year.” The fact is that Rosh Hashanah occurs the same time every year—on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It’s never really “early” or “late”—it’s just where it should be! That being said, the first of Tishrei can be as early as September 5, or as late as October 5, on the Gregorian calendar. Which means that in 2014, when the first day of Rosh Hashanah is September 25(not the same week as Labor Day, as it was in 2013) many of us feel like we have more time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah than we did last year.

Here are seven suggestions for how your family can have fun getting in the mood for Rosh Hashanah:

1)      Apples, apples and more apples: It’s fun to dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah as we wish for a sweet new year. But why just go to a grocery store and buy apples? One of my favorite activities to do with my family before the Jewish New Year is to go apple picking. At the orchard we go to, we take a hay ride out to the apple trees and then we fill our boxes with different kinds of apples. Later we come home and make a yummy apple cake for our Rosh Hashanah dinner and drink apple cider.

Did you ever notice that if you cut an apple right down the middle you see a star? There’s a great Rosh Hashanah story about this that’s fun for kids of all ages. I like the way Shira Kline tells the story on her website.

2)      And don’t forget the honey: At the orchard where we go apple picking, there’s a really fun general store where they sell all kinds of fresh produce and delicious treats. They also sell those cool honey straws that come in all different flavors. Each year I let my kids buy a bunch of different flavored honey straws and we use them on Rosh Hashanah. They’re fun to give out to guests (or to take if we go to someone else’s house for a holiday meal).

As you prepare for Rosh Hashanah and start to think about dipping your apples in honey, it’s a great time to talk to your kids about how bees make honey. To learn about this from a dad who did some research after he couldn’t answer his daughter’s question about how bees make honey, check out Matt Shipman’s article How Do Bees Make Honey? (It’s Not Just Bee Barf). Or better yet, visit a beekeeper and learn about how honey’s made from an expert!

You can have lots of fun making beeswax candles to light as you welcome the holiday. For instructions on how to make your own beeswax candles click here.

3)      Try some new fruits, too: There’s a great custom on the second night of Rosh Hashanah of eating a new fruit of the season; one you haven’t eaten yet this year. So you may want to pick another fruit as well if you can while you’re apple picking, or pick up a different fruit at a farmer’s market or the grocery store. It’s traditional to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing before eating the new fruit.

4)      Mark a round challah: What kid (or adult) doesn’t love mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough and shaping it into a challah? While on Shabbat it’s traditional to have a braided challah, on Rosh Hashanah the challah should be round. Why round? Because it reminds us of the circle of life, as well as the cyclical nature of the passage of a year. For a YouTube video teaching three different ways to make a round challah, click here and get Rabbi Mychal Copeland’s recipe here.

5)      Read Rosh Hashanah stories with your kids: It’s always fun in the weeks leading up to any holiday, religious or secular, to read books with your kids about the holiday. One Jewish grandmother I know takes out all of her children’s books about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a few weeks before the holidays and puts them in a big basket that she keeps in her family room. Whenever her grandchildren come over, they pick out books from the basket to read with her. She does this before Passover, Sukkot and Thanksgiving, too, so that the book basket is often out and filled with Jewish or secular holiday books to read. For a list of PJ Library Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur books for kids up to 8 yearsold click here.

6)      Make New Years cards: In today’s world where we do so much of our communicating by text and email, it’s especially fun to get a card in the mailbox. And it’s even more fun to make cards! Get out lots of craft materials (or even just crayons and paper) and let your kids make New Years cards that they can mail to family members and friends. And they don’t have to make the cards just for Jewish family members. Cards for family member who aren’t Jewish, letting them know that they’re being thought of and that they’re loved, will surely be appreciated any time of year.

7)      Buy a Shofar and learn to blow it: Kids are always fascinated by the Shofar. Many synagogue gift shops sell Shofars, as do Judaica stores. You can also purchase them online. Once you have a Shofar, you can learn about the notes that are blown on Rosh Hashanah. For video instructions on how to blow the shofar, including the three traditional ritual blasts for the High Holy Days: tekiyah, shevarim and truah, click here.

Shana Tova U’Metukah. Have a happy and a sweet new year!

Is there something new you’re planning to do with your family in preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year? Are there activities you’ve done in the past that were fun? Please share your ideas below so that others can learn from what you’ve done.

29 Days of High Holy Day Preparation

Jewels of ElulHave you begun thinking about the high holidays yet? Do they usually seem to appear out of the mess of end-of-summer-start-of-school-year and you find yourself trying to catch your breath on the way to services? Wouldn’t it be nice to take a moment now and reflect on the coming new year? Enter Jewels of Elul:

As stated on their website, “There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery.

..For the past seven years I have collected short stories, anecdotes and introspections from some fascinating people.

We have collected these Jewels of Elul, from an eclectic group of people including President Barack Obama, Eli Winkelman, Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Sarah Lefton, Eli Wiesel, Deepak Chopra, Pastor Rick Warren, Kirk Douglas, Rev. Ed Bacon, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ruth Messinger, Jeffrey Katzenberg and over 100 other inspired voices . . . well known and not so well known.

I invite you to make each day count. Join us is preparing for this most sacred time of year.

To sweet, inspired Holy Day of change.
Craig Taubman”

I think this is a wonderful way to begin the new year, and encourage you to sign up for the daily emails, or purchase the booklet of all 29 which will benefit the work of a not-for-profit interfaith cultural center in Los Angeles. Learn more here.

Who Was I to Judge?

I admit it – I was raised to think that intermarriage is wrong. It has taken awhile but I now am embarrassed by some of the comments I might have made when friends told me they were marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was insensitive. On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I have offended. In many instances, I may not have said anything, but the negative thoughts crossed my mind and an expression of disapproval may have crossed my face. Again, I apologize.

In my defense, we all are evolving. We all say things that might have been inappropriate. I don’t lose sleep over insensitive comments I may have made 10 years ago. I was young. I was immature. I am not perfect. I try not to let guilt consume me, but there is a fine line between being conscientious and guilt ridden!

But here is something I hadn’t thought of until a few months ago: Our comments leave scars. I know that I offended some people and that they remember my comment or look of disapproval. So, even though I have evolved, I may have hurt their feelings and I suspect they still remember it. In fact, my act of disapproval may be the last (and only) thing they remember about me. Who was I to judge?

Book illustrationThis reminds me of the old Kabbalah story where a child says bad things about someone to a friend. Madonna and Loren Long have rewritten this story for today’s family in Mr. Peabody’s Apples. In this story, Mr. Peabody is an elementary school teacher and baseball coach, who one day finds himself ostracized when a child misinterprets an incident and then spreads rumors through their small town. Mr. Peabody silences the gossip by teaching the child how we must choose our words carefully to avoid causing harm to others. The child is told to take a pillow to the baseball field and tear it open. The wind is blowing and all of the feathers fly everywhere.  Mr. Peabody asks the child to collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The child tells him that it is impossible. Like feathers in the wind, we can’t put our words back in our mouths.

Since we can’t take our words or acts back once they are out there, this Yom Kippur I want to say:

1) I apologize for any words, actions or thoughts that may have been insensitive.

2) To anyone who might have offended me, I forgive you and know that we are all evolving. Hopefully, we can all evolve a little faster before we hurt anyone else’s feelings.

I wish for all of us that our personal journeys take us to a place of kindness and understanding. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

What Deathclock.com and Yom Kippur Have in Common

TimeNot long ago I was sitting at my computer playing around on the Internet and I found myself at deathclock.com, which bills itself as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” All you have to do is enter your date of birth, your gender, your “mode” (whether you’re normal, pessimistic, sadistic or optimistic), your height and weight, and your smoking status. Then you click a button that says “Check Your Death Clock” and it calculates your date of death.

I didn’t put in my information to “check my death clock.” I was so freaked out by the thought of knowing my date of death (or at least what deathclock.com predicted as my date of death) that I quickly left the website, and promised myself I’d never go back again.

But the reality is that even though I don’t want to know WHEN I’m going to die, I do have to accept the fact that I AM going to die. Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93 who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him while lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier: “Don’t be afraid. It happens to everyone.”

It’s a fact of life. …We’re all going to die.

And while I may never go back to deathclock.com, the reality of my mortality is something that I can’t avoid thinking about this time of year. Confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the Jewish High Holy Days, and especially of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, some Jews wear a white kittel (burial shroud) over their clothing, which serves as a reminder of our mortality. And in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Jews confront death when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing “who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.”

What I love about Yom Kippur is that this “confrontation with death” isn’t morbid or creepy. Rather, we confront death so that we can be more fully present in life. When we recognize and acknowledge that life is precarious, we realize how truly precious it is.

Every year at this time I ask myself: What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow? How would I live my life? How would I treat the people I love? Is there someone to whom I would apologize? Is there someone with whom I’ve lost touch who I want to reconnect with? I try to use the answers to questions like these to inform how I act during the High Holidays and in the year ahead.

These questions and others that help us to become better people and lead more meaningful lives are ones that we should all be asking ourselves throughout the year. And for Jews and those who are part of Jewish families, they are questions on which we should especially focus this time of year.

Hopefully, all of us can use our answers to the question “What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow?” to inform how we live TODAY.

What about you? Are there questions you’ve been thinking about this time of year? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

10Q: Reflection for All

The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Reboot logoEvery Yom Kippur, Viduy (Confessions) is recited by congregations around the world as a way to reflect on sins we did. Most of them do not apply to many of the readers here (we hope!) and can often seem a little off-putting. (We stole, we have transgressed, we have sinned…) The siddur literally creates a poem about sinning that goes from A to Z.

With 10Q, Nicola Behrman, Ben Greenman and Amelia Klein sought to do something a little different. To create a space of personal digital reflection where the important things in life could be measured from year to year.

How does it work? Sign up for 10Q and receive 10 questions in your inbox over the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur the answers to your questions will be put in a vault and returned to you the following year before Rosh Hashanah. Measure how far you have progressed and how far you have to go in your life goals. Your answers can be made private or public.

That’s it.

Since 2008, thousands of people have had the opportunity to reflect from year to year, and the response on Facebook and Twitter spans from heartwarming to heart breaking. Take the time to read through other people’s past responses at doyou10q.com.

We encourage people of all faith traditions and backgrounds to sign up for 10Q to reflect, react and renew. You can even bring it to your community or attend a live 10Q event.

As 5774 approaches, take some personal time to weigh your year and add more meaning when we come together to reflect.

Be a Better Person

I, like you, receive a large number of email messages every day. Messages from list serves often go unopened and unread. However, I was intrigued by the headline: “It’s that time of the year when Craig n’ Company offers you free Inspiration for the holy days without the Guilt!”

I kept reading. Jewels of Elul Vol IX, The Art of Welcoming is a booklet featuring “Jewels” from a wide variety of esteemed contributors. I don’t usually respond to name dropping, but this time it worked. On the list I saw my childhood rabbi, music specialists I worked with throughout my career, Rabbis and communal leaders I really look up to – I was in! Of course, it took 12 days before I finally clicked on my first (second, third and fourth) messages from this group of esteemed Jewish leaders. I quickly found that each message truly is a jewel!

Jewels of Elul

I want to share with you an excerpt from email #9 in the series (you can sign up to receive Jewels one by one in your inbox), the words of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Legal Counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. His article, titled Treat The Stranger That There Be No Stranger posits the following:

For more than a century, American Jewry’s passionate effort to ensure that America was a welcoming country for immigrants was infused by powerful historical lessons. We were, of course, the quintessential immigrant people, fleeing from land to land, looking for those rare countries that would welcome and perhaps even protect us. Our effort was, as well, a reflection of biblical values. We take pride that the most oft-repeated command of our tradition is to treat the stranger as ourselves. But what of our own community and our synagogues?

In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler vigorously called on us to reach out to “all who enter,” to open our congregations to intermarried families, later to the LGBT community, then to Jews through paternal descent. And then he called for our synagogues to become “caring communities” serving the actual needs of their members. There followed a different kind of welcoming as synagogues opened their hearts, doors and resources to absorb the deluge of “boat people” from Southeast Asia; Soviet Jews, Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews all followed.

Along the way, there were efforts to make our synagogues more accessible to differently abled Jews whose physical and mental capabilities made integration into our schools, our services, our programs an often discomforting challenge… In this New Year, may we so treat the stranger that there be no stranger in America’s synagogues.

I am challenging each of us as individuals to do our part for our community (big or small, near or far, no matter how you define community). In this New Year, what will YOU do to enable the differently abled, to welcome the stranger, the new immigrant, interfaith families, LGBTQ? How will you help the poor or feed the hungry?

If each of us does one thing to help the world, we can embody tikkun olam (repairing the world) and become a stronger world because of our efforts. You may not be required to solve all the world’s problems, but neither can you desist from trying to do your part (adapted from Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.