Monthly Archives: April 2020

In the Pocket

A few days ago, my grandson, Caleb, asked me a question. We weren’t on the phone. We weren’t on Facetime and we weren’t Zooming. He and his parents and little sister were visiting me and Liza at our home. Well, not exactly at our home – they were parked in front of our home.

I set up two lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and settled in, about 10 feet from the open car windows. I peered in at my precious son and daughter-in-law and my precious grandchildren inside  their red Toyota. Liza did not sit down next to me. She was being ineluctably drawn, ever closer, to the open window. All she wanted to do was to reach in, not even for a hug – but just to pet Sylvie’s hair for a second. I watched with bated breath, remembering how moths really are drawn to flames.

“Social distance”, I said, and Liza took a step back. No one cried or protested. It was business as usual in an alien world that defies belief. Don’t touch another human whom you love more than life itself. Ok, I won’t.

That’s when Caleb looked at me from the back seat, and asked, “Hey Bebop (my grandfather name – cool, right?), “When will I be allowed to come inside your house again?” I was struck dumb. I wanted to answer his very simple question. I could’ve said something like, “Soon, Caleb – really soon.” Or, “I can’t wait for that day to come.”

I couldn’t bear to answer his question directly, to say, “Sweet boy, I don’t know when. I just don’t know.” Instead I threw my doctor under the bus: “I’ll have to ask Dr. Klein for permission.” Can you believe it? That we live in a time where grandparents push our grandchildren away, to protect the grandkids —and to protect ourselves?

The other day I received an email request. A temple mom explained that her daughter requested a conversation with her rabbi. So, I called, first catching up on  the latest family info with the mom, who then handed over the phone. There was no time for pleasantries; my young congregant got right to it: “Did God send this virus to kill people because She’s mad at us?”

First: I loved her assumed gender pronoun for God. But second, and primarily: Where are we? On what planet does an almost six-year-old feel compelled to discuss theodicy with her rabbi? Shouldn’t we be talking about something else, something slightly more age appropriate?

I told her that image of God the Destroyer is not one we use anymore. God is not a punisher. God is not in the pain; God is in the healing. But this almost six-year-old lives in a moment when such a question does not seem abstract or theoretical. And it broke my heart.

There are days, some brighter than others, some warmed by the early spring sun, others grey with the dark clouds of spring rains. There are times in the course of a month, a week, a day – when confidence and hope and determination fill my resolute heart. I know that we will get to the other side, that I will be able to answer Caleb’s question, and tell him, “Come into our house any time you want; now give me a hug!”

And then there are times of despondency like I’ve never known. A helplessness driven by the cold brutish truth, that, as of this moment, there are no answers to when or how we come out the other side. Those moments are hostile and dark.

We are all a complicated construction of opposites, of up/down, yin/yang, happy/sad, light/dark. Not one or the other; we’re both and more, living lives in the wake of infinite duality.

 As Rabbi Simcha Bunem once taught:

Everyone should have two pockets and then put a note in each pocket. When one feels invulnerable and infinite one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” But, when one feels sad and blue, discouraged and alone, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”

This is our sentient, dualistic existence: simultaneously on top of the world and feeling down so long, it looks like up. We are not either/or. We are far more than that.

These days we must do a lot of reaching, for more than just Kleenex or our masks or gloves or whatever. Check your pockets, both of them. It’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to be hopeful. We can afford to be optimists and pessimists all in the same hour – or minute. Because that’s us – that’s how we’re built.

The secret of it all is to be patient, loving and kind with ourselves. We need to practice forbearance and forgiveness, not only of others, but of ourselves. This is a long road, and we have to pace ourselves – it’s the only way to get to the other side: with all of our sides.

One People

As days of quarantine have given way to weeks, we have all developed various coping skills. For some of us that means rigorous schedules: wake up time, shower, breakfast, first call/zoom/Facetime meeting, walk, lunch… you get the idea. A regimented trajectory for the day enhances a sense of control and high-level rational thought. It triggers executive functioning and self-esteem. Yes, it declares, I can do this. 

Others let the tide take them. No alarm. No schedule. No pants…

Some of us have kids at home. Depending on their age, school, sitzfleisch (power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power), and personality, the managerial skills necessary to attend to their needs are prodigious. This huge responsibility takes up a massive amount of our brain’s hard drive.

There are so many subcategories  of individual and collective experiences in this phase of our lives; way too many to list. Truth is, no two people fit into any category except one: we are all in this together. We are trying so hard to keep positive. We want to embrace hope. We want to take the Jewish notion of salvation and apply it to this moment, right now.

Jewish salvation is different than the Christian concept. In those cool and shocking drawings that interpret a fundamentalist Christian concept called the Rapture, God lifts the saved up into Heaven, leaving everyone else on earth to die miserable deaths. It’s plain and simple and requires no explanation.

Jewish tradition stipulates that no amount of mitzvot, of good deeds and good intentions, get you to the front of the line. The really bad guys get weeded out by virtue of their sins, which place them outside the large circle, or as the URJ calls it, the big tent of Judaism. And, to be clear, God shares a special sense of love and affinity with those who understand how to be a mensch. To have a sense of God’s love is a gift worth earning through living a good life.

But Jewish tradition eschews any notion of individual salvation. We cross the finish line together: the heroes and the not so heroic. The big guys and the not so big guys. The extraordinary and the below average. There is no class valedictorian, no captain of the mitzvah team. Because we’re a community, a family, a people.

We are in social isolation for the good of all of us. Our selfless adherence to a social policy is about the collective; it is about us. We are united in moving together. We are committed to the health and welfare of all of us. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s not about what I want or I need. It’s not about what I deserve. It’s not about finding scapegoats for the origins of Covid19. It’s not about sinister plots or 5G or immigrants or another Jewish plot to take over the world. Such twisted thinking is beneath contempt.

Each one of us is making our way, day by day. It’s tough going, even for the shiest introvert. We are cut off from so much. We miss the embrace of loved ones and friends. We yearn for the simplest touch of a hand, for the feeling of being in a group. It’s about all of us.

The Aleinu prayer contains a line that says, “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” This is the world we await. We yearn to see a world more united and at peace, where evil has been driven from the world, and where humanity gains a common vision of God that draws us closer, one to the other. This is a Jewish dream, a dream we want to share with the rest of the world. Proclaiming this hope is our mission, our light to the nations.

As you make your way through this weekend, isolated, restricted, remember that we have an old/new ideal, a concept bequeathed to us from our earliest ancestors and taught to our youngest babies: we are one as God is one. We will cross the threshold of despair and aloneness into a time of heightened awareness of the fullness of this gift of life we share.

No one said this would be easy. And nobody said that salvation was a simple concept. The saving grace in the story is that as isolated as you may feel, we will cross the finish line, perhaps in stages, perhaps with a variety of restrictions – but we will cross the threshold together.

Shabbat Shalom


Proustian Brisket

S. Chu, and J.J Downes, two well-regarded research scientists, wrote a paper in 2000, entitled, Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Their title tips a beret to Marcel Proust, the French writer, who wrote what is widely regarded to be, at seven volumes, the longest novel (and least read novel), In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

There is one part of his novel that is quite well-known and oft repeated. Proust romanticizes the deepest pangs of memory about the smell of a madeleine biscuit after soaking in tea. Chu and Downes define the Proust phenomenon as ‘the ability of odors spontaneously to cue autobiographical memories which are highly vivid, affectively toned and very old’. 

The Proust phenomenon was in full effect on Wednesday at the Stern house. The aromas of brisket and garlic and onions interplaying with matza toffee, melted chocolate and sautéed liver were utterly twisting my brain around into my oldest memories and some not all that ancient. It was like being on a Disney ride.

For instance, there is the distinct bouquet of the brisket.  I am remembering a Passover seder of my childhood, when I was maybe three years old. I recall being jammed together with lots of people in my grandmother’s Pittsburgh apartment. It’s very warm in her small space. But it’s not just a warm temperature. It’s a family warmth, a sense of home and connection. In my soul it becomes a touchstone experience, a mythic moment defining what it means to be a part of a larger whole.

I’ve used the same Passover brisket recipe for the last 40 years. The recipe is on an index card in my mother’s scrawling cursive. The recipe is her mother’s – my grandmother’s brisket. It’s not just a recipe – it’s an algorithm that gets entrée to my heart.

So, you see, the Proust phenomenon bounced me from one moment in Newton right into a crowded Pittsburgh apartment in the late 50s, a location filled with love, wide open and without limits.

Sometimes it feels as if we are, each of us, a smooth stone, skipping across the endless expanse of an infinite sea. Where we are in any given moment changes all the time as we move through space and time and memory.

The seder is filled with Proustian phenomena! The parsley dipped in saltwater, the haroset, the matzah itself! These are all purposely part of Passover. Each olfactory experience puts us somewhere else in a memory of another time.

Every Jew at a seder table is a kind of time traveler, bouncing between earliest memories of childhood and adolescence. And if we concentrate, we can travel beyond our individual memories to a collective memory, joining our thoughts and memories together in an infinite tapestry of thought and time, of devotion and wild success, of birth and death and rebirth.

Passover is that moment reminding us with all senses that life is transitory. One moment we are slaves, the next we are free. Only don’t forget; the Exodus doesn’t end with our freedom – the story just begins there. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey tells us, is where to find the real action. And it isn’t pretty. There’s bad behavior, defiance, disappointment, betrayal, death, and even redemption. We’re not done: the road stretches out before us.

That’s our heritage. That’s the surface upon which our smooth stones skip and careen. This life is a composite of our individual experiences as well as of those who came before us. And we are building new moments, new memories, right now: with our family, our friends, our community.

There’s so much more to our story than right now! There’s an ancient history below our feet even as we reach toward the Heavens. That’s our Passover promise: to reach way past the confines of our homes toward each other, and beyond that.

And all that from my grandmother’s brisket.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach