Friday, January 20, 2017

If not now

Who would have strength
to stand, truth to power -
a tightrope walk
against the wind,
with no net below
except for the hand of God?

Who would walk the road
less traveled, the one of
rocky crags and razor wire?
That curves into a
perilous wood and
still look up with hope?

Who would sing the song
of dissonance when it
is easier - far easier!
to slip into the stream
and be carried
by its current?

Who would dare
to demand justice,
show mercy,
offer comfort
shout defiantly -
who would love
in the face
of hate?

Puah stood, and Shifra
by her side, choosing life
and the cry of babes over
one man's harsh decree.
And Miriam, the one of
timbrel and drum
she danced across a river
and sang a song
of freedom's call.

Who will stand
now, if not for me?
who will rise
now and march
now and sing a song
of freedom's call
now? Who,
if not for me?

Once more, and
yet again
if not now

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Cry in the Wilderness

Author's note: 
I originally posted this essay in January, 2012. A day after I began to write this, my friend’s husband lost his battle with cancer.  Today is his yahrzeit - the anniversary of his death. It has been four years. 

My apologies that the first line is no longer strictly true. Every other word remains unchanged and painfully true.  His memory will be a blessing, his life was a prayer.  His family will grieve and find comfort in their wilderness. Together they will find healing and learn to be whole again. And let us say: Amen.

My friend's husband is dying. His death is imminent, a matter of days at best.

From the time he was diagnosed, they've had kids to raise, a house to run, meals to cook, carpools to drive. They've helped with homework and changed diapers and created a patchwork quilt made of comfort and stitched with hope. They've experienced great kindness and felt the soul-sucking aloneness of despair. Their family has grown by a glorious one. They've lived their lives, cursed their private hell, leaned on friends and been surrounded by love. They have seen their children grow and grieve, and have been helpless in the face of that grief.

It has been less than a year.

Not enough time. Never enough time to love and hope and grow and be, to live the life that suddenly seems too crowded with everything that makes up a life.

Not enough, but surely more than enough time to curse at God, raise holy hell. Enough time, enough bewilderment to demand to know just where the hell God is in all of this.

"Fuck you, God," we cry out into the wilderness of our pain. Who, in the face of such cruel and capricious reality has not railed against it? We are taught the laws of cause and effect from the time we can begin to comprehend the magnitude of this seemingly immutable law. It is a cosmic law, this if/then equation, a calculus of horrible consequences.

I know that place, that cursing, angry, defiant and terrified place. I have wept and wondered at the why of this despair. I have demanded answers from a silent God. I am good - mostly. And kind - mostly. I follow the rules and color inside the lines - mostly. Where’s the reward for my (mostly) decent and very human life? Why am I being punished? Was I not good enough? Did my life not measure up?

Answer, dammit. Tell me. Nothing? Silence, still? Well then, God: fuck you. Go to hell.

And there, in the darkness of my despair and pain, my grieving, wanting, painful and honest prayer: Fuck you, God. I am convinced that this, too, can be the healing grace of God. Blessing and curse.  I have been blessed; I have been cursed. It depended less upon God and more upon my perspective.  I believe that God needs to hear our raw, unvarnished anguish.  I believe that God needs to hear our pure and unadulterated joy.  I believe they are one and the same thing.

It is not what we pray that matters.  It is, ever and always, that we pray. 

How could we not?  Underneath our cursing, do we not find the unspoken prayer do not forsake me, God; do not abandon me to my pain!  The Psalmist had it right: we cry out to God and we are healed.  He didn't say  what we cried, or how.  He didn't tell us "God only hears the pretty words.  Speak only of love and praise. That is all that God will hear." No, it's pretty clear: we find healing because we cry out in our anger and our fear. 

Blessing and curse.  God does not fuck with us.  We are neither abandoned nor forgotten nor ignored. Neither does God bestow wishes: we do not get parking places or jobs, nor do we win games or wars as a result of our prayers.  What we get, simply, is grace.  What we get is strength and courage to face what life has placed in front of us in that moment.  My faith will not guarantee that I will never know fear again, or that only good things will happen.  My faith, my prayer, my continued conversation with God allows me to put one foot in front of the other, and know that I will be carried through.

And God.  Where is God in all of this?  God is there, on the sidelines, waiting, with infinite patience, infinite compassion, for me to remember to cry out.  God waits, to give me grace, to turn my mourning into dancing.  God waits to dance with me.

For Alyce, my friend: may your mourning turn to dancing; may you dance soon with God.

Monday, January 16, 2017


I am an exile from myself,
walking a path of dust and fear
in my seven league boots
shredded by time.

I cannot see my heart.
I cannot feel my breath.

I have drifted through
an endless night.
Stars catch in my hair;
they swing me too close to the moon,
but its light is only reflection;
it cannot hold me.

It's quiet when I drift.
The music of this silence
is so full and big!
Too full, too big for my
unseen heart to bear.

I cannot hear my emptiness
I cannot taste my weariness

But my feet,
bloodied and torn,
feel the weight of sky
and the pull of earth.
My body understands
the loneliness of water
and the longing of wind.

This is the border of my exile,
dust and fear and the drifting of stars.

I have no offering
of emptiness and stars
Still, I draw near,
an exile no more.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I Am Not Speechless

Yesterday, someone drew a swastika on the sign-box outside of Klau Library on the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, the principle rabbinic and cantorial training arm of the Reform Jewish Movement.
It was the ugly work of some hateful, anti-Semitic person, someone ignorant and filled with fear who is lashing out in a misguided attempt to feel more in control, more powerful. I imagine this person to be a brutish skinhead – but I know it could have been anyone.
I've seen the picture of this desecration in post after post on Facebook, and almost every single post comes with the comment, “I am speechless; I have no words.” Many comments link the vandalism to the rhetoric of our president-elect and the climate they feel he brings to his upcoming administration – one that gives free reign to Neo-Nazism and intolerance. Defiantly, they ask where he stands in the face of this horror.
But me? I’m not speechless. I am outraged and sickened and saddened. But not speechless.
I was not speechless when residents of sleepy little Ridgefield, CT, found the same hateful scrawl of a swastika on a local playground just before Thanksgiving 2016.
I was not speechless several years ago when a friend’s doorbell rang around 10 pm and, when her husband opened the door, he found a pile of pennies laid out in the shape of a swastika.
I was not speechless when another friend shared that her middle school-aged daughter was being tormented by some boys who called out daily: "Jew! Jew!" They threw pennies at her feet and yelled at her to pick them up; onlookers only laughed. The incident even repeated during registration, in front of parents, administrators, and the principal himself. No one did a thing.
I was not speechless when my own black and Jewish son was bullied and teased, sometimes mercilessly, in grade school. The bullies were the kids, but the collaborators were the teachers and administrators, who remained silent in the face of their ignorance and hatred.
I wasn't speechless when, while driving some staffers out to the field for community organizing back in the 1980s, one of them regaled us with the tale of how he had "jewed down" a street vendor to get a better price on some frippery or other.
I was not speechless when, at age 18, I walked into my synagogue one Sunday morning and found three huge swastikas spray painted on the walls – ugly black spiders against a backdrop of white.
I wasn't speechless when my mother and I spied a bumper sticker on a car that whizzed by us on the highway in 1973, the height of the gas crunch. The bumper sticker read "Burn Jews, not gas."
I was not speechless after any of these incidents, over all these decades, and I am not speechless now.
I am outraged and sickened and saddened by the continuing antis-Semitism that goes mostly unnoticed by most of the world. There are a few news stories that reference this latest crime of hate and reference the Jewish community – as if we were a different community entirely, not part of the same community as everyone else. As if we’re all still consigned to a shtetl away from the rest of the world, not quite as human as the rest of the human race.
Many well-meaning people will shake their heads and say "Terrible!" And then they will go on with their lives, perhaps wondering how in the world this could have happened in their neck of the woods. They thought they lived somewhere good, somewhere where things like this just didn't happen. But still, they think, it didn’t happen to them; it happened to those people over there, to that other group. And life goes on.
There’s more, you know. I was not speechless when a madman terrorist strafed a club in Turkey just this past weekend, or when another madman drove a truck into a crowded square in Germany. I wasn't silent when France, when Miami, when Sandy Hook, when Boko Haram, when Rwanda, when Somalia, when Bosnia, when the Boston Marathon, when Charlie Hebdo, when the Towers, when Oklahoma…
The list, it seems, in infinite. Each tragedy teaches us, as I have taught my son, "Never again!" Never again must we let such hatred and murder and violence occur – and then we shake our heads and act stunned and speechless, every time, the next time it happens. Again.
In the words of the late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
I am not speechless. I cannot be speechless. My voice alone may be small, but if we all speak together, as one voice, we will shake the rafters of heaven itself, and we can create a world where no one is terrorized by hate, a world where “Never again” is finally true