Monday, April 24, 2017

Rise - a poem to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

There is so much sky!
Funny, but i never knew.
It's beautiful,
and many hued;
perhaps this is what Jacob knew
when he ordered that coat,
the one of many colors,
the one that tore apart
his sons, made them think
of murder,
of slavery,
and lies.

Joseph said, "It's ok.
God put me here,
so that I might serve
and forgive.

Did God put me here
in this crush of
people and hunger
and never enough?
What do I serve?
Whom shall I forgive
in this fetid, unrecognizable
 place that once was home?

Is there a plan for me
to raise me up?
To raise us all?
To let us rise?

There is so much sky
in which God can hide.
but I think God is here,
in the crush
and the dirt -
and God is urging us
to rise.

Written for the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula

Friday, April 21, 2017

Omer. Day 10

Every so often, I am stopped, almost literally in my tracks, with the deep and sure understanding of just how blessed I am. Most days, I traipse about through my life, oblivious to grace in that take-it-for-granted, life-is-what-it-is, happy-mad-sad-glad, blah blah blah kind of way.

You know, that glide through days that are filled with all the living that gets done. There are bills to pay (or avoid until the notices get slightly nasty). There's the boy, part adult, part locust, part lost at that oh-so-difficult stepping off place, the one that promises dreams and nightmares, adventure and drudgery, a mysterious new world that 18 years of training still has not produced a map for easy navigation. There's the job, and the study, and the writing and the groceries and the dinner-making and wishing you still made enough money to have a housekeeper again. These days, there's the continual flabbergastedness over the insanity that has infected the world, and what the hell - Trump? REALLY?

It's the minutiae of life, all the little pieces that, sure, sometimes morph into medium pieces, and sometimes become unwieldy, but it's all just mostly unnoticed, really just barely under the surface stuff that you move through to get to the next piece, and the piece after that. And maybe I've compartmentalized a lot of it. And maybe there's a wall that's barely visible, almost not there at all really, but the wall has been in place
Ace longer than you can remember, and mostly you just forget it's there and it's so much easier to leave it just where it is than dismantle the thing. I mean, it's not hurting anyone, is It?

You just do your life. Get on with it, and there are some days that seem to shine a bit more than others, moments that sparkle or maybe tear at your heart. They are days that roll into weeks and months and while it sounds a little awful, laid out so badly here, it's not. It's a whole bunch of everything.

It's just, mostly, you don't stop to notice any one thing. You just move.

So, those moments when you are literally stopped - feet planted, eyes open, breathing deeply, and you notice each breath, and you suddenly hear all this sound that certainly had to have been there all along, but now you hear it, it's richness and brash dissonance that fits just so with all those other notes of the day, and you feel this fullness welling up within you, and you know, absolutely know that you are blessed.

And in that exact moment, you can do nothing but drink it in and give thanks,

And so we count 10.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Omer. Day Nine

I'm a bit all over the board to day. Some might say that's a step up for me. I have no idea when I became so discombobulated by life. I used to think I was organized. I am awesome at creating systems. I can color code and categorize with the  best. When I was in grad school, I had a 500 page binder of note cards, all with headers, dub-headers and timeline - for a 20 page paper. So what that the actual writing of the paper got away from me: I was on top of all the tiny, tiny little pieces.

When did I go from keeping on top of all minutiae to making piles that meld into the other piles that have long since toppled into one another, waiting only for me to grow annoyed enough with all the piles to attack them one afternoon, and create brand new, totally separate piles with a bag of paper and other office litter that is too heavy for me to lift. Bonus: I usually do my battle on bright and sunny days, when the air is sweet and the humidity low. My subconscious works overtime to add one more to my list of inanimate object resentment. My sub-subconscious is trickier, and gives itself a high five at finding an appropriate punishment for my procrastination.

I always feel better after these battles - lighter, cooler, able to breathe a bit easier. There is a sense of accomplishment: Ta da! I did it! I vanquished all that paper and mail and evil... Oh wait. It's just paper. There will be no parade in my honor, no confetti (that will remain on mt floor until the next dust up with the enemy). Dammit.

I could promise to change. Have promised to change. To keep the piles low, to set up a schedule, to make a plan. And stick to it. Really I will! But (wait for it) I don't. It is all a piece of the controlled chaos that is my life. Which really, when I lay it out like that, is kinda crappy. Who wants to live a life of chaos - and pretend that it's controlled in any way?

So I write notes and make files. I but boxes and accordion folders in awesome colors. And there's e-calendars and timers and reminders. And I throw most of the junk mail out as soon as I get it. And I at least fold the laundry these days, and mainly hang up the stuff that needs hanging. And the bills get paid mostly before I get passive aggressive robo-call reminders. And there's food on the table and a roof over our heads - and yeah - it sounds as if I'm justifying my crappy behavior. Maybe I am. Or maybe, just maybe, all those piles - even the tumbling ones, are a little smaller than they were a year or three ago. And the chaos is a little less chaotic than it used to be. And the time between doing fierce battle with all the mess (physical, mental, spiritual - pick one) grows a little shorter.

It's progress, not perfection. And I think that, these days, I have chosen to dismantle the biggest of the piles - the most threatening, dangerous and twisty pile: the one I've kept hidden, that holds all the nasty little voices that tell me I am less than, and broken, and beyond repair. It hides the fun house mirror of distortion and lies. I think I'm ready to walk away and finally leave that pile behind.

So, if you ask me, on this omer-journey what do I carry, what will I leave behind, I think the answer is not as mysterious as I once thought.

And so we count nine/

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Omer. Day Eight

Ok - so, the cereal post. I swear this one is about cereal.

I was at a yizcor service the other day. I know - it sounds hauntingly familiar, doesn't it? Still, a promise is a promise. Anyway...

I was at a yizcor service the other day. It was lovely. Many of the smaller North Shore Reform synagogues find it a bit of a stretch to gather a minyan on festival days, so a bunch of us have banded together to make sure there are enough of us to pray and sing and mourn. We take turns hosting (though these days, it seems as if there are only two of us who host - though to be fair, one of the synagogues is buildingless (as is my shul), which makes it a little more problematic to play host).

I like the synagogue who hosted us all this round. There's a lot of natural light that spills through the sanctuary. We sit in creaky theater-style seats, and the rabbis and cantors eschew the formality of the bima and sit just in front of us. Some of them (and some of us) wear tallitot. My rabbi always brings his guitar. It is close and intimate. Each of them takes turns, as do the cantors. It's unscripted; as best I can tell, when whomever is "done" with his/her turn, points to a colleague with a "Do you wanna" shrug.

And so it goes. A little Hebrew, a little (bit more) English, a little music, all to fill the soul. We all take a moment to honor the commandment, to set this day apart.

I know, I know - you're still waiting for the cereal. I'm getting to it.

The host rabbi welcomed us all to his synagogue, He is kind and smart and for some reason, I know that his favorite verse is from Psalm 118 - The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief cornerstone. He pointed at the small row of cereal boxes in the corner of the bima. "I suppose you're wondering why there's cereal on the bima, especially since it's still Pesach." He smiled at us, almost daring us to guess. He told us that their tradition was to collect cereal during the Counting of the Omer, one additional box each day. Thus, the first day was one box, the second two, and so on, for all 49 days of the count. "At the end, we'll have collected 1225 boxes."

That's an awful lot of cereal. They donate all the boxes to local food banks. What better way to honor the doing of this commandment - counting out a measure of grain, every day for 49 days, days that are laced with fragility and unsurety? 

I think about our ancestors, who were still getting their feet wet (so to speak) with all the freedom and walking and where's the next meal coming from, not to mention where are we going and when will we get there? So much uncertainty! So much fear. 

For all that, I gotta believe that they would have loved Rabbi Ike's omer counting/cereal collection thing. 

And so we count eight.

Omer. Day Seven

I was at a yizcor service yesterday. It was sweet. Here on the North Shore, there's not always a guarantee that we'll get a minyan, so a handful of synagogues band together on these festival celebrations. Each of the synagogues plays host in some kind of rotation, but all of the rabbis and cantors show up, and we congregants (those who can, those who need). We get a decent showing, all of us together.

I like that: all of us, together.

We rise, we pray, we sing. Probably less davening than in my Zayde's day, but there are more women than in his day as well. At least - more women praying and singing and being, right along with the men. Here, we women count. Here, our voices are heard. We are all a community, and we carry one another. And so there are enough of us all, to ensure that no one mourns alone. I like that, too.

This was the 26th yizcor service since my brother died. I didn't realize just how huge that number is until I typed it out just now. Twenty-six times, not counting all the kaddishes I chanted during the first year after his death.

Twenty-six festivals have passed. In the beginning, I wasn't sure I would get through one. Not that I thought I would die! Not that, no - but I didn't think I could make it through a memorial service without my knees buckling and my throat tightening and my sorrow threatening to dissolve me. And in the beginning, all those things happened, knees and throat and sorrow huger than anything I could bare. And every time - every single time - no matter where I was, there were hands that reached out to hold me, arms that wrapped around me.

I stuttered out the words of the mourner's kaddish - harsh, foreign, not even Hebrew, but Aramaic, so that I almost knew what they meant, almost could say them with ease - and I would hear all around me, the answering amen.

Amen - a word that has its roots in both faith and truth. The rabbis attach considerable power to this tiny (and, alas, often thrown away) little word. Rav Meir believed a child immediately earned his/her place in the world to come upon saying it for the first time. Rashi believed that all the gates of heaven open to one who says "amen" with all his strength. Most of those rabbis agree that no benediction should be orphaned. no prayer should go unanswered or unframed, as it were.

We have a lot of rules about "amen" - when to say it, when not to say it, who can say it and who can't. Of course; we're Jewish. Why wouldn't there be a host of rules? I don't know them all. I know some, mostly in the way we all know a lot of rules - I observed, someone told me some stuff and I think I read something somewhere along the way, and no one is telling me I'm wrong, so I must be right, right? That kind of way.

So, I'm not too sure of the "why" of it, but I think I have the mechanics of it down. The words of the Mourner's Kaddish are said by the mourners; the congregation responds amen - so be it (in faith, in truth, let those words be a testament).

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash shmei rabba - Glorified and sanctified be God's great name.There can't be silence here. This phrase must be answered. And so the congregation responds, as we have been taught: amen.

And so it went, from festival to festival: I would recite the words of praise to God (because that is the essence of the Mourner's Kaddish - not about death, but the glory of God), and the congregation around me would hold me up, and hold up the words of my prayer, and they would say "amen." Or, at least, if not "they," then someone. My relationship to the prayer changed over the years. How could it not? I went from raw and desperate grief to various shades of sadness.

Then there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no answering "amen." A space of silence before everyone continued on. What? Where was it? Why didn't everyone - anyone - stop and wait and offer? Why didn't I? I'm in mourning, dammit! I have grief. My brother died. Isn't the congregation duty bound, to be present for the mourners, so that no one grieves alone? I was carrying the dead, all of them, and they were getting heavy. I deserved at least that tiny amen to lighten the load, at least long enough to get to the next festival, the next yizcor. Right?

Yeah - I heard it: that whiny, screechy voice that demands constant attention and worship. I so love my self-righteous narcissism. It's attractive, isn't it? That shook my world, more than a little. Who the hell am I, to think I am the one, the only one, to carry the dead? Who even said I had to carry them?

That's the moment it all changed for me. I can carry memory, without having to carry the dead. I can carry those in my community, lift them and lend them strength in their grief, even as I am lifted. I love those who have died no less. I don't need to prove it to them, to myself, to the world around me. I can be kind and generous, just as there were so very many who offered me kindness and generosity. I can be one within my community, no more, no less.

I can answer a benediction. And so let us say

In honor of my brother, Randy (z"l)
If you'd like to read about my journey through the first year after his death, saying kaddish, read my essay, Joy in the Empty Spaces)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Omer. Days Five and Six

What is it about intimacy that makes my spine stiffen, just a little.

And who am I kidding - there are times when my spine is so stiff that my body would crack in half at a gentle puff of air in my general direction, 

I've been thinking about this since I chanted Torah last week - the part where Moshe stands naked before God, after all the calf and the murderous rage and the towering anger, after the breath of forgiveness and the work of second chances - Moshe stands and pleads: let me know you; let me know I have found grace.

Such power in those simple words. Such intimacy in the cry.

Let me know you.

I once hear that "intimacy" can be read "into me see." Normally, I eschew those trite and sacchariney pronouncements. Trust me - if you stick around a 12 step program long enough, you will hear some kind of anagrammatic saying for just about anything. Most of them are cute, maybe even thought-provoking once. Sadly, they get bandied about far too often, so that they lose their meaning. For me. I'm sure that, for many, they are veritable life preservers, and many cling to them through the storms and rough waters of recovery. I'm sure I've treaded water with one or two of them myself. 

See into me. Know me, warts and all. See me - and don't head for the hills, appalled at what you find. 

So I stand, a little breathless, a little scared, like a deer in the proverbial headlights - so ready to flee, to hide. But for this, for the fragility and openness of these days of counting, I stand before you and ask to know you, to know that I have found grace.

For the omer, days five and six

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Omer. Day Four

The first shabbos in the wild lands.

I cannot imagine grappling with the enormity of That! I mean, really - first the fleeing, then the Sea, finally on dry land - but with, as I do imagine it (and I'm OK with my own contradictions, thank you) a thousand questions of who and what and where and why. And the kids being kids, and there are animals to be calmed and cared for, and tents to be set up and thank God for the manna - that's one load off the plate! There are creaky joints and calloused feet and tired bodies that really just want to plop down on some ground and sleep for a year or two.


A couple of years ago, someone sent me a video - the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. It was April 20, erev Shabbat. The dead had not all been buried. There were still people dying "in broad daylight" says the narrator. But shabbos was nearing. The British chaplain organized a kabbalat Shabbat service - and for the first time, in perhaps a decade, it could be celebrated without fear. 

At the end of the service, the people there sang Hatikva - The Hope. After all they had been through, all they had suffered and lost, even they could sing about hope and celebrate Shabbat. Amidst all of the horrors of the camp, they could stop - even for a moment, even for a day - to find space within themselves to welcome the Bride. Even then, they could sing.

Once we were slaves. Now we are free.

And so we count four. Shabbat shalom. 

If you'd like to hear this amazing recording, follow this link.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Omer. Day Three

There are a few rules when it comes to counting the omer. There's a prayer, and a time, and rabbinic rules about what happens if you forget.  If you're into kabbalah, there are daily and weekly themes and meditations. For example, Day Three of the omer is Tiferet of Chesed- the beauty of love, loving kindness.

I wonder what our ancestors, those original omer counters, the refugees who fled the narrow places and actually witnessed the Signs and Wonders, who were stopped by a Sea and followed a woman with a tambourine, who were afraid and lost faith and were forgiven and were bound, this time to God in the desert, at (maybe under) the mountain - I wonder what our blessed ancestors would think of our more modern practice of counting.

For them (as I imagine it must have been, from my presumptuous and privileged position of 21st century modernity), this time really was a time of fragility, of unknowingness. They faced a huge void of unknown! They'd been slaves for generations. They were dependent on an unseen God, and maybe they remembered their vaunted  relationship, but - c'mon, who could blame them if they didn't? Their leader had been a Prince and a shephard - what the hell did he know about leadership, or the wilderness or survival? What would they eat? How would they drink? Where were they going?

How lovely, that, these days,  we can go on a spiritual odyssey. We can wrestle with beauty and love and God. We can dream of fragility and plenty and loss. We can put one foot in front of the other, on this journey from slavery to freedom, binding to binding and open ourselves to revelation and light. 

But in this time, in this place, on this third day of counting, I can't help but think of those who must journey, those who must flee, those for whom the entire world is fragile and fractured, so that the very ground is unsure and tomorrow is a million miles away. 

I think, perhaps, we may still be mired in the Wilderness. 

And so we count three. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Omer. Day 2

Whatever else it was that I was going to write about for Day 2 (that is, if I had any plan besides seeing what order the pixels fell into when I sat down to write this) - all of that became irrelevant at some point yesterday. This is a story of failing.

I fail at many, many things. I fail at breathing. I fail at bending. I fail at metabolizing. The list goes on, and I have the host of medications to prove it. Somewhere in that list is an almost fail, or, more truthfully, a sometimes-fail. I have crappy eyes. Really, really, really crappy eyes.

I've worn glasses since the fifth grade, mostly because of my left eye. These days, my right eye seems to be catching up (ratcheting down?). You know it's a bad sign when your retina specialist (yeah; they're crappy enough that I have one) send you to the Lighthouse for the Blind, because they are the best at whatever magic it is that they do when fitting someone for glasses. The good news is that I fail at the Lighthouse for the Blind - my eyes aren't quite crappy enough for them. Huzzah.

I had some weird close calls, a couple of times I could have sworn (and believe me, the swears coming out of my mouth were often and loud and tinged with sheer panic) I was going blind. At the ripe old age of 35, I failed at down. At first, it was the crossword puzzle. Then books. These days, it's the dashboard of my car. It is amazing how much I need to see down - and how miraculously this is cured by bifocals. There was iritis at 45. While I didn't fear going blind, I did want to gouge my eyes out with an ice pick; my eye doctor countered with a couple of kinds of eye. Overall, his suggestion worked out better.

Proliferative retinopathy (say that ten times fast) is the companion of my 50s. There were a couple of times I swore - literally and figuratively - that blindness was imminent, and while this condition is certainly dicier than the others, it, too, can be managed and treated. And has been. I even got to be a pirate for a day three times because of it. True, the eye patch was clunky plastic, and I had no parrot for my shoulder; still, I could believe, even if just for a day. Yay me (who knew I was such an optimist?).

After such dramatic build-up, you'd think I had a tale of dire straits and a deus ex machina or two to share. Sorry. Perhaps I fail at story construction as well.

Yesterday had nothing to do with any of this. Not even the crappiness of my eyes, except, perhaps, peripherally. Still, I'm particularly sensitive about all things eye, and am secretly convinced that some day I really will go blind, though my docs and specialists assure me that the chance of that is mostly remote (and believe me: any remote is too much remote for the person who is (you should excuse the turn of phrase)  staring the remote in the face).

Yesterday was a total fail at Spring. And because I fail at Spring, I could not see. And I could not see because I could not open my eyes. What a surprise - I don't just get hay fever; I get assaulted by it. It started in the morning with itchy eyes, that progressed to scratchy, that morphed into burning. that finally, by late afternoon, slid into stabbing - light, any light - seemed to stab at my eyes, blinding me (if only figuratively). Ugh.

There I was, after a long day spent squinting at my computer (whose pixels kept getting smaller as the day wore on), wandering the aisles of the Jewel, lids half-open, pushing my grocery cart up and down aisles of food that I knew more through sense memory than actually being able to see anything. I stared at the cottage cheese sell by date almost long enough for it to go out of date. I could barely open my eyes. A fail at seeing. A fail at spring.

Fail, fail, fail. Lots of fail and this is the story of fail. But all these fails - of breathing and bending and seeing and seasons, they're all physical. They are all manageable and treatable. I take a handful of pills in the morning and another at night. It takes 45 minutes to put all the little pills in all the little slots in the twin weekly pill minder thingies. There's a supply of alcohol swabs and pen needles in the top drawer of my nightstand and insulin in the fridge.

I call these fails - or the physical realities of my failures. But they're not. It's my body, which doesn't work quite as well as it did 20 - 30 years ago. Still, it's just a body, and so is flawed - sometimes way more than I would like. But for all the flaws and pseudo fails, it works.

That is, perhaps, a story for another day. Today, Day Two of the Omer, this was all a prelude to the real story of fail:

As I stumbled somewhat blindly through the grocery store, annoyed that I couldn't read the writing on the walls (quite literally), annoyed that I couldn't make my body function the way I wanted it to, there was a real note of panic as I considered the ride home. That would be all of two or three blocks, but it would be in broad daylight. Even with the clouds and the onset of evening, there was enough light to make me want to weep.

How in hell was I going to be able to drive with my crappy, crappy, springtime eyes?

That was my fail. I was in a quandary. Very real, this one. I could barely open my eyes. I thought of calling my son to walk the couple of blocks to the store so that he could drive us home. But I didn't. With almost 56 years under my belt - and almost 25 of them sober - I still haven't learned the most important lesson of all: I don't know how to ask for help.

I know how to panic. I know how to cling to my fear until my knuckles are white. I know how to hide behind the facade of my strength, my independence, while I am buckling at the knee, drowning in my intractability. I know how to wait until the situation is at a crisis point, so that I have no choice but to flail about and cry out for help. But I do not know how to ask, with love and humility and hope.

Yesterday was a silly example. I called my son from the car, asking him to meet me in the garage - asking for his help. He unloaded the groceries. He put them away. He turned off all the lights in my room and told me to lie down. He made dinner. He helped. He helped because I asked, because he is my son. Because I taught him the importance of helping and need and love.

A silly example, but pretty profound. I know, without fail, that when I ask for help, it comes. Just like that. It may not come in the form I expect, but it comes. No matter how convinced I am that this time will be the time that the cavalry gets lost, that Snidley Whiplash will prevail, that I will founder and surely drown - help comes.

I've learned this lesson a time or two before. Probably a few more than just two. I'm guessing, if past experience is any indication, I will need to learn it a time or three more. Still, in this moment, there is a bit of grace - I asked for help. I got it. And I lived to tell the tale.

And so, I ask your help in the counting - for today, we count two of the Omer.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Omer, Day One

Tonight is One.

First steps are hard for me. It is so much easier to stay stuck in one place, unmoving. Even the pain of that - the pain of stuckness, the pain of sameness and stasis - all that seems so much easier than change.

I see infinity with every step, and it terrifies me, overwhelms until I can't move. I wait. I watch. I fear.

You get the picture.

Here's the thing that saved my life, heard at a time I needed it, when I was so mired in my infinity that I was drowning in it and I could barely breathe - I am not responsible for infinity. I am not even responsible for the Whole Picture, the Everythingness of my actions, the sum total of all the rest of my life, here at the starting line of whatever journey of change or discovery or unknown leap of fucking faith: Pray to God, and row towards shore.

One step. That's all I need do. One. The infinity, the everythingness that I hold so tightly - so that my back is bent and my fingers cramp with the strain of seeing that first step turn into that first mile into that first day into that first misstep into that muddy quagmire of mistakes and the unknown - 

All of that is (as a dear friend once told with, with all the love in her heart) is none of my damned business. All I have, all I can ever do, is take one step, the one that is right in front of me.

What happens from there? No idea. That's the deal - one step, whether I am inching along or racing by in my seven league boots - that One is filled with my faith (and my fear) - faith that I will be able to face whatever it is that stares me down in hat moment, faith that I know I will be ok - not that everything will magically go my way whenever I take that one step, but that I will survive it, with as much grace as I allow.

Some days I am more graceful than others. But it only happens when I put one foot in front of the other.

So tonight begins the Counting of the Omer. Whatever the ancients did with it, I choose to honor this mitzvah, this commandment, by taking a spiritual journey through these next 49 days, to discover what it is that I carry and hold on to as we all move from the Narrow Places of our slavery to the wide open spaces of the Wilderness and freedom - and binding, and grace, and community and revelation.

It's an awesome journey - literally - but however awesome, however rich and difficult and energizing this journey may be, it all begins with 


Tonight we count One of the Omer.

#countingthe omer #passover #journeytofreedom

Friday, April 7, 2017

Eleventh Nisan - Celebrate

My Bubbie’s Brisket
(with translation)

Passover is coming. I am, once again, contemplating kashering my kitchen (making it ready for Passover and the clearing away of “chametz” - anything with leavening). I am also thinking about brisket, probably because it is almost Pesach. In my family, which managed to show its devotion to God mainly through food and only peripherally through prayer and ritual, brisket meant holiday and celebration. It was, for us, the 11th commandment.

I got this recipe from my bubbie. I’m sure she got it from hers, who got it from hers, who got it from hers – you get the idea: a long, forever line of amazing and strong and devoted women who cooked and fed and made sure that, no matter what was going on in the world, she would make sure that there was enough, and then some. Genug! Enough!

The Recipe
The translation, with commentary
Get a brisket, ½ a pound to a pound per person. Top cut is more expensive, but my bubbie swore by it.
The range is big because brisket has a magical shrinking quality. One year, you plan for ½ a pound per person (because last year, there was so much left over!), and the brisket shrinks enough that you contemplate only having soup for dinner, to make sure there is enough. Or, if you’re my mother, you buy a second brisket, just to be sure.
Rinse and pat dry.
Remember the movie “There Will Be Blood”? Do this part in the sink. Trust me.
A few yellow onions, sliced
Use a mandolin if you want to be fancy. Otherwise, cut away, until you have enough to layer the bottom of the pan, and then enough to layer the top of the brisket.
Place a layer of sliced onions in the bottom of your roasting pan.
No translation necessary – just throw ‘em in the roasting pan and be done.
The Dry Rub:
Garlic Salt
Salt and Pepper
Please don’t ask for exact amounts; no self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to measure an ingredient if her life depended on it. These are things you’re just supposed to know. So – the brisket should be covered with the paprika. The other dry ingredients – “enough” is as specific as I can get here. As my bubbie would say, “You’ll know.” Reminder: all seasonings should be on top and bottom of the brisket.
The Other Rub:
Yup – ketchup. Slather this all over the brisket. It’s a messy job. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Top brisket with more onions and sprinkle a packet of dry onion soup mix
Depending on the size of the brisket, you might want to use 2 packets. Again, this is cooking by sight.
Last Step: mix about ¼ to ½ cup of ketchup with about a cup of water. Pour this over and around brisket. Cover pan tightly with foil and roast at 350 for several hours.
So, you finally get to measure something! You only need to actually measure the first time or three until this, too, is cooking by sight. As for how long – what? You thought my bubbie would provide some exactness at this point in our cooking adventure? I usually cook the brisket for 4 or 5 hours. This is something that cannot be overcooked! You know when it’s done? When it smells like brisket, when it smells like it’s done.
Take it out of the oven. Let cool. Refrigerate at least overnight.
Remember to open the foil away from your face! There will be steam. (This is a bubbie quote, akin to “Blow on the soup; it’s hot." Behind all the words though, is the sentiment “I love you.” Bubbie spoke many languages - Yiddish, English, food. I miss them all)
Slice the brisket while cold
I can’t stress this enough. No self-respecting bubbie of mine would deign to use an electric carving knife. Cut it cold - but before you do, remove the hard orange shell (the polite way to say “fat.”) Dispose. Taste a piece (or two). This is the “testing for poison” phase. This is a critical step. Do not over-test however; you do have guests arriving soon. Replace sliced brisket in the pan with all the onions and the juice (and assorted vegetables, as desired) and cover tightly with foil.
Place in oven heated to between 325 - 350 degrees.
A lower heat won’t hurt. Again, this is cooking by additional senses. I usually keep the brisket in the oven for another 2 - 3 hours. The desired doneness is when the meat “fels’n part,” Yiddish-ish for “falls apart.” Brisket should be fork-tender; no knives required (just as matzoh balls should be hard as rocks - but that’s a different essay entirely).
On a huge platter. It is totally ok to forget the gravy, which is really just the pan juices poured into a gravy boat; this creates additional opportunity to apologize for the meal, and for the guests to show their love, and tell you how amazing the food is.  If you've planned it correctly, you will have made too much, the exactly right amount.  

The onions can stay with the brisket; the other veggies, if any, can be placed around the meat or in a separate serving dish. Your call. Bubbie often forgot to serve these, but had enough other vegetables (all of which, for some reason, included things like honey, raisins, marshmallow and pineapple). The salad never came out until five bites before everyone was ready to burst, with cries of “Oy! The salad!” Wine and juice got poured and drunk and spilled. Matzoh crumbs littered the table and more than a few laps and the carpet.

The kids fidgeted, their parents split their attention between the kids (allowing them some semblance of freedom until there was inevitable escalation from happy-to-see-the-cousins exuberance to a true-to-life demonstration of Moses masking an example of the Egyptian taskmaster and the events of the seder and silently pleading with the seder leader to speed it up and do we really have to talk about what the rabbi's said on their sleepover?

And all around you is the happy chaos of a family celebration, in whatever iteration your family settles into - family by birth, by the beloved family you find along the way, by the orphans, acquaintances and disparate others who may have had no other place to spend the holiday - and you sort of get a sense of that original Pesach meal, all jumbled and joyous and not quite perfect as you rushed around, stretching your legs on the slippery new place of Freedom, and maybe no one knew everyone around, so you all just garnered together, to eat and remember and thank and hope and pray and love.
So, this is the recipe - the pared down, out-loud version that was given to me, handed down much as the Torah went from God to Moses to Joshua to a thousand generations of our people, to your niece who chanted so beautifully at her bat mitzvah not too long ago, or your son who is struggling with its ideas (much as you did - and still do) and perhaps this recipe goes back to  Sinai as well. Perhaps.

And every time I make it, I remember, and give thanks and feel love. And then we gather, the chaos of family and friends and kids and love - and we remember, just like we were there, and we tell the story of our redemption, and we tell the story of our family, and we celebrate wroth brisket and matzoh and stories and love.

Thank you to my bubbies, both of them. Your memories have been a blessing to us all. Chag pesach sameach!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ninth Nisan - Perplex

I'm going to slip this in, under the wire, for PERPLEX, the prompt for ninth Nisan in #blogexodus.

I am perplexed by much of the story of our redemption, our Exodus from Egypt. Why did it take 400 years for God to finally hear our cries? Why would Moses, let alone God, expect this newly freed people, who had only known a taskmaster's lash, who had not tasted the sweetness of freedom and the joy of being bound to God - why would they expect the Spies to behave any differently? Trust? After all that history, on a seeming whim? Really? Why does it appear that Aaron got off scott free after the gossip transgression, while Miriam was doomed to suffer and be exiled from the community, until she was healed, until she was deemed fit to re-enter? Why was she not mourned?

I am perplexed about so much of our story. But today, I really don't so much care about the tangles of our story. I really don't care about its themes of redemption and hope and freedom and binding.

Today,.I am perplexed by a world that tacitly condones murder by hunger, by medical need, by neglect and indifference. Our texts are clear - there shall be no needy. Yes, yes - there will always be needy. Our text comments on that as well: If there are needy, give them what they need, with open hands and open hearts. I am, again, perplexed that we can be so blithe and blind to the ravages of need.

I am perplexed at the murder of anyone. I don't understand, in any way, the killings that we witness, every day. My mind absolutely boggles at the battlefields we have made of our homes, our cities, our seas.

We witness these murders daily: in Syria and Russia, Paris and Turkey. Senseless and horrific, they are atrocities, because of their scope and numbers. In Chicago, where I live, there are parts of this glorious city where children must walk through war zones to get to school and back; where innocents become collateral damage and we tag the murders of the not-innocents as something a little less than murder, and more like just desserts. As if the death of ANY person does not diminish us all.

We witness these deaths - murders and killings and atrocities - and we shake our heads, draw our families closer (even for just the moment, grateful that we can). We feel genuinely bad: shocked, perplexed, angered, saddened. We are indignant, and demand that something be done, dammit! All the right things, all the civilized, compassionate feelings. We witness, we feel. We know, down to our bones, this is a great and terrible wrong that must be stopped.

And the next day - hell, the next hour - we witness it all over again. Our perplexity consumes us.

Here's the thing: I don't have an answer. There is probably no one answer anyway, in such a complex, worldwide, ancient sin of ours, of all of us humans. I know that you have to feed people. Make them healthy. Educate them, clothe them, give them skills and jobs and hope. And you know what? In my naivete, I can bet that if we were only to place our efforts in saving people over making profit - if a human life were actually more valuable than an ounce of gold - we could change the world almost overnight.

How about this - how about we treat a person, not a need? We talk about the Hungry, the Poor, the Other, as if each need were a monolith of sameness, as if every person there were exactly the same, needed in the exactly same way. Every person in need is a person - a face, a heart, a soul, a voice. We want to create a little box, control it tightly, fit all the people with Need A into the box labeled Need A, then slap a lid on it, tie it up with string, and put it on a shelf, as we dole out a solution crafted to blanket the box - but not the people we've put there.

Those people - and the very fact that we can say "those people" is testament to the problem - are faceless. Those people are numbers. Those people are Them, inherently different from, less than Other. We reduce a person to a need, so we can discuss the problem of that need at a healthy, intellectual distance. We can provide solutions, that, if they don't work, we can shrug our shoulders and know that at least we tried - and then return to our regularly scheduled lives.

Forgive my broad brush here. Forgive the soap box upon which I've climbed. Notice that I say "we," not "you." This is my sin as well. Here's a novel thought: how about we unpack those boxes, and really see the people for who they are? How about we understand that we are all made from the same dust of stars and earth.

I am perplexed by how easily we can reduce people to the lowest common denominator - and then find even the trap door to that.

The people who were murdered, most likely by their own government earlier this week, whose homes have been made into bombed out shells, who have been forced to flee, again and again, until there were no roads left upon which they could flee - they are not Syrians, or Muslims or Christians or whatever label we attach to them to make them something Else - they are humans. They deserve our respect and compassion. They are not a sad little box to put on a shelf already over-crowded with other sad little boxes filled with human fodder and faceless Others.

They deserve honor. They deserve their names. Zichronam liv'rachah, may their memories be for a blessing. May their names be remembered.
1. Molham Jihad al-Yusuf
2. Yasser Ahmed Al-Yousef
3. Child- Ammar Yasser Al-Yousif 7 years old
4. Child- Muhammad Yasser Al-Yousef 10 years old
5. Ms. Sana Haj Ali, wife of Yasser
6. Abdul Karim Ahmed al-Yusuf
7. Child Ahmad Abdul Hamid Al - Yusuf 9 months old
8. Child Abdul Hamid al -Yusuf 9 months old
9. Ms. Dalal Ahmed Al-Sahh, wife of Abdul Hamid Al-Yousuf
10. Ibrahim Mohammed Hasan al-Yousuf
11. Child Muhammad Hassan al-Yusuf 11 years old
12. Ms. Hind Turki Al-Yousef
13. Omran Suhail Al-Yousef
14. Ahmed Suhail Al-Yousef
15. Nihad Ahmad al-Yusuf
16. King (Malak?) Turki al-Yusuf, wife of Nihad al-Yusuf
17. Nur Nihad al-Yusuf
18. Hassan Mohammed Al-Yousef
19. Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Yousef
20. Imad Al-Din Al-Qudh - Pharmacist
21-23. Children of Imad al-Din al-Qudh We did not get their names
24. Turki al-Qudh
25. The wife of Turki al-Qudh
26. The child Hind Turki al-Qudh
27-28. My baby Turki Qudh We did not get their names
29. Ms. Raja Mohammed Al-Mohammad
30. Anas al-Khalid - Teacher
31. Mr. Fatima Al-Sousi, the wife of Anas Al-Khalid - a school teacher
32. The child Mustafa Anas Al-Khalid
33. The child Alaa Anas al-Khalid
34. The child Shahd Anas al-Khalid
35. The child Abdul Rahman Ans al-Khalid
36. The child Khadija Anas al-Khalid
37. Ahmed Khalid Halawa
38. Khaled Halawa
39. The child Shaima Ibrahim al-Jawhar
40. Ahmad Shahoud al-Reem Abu Muhanna
41. Abu Ayman al-Jawhar
42. Ms. Safia Haj Kaddour, wife of Abu Ayman al-Jawhar
43. The child Meyar al-Mari
44. Amer Al-Naif- lawyer
45. Alaa Al-Naif
46. ​​Mohammed Al-Naif
47. Alaa Mohammed Al-Naif
48. The wife of Alaa Mohammed Al-Naif
49. Wife of Alaa Mohammed Al-Naif
50. Jamila Hafez Al-Qasem - A pediatrician.
51. Dirar Al-Aliawi Abu Emad
52. Mohammed Jamal Al-Qassem
53. The wife of Muhammad Jamal al-Qasim
54. Fatima Jamal Al-Qassem
55. son of Mohammed Said Barhoum
56. Hayyan Al-Ali
57. Wife of Hayyan Al-Ali
58-59. Children of the children of Hayyan Ali
(found on the Facebook wall of a friend)