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Protest & Privilege on Pennsylvania Ave.

Originally published in Elephant Journal: https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/02/protest-and-privilege-on-pennsylvania-ave/

My son and daughter, ages eleven and eight, nest in the low branches of a tree in Lafayette Square, just beyond the White House lawn. Between refrains of “No Ban, No Wall!” and “Let Them In!”, they’ve begun grumbling for water. “Or maybe a soda,” my son adds with a sly smile.

My children’s solicitations rarely correspond to urgent and verifiable need. They plead for provisions the way we grownups hop on FaceBook--just a bit of benign diversion to help pass the time. But we did walk a couple miles to get here this afternoon. And after that stimulating stroll, which merged us with an ever-expanding stream of fellow protestors, we’ve been standing and shouting now for over an hour.  

I volunteer to scout out some refreshments. Cell reception works fine, so if folks start marching, my wife can update me with current coordinates. I turn around and begin to weave my way through the crowd. Lots of families here. Even little ones, asleep in umbrella strollers or Baby Bjorned to a parent’s chest. Lots of fellow Jews, too. I can tell from the placards: “Jews Against Trump—Because We’ve Seen This Before,” “If Not Now #JewishResistance,” “Our Jewish Family Stands With Muslim Refugees.” There are some self-identified Muslims, too, and a smattering of other minorities. Still, the more I shoulder my way through the crowd, the more I feel like I’m looking in a mirror. We are a fleece-clad, ferociously liberal lot; exorbitantly educated, excessively affable, and overwhelmingly white.

There’s nothing to be had on H Street, so I head to Farragut Square, just a block away. I’m still flashing a posterboard that reads, “We Welcome Refugees” and getting lots of receptive, staccato honks from oncoming cars. One cabbie even rolls down his window, shakes his dark-skinned fist in the air, and shouts, “Alright, man! Alright!” I’m horrible with accents, but I’m guessing he’s from somewhere in Africa. Or the Caribbean. Hard to tell.

Eventually, I make it to Farragut Square, and, after a quick survey of the perimeter, spot a Subway a half block down. They’ll have water. Bathrooms, too. I’ve been humming “History Has Its Eyes On You” from Hamilton. Indignation and adrenaline course through my veins. Yet, when I enter the Subway, I am suddenly subsumed by the prosaic. Tinny pop songs gargle through overhead speakers. A few customers impassively hunch over their food. The manager, dancing back and forth behind the counter, looks Indian or Pakistani. His African-American subordinates are silent, stone-faced, and subdued.

I grab a jumbo Smart Water in one hand while holding my “We Welcome Refugees” sign in the other. I nonchalantly grip the sign at just the right angle for all to feast their eyes. I want the persecuted proletariat to see that I’m here for them. I want every “Sandwich Artist” to know that I care, that, despite my white skin and my free weekends, I’m a brother, a fellow fighter, a Jew who, back in the day, might have marched with Gandhi or King, but who today, for better or worse, has taken his rightful place in Lafayette Park next to a protestor who I overheard turning to her friend and exclaiming, “I forgot to tell you! Rebecca got accepted to Northwestern! No Ban! No Wall!”

If anyone sees my sign, they don’t applaud. I pay for the water and hurry out, glad to be free of the restaurant’s gloomy florescence. I make it back to the park and find my family just as the assembled lot has begun marching to the Capital. The kids seem ready for more adventure. They rehydrate and then lift their signs high, plowing into fellow protestors who greet their clumsiness with convivial grins.

From 15th Street, we make a left on Pennsylvania. The Capital looms large in the distance, a zealous breast threatening to pierce the high heavens. We run into good friends of ours who have also brought their kids. Our children all go to school together, so everyone immediately gabs and giggles. The kids show off their homemade signs. We all make a pit stop, too, this time at a Pret A Manger, its staff exclusively minorities, its bathrooms reasonably hygienic. The kids, we can tell, are losing steam. So are we. We’ve all got a long drive back to the burbs.

Outside the cafe, our friends give us hugs and head off for home. Just as we’re about to call it a day ourselves, a reporter approaches us. He represents a paper in Finland, he explains. If it’s not too much trouble, would we mind answering a few questions?

 “Why are you here today?” he begins.

I hesitate. I can’t imagine this kindly Finn writes for a highly-circulated Scandinavian press. I’m guessing my words won’t make it much past a protracted first draft. But my kids are standing on either side of me, entranced by all the attention. They’re listening intently. I must weigh every word.

Why are we here today? Because we can be.

“We’re here because we’re Jewish,” I answer. “Our great-grandparents were persecuted immigrants. We know what it means to be refugees.”

The interviewer nods, thanks us, and then moves on. We call an Uber, driven by an African-American woman who, as we negotiate protest signs and seat-belts, waits patiently without comment. She does, however, roll down her window and drop some coins in the cup of a wheelchair bound beggar.

“My son just enlisted,” she tells us. “That could be him one day.”

“God forbid,” my wife responds.

“Yes,” the driver echoes, “God forbid.”

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Poem: Perhaps the Heart Lives in Bone

Perhaps the heart lives in bone

like a child tiptoeing through

the cavernous warped

hallways of an ancestral

home

all the furniture draped in white

photographs too smeared with soot to see

she gets lost but doesn't

worry

how delicious

to be all alone

to let her fingers drag and dance

upon the curling wallpaper

and around every corner

to not be afraid

though she would have every reason to be

but

unschooled in tall tales

she twirls in crinoline drapes

leaps at cobwebs

opens every door she's able.

The house sinks deeper

settling its crumbling foundation

in clay

while high above

she's lit candles

set them in pools of wax on windowsills

and made her presence known.

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Book Review: Magical World by Rabbi Sara Brandes

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Book Review: Magical World by Rabbi Sara Brandes

This world is a magical place, muses Rabbi Sara Brandes in Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, her beautiful compilation of memoir, poetry, homily, and instruction. Brandes invites us to discover the magic of our world by witnessing the magic that’s enveloped her own. In gentle, inviting prose and buoyant, rhythmic verse, she transports us from her childhood in California to her coming of age in Israel. We join her as she meets her intended at summer camp, reawakens her spirit in India, and eventually makes a home for herself and her family on kibbutz. Along each stage of this journey, Brandes pulls back the curtain, inviting us to behold the magic behind the mundane. We glimpse this magic in childhood memories, spiraling DNA, soil, sun, and the lover’s embrace. We taste this magic in loaves of fresh baked bread kneaded with our own two hands.

Though Brandes has studied an array of wisdom traditions, she is first and foremost a rabbi. She has come to teach us Torah. Magical World is peppered with Biblical, Rabbinic, and Kabbalistic teachings, from musings on the Creation Story to essays on Jewish observance to an entire section devoted to the Jewish ritual of sefirat ha’omer. Though delivered in her typically fluid prose, some of these sections feel disconnected from the rest of the book, as if Brandes penned a memoir and then stuck looseleaf sermons between the memoir’s bound pages. Especially regarding the section on sefirat ha’omer, I longed to hear how she weaves this Jewish wisdom with the lessons of her life. If Kabbalah teaches, “to be humble is to know that you are always, exactly where you belong,” how did Brandes employ this teaching to help her during her many moments of angst, longing, and displacement? Brandes doesn’t tell us, but I imagine her answers would enlighten and inspire.

Brandes is not only a rabbi, but a religious Zionist, and Magical World serves as an ode to her Promised Land. From her early decades spent in Diaspora, Brandes describes herself as someone hungry to break the shackles of spiritual enslavement, to move towards a more authentic, embodied, and grounded existence. “I want to live in the real world. In a world where everything is real. Real Spoon. Real Chair. Real Light. Real Air,” she writes. She contrasts exilic artifice with the redemptive authenticity of her present life on kibbutz. “For me, our American dreams of personal picket fences separating nuclear family units—felt much more like a prison than a palace,” she writes. “The kibbutz environment, of little homes, surrounded by porches made for tea and visiting, redefines the privacy/openness questions entirely. Here, we are together. We just are.” For Brandes, the entire world may be full of magic, but the Holy Land allows us, us Jews at least, to get up from our seats and participate in the magic ourselves.

“Sing your song,” Brandes invites us. “You are the only one who knows the tune.” Above all, Magical World is Brandes’ song, a cascading melody that envelops the reader in wonder, warmth and compassion. Again and again, I found myself finishing a chapter of her song and looking up past the page, prose and verse echoing in my ears, my eyes soft and searching. Magical World inspires me to sing along, to engage the magic of the world myself. 

(This review was originally published in The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/book-review-magical-world-by-rabbi-sara-brandes/)

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Find Joy in the Camps

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Find Joy in the Camps

“Find joy in the camps.” 

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The author, Shalom Auslander, recently inscribed these words on the cover page of Hope: A Tragedy, a book of his I’d not yet read.

I’d purchased the book, and stood before Auslander as he put sharpie to page and scribbled his inscription, for Norman, one of my best and oldest friends. This past spring, Norman’s East Village apartment exploded. A gas leak in the basement, created by what is thought to have been the building owner’s illegal tap of a gas main, was the apparent cause of the explosion. The explosion was so fierce it took out four apartment buildings, nearly destroyed a fifth, and left two people dead.

Since the explosion, Norman has wandered. First, to a hotel, then to a friend’s apartment, then to spending time with his family.

I hadn’t attended Auslander’s talk with the intention of getting an inscribed book for Norman. But as soon as Auslander began to speak, my buddy immediately came to mind. 

For a start, Auslander is a writer, an edgy, hilarious, irreverent, moody writer. Norman, too, is a writer, an edgy, hilarious, irreverent, moody writer. And just like Norman, Auslander seems at peace with humanity’s hopelessness; by that, I mean, he doesn’t devote himself to fixing our lot, to propelling us towards some messianic future, where, baptized by water or war or fire or pharmaceuticals, we see the light.

Auslander cracks jokes in the dark, tickling us until uncomfortable, aroused, ashamed, we can’t help but giggle.Then, when we’ve lost our breath, Auslander presses his face close to ours, so close we wonder if he’s about to plant a kiss, and whispers questions. Questions that have no answers. Questions that keep us unsettled and exasperated. Questions that can only end in one of three ways—acrimony, artifice, or belly laughs.

“Find joy in the camps."

I am not sure if he intended this invitation to be read as I now read it, but Auslander’s wise enough to know that his words no longer belong to him, not after he’s sharpied them to the page. So I mail these words in Hope: A Tragedy, to Norman, to a fellow wandering writer, to my friend whose home’s turned to rubble, his every worldly possession destroyed. Norman struggles in shadows. Of loss. Of uncertainty. He’s not at Auschwitz, but, as Auslander kvetched, why must the everyday hardship of everyday humans be discounted because, once upon a time, there was an Auschwitz, a camp of camps, the hardest, most horrible place on earth. Why, asked Auslander, don’t the losses of our own lives count? Don't we have the right to weep when, dancing endorphins still bubbling in our post-workout bodies, we come home to find a chamber of gas in our basement, our life turned to ash?

And can’t we, in this camp where things fall apart, can’t we also find joy? Hope may be a tragedy, but joy and laughter are very real. And, like Auslander, like Norman, we can search for them, even in the camps.

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The Era of Platform

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The Era of Platform

Every morning for the past month, I wake up before the alarm, stumble downstairs and, before even turning on the coffee, press my thumb’s one-of-a-kind whorl to the small black disc on my iPhone.  I inaugurate the day by stoking the fires of FaceBook, warm embers from the previous day’s posts bursting aflame with tabulated reaches, likes and shares.  

I used to check FaceBook once a week.  A month ago, however, I received an urgent email from my agent - she’d scheduled a conference call with an interested publisher.  Tuesday.  4pm.  Don’t forget!

Two years of writing, two years of blood (figurative), sweat (literal) and tears (copious), the most significant artistic and professional gesture of my life, and it had been reduced to an attachment in an editor’s inbox, a tiny icon of a paperclip, the paperclip’s swirl inwards and out begging the question: in which direction would this little adventure turn?  Would my words materialize or evaporate?  Could the three of us, the agent, the editor and the writer, turn this ephemeral file into an honest to God book?

The afternoon of the call, I climbed into my car and drove to an isolated parking lot a mile from home, cutting off any chance that my children would interrupt with requests to adjudicate today’s docket of property disputes.  I parked the car.  I locked the doors (maybe my kids had followed me…they could be anywhere, those feral beasts…).  I adjusted my seat and opened my laptop.  Cocoon prepared, I awaited destiny.

The editor called at exactly 4pm.  She patched in my agent.  We talked about the weather.  We talked about the book.  Then the editor shifted from content to commerce.

“How many times do you post to your professional FaceBook page?” she asked.

“Once a week or so.”  

“Hmmm.  Okay.  You might want to up that number.  Our authors usually post three to five times a day.  I love the book,” she continued, “but I’ve got to pass this by the marketing guys.  They’re going to want to know the size of your platform.”

So it began, the era of platform, an era of David Brooks shares, Dalai Lama quotes, original Haikus and links to my blog.  I spend evenings harvesting content, hunting for articles that pop without pandering.  I gaze into my phone each morning, hoping to read my fortune in the rise and fall of my reach.  I pray that the gods of marketing will find me worthy; so far, perhaps due to my willingness to hawk my own wares, they have.

I once pictured myself too pure for platform.  I could not conceive how poet and peddler might occupy the same skin.  I fled from the marketplace, from posture and pretense, imagining Kerouac and Ginsberg grinning proud from the grave.

But the tree falling alone in the forest, even if it makes a sound, is still falling.  Refusing to play the game, believing myself above the business, just stymied my creativity.  The act of creation is an act of chutzpah.  The courage it takes to shout into the void is the same courage it takes to link that shout to a post and share that post with a fan.  When I descended from the platform, I walked away from art, too.

Now, with each passing day, I more thoroughly resemble that paperclip’s spiral, inward turning, outward yearning, an artist devoted to truth and a writer building a brand.  I dig deep then mount the dais, birthing words before shaking them unceremoniously overhead.  I hope the frantic movement will catch your eye.  I pray the platform holds.

 

 

 

 

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The Dharma of Amy Poehler

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The Dharma of Amy Poehler

Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.

When Sara came home with Amy Poehler’s Yes Please under her arm, I had rolled my eyes. 

I love Amy Poehler.  I love Parks and Recreation.  But another celebrity spouting hyperbolic tales of their suburban upbringing and their wild Lorne Michaels encounters?  No thanks.  I prefer my doses of Poehler streamed on Netflix.

Then Sara read me the line - Treat your career like a bad boyfriend - and Poehler’s wisdom melted my conceit.

Sara read on:  Here’s the thing.  Your career won’t take care of you.  It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents.  Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around.  It will forget your birthday and wreck your car.  Your career will blow you off if you call it too much.  It’s never going to leave its wife.  Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you.

Poehler’s pithy dharma perfectly encapsulates the ups and downs of my careening career.  Since quitting W-2’s to go 1099, I’d been dating a bad boyfriend.  Gigs appear, choice jobs to fill out my portfolio and float my bank account to black.  Gigs disappear, sending me once more unto the breach.  Just as I grow confident in my power to subdue my fly by night lover, he leaves me languishing.  Just as I give up hope and erase him from my contacts, he appears at my door, gazing at me like I’m the only rabbi-writer-yogi on earth. 

I asked for this.  Two years ago, I divorced my dysfunctional marriage to the pulpit to play the field fast and loose.  Now, I must figure out how to survive, how to thrive, with this delightful, destabilizing, mercurial, intoxicating lover, this dizzying freelance life. 

Ambivalence is key, Poehler instructs.  You have to care about your work but not about the result.  Your career is a bad boyfriend.  It likes it when you don’t depend on it.  It will reward you every time you don’t act needy.  It will chase you if you act like other things (passion, friendship, family, longevity) are more important to you.

The dharma of Amy Poehler is the dharma of detachment.  Jobs appear.  Jobs disappear.  Tying down the bad boyfriend won't work.  He'll slip the chains and leap the fence.  “So dump him,” others have countered when I’ve introduced them to the bad boyfriend sutra.  Perhaps I could dump him, perhaps I would, if I didn’t still remember the pain of standing before that congregation, chained to work I didn’t love, a stranger in my own skin.  My bad boyfriend’s a shit, but he never asks me to be anyone but myself.

So I cultivate ambivalence.  I practice detachment.  I relish the victories and expect the defeats.  I focus, a la Poehler, on friendship, family and longevity.  And I create, slowly churning blank pages into prayers, writing whether or not my bad boyfriend graces me with his presence.

Your creativity is not a bad boyfriend, Poehler writes.  It is a really warm older Hispanic lady who has a beautiful laugh and loves to hug.  If you are even a little bit nice to her she will make you feel great and maybe cook you delicious food.  

Writing this post might get me nowhere.  My bad boyfriend’s got an artist in every port, so who the hell knows when next he’ll show.  Either way, I’ve got my work, my creative calling, my beautiful Hispanic momma feeding me fresh tortillas and burying me with hugs.  She shows up every time.  

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Body Love

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Body Love

“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” I ask.

“That thing,” Sara answers. “That thing with your hand.  You don’t even realize you’re doing it.”

I smile, embarrassed.  My wife’s caught me.  Whenever my right hand’s free, say, when I’m waiting in line at the supermarket, it tends to dart to my waistline.  My thumb plunges into the skin above my hip.  My four fingers lift the bulge below.  Then my makeshift calipers squeeze, sandwiching skin to fat.  If I’m especially anxious, my right hand may linger there for a while, pinching and releasing, pinching and releasing, until its opposable-thumbed dexterity is needed for more productive activities.  

Or until Sara says, “Ben, just relax.  You’re fine.  You’re beautiful.  Practice body love.”

She says it just like that, with a grin.  Practice body love.  The phrase is so sweet, so Sara, blending just the right mix of empathy, humor, new-age yoga-inspired banality and tough love.  I can’t help but grin myself.  I can’t help but roll my eyes and, with a tiny chuckle, allow my hand to drop.

Practice body love.  In the depths of winter, trudging through global warming’s single-digit backlash, how do I practice body love?  How do I practice body love when my body hungers for peanut butter, olive oil, cheese, chili, Chinese takeout, Guinness, red wine and bar after bar of dark chocolate?  How do I practice body love when my body aches to expand, to protect itself, to throw on layer upon layer of comforting cellulite and hunker down until spring?  

To love is to listen.  Yet, when I love, when I listen, when I feed my body with the rich comforts of a seasonally appropriate diet (save the Chinese takeout), my midline rewards me with a little more, every day, for my hand to squeeze.  And the more I have to squeeze, the more I feel out of control, a victim of winter, of the elements, of weak will and rebel desire.  I feel a victim of love itself.  Love delights and disarms.  Love dips a spoon into the honey jar, licks it clean, then chases it with peanut butter, chocolate and HBO, as, all the while, my mind huddles in a corner whispering, “Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean…”.  

I will do it, Sara.  I will practice body love.  I will let go.  But a part of me will also resist, the part that eyes a tabloid cover of Matthew McConaughey, his shirtless perfection paddle boarding above a calm, blue Caribbean, his photoshopped physique not as disarming as the honey jar, but enviable enough to awaken my right hand.  It rises to my side, squeezing a message in morse code that reads: “Would that be, could that be, should that be me.”  

Love will have to make room for what I see, what I know, what, for decades, I’ve desired.  Love will have to be patient as we wait out this winter, squeezed between the body and the deep, blue sea.

 

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Rhymes with Shmashmectomy

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Rhymes with Shmashmectomy

It occurs to me, cradling my now hairless scrotum between fingers and thumb, that the phrase “he’s got some balls” could have two equal but opposite meanings.  

I've got some balls.  Testosterone floods my system from these spheres that, freshly shaved and showered, recoil resentfully from the cold.  This testosterone inflames my passions, reminding me every day that, beneath my sensitive-new-age-guy exterior, a caveman crouches, club in hand, both predator and prey, hungry.  This caveman’s got some balls.  If his mate dances seductively or a foe threatens his children, he will hand the reigns to these balls, fucking and fighting and howling at the moon.  

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On the other hand, I've got sensitive balls, delicate balls.  Even when they don’t look so disconcertingly prepubescent, they require protection and care.  They need swaddling like a newborn; yet, unlike newborns, they will never grow up, never make it on their own.  My balls will dangle delicately between my thighs until the day I die, too nervous to let go, too sheltered to explore.  Pull back the current, or, in my case, shave off the pubes, and the very organs that boil my blood turn out to be my daintiest parts.  I’ve got some balls - I am childlike and vulnerable, with plenty to protect.

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In an hour, the good folks at Kaiser will lay me down.  They will lift my paper-thin robe, inject each ball with anesthetic, and cut the cords.  Then they will sew me up, sending me home with icepacks and codeine.  On the way out, one of the nurses, who a few minutes earlier had hovered over my manhood, will then make the connection that our sons play soccer together.  Our nine-year-old sons who have no idea about any of this.  Our nine-year-old sons who, on the ball field, may dabble in testosterone’s dark arts, who, at the dinner table, may carefully watch their fathers to understand what manhood means, yet who, when they wake in the night, call out for their mothers.  They won’t know what it means to be a man, not yet. 

Someday, if they are blessed, our sons will grow a pair.  They will walk through the world with the fire and fear of manhood.  They will know the beast within but they will honor fragility.  They will make hard choices, like the one I made today, when I stepped back, catalogued my stumbling blocks, counted my blessings, and said, “Enough.”  Their manhood will be filled with moments like these - requiring courageous vulnerability, bold humility -- moments that, if you’ll forgive the expression, take some balls.

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Ambition Addict

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Ambition Addict

When I voluntarily left the rabbinic pulpit world, a world where I enjoyed modest celebrity, where, when I walked into our synagogue's social hall after services, everyone turned my way with eager eyes and toothy smiles, I went through major withdrawal.  I felt anonymous.  I stared at my empty inbox and it stared back, offering little more than occasional spam reminders that larger genitalia was just a click away.  

As my withdrawal symptoms increased, as I slid into the relatively manageable haze of mild depression, I understood that I was an ambition-addict, a status-junky.  I didn't like the work of being a synagogue rabbi, but I loved the celebrity.  I fed on it.  Feeling important kept my demons at bay.  If I happened to stare into the existential abyss, I could shake off the vertigo with a shot or two of walking into the social hall.  Feeling like the most important person in the room was my drug of choice (a daily anti-depressant and cup of coffee didn't hurt either).

We develop addictions, in part, to deal with fear.  Fear can be incredibly uncomfortable.  Fear can hurt.  If we don't see a way to easily and naturally dispel the fear, we may turn to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, exercise, or, in my case, external validation and ambition.  For a while, perhaps for a very long time, this will keep fear at bay.  Unfortunately, fear builds in direct relationship to our repression of it.  So we drink more.  We work out harder.  Or we try to be the greatest rabbi in the world.  Our addictions begin to own us.  They grow bigger than our demons.  They become demons of their own.

When I quit celebrity cold-turkey, I returned back home, back to the fear I'd been fleeing.  These days, in meditation and yoga, when I write and when I sing, I look at my demons.  I touch them.  I cry about them.  I laugh about them, too.  So far, they don't go away.  So I share space with them, these ungainly housemates of mine.  They don't do the dishes and they have loud parties and I deal with it.  I don't panic.  When they make suggestions, I listen and nod and then act from a deeper sense of intuition, wisdom and hope.  "What a loser!" they howl.  I don't answer.  I just keep going.  




  

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Our Open Tent

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Our Open Tent

Transient

Facebook posts remind me of subway commuters.  They’re crammed together, shuttling down our screens with little elbow room; yet, they don’t interact.  They have nothing to do with one another. 

A cat video, for example, will arrive stacked on top of a photo of a first attempt at making strudel.  The cat and the strudel have nothing to say to one another.  They’ve been shoved together by chance, they’re relationship of consequence to no one.

Transient

Then again, every once in a while, something magical happens.  Two posts arrive on Facebook, stacked one on top the other, and though they have no intrinsic relationship, the posts' juxtaposition adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Two isolated missives blend into an accidental, beautiful message.

Earlier this week, my wife Sara posted a picture of our sukkah, which we’d put up with our kids the day before.  Jewish tradition calls for families to erect a sukkah, a ritual hut, outside their homes during the week long festival of Sukkot.  For one week, weather permitting, we eat our meals in the sukkah.  We hang out in the sukkah.  We even sleep in the sukkah (with air mattresses, of course!). 

Transient

When I worked in the pulpit in Boston, Sara and I had purchased a giant, 10 by 20 foot sukkah in order to host my congregation at a Sukkot open-house.  When we moved to Reston, we shlepped the sukkah with us, happily discovering that our sukkah fit perfectly on our new back porch.  So Sara snapped a photo of the sukkah and posted it to Facebook.  The way people do.

The same day that Sara's post appeared, I checked my Facebook again to find a new post stacked on top of her photo.  The post contained an article about my colleague, teacher and friend Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who serves as the senior rabbi of Washington D.C.’s largest Conservative synagogue - Adas Israel Congregation

Transient

Gil had just written a beautiful letter to his congregation.  In the letter, he comes out to his community - “I have come to understand that I am gay,” he writes. 

“The truth is,” he continues, “that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life.”  The letter also shares the news that Gil and his wife have decided to divorce.  “[We] can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love,” Gil explains.

I clicked back from the article to my Facebook page.  Someone had commented on Sara’s sukkah photo, placing it on top of the article about Gil.  I looked from the sukkah to Gil’s picture, then back to the sukkah again. 

Transient

A sukkah, with flimsy walls and a thatched roof, serves as an open tent.  One doesn’t need an invitation to visit a neighbor’s sukkah.  A sukkah, by design, is a structure of inclusion, openness, flexibility, friendship, and joy.  Judaism even has a nightly Sukkot ritual called Ushpizin, where we welcome the spirits of our ancestors into our sukkah, along with “all other exalted guests.”  Ideally, building a sukkah transforms us into consummate hosts, warm and welcoming to all.

Transient

I believe Gil was able to courageously show his cards, both to himself and to his community, because his community - Adas Israel, the D.C. Jewish community, and the greater D.C. area - provided him a sukkah.  Gil had faith that we’d welcome him to our open tent, that he would always have a place at our table, regardless of his sexual orientation.

What a lovely coincidence, too, that Gil’s news arrived on the same day that Virginia, the state I now call home, struck down its ban on same-sex marriage.  Clearly, our sukkah grows wider and more expansive with every passing day.

As Gil and his family wade through what must be an overwhelming amount of press and social media, I hope they will stumble upon the Facebook image that greeted me - a picture of Gil stacked together with a sukkah, a tent big enough to hold him, his family, and countless others who have taken the risk to live their Torah and their truth.

Transient

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The September Symphony

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The September Symphony

September fills our ears with a lot of mixed messages.  

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The month gives us an elbow to the ribs, jarring us from summer daydreams.  We set our alarms clocks early, school buses and congested commutes awaiting.  We grow hopeful and hungry, visions of professional and personal glory dancing in our heads.  We form committees.  We wear khakis.  We get going getting going.

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At the same time, these days invite us to put down our laptops and walk the trails, nourished by bright, blue skies, light, dancing winds, and crisp, orchard fruit.  Nature gives a great, glorious sigh in September.  We find thick, steamy summer now cool and collected, a frat party turned poetry reading, a mosh pit now two-stepping, the perfect cadence to our summer adventures.  

 

In the High Holiday liturgy, we read these words:

 The great shofar will be sounded and a still, small voice will be heard. 

How is this possible?  How can we hear both the great shofar and the still, small voice?  

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The shofar, after all, doesn't collaborate.  It's not an ensemble instrument.  The shofar demands single-pointed attention.  It jolts our nerves and rattles our bones.  We quickly wipe the grime from our eyes and, dazed and confused, mumble, "Okay, okay, we're up."  

The still, small voice, on the other hand, waits with infinite patience.  We have to coax it from the wild, by sitting still and quiet.  We can't force inspiration.  We can't demand wisdom.  We can't bully the Creator into giving us that treasured sense of peace of mind and fullness of heart.  No, the still, small voice whispers when we relax, surrendering our agendas with a smile.

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September delivers us the great shofar and the still, small voice.  The Creator asks us to hear both.  I believe in our capacity to make this work, as inconceivable as that sounds.  I believe in our ability to bang out email after email and then stroll outside to sit barefoot in the shade.  I know we human beings can spend a sweet Sunday afternoon in the sun and follow it with an early bedtime and an even earlier rise.  

September will feel like a mess; it always does.  Let's make it a glorious mess, a loopy Rube Goldberg invention transporting us from last-dash August heat to October frost.  Every note of this September symphony matters.  May we find our capacity to listen.  

!לשנה טובה ומתוקה - L'Shana Tova U'Metuka!

Have a sweet and joyful year to come!

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Elul is for Lovers

Happy fall everyone!

After a summer away from the blog, I'm thrilled to be posting again.  The baristas at my local Starbucks here in Reston, VA have heralded my return with generic jazz and decafs - it's good to be home.  :)

Yesterday evening, I officiated at a wedding at the historic Dumbarton House in Georgetown.  As I stood together with the bride and groom under their wedding canopy, I spoke to them about their auspicious wedding date.  We are in the Hebrew month of Elul, after all, the month leading up to the High Holidays.  Jewish couples for millennia have vied for wedding dates in this month bridging summer to fall, and not just because, with the summer's swelter diminished, we can hit the dance floor without schvitzing through our suits.

What's so wonderful about Elul?  Why set a wedding date just weeks before the Jewish New Year?

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Elul finds many Jews drafting New Year's resolutions.  We apologize for the misdeeds of the previous year and take aim, once more, at our best selves.  Such collective karma provides fertile ground for young love to bloom.  Marriage vows uttered in Elul ride the momentum of our highest hopes.  As the Jewish People embarks on a once-a-year program of self-improvement, bride and groom forever link their private commitment with this communal aspiration.

The Talmud, also, teaches that Elul is actually an acronym.  The four Hebrew letters that spell "Elul" stand for a four-word phrase from the Bible's Song of Songs: Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li - I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.  Elul returns us to our beloved.  Who is this beloved of ours?  Our ancient sages give us one answer: God.  Elul clears away the past year's underbrush, revealing a prayer-paved path to our Creator.

I yearn for God, and hope my spiritual efforts in Elul will produce a more intimate relationship with the Source.  However, I also see Elul as an opportunity to connect, and reconnect, with my flesh and blood beloveds.  

This is exactly what Sara and I looked like on the dance floor!

This is exactly what Sara and I looked like on the dance floor!

Last night, for instance, my wife, my beloved Sara, joined me at the wedding.  We stayed at the reception long past the dessert course, swaying and two-stepping to bluegrass tunes from the Green Boys (a phenomenal wedding band!).  After an August of running after our children and scrambling to prepare ourselves for the coming school year, we reminded ourselves that a functional marriage, full of shopping lists, soccer games, and the occasional HBO-GO binge, can also be a love simple and sweet.  

 

Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li - I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.  We receive an invitation, this month of Elul, to return to the one we love.  May our return find us winking at our beloveds - our beloved Creator, our beloved partners, and our beloved best selves.

 

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Practicing Together

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Jews have to pray together.  According to Jewish Law, certain essential prayers can only be recited in the presence of a minyan - ten Jewish adults.  Of course, a Jew can pray on his or her own, but if they're praying by the rules, they need to skip some of the greatest hits of the prayer book - the Kaddish and the Barchu, to name a few.

In yoga, we have a very different story.  As a beginner, it helps to practice yoga in a class led by an experienced teacher and surrounded by fellow students.  As one progresses, however, as the body learns the poses and the mind memorizes the sequences, as the nervous system becomes more and more adept at sensing imbalances in alignment, one can shift to a home-based practice.  

When I practice at home, I tailor yoga sequences to fit my needs - I do second and third sets of some poses, depending on how the first set feels that day.  I hold some poses for longer durations when I sense that my body hasn't opened as much as it could.  I skip other poses to compensate.  All of this costs zero dollars, takes zero minutes of commuting time, and can start and end exactly when I need.  

So why do I find myself shlepping to the yoga studio as many days as I practice at home?    

It's not for the sense of community.  The yoga studio I currently attend runs at a D.C.-pace, with classes every two hours.  Students pour in and out in Starbucks fashion.  Few exchange words with one another in the locker rooms or the lobby.  

Despite the anonymity, when class begins, I join these strangers in a dance, a dance that's pulsing, purposeful, and intimate.  When I struggle, the woman next to me, the one I've seen a bunch of times but whose name I still don't know, she struggles too.  We are alone together, strangers involved in a collective experience of the self.  We're locked in our separate bodies and minds, castaways on our own private islands.  But we're looking out at the same sea, reaching for the same sun.  Knowing she's next to me, knowing they're all in it with me, that's when the loneliness ends.  It doesn't matter that we've skipped the pre-class schmooze and will most likely forego the post-class kvetch.  In practice together, moving together, breathing together, we heal each other.

Jews need one another to pray.  Yogis do, too.  Today, I practiced at home.  The sequence perfectly fit my state of body and mind.  Tomorrow, I'll be back in the studio.  It won't fit just right, but it will be just right - together.  

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A Year Away

This past weekend, we Shalvas four traveled to Boston for a good friend's wedding.  We lived in Boston for three years and only moved to Northern Virginia less than a year ago.  We drove past our old house, with its bright red door, and my body still remembered every bump in the road, every turn of the wheel needed to navigate us through those narrow streets.  We visited good friends, our children playing together as if no time had passed.  A few days in Boston, and the year away disappeared.  

Yet, throughout the weekend, we felt like visitors.  We navigated our memories like tourists, eager to glimpse the landmarks that, in days past, had served to orient our lives.  At one point, driving past the synagogue where I had served as rabbi, I was struck by how detached I felt.  For three years, I had driven up to its low-roofed facade in every kind of emotional weather.  My passion, my ego, my hopes, my fears - they had played themselves out in that sanctuary.  Yet, a year away, and all that drama felt like a distant dream.

Now that I'm home, the current drama of my life greets me like a giant retriever after a long day stuck inside.  Anxieties leap onto my chest, overwhelming me with kisses, and I know that this life here, right now, is no dream.  I am not a tourist.  Nor do I have the emotional distance of a year's absence to soften the questions, dilemmas, hopes and fears.  

Yet, in the midst of this chapter's uncertainty, I have faith that a year from now, I will drive through these memories and see them, too, as a distant dream.  Holding that dichotomy - feeling the burn of the moment while remembering that every moment appears and disappears like a passing cloud - this is the work of the yogi.


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Like Riding a Bike

Yesterday, my daughter Avi learned to ride a bike.  

We'd been practicing for a week.  She'd pedal hard, I'd run next to her, my hand firmly gripping the back of her seat.  Then I'd let go, still running by her side, Avi having no idea that I'd released her.  One second, two, and I'd grab hold again.  We continued like this, back and forth across our townhouse cluster parking lot, her older brother Lev occasionally veering into our path on his big-boy bike, reminding us who owns the road.

During these practice sessions, Avi toppled over for one of two reasons.  Either she pedaled too slowly to build momentum, her bike wobbling from side to side without direction, or she turned her head, saw I had let go, and eyes wide, lost her balance.  Either she held back from the start, unable to build enough power and speed, or, in the midst of ride, she realized the precarious nature of her body flying through space on a two-wheeler and lost her nerve.

As I continue this odd, unexpected adventure of working as an independent rabbi and preparing to open a yoga studio with my wife Sara, I find that I, too, become undone for lack of strength or lack of nerve.  Sometimes, I'm holding back.  I don't feel ready.  I want more time.  So I don't pedal hard enough.  Then, wobbling, I topple for lack of direction.  Other times, I dare to go for it - taking a risk, trying something new, living large.  And then, for whatever reason, I look up in the midst of the ride, and notice that no one's holding on.  I'm flying through space and nothing is guaranteed.  The concrete's a blur below me, but I know that if I fall, when I fall, it will hurt.  Dear God, I think, what have I done?  In that moment, terrified, that's when I loose my balance.

Yesterday, for whatever reason, Avi was ready.  Maybe it was because Sara was outside, too, and Avi had called to her Mom: "Imma, watch me!"  Maybe it was because the weather was warm and we were all sweating, smiling, and feeling good.  Or maybe it was because the ineffable had once again taken place - the beginner had worked, practiced, feared, fallen, and gotten up enough times to finally, this time, take flight.



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Growing Pains

"The right way is the hard way."  -Bikram Choudhury

Should yoga hurt?  I frequently hear yoga teachers say, "If you feel pain, back off from this pose."  I've used this line plenty of times myself when I teach.  We step on the mat to heal, not to strain and sprain.  Pain let's us know when we've gone too far.  For Type-A folks like myself, pain's a disciplinarian, reminding us that we can't actually fly, we don't actually live forever, and that no means no, even if the "no" is spoken from a grumpy hamstring refusing to wake up and join the rest of the body for class.

While sharp, alarming pain functions to warn us of potential tissue damage to come, the absence of pain in our yoga practice should also serve as a warning.  I was reminded of this last week, when, after a couple hours in the hot room at our local Bikram Yoga studio, my teacher Ping walked up to me and asked if she could share an observation about my practice.  "When you kick out in Standing Head-to-Knee Pose, one hip is higher than the other.  Try to even out your hips.  Here, try it."  

I centered myself, eased into the pose and, sure enough, my kicking hip was higher than my standing hip.  "Now," Ping continued, "lower the hip."  As I lowered it, I felt the muscle and ligament infrastructure around my hips and sacrum groan.  Wow!  That's hard!  That hurts!  Not a sharp pain.  Not an oh-damn-I-just-tore-my-SI-Joint pain.  But an ache - a discomfort.  In other words, my body did not want to do what the form of the pose required.  "Yes!" Ping cheered.  "Now your hips are even!  Remember that feeling."

The next day, on the mat at home, I practiced with careful attention to hip alignment.  Sure enough, it turns out that Standing Head-to-Knee Pose wasn't the only problematic pose.  Little-by-little, I had unconsciously sacrificed hip alignment in a number of poses in order to avoid the pain of doing the poses correctly.  Can you blame me?  Who wants to spend hours on the mat in pain?  Who wants hard work if they can avoid it?

I redoubled my efforts.  That day, and each day since, I've started again from scratch, slowly working each pose and carefully pushing my body to places it does not want to go.  I've felt muscles engage that had previously enjoyed a long, luxurious hiatus.  I've walked around after class with some sore-ass glutes (pun intended).  These past few days, I've walked up to Pain and said, "Okay.  Here I am.  Let's do this."  As a result, I've grown.

 

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The Corners of Your Mouth

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The Corners of Your Mouth

In the midst of directing us yoga teacher trainees through a difficult posture series, our joints squealing, our brows furrowed, our teacher Tony Sanchez would casually add an extra direction to his teaching.  He'd be saying something like, "Bring your hips down on your heels.  Bring your arms over your heard.  Palms together..." and then he'd slip in the line, "Bring the corners of your mouth to your ears."

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Each time I heard that line, I couldn't help it - I grinned big and bright.  It's not that my knees stopped hurting.  It's not that my tight hips finally released.  It's not that I had arrived anywhere new, nor had I conquered a long sought-after goal.  Nor did I understand my life any better than a moment earlier.  No, the bearded guy sitting on his heels, arms raised above his head, sweaty and smiling, was still messy old me.

Yet, something had changed.  When Tony reminded me to smile, and when the corners of my mouth dutifully obeyed, I felt lighter.  I regained a sensation of hope, of promise, of the very reason I spend so many hours on the yoga mat.  

I practice yoga to celebrate - to celebrate my life and the life around me.  Most days, I begin yoga practice with this intention, but soon drift into a sea of striving, frustration, triumph and defeat.  What begins as an offering, a dance for my Creator, turns to performance, an opportunity to shine.  What begins with bright eyes turns fierce.

"Bring the corners of your mouth to your ears."  Giggling, grinning, I realize how I've drifted off.  How I've lost my way.  The smile brings me home.  Back to the mat.  Back to messy old me.  Back to celebrating this glorious not-ready-for-primetime nonetheless beautiful life.

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Future to God

I was bumming around a used bookstore in Boston a few years back when I happened upon a book of aphorisms by Swami Chetanananda - no I didn't spell his name wrong just there.  He's a beautiful writer and spiritual teacher, and one piece in particular leaped out at me:

In all things you do in this world, go carefully

And have it be your goal to remain at peace within yourself

No matter what.

Don't be ambitious to get everything done.

That will make you hungry and crazy.

It will destroy your ability to see your way.

When you find something to do, proceed with

Profound detachment.

That means:

Produce quality in the moment

And give the future to God.

(from Songs from the Center of the Well)

These days, I often wake up with a terrible hunger to attack my tasks of the day.  The work I'm doing, thank God, is deeply connected to my sense of dharma, of true path in the world, so I'm anxious to get to it!  I want to conquer, achieve, ascend, develop, connect, strive and pursue.  But if I indulge this drive full-throttle, I notice that my stomach hurts.  My shoulders have crept up towards my ears.  My heart's beating fast.  My breath is shallow.  I'm groundless and I ache, and truthfully, this meaningful work has become arduous.  I secretly can't wait to just be done with it.

Is this why we were born?  To, in the words of Swami C., go "hungry and crazy"?  Even if our work is vitally important, even if our projects can and do change the world, should we ground ourselves to pieces in order to achieve them?  

Swami C. helps us understand.  "Give the future to God," he teaches.  Okay.  So what's the difference between stomach-ache stress and giving the future to God?  In both cases, the tasks remain the same.  The To-Do List stays just as long as before.  When we give our future to God, however, we begin our work with the acknowledgement that the work, finished or unfinished, is fundamentally an offering, a prayer, a gesture of devotion.  We produce in this world as a form of "Halleluyah".

When I keep this "Halleluyah" approach to work in mind, I still work plenty hard.  But now my stomach has stopped complaining.  Now my shoulders heave a sigh of relief.  Occasionally, I'll even smile.  It's still a Monday afternoon.  I'm still really really busy with really really important work to do.  But I've discovered delight in the midst of the momentum.  And when I have to break to go pick up my kids from school, I greet them not as a harried, frowning mess, but as their Abba, their dad, ready to play.

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