Monthly Archives: March 2021

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.