Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.
I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.
I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.
Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.
I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.
One of my favorite things about living in the Northeastern United States is apple picking. Relating to the Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating apples and honey, an apple picking event is a wonderful opportunity to build community.
In mid-September, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia co-sponsored an apple picking event on a Sunday morning in Chester County with jkidphilly. It was a beautiful day and the orchard (Highland Orchards) was a wonderful spot. I was fortunate enough to be working with Robyn Cohen from jkidphilly and we assisted the kids in making a fun craft.
Did you know that with a small plastic horn blower and a paper plate, kids can make their own shofar? The kids decorated the paper plates with apple stickers and crayons and behold, the shofars were fabulous. The kids could make some noise with their new shofars and it didn’t bother anyone! And if they got a little “energetic” there was a playground right next to our picnic tables for them to let off a little joyous energy.
The parents and kids were able to mingle and learn a little about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I particularly love the comparison of a shofar to an alarm clock—waking us up from our daily activities and alerting us to the new possibilities of the fall, a New Year and renewed spirit. There is something special about the fall sunshine on an orchard that warms the soul. Apples are so sweet and the kids love being involved in harvesting the fruits of their labor. There were over 25 families who attended the pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking in Chester County. If you are interested in attending similar events, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!
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:
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.
As 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.
I 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.
Have 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.
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.
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.
Every 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.
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.
As 5774 approaches, take some personal time to weigh your year and add more meaning when we come together to reflect.
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:
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.