Monthly Archives: April 2021


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