A Lifejacket

This is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of return and repentance. This particular Shabbat is a rowboat on the seas of the Days of Awe. We feel secure as the waves gently undulate beneath us. We hold our oars and know how to navigate, to port or starboard. We are lulled by the sounds of the sea that are, after all, the first sounds we heard while still in utero. The repetitive rhythm comforts us.

And yet we know how quickly things can change when a storm is coming. The sky darkens. The wind changes direction. The sea, once so calm and nurturing now becomes rougher, and we begin to feel unsafe, and vulnerable.

Yom Kippur is the rough sea ahead. It’s a time to think about who we are and what we are supposed to be. It’s a time to shed light on the darker places of our soul. We know we didn’t always do the best we could do. Instead we did  the expedient thing. We took shortcuts. We chose the easy way, not the best way. We have said things we regret. And we have left unsaid words of love and comfort. And forgiveness.

The best thing we could possibly do over Yom Kippur is to think about who we want to be in 5781. It’s about the only thing we do have control over. It’s the only thing we can be sure of in this new year: that we have choices. We are not doomed to stay locked in regret and grudges. We are not consigned to the locked room of resentment . We hold the key. Are we willing to do the work to open the door of our heart?

It’s complex, you might say. I know. You may candidly acknowledge that your anger and hurt feel too important and definitional to let go of, that somehow forgiveness makes you weak. But forgiveness is a sign of strength and character. And: it’s really difficult. But letting go of the sharp pieces you’ve held so close to your chest is profoundly liberating.

But this is Shabbat Shuva, the calm before the storm. Right now, in this space in time. Breathe. Feel the warmth of this day. Give thanks. Call someone with whom it’s been too long and just say, “I’ve been thinking about you. Have a safe new year and have a meaningful fast.” Nothing fancy. If you have someone to hug and/or kiss, give them a special one, a Shabbat Shuva kiss for comfort and appreciation.

Then get the oars out. Check the soundness of your boat. We’ll provide the lifejackets.  

Here It Comes

It’s a cool, cloudy morning. The leaves are turning and starting to fall. The colors of my garden are fading. Yes, there’s no mistaking it: this is it. The new year has arrived.

Tonight will be familiar and yet, so different. We’ll be together in the way we always are to welcome the new year. But the way we’ll be gathered, well, that’s a first.

Rabbi Larry Kushner calls Rosh Hashanah “the annual meeting of the Jewish people.” I love that image and it’s sustained me for almost 40 years in the pulpit. It’s the homecoming, the enormous satisfaction that comes with seeing one’s community in attendance. It’s reassuring and powerful. It directly links us to our first tribal assembly at Mt Sinai.

This time, the gathering is remote. There are no hugs, no sharing photos, no catching up face to face. All we have is the link you click on to be here now.

But that’s ok. Most of us have handled online zoom chats with friends, family, business, commerce, music, lectures – it’s a part of the landscape now. We can do this.

What to wear? Put on a tallit? How to set yourself up? Where to sit? When to click in, live or delayed? That’s your call. For some, tonight will feature Susan singing, me talking, Jamie playing, and a big bowl of popcorn, and sweats. For others, it’s dress for the occasion: a new outfit, an actual dress shirt and a tie! It’s all about how you want to settle in for the service. Sing out loud, follow along, Facetime with a friend and participate in the service together. There’s no right way, only your way.

Let us know between now and Sukkot what it’s like. We want to share the home experiences we’re having. It’s another way to share and celebrate together. And don’t worry – there is no judgement. Many people – particularly in my family – have longed to put me on hold…

Your TBA staff – all of them – has worked long into the night over the last few months to make this a memorable, spiritually significant experience. In the beginning, it may feel weird and slightly surreal; I’m pretty sure I’ll feel that way, too. But I’ll be looking at you. I’ll be connecting to you. And we will connect to each other through the speed of light and sound. And through history and memory. And through familiar liturgy and music written on our hearts.

Please email Becky Oliver (boliver@bethavodah.org) wish her a sweet new year and then tell her why she is the most extraordinary woman ever: able to leap tall buildings, send out links, consider camera angles and raise two school-aged boys with her terrific husband, Mike. Let me put it simply: without her, we would be pale and anemic, monaural and blurry. She’s on the rainbow side of Oz.

Eileen Brooks has gone so far and above the call of duty. There are countless examples of her dedication and creativity all over the HHD: colors, fonts, information access, Facebook links, video, and more. She has kept connecting us since the pandemic began – and before.

Amy Tonkonogy has devoted countless hours to helping us put together a service experience online that is utterly nonpareil. Her eye for detail, her producer’s acumen, and her love of TBA, combine to give all of us the extraordinary opportunity to be present and engaged in this strange new world of 5781.

Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you a sweet new year. We pray that you and yours stay healthy and safe. We entreat you to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and social distance.

I know that it’s a tradition to say, “L’shana haba-ah b’yerushalayim” at the end of a seder. This year, I will add a similar aspiration: l’shanah haba-ah b’chazera lbeit tifilateinu: next year, back here: in our holy space, at TBA.

See you in a little while.

Shabbat Shalom and shana tova,

rebhayim

The Glow of the Unknown

Memory can be so unforgiving. The name of a song, the name of a place, the blank drawn when someone places you in a story and you don’t remember even being there, that sheepish headshake when you find yourself looking in the refrigerator – or online – or in the closet – and you have no earthly idea what you were looking for. It’s a strange sensation to experience just how fleeting the past can be.

Clearly traumatic memories are stored in another part of the brain. I know this because every time I glance at a digital clock and the time is 9:11, I am shaken. Not incapacitated, but taken aback. It’s like having a hidden bruise that gets bumped while you’re doing something, and it’s momentarily shocking that it still hurts 19 years later.

There are two different levels of my 9/11 memories. One level is the experience itself. It’s the pain and the shock of others: the scenes on tv of folks fleeing the crumbling towers, covered in ash and dust and blood. It’s the people who were up close to me, people suffering the unthinkable loss of a son, a child, a husband, a future. It was deep appreciation for Heidi Baker and Rachel Segall who were woven into my life that day as we attempted to swim to the surface of what-needs-to-be-done.

The other level of memory is the experience of my experience. It was my own disequilibrium and fear. It was like an existential vertigo.  How did I manage to think straight? How did I process it all? I do know that however I experienced the world changed me.

This is the tricky thing about memory. Neuroscientists say that our memories are not cast in bronze. They change and warp and flex like soap bubbles that sometimes pop. So the memory of what was back then has been filtered and altered by subsequent encounters. I can’t truly know what I knew or felt then, which is its own interesting phenomenological problem. But I surely know how it’s resonating right now.

The predominant feeling of 9/11 that plays when I let it out and reflect on it is utter disorientation. After being with David Retik’s family I arrived home to learn that my next-door neighbor, Danny Lewin, of Akamai, was on the same flight. An omen of catastrophe and loss.  What next? Is everything I know about to fall apart?

You may remember that all air traffic was suspended for a few days right after 9/11. Newton Centre is in a very heavily traveled air route: there’s hardly a moment when, if you glance up from the TBA parking lot, you won’t see a plane or contrails. I didn’t know that then as I stared into the beautiful blue firmament. It was so quiet. And so surreal. Because the quiet was not emerging from a meditative space. Rather, it came from shapeless, unanticipated, unnamed fear.

There is something so similar about COVID time and memories of 9/11. It’s the inchoate fear, the looming presence of the unanticipated, the “what’s next” of it all that has been like the terrifying orange glow in the skies of northern California, a harbinger, of what…?

It’s 19 years since that terrible day. And the memories always put me in a contemplative funk. But even as I write these words, I know that’s a common condition these days. Perhaps one of the lessons I’ve learned since 9/11 helps me contextualize COVID time. This life is the only one we’re going to get. What are we going to do with it? The fear is real. The darkness is real. But so, too, is our resolve to keep going, to keep believing that there is something greater out there, something that’s worth the struggle, something that inspires us to reach down deep for courage and resolve.

We who were witnesses to 9/11 continue to live and remember, and in the mysterious glow of the unknown we hold on tighter to what we do know: that love and connection keep us whole and alive. That those who have lost have found. That trauma and the loss do not evaporate in the hot sun, but are incorporated into the waters of time that draw us down the river.

Next Friday night is Rosh Hashanah. Come connect and celebrate our collective resilience and our ability to pick our way out of the fear to love.

Shana Tova

rebhayim

The High Holy Days Are So Big

The High Holy Days are so big, so truly filled with awe! As the day rapidly approaches (Monday night, by the way), I get into my New Year mindset. I hear “Avinu Malkenu” playing in my head all the time, like Christmas music after Thanksgiving. “V’Al Kulam” plays a lot, too. It’s the melodies that touch the softest places of memory, holy days of the past, memories of friends and loved ones who are gone.
These thoughts and melodies inevitably open gates of contemplation that lead me to various significant High Holy Day concepts. The ones that always rattle my cage are all from the prayer known as U’Netaneh Tokef. I call them the Big Three: Tshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. 

 These words really affect me. It’s like God calling: “Pssssssssst! Hey you! Yeah you, the big bald guy with the beard! Pay Attention! Have you been taking care of business? How’s the asking forgiveness thing going? [That’s tshuvah.] And what about spiritual intentionality in your prayer life? [That’s tefillah.] And what’s the quality of your giving of time and your cash? [That’s tzedakah.]”
Well I hope you can imagine my response, which is flustered.   First I get defensive. I reach for my catalogue of good deeds, thinking, “I’ll show you God! Look at the size of this catalogue!” I’m thinking, man oh man, I have done lots of good things. Then I lift my book of good deeds and it’s light as a feather, paltry, embarrassing… And then it’s back to the Three Ts.
There’s no room for hubris and ego on the threshold of a new year. It has to be about honesty and vulnerability towards ourselves, to God, and to each other.  As much as we’ve accomplished, there’s still more to do. How we do it, how we choose to be honest and forthright, right now! reflects our willingness to take these next days seriously or not. 
I beseech you, as your rabbi and fellow traveler on the great road of repentance, to lay down your defensiveness, to consider responding to the Big Three. I know this is not easy to consider, really I do. And if you don’t do it, if you completely blow off the High Holy Days, if you don’t click on the link to services, or if you do log on but you don’t bother taking it –any of it – to heart, nothing bad will happen to you. No religious police will hunt you down. You are free! And I certainly won’t lay a guilt trip down on your head, that’s for sure.
But here’s what you lose. You lose a chance to find yourself. You miss a chance to gain courage to confront the terrible weight you’ve carried on your back until your shoulders ache. You miss the chance to feel nurtured by words and thoughts and melodies, to know that within the virtual world we create online, you count, you are important. You miss the chance to ask forgiveness from someone you really hurt. You miss the chance to spiritually grow in the light of God’s presence that shines on you through the eyes of every person in the virtual sanctuary.
I know it’s hard to believe. But it’s all right here, waiting. Open your heart. Open your mind. As Ram Dass nee Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton, once said, “Be here now.” I couldn’t agree more.


I wrote this essay 12 years ago. And it’s so odd to reread it and consider who I was then: my age, my sense of the world, and the world’s sense of me. I’m sharing it with you as a reflection of the past, and of the abiding transcendent truth of our tradition. The writer has aged, but the text is still bold as love.

No Boundaries

The other day I was engaged in some pre-High Holy Day wordsmithing – what else would I be doing?  I looked at some past notes and saw a favorite thought about Jews and Yiddish and what the language reveals about us. The standard Yiddish greeting is, “Vos machs du a Yid?” This doesn’t mean, “How are you?”, but rather, literally, “What are you making, bro?”

I suppose over the centuries wellbeing could be measured in what one produced, or what one’s skill set was. I began to think about that; what do I make?  I can use tools, roll a Torah, cook a good meal without a recipe, drive a car, and so forth.

I think at this stage of my life and in this particular Universe, I have a decent enough skill set. I’m not looking for any new merit badges. The notion of a bucket list, so compelling for some people, ignites no fire beneath me. It’s not that I don’t want to go places and do things I haven’t ever done. But frankly, these days I don’t think about traveling, because I don’t know when that will happen again. I probably should be amassing a bunch of really inexpensive plane tickets and making reservations for a luxury suite in Jerusalem for the 2021-22 season. I’m sure I’ll be reading articles about the smart folks who strategically made plans and put money down.

On the one hand, you could argue that these past months have felt constricting, filled with compelling reasons to stay in place. The limitations are truly grievous, and I often feel angry about it, that I can’t see who I want to see when I want to see them.

On the other hand, and quite remarkably, the very experience of being cloistered has led me to a rather remarkable conclusion. My state of consciousness is growing. No, I’m not a Timothy Leary proponent, and this is not a psychedelic experience to which I’m referring. It’s my brain’s response to the closed-in nature of my existence to push outward, to expand. It could be what happens when one’s mind gets gummed up by a form of existential claustrophobia.

I was about to go off on an extended tangent about the amazing adventures in astrophysics I’ve been having. I actually have an astrophysics mentor who periodically sends me articles and videos and then has the enormous fortitude to field my essentially moronic questions about black holes and gravity and the spacetime continuum and so forth.

But I stopped. Because you probably aren’t reading this for a discussion on event horizons and singularities. And because the essence of my excitement, the feeling I truly want to share is that aging is not the dimming of the day. The life of the mind doesn’t seem to care all that much about mortality. There is no speed limit to learning, to expanding consciousness.

My daily hope and desire is that by the end of the day I will have acquired some new fact or concept, something that makes me pause and take a short breath, and say, “I never knew that!” It can something as superficial as a sighting in Djibouti of a weird mammal called an elephant shrew, which I’ve never seen or heard of. Or it can be as ridiculously intense and complicated as string theory or the hard problem of consciousness.

It is this accrual of information that pushes my consciousness further. Every new thing lights a torch that burns brightly. It’s a potent reminder that feeling restricted and cut off does not mean I am a prisoner of my fate. This period in our collective existence is intense and uncertain. But the boundaries end as soon as we embrace learning for learning’s sake. It is what gives us strength and illumines our paths.

Did you know that there are more stars than grains of sand on the beaches of the Earth?

Keep going. Keep growing.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Puzzle Pieces

I got an email last week from Ginny, owner of Stellina, a wonderful, long established restaurant in Watertown. It read, in part: “After 34 years, Stellina is closing its doors.  Next week is our last week…  I’m hoping that many of you will make time to come celebrate our time together and have… whatever your favorite dishes are. The reasons we are closing will come as no surprise to anyone:  the persistent presence of Covid19 and the limited seating required to keep people safely distanced make operating Stellina untenable.”

I read the email twice, searching for a missing paragraph about reopening or Doordash deals or selling their products during the day (as the valiant Dave Punch does at Sycamore). There had to be some sort of link to click to get calm reassurance from Stellina. I needed a sign, a signal that everything was going to be alright.

Liza and I dined at Stellina probably 35 times or more over the last 20+ years. It was easy to find parking. No battling crazy traffic or North End tourists. We loved the patio, the ambiance, the wait staff. It was a part of our complex jig saw puzzle life. It wasn’t a big piece, but it filled an important spot, nonetheless. And now that puzzle piece is about to disappear.

The second time I read Ginny’s email, I actually got choked up. It wasn’t just a restaurant closing; it was losing a friend, a little chunk of the pre-Covid world. I imagined those breathtaking videos from Alaska or other frigid zones when a glacier cracks and a piece of it slides into the sea, waves crashing, snow and frost clouds shooting into the air.

So you might think I take my food a little too seriously. And you wouldn’t be wrong. You might say I’m being a tad overdramatic. Well, yeah, I’ve heard that one as well.

Be that as it may, my sadness, my true sense of loss here isn’t just about the food, which was, by the way, terrific. It’s the place and what it represents. We’ve counted on people and places all of our lives. We’ve always assumed that the restaurants and theaters and concert venues and salons and arenas and stadiums are constants, that those places are always going to be there for us.

But Covid time pulled the rug out from under us and from under the people who serve us food and bag our groceries and show up to collect garbage. Covid time is harsh. All of us are continually confronted and confounded by how many puzzle pieces are missing. This is the stark truth we are juggling.

So what do we do? We take that quintessential jazz tradition of improvisation and employ it. We continue to work with what we have. As Janet Kessin, our most senior TBA member who, at 100 died of Covid, used to say, “Take a deep breath and keep going, one step at a time.”

We’re a month away from a new year. In this particular period, the month of Elul, we should bravely think about our losses. Because every loss recapitulates the previous loss. And the older we get, the longer the list grows. We are still here, still trying to make meaning in our lives and mourn the people and places in our lives that we have lost.

But Elul is also the time to number our blessings. It is the time to reflect on the cornucopia, the bounty we share. It’s not about being delusional. Covid time is sharp and jagged. We need to be realists, to wear our masks and look out for each other. And: we need to be thankful for love and being loved.

Stellina was so overwhelmed for final reservations that they extended the closing for another week. Maybe they’ll be like the Rolling Stones who’ve had about five retirement concerts over the last 10 years. And maybe not. The Stones will retire one day. Stellina will probably close next week. And I for one will miss that puzzle piece. I pray that Stellina and their crew will be ok in the months to come.

Elul: a time to reflect on loss, on blessing, on love. I will shed some tears over it all, and then as Janet used to say, I’m gonna take a deep breath and keep walking.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

The Weather


The weather forecast for Cape Cod is useless. Planning anything based on any number of otherwise reliable weather apps is futile and foolhardy. I am not a meteorologist, but I am a fan of the science, so I understand why shifting winds and pressure zones and humidity’s rise and fall and tropical storms and so forth all make coastal weather prediction so tricky. Yet I still glance at a forecast, clap my hands for a sunny tomorrow and shake my head in the morning as the fog rolls in.
Is there truly anything that will help me predict the weather? Or the future? Of ANYTHING??!! Will public schools open for in-person learning? When will a vaccine arrive? When can we walk, en masse, into the sanctuary? When will the red and yellow flags of this race be replaced with a green flag again?
The answer is, of course, never. The existential proof of what we don’t know has been rudely revealed since the emergence of the sinister Covid19 pandemic. We have so many questions… and no good answers.
We guess a lot. We approximate. We gamble. We fake it ’til we make it. But we don’t know what happens next. There’s no reading ahead, no bootleg copy, no insider information.
This truth of not knowing is something all humans share. We are vulnerable, every one of us, which is why the current divisive atmosphere is so sad and so toxic. Sad, because we have each other. We know it all works better when we are united in purpose and goal, whether it’s a family or a nation. We know this in the fiber of our DNA, yet people choose sides on issues for which there is no debate, only science, and experience. For instance, we can weigh different responses to Covid19. But its existence, its virulence, its destructiveness is without question. Or should be…
The divisive nature of American society is currently toxic because as people deny simple truths, others are injured or infected or murdered. I am not fool enough to proclaim that love conquers all. But I am not jaded enough to declare that spreading calumny and hatred creates anything other than fear and conspiracy-addled thinking.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Because hope is essential. With it, we are powerful, forward-looking, daring humans. Without it, we are abandoned to anxiety, we close the door to our hearts, morally weakened, spiritually bankrupt.
Is change possible? Will Americans acknowledge that wearing masks is an obligation, a gesture of love, empathy, and good sense? Will Americans recognize the legacy of institutional, systemic racism, and that it’s time to learn, listen, and act on that simple truth? I hope so. Because there’s nothing more deadly for democracy than hopelessness. Hope is the bridge from here to there – wherever ‘there’ is.
I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or even later today. I hope we’ll gather for Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope my Weber grill will fire up. I hope my car will start and stop at the appropriate bidden moments. I hope it’s a beach day tomorrow. I hope my family and friends are well. I hope you’re healthy and hoping.
I hope.

Pulling Down the Statues

Jews have never been statue people. Ever. We don’t respond well to the glorification of humans in sculpture form. And that’s because God has let it be known, from the very beginning of our long relationship, that God doesn’t like it. It’s not just the idolatry prohibition either. It’s about the glorification of the human form, a kind of deification cast in a mold or chiseled out of granite, then propped up for the worshipful masses. It has what they call in Yiddish a strong element of past nisht, something that’s just improper.

I might be wrong, but to my knowledge there are few, if any, statues of Jewish dignitaries in Israel – or anywhere else, for that matter. For instance, there’s a mountain in Jerusalem named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. But there’s no statue of him on the mountain that bears his name. At the site of Ben Gurion’s grave there is no statue. Instead there is a large stone slab with his name – and that of his wife’s name – on the edge of the wilderness where he lived out his long life.

From a Jewish perspective, no one – not even Moses – deserves to be worshipped or adored in stone. It’s not the physical form that is relevant. Rather, it’s the deeds and the ideas of humans that we revere. It’s not a statue we ask for. We want access to someone’s thoughts. Give us their books. Let us evaluate and then re-evaluate their essence, not a two-dimensional heroic image.

I know that there are other religious traditions that use icons and images in a way that we do not. I respect those traditions and the ways in which these representations are serious aspects of how they express their faith. I grew up in a small city that was very Catholic, with an emphatic Sicilian interpretation. There were thousands of Mary Magdalene statues. I get it.

It’s one thing when a family creates a religious shrine in their own space. It’s quite another when statues are erected in public spaces at public expense. Statues cast people in permanence. This is not a good idea, based on the fact that humans are fallible – that people who are praised may in time be revealed as not praiseworthy. Christopher Columbus, for example, turns out to have been the first transatlantic slave dealer. It’s not that he didn’t do some symbolic discovering. And he’s been a part of American mythology for centuries. However, it turns out, there’s a lot more that’s negative to say about him. His story is over. 

It’s time to create a new mythology, one that’s more inclusive, more sensitive to the origin stories of others. It’s time to pull down the statues of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s time to recognize that the regalia of the Confederacy, its stars and bars and its generals and its desperate defense of slavery and slaveowners is not some quaint Civil War story, but rather a tragedy of America.  That tragedy is surprisingly unknown by Americans. We don’t know our history. This seems like the time to start learning it.

It’s time to pull down the statues of those who actively sought to deny the rights of others. The story of America is ready for a rewrite. It’s time to widen the scope of our mythology. It’s time for indigenous peoples to be more than props in our story, time for the pain and testimony of Black folk to be more than a one month a year observance.

Don’t worry about our place in it all. Pulling down statues makes way for new ideas, more knowledge, more truth. That’s always good. The Jewish immigrant experience will not be erased. The Holocaust will not become an insignificant horror. We will continue to be a part of the American myth. We can all certainly be magnanimous enough to make room. And when we pull down the last offensive statue, we will get to the real work: pulling away our own prejudice to make way for a newer America, seeking greatness through diversity and compassion.

What Next

Robert Hunter may have said it best in one of his most famous songs, Truckin. “What a long, strange trip it’s been.“ So much has changed over these past months. So many of the things we took for granted as a matter of course are now precious acts we wish we could reclaim. Hugging people we love. Laughing with friends at a favorite restaurant. Grabbing a coffee and schmoozing. Working out in the gym. 

And, of course, being inside the temple. 

I think about the temple constantly. All of that beautifully renovated space along with a truly exquisite new community room. It sits there, just waiting for us. What will it be like when we can finally walk in? 

Of course, the fantasy is that when High Holy Days come we will enter together, laughing and crying and hugging each other. That feeling we get looking around at our community gathered together for a new year is a signature experience. Seeing old friends, sharing stories, remembering loved ones who are gone, singing familiar melodies, feeling gratitude… there’s nothing like it. 

 Alas… It’s just a fantasy. As much as we may want to enter, the fact is simply this: it’s too risky. There will be no High Holy Day gatherings inside Temple Beth Avodah for 5781.  

We’ve looked at this from a thousand angles and, in the end, our choices must be made from a collective perspective. We know that it’s not safe for our older congregants. It’s not safe for immunocompromised congregants. It’s not even safe to sing!  

There will be opportunities for small groups to one day be in the temple. Our Early Learning Center and our school will open, adhering to all guidelines for health and safety. But. We will always place the welfare of our congregants at the top of our list of concerns. We must be apart in body, but we will be connected by our deep sense of community and tradition. 

Our history as a congregation, our history as a people, has taught us many things about survival. We’ve learned a lot about resilience and courage. We’ve learned to create alternatives where there were none. COVID-19 will not deter us.  

This year the High Holy Days  will primarily use online platforms – a combination of pre-recorded and live content . We’ll provide you with the tools you need to be a part of our communal experience. It will be spiritually alive, provocative, embracing, joyful, reflective, and even more than that. That’s a promise . We will not gather  in the sanctuary, but we will have each other: online, on Zoom, and a whole variety of other platforms. We are in this together.  

Will it be utterly different? Absolutely. Will it be unlike anything we’ve ever done before? 100%. Are we creating a new paradigm for worship and congregational life? Yes, and it is immensely challenging and very exciting. When we emerge, we will be different; we will be transformed. We will remember to cherish things a little bit more, to hold the people we love a little bit closer, and to embrace even more firmly what it means to be part of an engaged, living community. The door to the heart of Temple Beth Avodah will always be open. The sacred light of our community will continue to shine. 

Juneteenth

It’s staggering to think about all the things we never learned in school about the founding of our nation. We celebrated Columbus Day with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. We talked about how Columbus discovered America as if it were vacant land, waiting just for him. I thought it was the Mayflower and making friends on Thanksgiving. I really thought it was cowboys and Indians and war whoops. And while there was this thing called slavery for a few years in the South, we won the Civil War, and then the slaves were emancipated. And then everything just progressed from there. And sure, there was segregation and Jim Crow down in Mississippi and so forth, but not in my little city up North. 

The aphorism, “History is written by the victors,” has never been more starkly defined. We are so woefully unaware of anything that falls outside of the sanitized privileged retelling of our origins. For instance, no one told me that Columbus sailed home from his second voyage to the New World with over a thousand captives bound for slave auctions in Cádiz (many died en route, their bodies tossed overboard). No one mentioned that Columbus was the first transatlantic human trafficker. Like Rebecca West once said, “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

Slavery in America was “a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States” … an “institution (that) left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.”

I didn’t learn that in school. I didn’t see the direct link between slavery and the bloody civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King. That was not in the 6th-grade curriculum. It didn’t occur to me – and how could it, given the information I had? – that the violence against Black people I saw on tv from Selma, police attacking nonviolent demonstrators with truncheons and dogs and fire hoses was a direct extension of slavery and the deep desire of some white people to keep Black folk in their place?

The long legacy of American slavery casts an appalling shadow on the character and substance of our country. The continuing violence against people of color underscores the deep roots of racism and the pathetic ongoing attempts to justify it or contextualize it.

Juneteenth celebrates a belated liberation. Enslaved people in the Confederacy who didn’t manage to escape across Union lines or find themselves in occupied territory were not all made free by Lincoln’s proclamation. They had to wait until the end of the Civil War to take their first free breaths. In isolated Texas, word of the official end of the fighting, the surrenders of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, and the capture of President Jefferson Davis through May 1865 arrived late. Freedom finally came to Texas on June 19 of that year, after a proclamation by General Gordon Granger in Galveston solidified the emancipation of the quarter-million enslaved people in the state.

So what if we, as a nation, decided to adopt Juneteenth as a national holiday? What if we used that day for reflection and commitment to change? What if Juneteenth became a new line in the sand, a marker for when we finally started to right wrongs and engage in social action and legislative change and connection to the world as it is and as we wish – as we demand – it become?

Various civic leaders across the US have begun talking about adding Juneteenth to the canon of US holidays. I listened to mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, give a rather lukewarm nod to the possibility of such a thing happening in Massachusetts. He was concerned that it may be difficult. “it would add to costs in the city, because it’s overtime, and we’d have to work it into all the contracts… I mean, I support it. If the Legislature does it, I support it wholeheartedly. But we’d have to look at how does it happen — does it fall on a date, does it fall on a weekend? You know, the date might be in the middle of the week. . . So there’s a lot of conversation.”

Yes. There is a lot of conversation, as there should be. And I hope the response to those conversations will be action. There is so much to learn and so much to do. We will engage on both levels as we move forward in earnest. We cannot go forth a la Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. We must be deliberate. We must study together to be truly able to write the new American story. This is it. Time’s up.

Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks. As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is in both the canon of old history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.