Kol Nidre (All Vows)

Kol Nidre. “The Giving Tree” popped into my head.

I stood there under the canopy of my prayer shawl, thinking “I have not failed to keep my word to anyone;” I sifted back through the year and realized…I gave my word freely and I kept it, for a quick shot of righteousness in the arm, for a little bit of self-esteem boost that I could be a good person–at the expense of my own creative life.

If the world is that growing boy in “The Giving Tree” story, my writing is the tree. I asked that tree to give her leaves, then her branches, then her very body -and when I was left locked in silence with no more words, having drained the life of that tree with my own choices, I chipped away at her even further by berating myself as a writer.

Under the tallit, the white cloth grown luminous in front of my eyes with the light of the candles, surrounded by the achingly beautiful strains of Kol Nidre, I cried until my face was wet with a mikveh of remorse.

Then, I forgave.

Yom Kippur. pressing the reset button. Setting an intention to nurture the tree FIRST. Creative life is not a frivolous thing- it does not come last.

Letting go, now, of that image of tree and boy–letting go of that story and mindset–letting go of the stuck places, letting go of the sensory memory of being locked in silence with no words flowing–forgiving it completely.  It was a journey and a realization I had to go through in order to get here today to this fresh new beautiful blank sheet of paper on which I begin, again and yet completely anew, to set words.

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Into the Heart of Mourner’s Kaddish

In 2001, someone I loved very deeply died really suddenly. I won’t tell you his age, as he was always mortified about it, but he was very young, in his early 30’s.  I wish you had been able to grow older, mortified or not, dear heart…

I crawled into a cave, and I didn’t accept his death. I kept on with my work, and did not accept his death. I tried having other relationships but was oddly disconnected (to this day, I do not remember those relationships very much at all) and I did not accept his death. JeffreyS

Then followed ten years during which I waited for him to come home. Knowing that when he had had an impulse to talk to me, he had driven by and if the light was not on, he didn’t come in, I left the light on for years.
There were shards of broken glass in my chest for ten long years; I could not breathe too deeply without tears.
And I did not accept his death.

I had a ten-years-delayed “rebound” relationship with the man who had begun grief counseling with me, who saw the raw ugliness of my grief that I had allowed no one else in the world to see, who told me he was in love with me and jealous of a man ten years gone from this world – that relationship taught me a lot and began a process toward acceptance, and very painfully woke my heart up from its long disconnected state,

but I still felt as though I was behind sharp glass panes, utterly separate from people, in a cage of frozen grief.

Last November on the anniversary of Jeff’s death, I decided to say Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. To do something for him, when I could do nothing. To spend time with him in the only way I could. To teach myself to accept and let go.

In the beginning, I felt sheepish about breaking the “rules” — I was not saying Kaddish at the traditionally accepted time — but I knew that on a deep level I needed this if I was ever to move on and heal, and perhaps one day have a healthy relationship. At the same time I also felt a bit of resistance, as always happens when I am faced with “structured religion.”  I felt like I was fulfilling an obligation, following a rule, and that chafed somewhat.

Still, I stood up to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my friend.  Painfully, I said his name aloud for the first time into the still air of that synagogue and something inside cracked open, just a little bit.

Then, there was a lot of grief. A LOT. I said Kaddish in a whisper, unable to speak around the enormous lump in my throat; I said Kaddish with tears flowing in a bitter flood down my cheeks, dripping off my chin and spotting the prayerbook. I said Kaddish and sometimes the grief felt like it was tearing its way out of my body, and I would wrap my head in my prayer shawl in mortification to feel so out of control in the synagogue, in “public.”

But, as a wise friend (a wonderful, supportive fellow Maggid student) said to me once: “if you can’t cry in the synagogue, where CAN you cry?”

I said Kaddish with anger that I was saying Kaddish for a man who had died far too young; I said Kaddish wishing I could go back to that week and help, somehow – living through the “bargaining” stage of grief  (“If I had gone with him, he wouldn’t have tried that drug. If I had not distanced from my best friend in all the world, he would not have felt so alone…”)

I said Kaddish remembering him, with a smile on my lips; I said Kaddish thinking of his family and wondering where they were; I said Kaddish remembering the first time I saw him, in a temper, with a scowl on his face, his skin glowing darkly across the room; I said Kaddish with a small giggle inside, remembering calling my Mother to tell her, “I have met a scenic designer. He is going to be trouble for me, somehow.”
I said Kaddish, and I walked through all our too-brief days together, our lifetime together and apart. I said Kaddish with the taste of our first kiss on my lips, and with the bond in my chest that we had formed, two twenty-somethings who played together like kids, and who always assured each other they’d be married, as soon as they figured things out…as soon as he no longer turned to drugs when he was sad…as soon as….as soon as…

I said Kaddish with compassion for us both, remembering our “dates” to Costco when we were both too poor to go out, and how we laughed until we had tears rolling down our faces, hunched over helplessly giggling and making the most delicious lunch out of free samples…the plastic ring he had gotten from a bubble-gum machine and how he had put it on my finger, and how it was more precious than any jewelry I owned…

I am nine months into the process of saying Kaddish for my best friend and love, and now I realize why the tradition is to say Kaddish for a year after someone has died.

Because at some point, time has done its work; you wake up one morning and realize, saying those same words you’ve said week after week, that a changed heart is saying the same words. The words become a steadfast marker against which you can see your own growth and healing, and as you say yet again the words of Kaddish, the meaning seeps into your bones.

AT first, it’s just the rhythm that is soothing: “…Yit-barach v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa-ar v’yit-romam v’yit-nasay, v’yit-hadar v’yit-aleh v’yit-halal sh’may d’koo-d’shah…”

It is like a mantra – a heartbeat. The sound of it on my tongue reminds me of the time when I was in Greece for the summer, living on about $15 a week, taking the afternoons to simply float in the sea.  I had met a Polish girl there, and was teaching her how to swim. We lay back in the salty water, floating high in the stillness as the salt held us up, just our ears under the water, faces to the sky…and all I could hear was the musical chime of the rocks and pebbles beneath me as the gentle rocking of the tiny waves stirred them, and faintly, underneath, my own slow, steady heartbeat and the whoosh of the flow and ebb of my own breath in my ears. The water was warm; it was the safest I have ever felt, in the womb-waters of mother earth herself.

That is the rhythm of Kaddish.  It wraps you in its timeless serene acceptance of what is – it rocks you gently, and over the months, its assurance that nothing – no one- is ever truly lost seeps into your bones.

Then, the meaning of the words began to be clear.   (A few translations will be at the end of this post.)

Mourner’s Kaddish is a song of joy –a giving of thanks —  an affirmation of life!

IMG_7067The day that new layer of meaning struck me, as I was saying Kaddish for the thirtieth, fortieth time, I gasped. I knew then that this ancient prayer was not only for Jeff’s soul, it was also for mine. I knew then that this beautiful prayer was telling me that I was not alone (how many people have said Kaddish throughout the ages?) and that I was still alive, and that I must learn

how to live again.

During this 12-month journey, I happened to experience an interpretation of Mourner’s Kaddish that is one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. I was in the time when I was beginning to feel a beauty and expansion in saying Kaddish; comforted by the rhythm of Kaddish – my grief had worked its splinter-sharp edges to the surface and had been worn into sea-glass by months of tears –

I was serene, aching still, but open; tender new growth had begun to soften the wounded places.  I was at a Rabbi Zalman Shabbaton in Ashland, Oregon, and the Mourner’s Kaddish that weekend was done by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, (“the Kirtan Rabbi”) – it was a kirtan Kaddish.  It was utterly beautiful. (*Is* utterly beautiful, actually: you can find and hear it online, if you don’t have the opportunity to hear it live.)

Also during a Rabbi Zalman shabbaton in the previous year, I randomly met an author, Hyla Shifra Bolsta, who had written a beautiful book: the Illuminated Kaddish.

Through Hyla’s artwork and through Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s kirtan, Kaddish opened before me; I experienced new depths in the magnificent heart of the prayer.

Kaddish is a road through the grieving process: it is a guide. It lets you listen to your own heart and know when it is time to let joy back in; it holds you up like the ocean in Greece held me, telling you, it’s okay, it’s okay, feel your grief, feel it all, you will not shatter.

And then, later: it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re alive and that is wonderful – your beloved is still alive in you.

Throughout the year, I have unravelled every stitch of what he was to me in my life: every bright glance, the funny way he blew his nose, his maddening stubbornness and his sweet, sweet voice; his breathing next to me and the sweet smell of him, that spot behind his ear that always smelled like woodsmoke and sweet meadow; his practical jokes, his quick, stormy temper, and his loyal, gentle heart…his beautiful eyes that noticed everything, and his long, sensitive fingers that sketched the things he noticed with such clarity and whimsy…

All of it has been unravelled, tiny stitch by excruciating stitch, and has been knit back up into myself, over the course of nine months saying Mourner’s Kaddish. All the moments of who we were together knit back into who I am — and suddenly, he was a part of me, not shut out by my grief. The memory of him lived and breathed in me, and I began to feel like he was with me; in my mind I would see his smile when something wonderful happened, and I would feel, suddenly, the warmth of him near. I felt as though I was living with all of my heart, as I never had before.

Surrounded by my community who let me be – who did not judge, who did not need to talk to me about my grief, who just stood with me and once in awhile squeezed my hand or put a comforting arm around me— held in this warm sea of mother earth’s lifeblood, held in the heartbeat of my community, I said Kaddish, and I finally healed.

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I finally let him go.

I finally realized that while I loved him with all my heart, that was a gift that made my heart and soul grow larger- there was infinite room in my heart to love again.

I have three months left to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my best friend and love.

I have three months in which my heart might still sting with grief, but it also – so suddenly! even in the next breath! – might be quick and bright with joy….

because during this journey of saying Kaddish for my dear friend, I learned that it is okay to stand there saying Kaddish for him and also feeling the sun on my face. That it is okay to be laughing inside at a funny thing that someone had said just moments before, or to be still feeling elevated, serene and blissful from the prayer service that had come before.  I learned that it is all okay. That I did not need to die when he died. That grief is the deal we make when we draw our first breath here: we are going to love, and we are going to lose people – and we are all going to die sometime.  We will also learn things along the way — and in a way, saying Mourner’s Kaddish for a year cycle is a distillation, a metaphor of the whole journey of a life.

It is a beautiful gift to have this tradition that allows healing and understanding to come.

One of the messages Mourner’s Kaddish held for me was a vision of my future self, who said, “Don’t use up your life refusing to mourn, refusing to let go of those who are gone. Do not carry the dead—we will all end at some point — let their deaths teach you how to live.  Mourn, so you can fully expand into the length and breadth of your days here.”

At the last comes acceptance.  It cannot come at the beginning: there is a necessary process to go through first, and Mourner’s Kaddish is a beautiful guide through that process.

Mourner’s Kaddish interpretation by Rabbi Avram Davis:

(taken from the Illuminated Kaddish by Hyla Bolsta)

Exalted and Sanctified is the name of Loving Kindness in this world.
Created according to the Intention
And may it be established in your lifetime
and the lifetime of the Community
Speedily. Soon. (Amen)

May this name of the Infinite be blessed Forever;
Blessed and Praised, Glorified and Uplifted, Honored and
Elevated.
The power of Chesed {Loving Kindness} is Greater than all
the Hymns, Prayers or Consolations
we can utter in this life.  (Amen)

May there be abundant Peace and a good life for all the community;
for ourselves and all Creation (Amen)

Mercy and Peace sustain us the far heavens,
so may it Be for us, for all the community, for all of Creation

(Amen.)

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Mourner’s Kaddish (Transliteration)

Yitgadal v’yit-kadash sh’mei rabba (Congregation – Amen)

B’allma dee v’ra chir’utei v’yamlich malchutei,

B’chayeichon, uv’yomeichon, uv’chayei d’chol beit yisrael,

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv, v’imru: Amen

(Congregation – Amen. Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya)

Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya.

Yit’barach, v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar,

v’yitromam, v’yit’nasei,

v’yit’hadar, v’yitaleh, v’yit’halal,

sh’mei d’kudsha b’rich hu (Congregation – b’rich hu)

L’ayla min kol b’irchata v’shirata,

tush’b’chata v’nechemata,

da’ami’ran b’all’ma, v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Y’hei shlama rabba min sh’maya,

v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Oseh shalom bim’ro’mav,

hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu,

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teyvel. v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

 

Kallah: white spaces

I thought I went to Kallah in order to deepen my practice- or, rather, to connect to Judaism again.

I wanted to find again the joy I used to have in it, before my heart was shocked, frozen, contracted, tight and small in terrible pain. The innocence was gone; I could engage with my mind but simply could not silence the angry-teenager-me who fought and pushed against everything that resembled structure or control in Judaism.

It makes sense now; I did not want to be controlled. I was pushing against Judaism because I wanted to trust myself again.  I had failed to push & stand up for myself against a relationship that controlled me in a way I find horrifying to remember – so Judaism had to stand in for him, and I had to prove to myself that I valued myself enough to fight.

As much as I fought with it, I never thought to leave. I stuck with it. Somewhere under the layers of grief, loss, fear and harm, there was a hard solid core of utter loyalty to Judaism. I’m a little surprised that I did not simply walk away, considering that my first introduction to this religion began with abuse and betrayal- but I couldn’t.

Ultimately, even though my choice to become Jewish has come with some sacrifices, it was a choice that was made from a very deep soul place, a knowing that it was where I belonged.

People often ask me why? Why would I choose this? Why would I do this to myself voluntarily?

I was asked the other night if I would walk away– deny Judaism for a relationship, for a marriage. No, I said – without question, no:  I do not know who I would be if I were not Jewish. Judaism is my heart.  When I became Jewish, it was like I was given an extra piece of my soul.  Though there has been a lot of pain, I live more fully now. I am more awake.

So. I went to Kallah in order to find that again – beyond my first rabbi’s version of Judaism, beyond what he taught me and later betrayed, as though he had held every teaching over the years in one hand and set a match to it with a sly grin –

I wanted to find again the purity, clarity and magnificence of my own heart in Judaism.

And I did find that —

but I found so much more than that.

It wasn’t in the classes, though the classes  were wonderful –

When we read the torah scroll, we focus intensely on the black letters. Especially those of us who are slower in our Hebrew – those curving letters used to bring me to tears – how beautiful they were to me, and how closed! I would focus on them fiercely–Image

but sometimes, we have to remember to pull our focus back, and to see the white spaces around the black letters as well.

In the white spaces – that is where our most unexpected lessons can live.

It was in these “white spaces” at Kallah, outside of the services or classrooms, that the lessons of the heart, not the mind, came to me.

My growth was not from the teachers, though they were incredible and gave much that fascinated me – it was from the other people.

Again I am struck by the thought that one could know Torah even if one never studied it, simply by connecting to, learning from, studying other people with an open heart.

Not just the beautiful moments – the difficult ones, too. That person who frowns, looks you up and down, doesn’t respond to your smile and “good morning,” but rather, looks away with a scowl on their face — very unpleasant feeling, isn’t it ? — the impulse is to flinch away from that, laugh it off or fend off the feelings that come up — but what if, instead, one says “hmm, interesting,” and observes the feelings and thoughts that occur?

That scowling other person has just become a mini-meditation.

Now on to something more pleasant:  the beautiful moments.

The man, Jack- his surname is the name of an angel, and he is an angel to me- walks up to me in the cafeteria.  “I want to say something to you, I don’t know if you can take it in right now?”

he waits while I bring my scattered brain back from cafeteria-crowd-mode, and focus my eyes and attention on him.

“Sitting next to you last night at the concert – was a wonderful experience. You are so beautiful, loving, and kind. It was a gift to me.”

“what a loving thing to say,” I tell him quietly, smiling into his sweet eyes and laying my hand on his arm.

“It is what you are to me.”

The woman in my chanting class who walks up to me before class begins.

“I want to tell you that you are beautiful, and that I love you,” she says, putting her arms around me gently.

My “spirit buddy,” Matthew, who listens to my hurt one morning and then quietly gives me this gift:

“You were not at the cabaret the other day?”

“No.”

“There was a woman who said: ‘Why am I always early?  Is it because maybe on some level I don’t think I am worth waiting for?”

When someone looks into your eyes and gently hands you a piece of your own puzzle, not because they want something from you, but because they have the desire to give –

that is pretty much the deepest healing.

And so, yes, I did connect to Judaism again. It wasn’t what I was looking for: I will never go back to that initial infatuation, that Maxfield Parrish painting of innocence and magic;

It is better than that. I hung by my fingernails through the barren time, and now I am rewarded – this has deepened into a journey of love. Love that I can trust now, absolutely – love that has given me something I never yet possessed – the ability to look into someone’s eyes and take in the kindness that they are giving.  I always feared that, fended it off.

In fact, I believe that was the one lesson that I could not learn from my former rabbi:

“Can you hear me?” he would say , “I love you. Can you really try to hear that?” he must have said this a hundred times – a thousand. “I never said ‘I love you’ so much in my life.” maybe that was what I was for him – he learned to love.

I could not hear him.  I could love, with all that I was; I could love with every scrap of my being – but I could not be loved.

And so, the deepest lessons from Kallah were not taught to me in a classroom — they were taught in a cafeteria, at the lakeside, and in a “spirit buddy” meeting, or talking to someone else during a service. They were given lightly and easily, with no embarrassment or stories around them, with no need for response or measuring up.

I wonder if these people have any idea that they were soul-teachers to me. Sometimes, i guess, we are blessed to give someone a piece of their own puzzle–but maybe we never even get to know what we gave & how we transformed their lives.  And that is okay… because the healing has been seeded, and it’s going to spread like a mint plant…may I one day have the opportunity to give this kind of healing to someone else.

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Judaism on Homosexuality

This small blog post is just the beginning…I’ve been working on this for quite a while – two years, in fact.  My research is not done. I don’t know when it will be done — it’s important to me to have rock-solid evidence that states: Stop supporting bigoted, cruel words and behavior with the Bible, because it ain’t kosher.

So, this is just a post to point out an article I found that is talking about exactly what I’ve been researching. It’s a good article. (it’s at the bottom, if you want to just skip my post and get to the article!)

I’ve grown very tired of people slamming the Torah (Old Testament) and saying that it is homophobic, fostering hate, just look at those verses, etc. We all have seen how people misuse the Bible to cause harm, pointing at verses and saying it’s clear that God “hates the sin..” etc.
No, it is not clear.  And NO, homosexuality is not a “sin.”

(And…really? “God hates” are two words that do not go together. At all. Ever.)

I’ve been doing a lot of research. I’ve been searching for articles, reading books, reading Torah, asking people about this. I began this research two years ago when a gay friend told me he was treated badly in an Orthodox shul. I set out to write him a letter about the many reasons the way he was treated was not a representation of Judaism or any kind of religious behavior, but, rather, a representation of human ignorance and fear and cruelty, plain and simple. (and that he needed to promptly find another shul–I’ve never attended a synagogue in which such behavior would occur–in fact, I’ve never attended a synagogue in which gay marriages were not performed.)

When I set out to write that letter, I had no idea if it was true – I just had my gut instinct and my heart screaming at me, no way could I ever align myself with a religion that discriminated against people and pointed at a verse in an ancient book to justify it.

So, I spoke with a rabbi – my mentor at the time.

He told me to look at the Hebrew.  He told me (basically) what this article is saying.

So. Here’s an article by Reb Jeff that addresses …you know…THAT verse.

It’s a good article. It’s not a pretty article: there are some things in it that might challenge people; it doesn’t gloss over the ugly parts of a rougher time period…

and it’s a very good article.

Would people please spread the word?  Can we stop this ignorant misusage of one of the world’s most beautiful books?  (Even if you don’t revere it as a holy book, it’s got some of the most incredible poetry in it.)

Anytime you hear someone using “the Bible” as justification for discrimination against anyone who identifies as GLBT, tell them to look at the Hebrew. Tell them to think a little. Tell them that there are a lot of ways in which the “rules” in Torah are questioned, in that very same book, by things that occur later on – it happens on purpose, people, because the point is that we are supposed to think!


    I have had someone I thought was a friend point to violent stories in the Torah and say “that’s what Judaism is: a baby-massacre religion.”  (needless to say, this person is not a friend any more.)  That person was (obviously) not only speaking from massive ignorance and narrow-mindedness, but was also violently incorrect. Judaism is not a “rote” religion. The things that happen in Torah are not things we are supposed to emulate and try at home- they are things we are supposed to learn from.

Torah is a mirror – it’s the journey of lives. It is trial and error. It’s a LOT of error.  It is a blueprint for relationships. Torah is also chock full of very powerful metaphor. Sure, it can be taken literally – but there are so many other ways to read it.

But to look at it as an historical document for a second: back then, they simply did not know that people could be made in such a way that they were attracted to, felt romantic love for, people of the same sex.  They didn’t have a word for homosexuality.  Therefore, the verses people misuse are not about homosexuality. They are not about loving relationships.

Even if the verses were as people say and a “rule” were being laid out in Torah against homosexuality for some odd reason, many “rules” that are laid out in Torah are completely contradicted by things that happen later on in the book.  It’s just the way it is – it unfolds exactly like life –  I think the point is that we are supposed to see ourselves in it, in all of our flawed, contradictory, messy humanity;  we are supposed to learn compassion for ourselves and for others.

Torah is transparent.  It doesn’t sugar-coat anything.  It is also not a museum piece – it is a living text;  our obligation is to interpret it as our times require.

There is only one “rule” in Torah that is more important than anything else.
The main rule, the only rule, that is never questioned is : love. Loving kindness. that’s it. You want to sum up the Bible? Love.

So when people are using the Bible as an excuse to discriminate, they are not following the Bible’s precepts in any way,

which means a lot of things:  it means that we can stop blaming religions and God for the things that people do. It means that people can stop feeling like they need to hide if they are homosexual and also very religious.  It means that people can stop using a book – a book that could be a vessel for great healing in this world- as an excuse to cause harm with hateful speech and actions.
So. If you’re gay, bi, transgendered, and someone brings up the poor maligned Old Testament to you, please … please…help heal this world by setting them straight — or rather, setting them on the correct and loving path, whether it’s straight, gay, bi, trans…you get it…

“Also be ready to defend the ideas that there is more than one “religious” way of looking at these questions. From the perspective a Judaism that is willing to change with a changing understanding of God’s creation, the religious reading may be the one that leans on the side of compassion and love.” – excerpt from Reb Jeff’s article, “Judaism on Homosexuality.”

http://www.rebjeff.com/1/post/2013/06/judaism-and-homosexuality.html