Heal Us, Now


I’m getting ahead of myself.  Because what I really should be posting right now is an account of my daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah last weekend.  Beautifully, lyrically, and really packing a punch in her teaching.  And worse yet, I need to catch up on organizing the thoughts and photos from her brother’s Bar Mitzvah two years ago which, last you heard, I was dreading like the plague.  Well, he came through all right and more.   I promise I will get there, and get there.  But while they’re still fresh in my mind, I must record this morning’s events in Raleigh, whose ball started rolling a little before last Shabbat:

About three weeks ago I answered a call for written stories about one’s personal and family healthcare quests.  The link was either on Facebook or in my email; it was from Progress North Carolina, and I figured I would share my truth. I hoped my bit would offer some insight that could lead to improvements for a lot of people, particularly those less fortunate than I. Which, tough as the journey for me and mine has been, number many.  And again, I breathe deeply and give thanks for the rewards that my hard work has significantly begun to yield.

Last Thursday I got a text from Jen at Progress NC asking if I would share my experiences at the General Assembly in Raleigh on Tuesday.  At first I responded, “Is this a robo-text? How many millions of people are you reaching out to?”  She replied, “Only dozens.” Her outreach was a result of the inquiry I had answered awhile back. Would I be willin to speak in front of the GA and the NAACP?  She had me at “NAACP” and I was fully hooked at the news that the Reverend William Barber II would be present.

This morning at the parking lot I was solicitously met by Progress NC’s executive director bearing an umbrella which wouldn’t be needed til later; but how cool was that?  Hey, I merited a handler and an escort.

In front of the GA, Reverend Barber began to speak words of encouragement, and to lead us in song.  Then he said to Gerrick, “Do you have a speaker this morning?”  Gerrick indicated me next to him and I was beckoned forward.  The Reverend greeted me with a hug and I said, “Reverend Barber, you are amazing, and the only thing I ever disagree with you on is that you clap on ‘one and ‘three’!”  After a big shared laugh and a little more singing, we marched into the rotunda.

At the Reverend’s introduction (“WHERE is my sister who is speaking this morning?”  “I’m right behind you, Reverend!”), this is what I said:

My name is Jacqueline Marx.  At this moment I have insurance. But that hasn’t always been the case – and in fact, if the General Assembly and President Trump have their way — I’ll lose my insurance in less than six months.

4 years ago I moved to Carrboro with my two children as a cantor, music teacher, writer – but most importantly, as a mother. For three years I did not make enough money to qualify for subsidies through the Affordable Care Act. But I made too much to qualify for Medicaid.  They told me I was one of about 500,000 in North Carolina who fell in the Medicaid gap.

The Medicaid Gap could have been filled.  But in 2013 our former governor had turned down the Medicaid expansion, which would have been paid entirely by the federal government.  But the former governor decided that I, and half a million others, were not entitled to any help.

That lack of compassion was repeated last month when the U.s. House of Representatives voted to repeal the ACA.

You know what’s hard?  Life with a pre-existing condition is hard. My daughter has cerebral palsy.  I have a genetic mutation that makes breast cancer almost a certainty in my life. God forbid, it’s more of a question of when than if. And the thought of living without health insurance scares me to death. As the Congress tries to shred the Affordable Care act, I don’t think they even care.  But life – anyone’s life – can change in a heartbeat.  No matter how healthy you are, or how much money you have at your disposal, everything can change.  And you want to be ready.  We all want to be ready.

When January 2018 comes, my daughter and I may be uninsurable or unable to afford our insurance.  And we’re not alone.  They say 23 million people will be kicked off of their insurance.  Shame on the Congress.  How could they?  How could they?

I work hard. I play by the rules.  I pay my taxes in the richest country in the world.  And many in the Congress say we can’t afford affordable healthcare.  Our state lawmakers say they can’t afford to expand Medicaid, when the federal government will pay 90% of it.  It’s a shame.

I am my children’s only surviving parent.  They need me to be healthy. They need me not to skip cancer screenings because they aren’t covered by my insurance.  Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have a big decision.  Do they want to vote for a bill that throws 23 million people off of their health insurance?  Do they care?

But you know what?  I hope they do.  Because, when you share the light from your single candle to light another candle, you don’t lose your light…. you create more light!  And more, and more, and more.  A lot of us are counting on them to do the right thing.  A lot of us, shining our light on each other.  And there are going to be millions of voters across this state and this nation who hold them accountable if they do not do the right thing. Thank you.

Even though I chose not to put myself in the position of getting arrested (for I am indeed an only parent, and my mother is 97), this is the most important, worthwhile thing I have done since I adopted my kids.

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…Hear, Observe, Trust, Count, Forgive, Remember, Learn…

“Forgive… sounds good.
Forget…I’m not sure I could.
They say… time heals everything
But I’m still waiting.”    — Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie Maguire, Dan Wilson

Would I wish the kind of pain I’ve ever felt on anyone else?
Would I ever want anyone to feel the worst I can ever remember feeling?
Even on those who have hurt me most deeply?

No.  No. And no.  Never on my account.
Let it end with me.
Let the hurts I’ve hurt end with me like my jacked-up gene mutations
my children, thank God, will not inherit.
Let the letting-go that I’ve let go, go with me.  From me. Far from me.
Forgive all. Forgive me. Forget no one.
Remember everything…

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(Prepare, Act, Search, Understand, Accept, Believe, Choose) JUST DO IT

kaboomI haven’t posted in more than a year.  I’m ashamed to tell you how long it’s been since I’ve touched a musical instrument. And journalling?  Hah. My best production is procrastination, and I’ve finally figured out that I’m not lazy: I’m scared.

There’s a lot going on inside me, and only one lifetime (or so we’re told).  I want to earn at least three more advanced degrees, write several books, record at least one album of songs, and write more music.  Happily, there are things which I’ve been invited to do (at least two concerts, one of the books).  Fear of failure is easy to understand; fear of success was less so, until I found a parallel:  For someone who has made loud noises for much of my livelihood, I have a fear of loud, sudden noises:

  • As a child, I made my dad start side 2 of our “Fiddler on the Roof” album by dropping the needle in the middle of “Tevye’s Dream” so I wouldn’t have to hear Zero Mostel’s screams at the beginning of the track. It’s a wonder we didn’t ruin the record.
  • I never want to be alone in a house of worship in case I’m not really the only person in the building and someone presses a loud, booming key on the organ or keyboard.
  • I have never dated a bass or a baritone (Only kidding).
  • The thing I have always dreaded most about any place I have ever lived is my doorbell (Not kidding).

So nu?  I scare people. I scare myself. I’m afraid that if I dig way down deep into my well, I will mine so much ore that I may never climb out.  You see, I’m a very friendly monster, but monster for sure.  I can’t do things in a small way.  When I’ve tried, disasters happen; such as missing out on a job because the gentle demeanor I wore for the interview was mistaken for lack of interest.  So be yourself, some say.  To which I say, Have you actually been around when I’ve turned myself all the way up?? It’s not for the faint of heart, and a lifetime of feedback ranging from the quizzical to the downright negative has trained me down into what, for me, has become strained minimalism.

I throw myself wholeheartedly into the serious business of motherhood, and it’s the one job in which active minimalism has paid off.  For years I yelled and flailed.  Now, I actively listen. I speak like a cross between my two favorite instruments (French Horn and viola, neither of which I play) to both stabilize and charm my children.  And I manage to crack them up, but they still think I’m classy.  Sort of.  Yet I maintain the intensity of my love and passion for the two greatest individuals on earth.  Could my mothering style serve as the model for maximizing my life’s other productions?

Tonight I attended a life-affirming concert of original songs by my rabbi and former classmate.   As I do with all my creative friends, I marveled at L’s talent but more importantly, at his courage to dig into the resources of his heart and soul; to work with the material there deeply enough to re-emerge with the refined pearls with which he serenaded us into the second week of Elul 5776.  And I wondered for the millionth time, “Could I…?”    Then L shared some of the last wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  There was something about creating ourselves b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image) by making ourselves our greatest work of art.  So help me, I couldn’t find the quote online verbatim, but I did find the following:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.  To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

It’s all right, then.  Okay to be deep dark me; ok to have a lot of fertile clay to muck around in.  It’s even okay to be afraid.  I’ve got the opportunity to shape this soul-clay into some beautiful productions, and I don’t want to waste a dollop.  Because when I climb out of it, I’ll still be waiting.  And so will those who love me best.  And so will God, who will have been with me all the time.

Just you wait… Continue reading

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Redundant Illumination: Why I’ve Never Lit a Yahrzeit Candle


I am my father’s Kaddish as of fifteen years ago today (according to the Roman calendar). Every year on his Yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish; a prayer for the dead that contains no mention of death. I happily named my son, born nearly two years after his grandfather’s exit, after my dad. I imagine what life [??] must be like for him in an afterworld in which I was not raised to believe. And on the Yizkor (“remembrance”) portion of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, I light a small memorial candle that burns for twenty-four hours.

Stop. Hammer time. Scratch that. Hold the phone.
I’ve never lit that candle. I don’t know if I ever will.

It’s not because I don’t want to light it or because I don’t believe in lighting it. It’s not because I forgot; I never forget. It’s not for one reason in particular. In fact, I really don’t have a reason. But I have a lot of little stories and I’m going to tell them here, right now.

When my father was dead one year minus a day, we celebrated my cousin’s wedding. This cousin is special because we met while we were both studying to become cantors at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music, and we share the same last name. He is special because neither of us knew the other one existed until we met in school. He is special because our dads, who are something like third-and-a-half cousins once removed, were born in the same Hessian town 100 kilometers from Frankfort; a farming town where Jews and Christians lived together in peace until the Holocaust, and even to some degree after 1933. He is special because our meeting the way we did seemed like a significant triumph over the Nazis. He is special because we brought our dads together again for the first time since my dad (at age seven years) attended the b’rit milah of his dad (at the age of eight days). My dad had emigrated to the U.S., and my cousin’s dad had gone to Brazil, where he married and raised his family. My cousin had co-officiated at my wedding, and now I would co-officiate at his.

Jewish tradition dictates that a wedding takes precedence over a funeral or other mourning rituals, but that’s not why I didn’t light the Yahrzeit candle. I flew from New Mexico to Long Island the day before the wedding and flew back out the day afterwards. One lights the candle at the sundown before the Yahrzeit, but I was still at the wedding reception at sundown. My hotel room was a non-smoker; I could have brought an electric candle but I didn’t want to lose, break, or forget it in the stress of packing and unpacking. And the next day, which was the actual (Roman calendar) Yahrzeit, I was in the air.

If you’re going to miss somebody, I highly recommend doing it at the end of June. The world is green, there are no major holidays on the horizon, and the extra light from the longer days makes things, well, a little less worse. Since my dad’s departure, I’ve managed to rack up a total of five Yahrzeits over a two day spread. These now include my uncle, a beloved voice teacher, my brother-in-law, and my aunt (Dad’s sister, who made her exit five years to the day after he did).

One thing I’ve never missed doing on my father’s Yahrzeit is to call my mother. This first year, I did so from midair as I flew west. We talked about the wedding and who was there. We talked about my dad and we talked about the year’s developments since his passing. She mentioned that she’d lit her Yahrzeit candle and I confessed that I hadn’t lit one, for the reasons mentioned above. Mom knew I was in the friendly skies, so she said, “That’s all right. You’re closer to him.” I replied, “We can only hope,” and we both laughed.

The simple reason that I’ve never lit a Yahrzeit candle at Yizkor [see above] is that I’m almost always on the go for a parallel reason. I’m in in synagogue, on one side of the bimah or the other; either leading / co-leaidng the services or praying in the congregation. A couple of times I’ve been in the air again, en route to or from a cantorial conference. I don’t want to leave a candle burning unattended at home or in a hotel room. Yes, the electrical option still exists…but it doesn’t feel right. As Amy Poehler generously says about someone’s custom she respects but doesn’t observe, “Good for you, not for me.” An electric candle feels wrong to me; it feels articifical and not at all like my dad. Could this be because he grew up in a village of wood-burning stoves?

My father doesn’t need a light unto the nations; he was a light unto the nations. Wherever he rests or roams or dances, my light couldn’t reach him anyway. The only thing that can do that is love, and I’ve got plenty of that. I’ve also got stories. My son, named after his grandfather, loves hearing “Opi stories” and has asked me, “How come your parents are so funny and interesting and mine aren’t?” Oh-kay.

This week’s par’shah is Chukat, which is chock full of death, guilt, death, consequence, death, poor stress management, lack of support from one’s flock, dehydration, death, and being left behind. Stay tuned for next week’s protion, *Parshat Balak* promises a doozy of a time when the (living) jawbone of an ass uncharacteristically turns out to be a blessing. I want to write more about “Balak” but I’m falling asleep at the keyboard. Au revoir and Shabbat Shalom!

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Now you can say, “I Told You So”…

I have taught and tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students for twenty-two years. I have pushed and pulled, kvelled and kvetched, cajoled and bribed;, stood on my head to inspire kids to study. I have calmed down nervous parents, mediated among toxically angry members of shattered families, cracked up rabbis and kids with laughter in order to help hundreds of kids and three classes of adults achieve their goals. I’ve danced with Ted Danson at a celebration; and I’ve called Ralph Lauren to the Torah (along with his rascally brothers, who all threw candy at each other afterwards). Once I even sang a re-worded, rowdy Motown hit on the bimah in my black robe (back in the days of black robes) as a reward for a special-needs student’s achievement. I did all of this before having children, while having children and after having children. Dozens of parents told me, “You’ll see when it’s your turn!”

But no, I chose to disbelieve. My own kids would be ecstatic to have me as their tutor and cantor as we shared our joy from between the bosoms of my own fulltime workplace congregation. I would be nothing but happy and excited and prepared and calm and über-hostessy, caftan-hearted towards all incoming family and friends; of course, everyone we knew would be there. I would be nothing like these nervous parents who practically expected the synagogue walls to fall down in all directions upon the first note of the morning song opening the service. The extra soul of mine that we all grow for Shabbat would alternatively float to the treetops and come swooping down among the congregation to kiss us all rapturously. My nuclear bundle…spouse and kids… would be a light unto the nations as we beamed from the bimah with our joy.

I would be nothing like those other parents, particularly the ones who seemed to wish their hubris on me with their “You’ll see!” sentiments. It’d all be brilliant…But as my friend Warren used to say… Wrong-o dong-o, mongo face!

The Bar Mitzvah of my eldest takes place tomorrow afternoon. He’s ready. Me, I’m not so sure. All the right steps are in place, but my monkey mind is dancing up and down those steps to the tune of an off-speed Gershwin song on mono-speaker. I’m not ready for this. There won’t be enough food. It’s too early. He’s only thirteen (oh, yeah, right…He’s already thirteen?!?!?) There is no fulltime pulpit, no nuclear bundle… barely a bundle by which I can afford the celebration. Half of my former spouse’s and my scattered families are either too sick, too insolvent, too dead or too busy (June busts out all over with life changes for many) to travel.

I can’t give my kid enough. I’m giving my kid too much. I want to be his Yoda but in reality I am his Obiwon Vader (Mader?), his newest reason for nagging, and unlike my other students, he can’t simply get rid of me by getting into someone else’s car and going home. And, as President Obama’s mother once said during her daily 4am wakups of the future POTUS to bone up on his American studies before sending him to school each morning in Indonesia, “This is no picnic for me either, mister!”

My son Harry is the best Hebrew student I ever had. Bar none. He could navigate Torah since second grade; he can read “Cat in the Hat” in Hebrew with all the right Seussian cadences; I never had to drill and repeat rules or exceptions of grammar, pronunciation into him; it was gonna be a breeze to get him ready. Yeah, right. He rebels during study sessions by clenching his jaw when he reads so I can’t make out what he’s saying. His ADHD, which sometimes kicks in to his advantage, often doesn’t in this case. He wilts under pressure. He refuses to study out loud because he doesn’t want to hear himself or have me hear him. He’s also the first kid to actually argue with me … loudly and unremittingly …. on the bimah while practicing reading from the Sefer Torah. “But it’s a vav!” Nu?? How many roles does a ‘vav’ take on, and which ones are you choosing to ignore right now?

Last night Harry and I had our final tech run in the synagogue. It was shorter than we’d planned because we got to the temple too late for it to stay open for as long as I’d imagined in my over-extended, hyper-organized but just-under-thought-out-enough management of life this particular week. That turned out to be a blessing because of Harry’s short attention span. We started and stopped at strategic spots; got through all of Torah and Haftarah and a couple of other high-priority junctures and we left feeling that all will be will up there in bimah-land on Saturday. Next stop: meeting my ex and his BFF (the best man at our wedding) for dinner. And you know what? We all had a lot of fun. There was laughing, food-funning, x-boxing, napping on somebody else’s hotel bed (that would be me) and I realized how much luckier we are than a lot of families with married parents in them. Even in the worst of time, we have never wavered in mutual goals for Harry and his sister. Best of all, the worst is over.

I can’t afford a bouncy-house, a food truck or a photo booth at our celebration. But Harry’s dad and I can give 47 people a nice brunch, throw miniature candy bars (Reese’s and Kit-Kats, Harry’s and Miriam’s favorites) on top of the tables as both decoration and dessert, and hire a DJ who can play the top of the pops so people will dance. Harry eschewed a basket of personalized kippot. He did not want to dance to “Hava Nagila” or be lifted on a chair. None of us adore “coke and pepsi” or other games, or to give out plastic favors. But we’ll have three living grandparents present out of five; a dozen or so classmates; my best local friends and almost a dozen lifelong ones including two sisterfriends, traveling many miles to be with us. We’ll have my ninety-five year-old mother, who never thought she’d see this day, but sorry and ha-ha to you, Mom…. she did and she’s thriving and I thank God every day that she’s going to be an active part of the weekend by taking an aliyah and wrapping Harry in his first tallit (Prayer shawl).

Uppermost: we have Harry. He’s nervous, but he’s talking about it, although in his typical Jedi Vulcan style he’s playing it close. He knows his stuff. And once you know your stuff, your stuff does not forsake you, even under the fudge factor of on-the-bimah pressure with half a hundred people listening. Harry will take breaths away in his first pair of dress shoes with his black suit with the black button-down shirt and the black-and-purple striped tie… he has a fashion eye; clothes love him and he would look spectacular even in burlap. He may get attention with his sartorial sense and baritone voice (again, what?!?!), but he will keep it with his dignity and slightly self-effacing leadership, with a d’var Torah on truth-telling that shows the realistic picture of the work in progress that is Harry.

And that’s where we’ve really succeeded. B’nai Mitzvah isn’t an end to childhood. That went out after the middle ages and people getting married at fifteen. Bar and Bat Mitzvah are milestones, and at their best they prepare you for the other milestones and challenges that will inevitably follow. This week Harry gets to take stock in the self-awareness of how far he has come, and how far he would like to go from here. It’s a truly holy moment. Not only did I learn from my favorite student (so far), but everyone who is present will as well.

Now I’ve told YOU so. Shabbat Shalom.

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Not That Kind of Girl: A Review

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wendy Wasserstein would be very proud. I loved Wendy and I own everything she ever wrote. I always felt bad because Wasserstein died without feeling she had really changed the game for women in the arts, particularly in the driver’$ $eats. But she definitely started something. And though Dunham mentions Wasserstein not once, I can’t help feeling she’s picked up where WW left off and is going to go the distance.

Here are the differences between Wasserstein and Dunham: They grew up in different eras in New York. WW’s came from a fragmented, malfunctional family of immigrants; Dunham grew up in an atypically warm, loving, artistic family. Here are some parallels between : Both are New York girls, who typically drop the kind of parlance that only New Yorkers get: New York is New York no matter when you live there. Both have that self-deprecating quality that comes from having a Jewish background. Both looked for love in a lot of unusual places. Here’s the main difference, according to me: Wasserstein’s heart was most significantly broken by the lack of sisterhood among the very people she thought should stick together, as stated in her Pulitzer-prize winning play, *The Heidi Chronicles*: “I thought we would always be there for each other.” Dunham’s girls, lie Dunham’s “Girls” have their differences, spats and fallouts, but ultimately pull together as a team.

I have never seen “Girls” – I don’t have HBO, there are other shows I want to see first, and I’m a single mom who needs to make choices with her not-so-free time. I wanted to read NTKOG anyway so I could see what kind of girl Dunham really was to make her what she really is. Unless you live under a rock (which my kids claim I do), you know that Lena Dunham is the creator, producer, director and star of “Girls”. You also know that she appears naked for much of it, and that her body type is, shall we say, a bit unique to be doing so. Dunham and her “girls” represent the rest of us, the ones who aren’t 5’10” and 98 pounds, the non-prom-queens. I wanted to know what made her so tough, so confident, so out there.

Lena Dunham has a lot to say. She probably drops more F-bombs, in all contexts, than “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Even within her categorized chapters, she rambles. But it’s her book, and it takes a special kind of brain to ramble as compellingly as she does: about sex, about bodily functions and failures, about the physical pain of illness and the psychological pain of growing up and out. My favorite chapter by far is “I didn’t F— them, but they yelled at me.” This chapter is brave and classy because Dunham outs a lot of the sleazy behavior of the maie heirarchy in Hollywood without mentioning any names. I love nudity when it’s on an emperor. Wasserstein loved it too. As she neared the end of her life and her writing career, the disparity between male and female power in all aspects of the working world trumpeted more loudly in “Old Money* and in “Third.” Somewhere out there, Wendy Wasserstein is now smiling.

View all my reviews

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The following was originally published in 2012 in my monthly newsletter column for Temple Emanu-El of Edison, New Jersey.

On the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor I’m thinking of my parents…my father because PH would be the springboard to get the U.S., and Dad along with his fellow Ritchie boys, directly involved in WWII. ….. my mother because her mother, my grandmother, would spend this day as her last sentient, conversant one on earth before succumbing to the coma that would take her life ten days later.

Elise Regina Loewy Guthman (“Mutti”) had sickened on the circuitous journey she made with my grandfather through the Caribbean / West Indies in order to escape Nazi-occupied Germany – no small feat in 1941 when the U.S. considered any Germans “enemy aliens” even though Jews all over Europe had been stripped of citizenship; but my mother and aunt campaigned like mad to get their parents here, and they succeeded.. My grandparents reached New York in March and spent their first night in the U.S. at the Empire Hotel, which still stands in Lincoln Center today.

Mutti was a singer and a comedian and took no nonsense from anybody ( Does that sound like anyone you know??). In the old country, before things got too rough, she would attend costume parties with my grandfather – they would dress separately; arrive at the parties separately and then try to pick each other out in the crowd. For each of my grandfather’s birthdays, Mutti would take her girls, “Susl” and “Ursl” (my mother) to visit a local poet, from whom she would commission an opus to my grandfather that was always recited to him by his daughters. My mother remembers Mutti making her own pasta; rolling the super-thin strips of dough out by hand and hanging them over kitchen chairs to dry. Back then, city famlies had staff, but it was Mutti who worked harder than anybody else because, in her estimation, who better to train your employees than the ones who would benefit from their work directly?

Mutti could make you laugh, and she could make you rue the day you were born. When a snobbish neighbor whose daughters were bowlegged made a disparaging remark about Mutti’s daughters having fat legs, Mutti drew herself up to her full five feet and replied, “Well, at least they’re straight.”

Mutti didn’t sing professionally, but she was always involved in community put-togethers. Though a mezzo-soprano, she sang outside the box and could deliver a mean “Un bel di” from *Madama Butterfly*. She played the piano beautifully – like many Jewish families, hers had a Bechstein grand piano in the parlor. And a parlor it was; the voice of a Bechstein was crafted not to sing in a concert hall, but to be enjoyed in the pleasure of one’s home by family and friends. A Bechstein’s voice sounds almost human. A Bechstein was not a piece of furniture; nor merely a musical instrument, but a member of the family. My grandmother’s Bechstein, like all pianos owned by German Jews, had to be left behind when their families escaped, vanished, or were rounded up for deportation to the death camps.

Many such forsaken pianos, their voices forever silenced, their souls stoppered, became firewood for the Nazis in whole or in part; their legs chopped off and replaced by supporting crates. I remember watching *Holocaust*, the TV mini-series first shown in the late 70s, with my parents; my mother cried during a scene showing such a piano. Mom speaks often of the Shoah, but I have never seen her weep over it before or since.

More than twenty years later I visited a piano shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in search of a tuner for the Wurlitzer spinet I’ve had since my I was six. There in the middle of the store stood a Bechstein grand. Its name above the keyboard winked as a banner of survival. The shopkeeper told me that a number of Bechsteins had been found and recovered in barns and in storehouses after the war, and many of these had been salvageable. Their names had been all but scratched out of their surfaces, but their first identifying factor — to experts — had been the degree of the bowed curve of the frame above the keyboard. I sat down to play “Solfegietto”. As the keys sang in chorus, I cried. With ten thousand dollars to spare, I would have adopted this singing survivor there and then on the spot. Someday I still hope to rescue a Bechstein.

But getting back to that other sweet singer, Mutti (German for “Mommy”; she didn’t survive long enough to know her grandchildren): oh how she continues to resonate! My mother and her sister were just 21 and 24 respectively when they lost her to this life. I carry the torch of her musicality and her funnybone. And for some reason, thoughts of Mutti bring tears; unlike remembrances of any of the grandparents I actually knew on earth. I struggle with the raw deal I think she got (she was younger than I am now when she died), until I remember that she had so much life in her years. I get just a bit envious of my mother and aunt having known such a colorful, vibrant person whom I’ll never meet…until I consider that maybe I meet her every day of my life since she is so much a part of me. I feel sad for Mutti’s girls as well…. until I hear the raucous joy with which they continue to tell stories of their mother; a legend in her own world.

Some say that when we lose someone very close at a young age, we become blessed with total recall of that person’s life. I hope for my mother and aunt that this is the case with Mutti’s memory. Mutti will always be on my list of The Five People I’ve Never Met That I’d Most Like To Have Dinner with, along with my father’s father, Jesus, Moses, and Martin Luther King. Together in my dreams, we sing Puccini’s Flower Duet from *Madama Butterfly*… and we take turns singing the parts. Usually I am Suzuki and she is Cio-Cio-San, caught up in the American dream. But sometimes her generous spirit, and our mutual sense of fun, takes over – what else can happen when two mezzo-sopranos share the stage? – and she lets me take the lead in a role neither of us should be singing, but too damn bad. Behind our footlights, anything is possible.

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VaYishlach – Something to Chew On.


VaYishlach is one of my favorite Torah portions. It’s probably the most action-packed par’shah in Genesis thus far; so much so that focusing on its entirety could take more than a week of writing. There’s a dream (Jacob’s second to be documented in TaNaKh); a wrestling match; a name change; a rape; mass circumcision, mutilation, and slaughter; a mini-exodus involving petty theft and lies (remember: no Ten Commandments yet); and finally, a reunion of brothers after 21 years. This year I focus on the latter, but not for the reason you might hope.


When last we saw the twins Jacob and Esau, two weeks ago [in Torah study time], they were seriously on the outs. God’s prophecy to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23: “Two nations are within you; two peoples will descend from your womb; one people will be stronger than the other; and the elder shall serve the younger,” ripened in earnest. Jacob bought Esau’s birthright for a bowl of red lentils. Esau was a party to this exchange, but he didn’t bank on having his blessing stolen out from under him with Rebekah’s ruse to disguise Jacob as his twin in order to fool their sightless father, Isaac; himself an active party in the scenario. Upon learning that Esau intended capital revenge, Jacob fled to Paran and the relative safety of his uncle Laban.

Two decades, four wives and thirteen children later, Jacob and Esau stand ready to reunite; each with all their host and household as backup. In Genesis 33:4 “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” The Hebrew in the following insert, “Va-Yi-sha-KEH-hu” means, “they kissed.”


The text is beautiful. And as as always, there is more to the story than meets the eye… literally. The illustration shows a modern rendition of what actually appears in a Hebrew Bible, AND in a non-vocallized kosher Sefer Torah: several strategically inscribed ink drops around “Va-yi-sha-KEH-hu.” We could interpret these ink drops as kisses. Long before seeing the colorized inference above, I inferred that the markings are drops of blood.

In Pietro Mascagni’s verismo opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), the title comes to light as the audience observes the 19th-century Sicilian tradition of one man’s challenge to another for a duel. As the two men join together before the assembled villagers in a full-body embrace, the challenger bites the other man on the ear; hard enough to break the skin and shed blood.

Back to Jacob and Esau: In typical Jewish fashion, my questions flow a river more savory than any answer.
1. Kisses, or bites?
2. Who bit whom?
3. Did the bite go as an unfulfilled challenge?
4. Did the bite result from an overpowering urge to experience the reunion with all physical sense and emotion?



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Lech L’cha 5775: Bizarre-zeit

My children do tae kwon do and we spent last Shabbat at a dojang in Winston-Salem. Black-belt testing is a once-a-year event. If you’re a black belt yourself, you have to wait two to four years to test for each successive don (degree). The tests themselves feature a performance worth watching, and so my resident green belt and my resident high yellow belt begged to attend the black belt tests in lieu of (believe it or not) the state fair. Secretly glad at the prospect of foregoing the traffic jams, parking pitfalls, money leaks and hurry-up-and-waits of the fair, I happily agreed.

When we arrived, we took the last few seats availble. Under my seat, I found some boards that would later be broken for a black belt test. This is what they said:


The date was October 25…the English Yahrzeit of a student my former congregation and I had lost to suicide exactly 13 years ago. His name? Alex Jasman. I felt a chill run down my spine.

Alex’ Bar Mitzvah portion, Lech L’cha (Genesis 12:1 ff) was the same as mine had been 27 years earlier. We shared a kinship over that commonality, but it didn’t make life, or studying, any easier for Alex, for whom it hurt to live. He had friends, he had family who loved him, and he had a spot-on wit that endeared us all into his world… and none of us could reach him fully through his pain. I think of him often, especially on October 25. Especially especially during Lech Lcha which, this year, this week, marks the 41st anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah; the 14th anniversary of Alex’ Bar Mitzvah; the 13th Hebrew anniversary of his Yahrzeit.

Exactly who today “Jazmin, A.” was became clear before long. A compact dynamo with a single braid down to her waist took the floor with her fellow black belts for their poomsei (form) tests. Their limbs and torsos transformed them into cranes, eagles, and other fine beasts from whose forms humans borrow the power sense to execute breathlessly beautiful moves in the Korean art of self-defense. Little by little, the group on the floor diminished until only the braided dynamo was left. She would be the only black belt that day to test for 4th Don, and so she would at last test alone.

As the other black belts settled down to watch her, the room grew pin-drop silent. She made every execution look easy as the headmaster called out sequence after sequence for her to enact. Only once did she falter for a nanosecond while balanced on one foot, but she quickly regained her equilibrium. I whispered to the black belt sitting closest to me, “What’s her name?” and received the reply, “Jazmin A—-.” The name on the block under my chair. Her age? Thirteen.


I don’t even know quite what to do with this, except record it, because it would be a shame to forget it. The truth that I may glean from this experience is truth for me; not fact for humankind. I know better than to say it’s a message from my student from the world beyond. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think it – however briefly. Jazmin A. did earn her 4th Don, and now must wait several years before she can test for her fifth. The discipline and philosophy she gleans from her tae kwon do study will stand her in good stead through life’s challenges, and I wish her a beautiful, exciting, fulfilling ride.

The three words that come up for me are, “Life Goes On.” I used to take that phrase as a “get over it already!” message, which hurt and angered me and made me think no one cared about the life of a young boy that ended too soon. Nowadays the words “Life Goes On” mean exactly what they say – that there is always something yet to live for; another adventure to be had; another lesson to learn. It doesn’t mean we have to stop remembering. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving. It doesn’t mean we have to stop missing.

A part of me died when Alex did. The rest of me has had to regenerate, like the arm of a starfish. Because Life Goes On, and it’s waiting for me… but it won’t wait forever. The modern translation of “Lech l’cha,” God’s words to Abram, are… “Get going.”

Here is the song of my Torah portion …. and Alex’s….

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Why I Don’t Have a Sukkah This Year – And Why That’s Okay



For years I had a sukkah. And for years I had a home. Then a bunch of stuff happened and the walls came tumbling down. After all the trials and tribulations of a story I’m not going to repeat in this blog, I sort of have a little home again. I’m still calming down after the storm. But I don’t have a sukkah. For now that’s all good.

For years I had a sukkah…. literally, a booth; whose plural is “Sukkot”: the same name of the festival we Jews are celebrating now. A sukkah is a four-sided dwelling that is not really a dwelling, in that it is supposed to be temporary. At least one of the four sides must be open to let in not only guests, but the wind; whether it be zephyr, gust or gale. The roof is made of “skakh” (please swallow whatever you’re eating or drinking before you try to say that word) with purposeful spaces to let in the rain, the snow (yes, I suppose in some regions) and an unobstructed view of the stars. We build them at this time of year to remind us of our ancestors in the desert; how they spent forty years living in such portable, deconstructible huts as these.

For a few years during my childhood, my father built a sukkah on the patio each season. He did it all by himself with hammer, wood and nails. I would have helped but I wasn’t allowed; God forbid I should have contracted a splinter or pounded a thumb or worse. I was protected from the elements even before the sukkah, which is designed NOT to protect us, was completed. My mother and I did decorate the inside of the sukkah with fruit; both real and artistically paper-replica’d. These symbols represent the fall harvest. Some people call Sukkot the Jewish Thanksgiving. I used to be one of those people. How silly of me.

We’re commanded to eat in the sukkah, and we are permitted (though not commanded, despite what some say) to sleep there as well. The Talmud asks us to determine, if rain should fall during your outdoor meal, when it is permissible to take up your meal and continue eating inside your house? The Talmud then answers (as it always does): When the amount of rain your soup bowl becomes greater than the amount of soup in your bowl, then you may go inside and finish the meal in total shelter.

I once had a sukkah, but I also visited, and ate, in the sukkah of the synagogue wherever I happened to be praying or working. At home you enjoy your personal sukkah with your immediate family; in shul you experience the tabernacles with your bigger, congregational family and its portions thereof. As a cantor I often led religious school groups in the congregational sukkah, which was constructed very quickly by the Men’s Club or Brotherhood the day after Yom Kippur in a kind of barn-raising miracle. We shook the lulav and etrog in all directions – remember the mnemonic, “ESau Went NUDe”…. east, south, west, north, up and down…. in six directions to signify that God is everywhere.

My sukkah, the one I once had, was made of steel and screws; not wood and nails. Apparently it was made in Chapel Hill, but I both acquired it and let it go before I moved there. It came in a kit with instructions. I could never raise it myself; my kids’ father did it for years, even after we separated. Its walls were brightly designed shower curtains; these let in the wind and the rain but made a bold statement about waterproofing and creativity. The sukkah was too big to move with me when I relocated, so I gave it to some very dear friends who took it away in their Rav4. I hope they are enjoying it as much as I did while it was mine.

I once had a sukkah; a temporary dwelling attached to a permanent one. What does that mean, anyway? What is the least religious significance of having two homes side by side when one is obviously impermeable and the other is meant to tip over after a week of use? Conspicuous consumption, really, See, folks? We can pretend we’re indigent when you can plainly see we have a sturdy Framingham, or a mocked-up McMansion. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re fooling you into fooling ourselves for at least a week. Have you seen the excuse for a sukkah that the fine hotels in Jerusalem offer the moneyed tourist at this time of year? Frankly, in this day and age, it mocks the homeless, and there’s nothing holy about that:


Go on. Just try to tell me this is even remotely like our ancestors’ desert experience. I’m already laughing at you, not with you. You might as well compare Tara to a slave barracks. Or the Pharaoh’s palace to…. yes, a slave barracks.

The size of your dwelling doesn’t matter. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, the book we also read at this time of year, it can disappear or disintegrate overnight. My dream house, my own folly in which I’d hoped to raise my children, is now no more. That home so loved by us and by two previous owners was swept away in a tsunami of non-payment and in the folly of a flood brought on by bad advice and a frozen winter water pipe.

This year I’m humbled but safe. The worst of life’s storm is behind me. I rent a modest townhouse in the friendliest little village in North Carolina. The shade of massive oaks and sturdily graceful loblollies protects me, yet at this time of year I hear the smack of acorns and pine cones as they skydive against my roof and my walls. I once had a sukkah with walls of bright color and design; now I have the sound of precipitating inedible tree fruit 24 hours a day and it makes me smile. My apartment may be permanent; it may be temporary; I don’t have to know right now which. But it’s home.

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