The Girls

My mother, may she rest in peace, had a red faux lizard skin case. Inside it was a bunch of tiles embossed with Chinese letters and designs, with pictures and numbers and who knows what else. There were also little plastic chips with the centers cut out to fit on spindles. Additionally, there were stands upon which to set up the tiles.

It may be that there were only two things my mother owned that were off-limits to us kids: her purse, and that case with the tiles and stuff. Along with the case, there was a blue card that apparently changed once in a while. My mother always got excited when “the new card” arrived in the mail. I remember looking at it from time to time as my mother studied it. Even after I learned how to read, I could never decode the cryptic lines of differently colored numbers.

Of course, it was all about mahjongg. Every 4th Wednesday night of the month, Faith and Anne and Lila and Gert would come over the house and engage in this strange ritual of clacking tiles and groans and odd utterances like, “5 Bam”, “2 Dots,” and so on. It was for women only – Jewish women , I assumed.

There was always coffee steaming in the Pyrex percolator, a coffee cake, and something called “bridge mix.” The ‘girls’ would laugh and laugh all night. I had no idea what they were doing, and I still don’t. But whatever it was they were doing, it looked and sounded great.

Children were categorically banned from the dining room when the girls were over for mahjongg. We could come to say good night, but that was all. None of us ever sought to test that law.

No one seems to know why or how Jewish women picked up the Chinese game of mahjongg in the ’20s and ’30s. I don’t know what the analog was for American women of different faiths. But for Jewish women, it was a mainstay, an important outlet for our mothers to relax, take time out, and enjoy adult female company.

The babyboomer generation of Jewish women has not, as a rule, followed in their mothers’ footsteps. Some do know how to play the game. Many have their mother’s mahjongg sets. But time has become so precious. Jewish women professionals are now expected to show up for their kids’ various practices and recitals and games, not to mention work full-time. Discretionary time hardly exists.

It was a mahjongg night the day my father died. I didn’t even think to call Anne or Faith or Gert or Lila. What did I know?  I was 14, with three younger siblings and a rotary phone. Of course, they came over.  I met them by the front door and awkwardly told them how my mother left the house in the ambulance and that father had had what looked like a heart attack. They wanted to know if we were ok. I reassured them that I had it under control, though, of course, I didn’t. They hugged me and left.

Years later, I found out that The Girls went to Middlesex Memorial Hospital to sit with my mother as she waited for the dire results. I remember being so touched that this circle of women existed for my mother, that she had friends who supported her, just as she had stood by them in their times of crisis.

My mother became a widow at age 38. She had four kids, all of whom would come to act out in various ways following our father’s death. She was a housewife who suddenly became a single mother whose husband died without an insurance policy or a will.

The Girls looked out for my mother. The entire Middletown Jewish community – a couple hundred families as I recall – looked out for her. People in the synagogue lent her money, helped pay tuitions, hired her for their stores, hired me for their stores. It was a quiet, loving, menschlich form of tzedakah that allowed my mother dignity as she received assistance without ever having to ask for it.

I never learned to play mahjongg, but the sounds of the tiles and the talking, and the smell of the coffee on a game night remain deep in the folds of my brain. So does my mother’s smile and her anticipation as she brought her faux-lizard case out of her closet. My mom, Shirley – one of The Girls – has been gone now for 12 years. But I still hear her voice: “One Bam, no Crak.”

Happy Mothers Day


I gaze out the window of my third-floor man-cave all of the time. It grounds me somehow, reminding me that there’s a larger world out there. During this pandemic, such a message has been neither simple nor superfluous. It’s the spot from which I’ve steadily Zoomed for a year. I’ve watched seasons come and go from this attic retreat. The leaves change, fall off, come back. I’ve watched the snow falling and the rain beating down. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end… you get it.

But this morning, I looked out the window and saw something new and beautiful. The wind began gusting like crazy! As it did so, I watched in awe as a cloud of cherry blossom petals flew past my window. This veil of petals seemed possessed, majestic in movement, graceful as it twisted in the air.

I planted the cherry tree from which these blossoms launched 24 years ago. My father-in-law, Herbie Weiss, brought it over. “Here you go, Keithy!” he exclaimed as he handed it to me. I hadn’t asked him for it. Frankly, I didn’t want to plant a tree in the front yard. I had visions of a flower garden for my new home. I didn’t want to add shade to the yard. I did not want to deal with the care and maintenance of a tree, no less a fruit tree.

But it was Herbie, standing there with this tree. It was his way of celebrating our arrival in Newton. What could I say? He was so exuberant, so sure it was just what I wanted. Of course, I took it from him and planted it.

The cherry tree is so big now. And yes, its shade causes problems and mars my grand plan for the garden. The cherries that grow on its branches are too small to eat – though the birds and the squirrels love them.

There are times when I thought about cutting the tree down (with apologies to George Washington). I would say to myself, “Someday, when Herbie is gone, I’ll cut it down.” After all, a gardener cannot afford to be sentimental. A good gardener will pull out weeds and flowers and bushes that are choking or overrunning the garden. That’s just the way it is. There’s a time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted.

I recently walked around the tree, thinking about how the canopy will continue to spread. Yes, the cherry blossoms are beautiful, but… I could use the space. I could use the wood for a table or a nice fire or something…

Herbie is gone now. Six months ago today, we buried him in that out-of-nowhere snowstorm on October 30th. It’s hard to conceptualize what it means to lose a loved one as measured by time. The funeral was six months ago. In this era after Herbie, I see the places he used to be in my memory, in my heart. Of course, for my wife Liza and her siblings, the places are so many and so deep.

Time is like fine-grained sandpaper, slowly rubbing away recollections and images. This is not disrespectful or selfish; it’s just true. This is the nature of memory and the human psyche. It’s why the Jewish tradition encourages us to remember our loved ones who have died with a yahrzeit memorial candle, a light bulb next to a name, attending a Yizkor service. It’s a way to spur our memories as we keep flowing with the river.

All day as the winds have continued to blow, I’ve watched cherry blossom petals. And every petal reminds me of Herbie in a sweet and gentle way. Sure: I could cut the tree down. I could make room for new flowers, expand the garden. But for now, I’m going to leave it alone. And I will remember when Herbie handed me that sapling as if it were a prize. Memory is bigger than a garden.

On the Porch

Immediately after open-heart surgery, my first cardiac rehab assignment was to stand up. I wasn’t allowed to use my arms to prop myself up from my seat. I had to rock back and forth, building momentum to carry me into an upright stance. It wasn’t fun, but at least I got my body moving through space.

During those early weeks of recovery, the doctor’s orders were clear and strict: no carrying anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Don’t overdo it. Get lots of sleep. I was an obedient patient. The days were long and arduous; just doing the simplest things pooped me out. It often felt as though I were living my life in slow motion.

I spent a lot of rehab time sitting on the front porch, looking at people walking by. There were few cars on our street in those days, which isn’t a busy thoroughfare to begin with. As I sat there, I also looked at my garden, slowly making its way back to life.  My eyes were drawn, reluctantly, to a clump of shrubs I’d planted 15 years ago. They were slowly taking over the valuable real estate of my garden, blocking flowers from view, swallowing up the nutrients from other perennials.

Six weeks following surgery, my doctor allowed me to start lifting things. The world around me was upside down, but I felt my strength slowly returning as my body healed. The world was coming back into focus. I looked at those overgrown bushes that I had planted with my own two hands. I had watered them, nurtured them. But now, I realized, it was time to uproot them.

Before I followed through, I wondered. Was it ok to take something I had planted and just get rid of it??  I could just leave it there. What the heck, I thought. Let it be and build the garden around these bushes. No. It was not time for the easy way.

So I walked over to the clump of bushes and started to pull. I had foolishly expected they would come up like a flower or a weed. But as I was to learn, they had rooted themselves deep into the soil. Additionally, they had combined their root systems to become stronger and more resilient. The gardening chore became my cardio rehab. I pulled roots out of the ground, slowly clearing the space, pulling, prying, using a pitchfork and a hoe and a garden saw and a rake and loppers and so forth.

It took me 15 hours of slow, sweat labor to complete my landscaping project. I was exhausted but exultant. I had not succumbed to the status quo. I did not take the path of least resistance. I had a vision, and I made it come to pass.

This experience in my garden last year helped lift my spirits. I was able to do something with a newly plumbed heart and felt terrific doing it. But it’s more than just the exertion that meant something to me. It was, I realized, a Zen activity, a teaching moment. In Ecclesiastes 3, we read that there’s a time for everything: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to plant, and a time to uproot that which has been planted.

The metaphor is compelling right now as we determine what was and what will be. It’s not like the High Holy Day liturgy, which declares that it is God who decides who shall live and who shall die. No, this is a time for human decisions, our decisions, as to who we will become. What will we abandon? What ways are gone? What new ways are already taking root? What have we learned during this past year of loss and upheaval? What will we choose to remember? What will we choose to forget?

A year has passed, and I look at my garden transformed, enlarged. It is the same earth, but more beautiful than ever. The sweat equity was worth it. It always is when the time comes for change.

“When we get to the end…”

In Stage Fright, one of The Band’s best songs ever, Robbie Robertson tremulously sings about the angst of performing in front of tens of thousands of people. He describes the fear, the physical pain, the dizzying panic that hovers close by. Yet, he declares, “When we get to the end/he wants to start all over again.” Around and around we go…

I was humming the melody to Stage Fright a few days ago. Sometimes a song starts playing in my auditory cortex. I have no idea why. But surely there are reasons… maybe I heard it in the background while on Zoom. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been going to the deep tracks of Passover this year, thinking about themes and paradoxes in the story and the impact they make.

A particular puzzle has to do with the very end of the Seder. I know that very few people make it to the end of their home seder. It’s tough to convince people with lots of wine, food, and dessert in them to return to the Haggadah. But if you do get there, you know that the last thing we do is sing Next Year in Jerusalem!

The message is more than a little ironic. We’ve just finished a long seder. We’ve learned together, feasted together, opened up our hearts and our minds to a collective memory of bondage and degradation. The celebration is all about one truth. We were slaves and suffered tremendously. We journeyed far. And we made it! Avadim hayinu, ata b’nei horin! Once we were slaves, and now we are free. This is not ambiguous. There is nothing opaque about the meaning of the moment.

And yet… when we get to the end, he wants to start all over again. What do you mean, next year in Jerusalem? Aren’t we done? Haven’t we accomplished what we set out to do?

Perhaps Jewish life is summed up in the cyclical nature of our rituals. We do the same things every year at the same time, acknowledging the flow of time and season. We get to the end of the Torah and then roll it back to the beginning. We finally conclude our Seder, realizing it’s a semicolon and not a new paragraph.

Jewish life is all about acknowledging that we are incomplete. We are never done, never allowed to lean back into our accomplishments. The river pulls us forward. There is always work to do: in the world, in our homes, in our souls. We may have arrived after the Exodus. We may rejoice in receiving the Torah. But we aren’t done. There is so much pain and incompleteness.

Listening to excerpts of the Derek Chauvin trial, I am often brought to tears. The stories about George Floyd, a hapless, loving soul, brutally murdered in a world so deformed by racism and prejudice. Is there any more evidence necessary to prove just how incomplete the world is?

Yes, we were redeemed at the Sea of Reeds. But others were not. So, our tradition teaches us, enjoy the feast, have a good time, take a few days off. But after the holiday, it’s time to start all over again. There’s work to do. We’re not in Jerusalem yet.

Shabbat Shalom

The Smell of Freedom

I smell like brisket right now. The scent permeates my home and my shirt. I’m a cologne guy since 7th grade when I got a bottle of Jade East as a Bar mitzvah present, so how I smell matters a lot to me.   

But I’m not bothered by the heady aroma of onions and ketchup and garlic, etc., that rises off me like the cloud above Pigpen of Peanuts fame (not of the Grateful Dead). Quite the opposite; I wear it a triumph, as a landmark turning point.  

Last year I was immersed in a cloud of post-op depression, moving slowly with my beloved heart pillow clutched tightly to my recently split and reglued chest. The seder table was not much of a seder table at all. Three places set, not the usual 40+—nothing exceptional cooking. In fact, by my wife and kids’ mandate, I was expressly not permitted to even stand in the kitchen no less cook. And, of course, there was the already ubiquitous iPad set for Zoom.

  Don’t get me wrong. I was profoundly thankful to see friends and relatives join us. At least we had that. But how could we think about the legacy of liberation and redemption when I felt so confined, limited, and fettered?   This Passover, I will have my family pod gathered along with relatives and the machatunem (in-laws). Everyone around the pod is vaccinated. It’s such a blessing.

And I am deeply thankful: to the scientists who developed the vaccine, the lab people who helped with the grunt work of performing experiment after experiment, the pharma people who mass-produced it, the government that invested in it, the people who packed it and delivered it safely, the people who gave the shots… and the rest of the folks who all had a hand in vaccinating me and the rest of the country – and eventually, the world.  

I don’t mind smelling like my childhood kitchen before Passover. Because it means I’m making seder dinner, up close and personal. As my mother would say, “What a mechiyah!”   

Last year it didn’t seem right or possible to pray about the Exodus and our redemption. There was so much darkness, so much in the way. But this year, a new day is slowly dawning. This year it feels right; no, it feels necessary to recall our liberation back then and anticipate our future deliverance.    I pray that this Passover heralds a new moment of opening of souls and hearts even as our society opens up.

Can we take all we’ve learned and create a better life based on the lessons of Covid? That’s the question, and I challenge you to bring it up. Make this a Passover of meaning and consequence.    Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you a zissen Pesach (a sweet Passover).   May we all be healthy and vaccinated, and free. I look forward to hugs and kisses and tears. I miss you all. Next year in Jerusalem.   

With love and blessings,   rebhayim


I woke up the other day at 4am. I wasn’t happy about it. Sleep for me is not a welcome break or a blessed part of the day. I’m not very happy about going to sleep. It’s a chore to be checked off my must-do list – and I hate must-do lists.

My evening ritual revolves around what to do before I give it the old college try – come on! You can do it! – and turn off the light. I’ll read. Or I’ll do the New York Times daily crossword on my phone. Or I’ll send a few emails or look at Instagram. It’s all about brokering a nightly truce between my waking brain that just wants to do more and the primate brain that, seeing it’s dark, wants to find a safe place and sleep for 12 hours.

So I’m up at 4am. Fine. I had a Diet Coke at 11pm. An early morning pitstop are the dues you have to pay. But as I come to consciousness, having been asleep for probably 4 hours, I’m not grumbling about rising from under the covers. I’m thinking deeply about potholders. No, not a stash from a local dispensary, but actual potholders made from some stretchy synthetic fabric.

One of the only crafts activities I can remember from my youth is making potholders. I’m sure that everyone has done this. You start with a metal frame the size of a matzah. The frame has raised nubs along its perimeter. You take rubber band-like rings and stretch them across the frame. Next you weave another set of rings through the stretched fabric. And then voila: you have a potholder.  Well, almost…

My son, Jonah, loves drawing and has bequeathed to his kids, particularly to Sylvie, a real knack for it. Maggie, my daughter-in-law, is similarly gifted in arts and crafts. She shows my grandkids how to create beautiful, interesting art as an expression of their joy and their sadness. They already have an MFA-quality collection of oils and watercolors and sculpture and crafts galore.

And I had potholders… But here’s the thing – 1. potholders shouldn’t even be called potholders. They conduct the heat way too quickly to be helpful. They’re fine as coasters. 2. they ALL look the same. 3. Once washed they shrink, becoming even less helpful than they are.

But there was a problem with potholders in my craft-less abode. To the best of my recollection,  no one knew how to take them off the frame. They’d sit on the frame until I took it off, surprised that it fell apart.

Is this pathetic story about the benign neglect of my childhood, or a telling look into my inability to apprehend reality? I fear, perhaps, it’s a depressing combination of the two.

By now I’m sure you’re asking yourself what I was asking myself at 405am: why potholders? And why am I writing this story to you? As to the first question, I don’t know why I dreamt about potholders, nor do I see a direct unconscious process connection. But why am I sharing it? Why did I scribble the word, ‘potholder’ on the back of an envelope at 410am? Ok.

Our lives are filled to the brim with moments and objects that we wouldn’t buy at a flea market. Products we’ve purchased, used once, and then cast into a bottomless tchotchke drawer. Books we’ve purchased that are never opened and used to prop up an air conditioner. Best of intentions projects we’ve prepped for that we haven’t gotten to – yet.  Vegetables meant for a dinner long past, slowly rotting in the back of the refrigerator… Talk about your deplorables.

The fact is that we all have this miasma hovering around us, this miniature plastic island floating along in our tiny sea. Add it to the volumes of things we’ve said that we regret, and the equally large collection of the things we wanted to say but didn’t.

Our lives are filled with things undone, mindless activity without any sense of completion, potholders on frames. Yet somehow, surrounded though we are by these frustrating little

cul-de-sacs, we can accomplish deeds of meaning. It’s about finding the energy to gently push the detritus aside to see the real goals, to experience our deepest sense of soul.

I can’t make a potholder. I don’t know how to take it off the frame. Arts and crafts aren’t my game. But my waking mind still wants to learn, to dig deep into the cosmos and consciousness. There a lot more projects out there.a

Living Waters

At some point in January, my wife, Liza, asked me a simple question: what do you want to do next month to mark the first anniversary of your open-heart surgery? Perhaps in another time and place, I may have suggested a gathering of friends and family to acknowledge this huge moment in my life. Good food, heart-friendly and otherwise, jazz, and lots of hugs, sounded like a fitting way to give thanks.

However, the default format of celebration – easy, defined, fun – was not available to me or anyone else. There could be no party. There could be no libation. And, worst of all, there could be no hugs from friends and non-podded family.

On February 7th, 2020 I had a routine stress test at BI, just days before I was to co-lead a group of our temple teens to Israel. I felt fine as the treadmill sped up, but I didn’t like the way my telemetry was being eyed by the techs in the room. Techs will never divulge the results of a test, but I could tell that something was up.

And there was something up. The cardiologist at the test site told me that he had concerns and needed to know more about what exactly was going on. He called my cardiologist and my primary care doctor. In short order I was taken to the cath lab, prepped, catheterized, all the while, feeling fine.

I received the diagnosis an hour or so later, my daughter Zoe, a nurse practitioner, hovering over me the whole time. My doctor, Johanna Klein, my cardiologist, Loryn Feinberg, and the heart surgeon, Kamal Khabbaz, were unanimous in their recommendation: I needed bypass surgery.

Two weeks later I was in the operating room. The surgery went very well: no complications, no surprises. I emerged from the anesthesia, extubated, and then wheeled to the CCU. The care I received was nonpareil: lots of attention and concern.

As we drove to BI before sunrise on February 21st, the world had already heard about Covid, but few were ready for what would follow. Hospital procedures had not yet changed. No one was wearing a mask. I had copied an article written the day before my surgery by a Harvard Med School professor, David Bloom, fully intending to read it when I got back home. The title was, Coronavirus: We need to start preparing for the next viral outbreak now. The day after I got home on February 25th, the New York Times published an article that said, “In spite of the spread of coronavirus, experts say it’s safe to travel with your children in the U.S.—for now.”

Within a few weeks, everything changed, everything shut down.

As I watched the world implode from my recliner, I wondered if I would ever get out again. Post-op from open-heart surgery, I was at the top of the immuno-compromised list. Cardio rehab was shut down. I felt like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, doing pushups for Lou Gossett Jr, and crying, “I got no place to go! I got no place to go!” But, in the end, most everyone was doing the pushups, exclaiming the same sad fate.

The year has been filled with loss and pain, but also with accomplishments and beauty. I’ve done too many small funerals and virtual shiva minyanim, and not enough weddings and babynamings/brisses. I have mourned the loss of loved ones and temple members near and dear to my heart. And, I am fully recovered from my surgery, vaccinated, ready for the next chapter.

So how to mark this most extraordinary year of recovery without streamers and ice cream? I realized that I did not want a party or a gathering, virtual or podded. I needed to turn inward. I needed to connect to the deep trauma my body sustained. I had been cracked open and attached to a machine. I was fully unconscious, of course. But my body, every fiber of muscle and tissue, every cell, was awake. I don’t know the science, but I do know that muscle memory, the deepest level of quantum consciousness, was engaged and traumatized. This may be why so many post-op open-heart patients experience depression. Our bodies have been compromised to save us. I get it. But does my liver?

While I was at Cape Cod this past January, I walked along the shore. It was very cold; the wind tore in from the northeast. Sea ice had formed. I gazed out beyond the ocean’s edge in the harsh grey light. The sea’s surface appeared frozen and unyielding. Yet I knew that, below the surface, the seawater was moving, congealing. And below that, the tide was still pulling the waves, deep deep down to the seafloor. Water, a simple molecular combination, one thing, so many different things, all at the same time.

The water reflected how I felt about my life and the complexities of existence. So simple and finite, so tentative and vulnerable. So weak, so resilient… all in one little life. It was then that I knew how I would acknowledge my year of healing amidst a year of vast destruction and sadness. It would just be me and the waters of the mikveh. I needed quiet time to immerse myself in the truth of my complexities. I needed to ask my body for forgiveness if that makes any sense. I needed to show special respect and gratitude for the workings of the myriad systems that were so terribly stressed during surgery. I had to go to the mikveh to find healing.

I scheduled my immersion for a Friday afternoon, the last appointment of the day. It was cold and thoroughly unpleasant outdoors. When I arrived at Mayyim Hayyim, I felt both at home – I’ve brought so many people there for conversions, I’m on the board – and slightly dislocated. It was very quiet and empty; I’d never experienced Mayyim Hayyim as quiet and empty in the shared spaces.

It was chilly in the building. I thought about the waters I’d looked out at on the Brewster flats in January as I showered and prepared to enter the mikveh. I wondered how the waters here would receive me in the transformative space. I hoped the water would be warm.

I entered the mikveh and recited the traditional prayer for ritual immersion, words I’d guided people through as they entered these very same waters, for conversion. Only now I was saying them for myself. The water was warm and enveloped my body. I went under the water and came up very slowly. And I did it again, seven times, all told. I then stood up in the water, held onto the edge of the mikveh, and I wept. So much sadness spilling out. So much anxiety and exhaustion. I traced the long scar that travels the length of my sternum and recited the traditional blessing that acknowledges the miracle of being alive. My tears comingled with the waters of the mikveh.

I spent about 20 minutes in the mikveh. When I got out, I felt so heavy, so weighted down. It was as if the waters had compressed my body, that my soul had collected the pain of my surgery and the pain of the pandemic. Eventually, my body regulated, establishing a center of balance. I drove home quietly, deliberately. I felt grief and joy mix together, which is, after all, a common Jewish experience.

The sea, the tears, the ice, all a single, simple element. My life: finite, fragile, here and gone. So simple. So complex. So much blessing, all pooled together in living waters.

Out Here

I’m not an early riser. I prefer staying up late. It’s always been that way, ever since I was a little kid. Over the past several years I’ve read so many articles about why it’s healthier to go to bed early and rise early. I get the medical position on it all. I do. It makes sense. But inevitably when someone – often my nurse practitioner daughter, Zoe – directs me to follow this medical advice, I quote Willie Nelson: “The night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life”.

While my night owl habits are still largely intact as I age, I am now waking up early in the morning, my brain already fully engaged by certain big questions and challenges. This unfortunate development tends to pop my eyes open way too early in the morning – 6:30am!

I’ve been focusing a lot of spiritual and planful time pondering the question, “What now?” What can I do in the world now that I am vaccinated? When can I travel? When can we gather together in the sanctuary? In a restaurant? When can we hug each other?

We’ve all been living in such an insular world, surrounded by our four walls. Technology has been our only doorway to meaningful connection. This reality has increased our focus on life in a very internal space, physically and spiritually. “Out there” feels further and further away.

It occurred to me recently that this applies to how we see – or don’t see – the rest of the world. We are so tuned out of other space and other people’s lives. For instance, we haven’t spent any time talking about Israel. Even though our congregation has a strong connection to Israel; even though we have traveled there with different cohorts over the years – we’re out of touch. And that’s with a nation to which we are tightly connected. What about, well, anywhere else?

We’ve been inside for so long, it’s hard to remember what it’s like out there. We have a hard time navigating international news in the easiest of times. In this pandemic world, it is infinitely worse. It challenges our ability to empathize with others, to feel a sense of compassion for the suffering of Venezuelan refugees or the people of Myanmar or… any number of other fellow citizens of this planet.

In the book of Genesis, there is a beautiful and evocative scene between God and Abraham. It sprang into my brain the other morning at around 630am. Abraham is concerned that he and Sarah will not be able to fulfill the promise they have made to God to be the father and mother of the Jewish people. He’s been brooding in his tent, dejected, eyes downcast.

 God takes Abraham out of his tent and says to him, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And God added, “So shall your offspring be.” Stop looking down! Stop feeling limited by your goatskin tent. The world is not your tent; it’s out here. Your destiny is not to be found inside – it’s out here where the line to infinitude is in the stars.

Perhaps this year has felt like the title of Richard Farina’s novel, Been Down So Long Looks Like Up to Me. We’ve been inside for so long that it’s taken over our sense of self. We are obsessively warned about how vigilant we must be, even as the sensational success of the three vaccines is downplayed. We feel the confinement is now our human condition.

God pulled Abraham out of his tent to look up and take in the sheer transcendent magnificence of the nighttime sky. We are a part of this Universe: expanding, brilliant, impossibly huge beyond our capacity to understand. We are stardust, a part of a cosmos filled with the thrum of connection and time. When God says to Abraham, “Count the stars”, the Holy One knows that Abraham can never count to stars. The idea isn’t to quantify; it’s to appreciate, to find inspiration.

What now? Who knows? But this I can tell you: it’s not in your living room or your study or your laptop. It’s not in the tent. It’s out here.

Mars and More

Mazel tov to all of us! NASA has landed a new probe on Mars! It’s not the first; there have actually been a few. But this one, the Perseverance, is incredibly exciting due to its advanced technological capability. It’ll drive around the planet for 2 years, taking photos and measurements. It will also release the Ingenuity, a small 4lb helicopter drone, that will fly around the surface of the planet, traveling greater distance than the Perseverance can reach. The flight of the Ingenuity will be the first-time humans have achieved flight on another planet. Amazing.

The many tasks for the Perseverance include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

The Perseverance will also drill down for regolith samples that will be remotely picked up and brought back to Earth in 10 years. Finally, scientists will have the opportunity to find evidence that once there was life on Mars, organic matter of some sort. It is an extraordinary time for interplanetary exploration and knowledge.

What might it feel like to be the first humans examining Martian regolith? And perhaps the first humans to see actual incontrovertible proof that once there was life on Mars? It would be the start of a new era, and we’d never look up into the nighttime sky in quite the way we had before Perseverance.

When I read the way engineers have planned to get those samples back to Earth, and how long it would take to get them, I paused. Ten years… That’s a long time. And I want to be around to read about it, to see the photos, to listen to the scientists describe it.

Along with my hope to be in good health ten years from now, I also have a concern. In ten years, what will the world look like?  What kind of shape will our nation be in?  Will people care about these samples being fetched across space from almost 130 million miles ?

It could go so wrong. With so many in America still proclaiming lies about the recent presidential election, and so many held in thrall by dangerous, hate-inspired conspiracies, our nation could become a land covered in darkness by the eclipse of reason and strangled by white supremacy. This is not some idle anxiety. We all have more than enough proof to genuinely worry for the future of the United States as a freedom loving democracy, comprised of so many races and religions and points of origin.

One of the images that stubbornly sticks in my mind from the insurrection is a rioter, wearing a MAGA hat, beating a police officer with a flagpole; American flag still attached. It was such a devastating incident to witness. It was as if this criminal was desperately beating a cop to somehow beat back the truth of an America he could not countenance. His violence mirrored the sorriest part of the American story that has always been diverted from our eyes: that some white Americans are threatened by the other: Black, Brown, Jewish, Hispanic, LGBT, and so on. And when threatened, they will resort to violence and exclusion, whether by burning a cross, lynching a Black man, enacting Jim Crow laws, etching a swastika on a wall, passing anti-LGBT legislation, blocking American citizens from their right to vote… and so on…

There is, however, a counter-image. It’s from the Perseverance landing. This is not a reference to the first photo from Mars, though that was very cool. No. The counter-image is the photo taken of Mission Control personnel when they received the signal confirming the Perseverance had landed safely.

Remember all the movies and tv shows about space, and how Mission Control was always filled with white guys in white short-sleeve shirts, most of them smoking Camel straights? And remember actual Mission Control videos, and how they were, in fact, white guys in white shirts smoking Camel straights? Mission Control for the Perseverance was another picture altogether. No one was smoking. There were no white shirts, just blue polos.

The counter-image: even with their masks on, it was easy to discern that the room was filled with men and women. They were White and Black and Brown. They were Asian and South Asian. And they were cheering for and with each other.  People from six different continents collaborated, transcending the limitations of language and the infinitude of space.

What would it take for our nation to pin that picture to the bulletin board of our hearts? What would happen if we chose that achievement of communication and cooperation over the execrable acts of destruction and desecration?

My Teacher Chick Corea

Our teachers come to us from so many places. The classroom is, of course, the traditional location for learning. I remember some of my teachers so well. Mrs. Marshall, of 4th and 6th grade, taught me how to think critically about what I do and what I say. My 5th-grade teacher, Mr. Krupa, taught me how to carry a football. Mr. Kleiman, my Hebrew School teacher in 4th grade, taught me how to read and write Hebrew. At Wesleyan, Rabbi Michael Berenbaum taught me how to read traditional and contemporary texts and approach the Holocaust.

But we have so many other teachers in our lives, people who have never met us but whose impact is profound and everlasting. The writer Ray Bradberry taught about the wonderment of imagination through science fiction. The philosopher, Richard Rubenstein, taught me about the deepest dimensions of Jewish life after Auschwitz. A guy named Elliot taught me how to open my car’s frunk off of a YouTube video.

And then there’s music. Some lyricists have taught me how to express the pain of losing love. The first time I heard the Beatles For No One from the Revolver album, I was 13. Now, what did I know of real heartbreak? Not much. Yet that song knocked me sideways, and it prominently featured in subsequent breakups. It gave me insight into the vocabulary of emotion.

I’ve never met Paul McCartney, and I never had the pleasure of shmoozing with John Lennon. But they gave me more than entertainment. They gave me insight into the reaches of the human spirit. Lennon and McCartney rank up there with my reading teacher of first grade: they provided me with tools for perceiving the Universe and how I fit in it.

Then there are my jazz teachers, and there are so many. Today I am thinking about Chick Corea, a foundational jazz pianist, and virtuoso, who died yesterday. His death felt very sudden, and it hit me hard. His fellow pianist, McCoy Tyner, died almost one year ago. He was another favorite of mine. He taught me about the way music tells a story without lyrics.

McCoy played with a kind of power and energy that engaged me at the very core of my being. He taught me how to let go of the linear and step into the rarified air of improvisation and dare to follow one line, then another, then another… and then return to Earth, safe and sound.

McCoy did not go for funk or fusion. He was an acoustic piano man. While he didn’t disdain other musicians or their choices of expression, McCoy had his wheelhouse and pretty much stayed in it his entire career. I experienced him as a rather formal character, who could sometimes be austere even when he was swinging hard.

Chick Corea, whose chops were deep and mighty, taught me about the beauty of music and how it inspires and honors the human soul. His music touched me to my core.  Chick taught me something else, something about flexing to try new things and go other places. Chick created over 70 recordings and played on hundreds of others. His discography is jaw-dropping. He didn’t get hung up on labels. He played spectacularly intricate solos that pushed into avant-garde jazz. He played flamenco melodies. He played with Bobby McFarren. One of his last releases was a virtuosic recording of classical music.

My teacher, Chick Corea, taught me to transcend traditional boundaries. He pointed out that the unifying quality of music transcends the channels through which it flows. Chick could and did laugh and groove during a performance. He could also be very focused and intense.

Yesterday my teacher, Chick Corea, died of cancer. He was from Chelsea, MA. His given name was Armando Anthony Corea. He taught me all about the beauty and multi-dimensionality of music. He taught me that life is about revering traditional forms and then stretching to embrace as much as possible that is new and exciting. I will miss him.