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Mystical Teachings From the Stock Market

The wild fluctuations in the stock market last week, and Americans’ fear response, has me thinking about our spiritual relationship to change.

I know it’s a little nontraditional, but the truth is, I often like to think of the stock market as a sort of mystical teacher that reflects spiritual realities about human desires and the inevitability of cycles.

This theory of mine began during the Great Recession. I happened to have an artist residency on Wall Street at the time, and this proximity made the financial world seem less irrelevant to my scrappy artist life; I began to read the newspaper’s financial section for the first time.

And then the Bernie Madoff scandal broke. At first I was interested in Madoff as a sort of modern version of the Emperor Who Has No Clothes. But as more information came out, I began to be more interested in the nuances of what happened.

In physics as in stocks, in spirituality as in lasting love, we’re reminded that what goes up must come down.

His returns, in fact, were nothing special. What was extraordinary were their consistency, a straight line going up without the jagged peaks and falls of the real market. There was a general sentiment that his investors must have been extraordinarily greedy, but this is largely unfair to his victims. I began to think that instead of reflecting his investors’ greed, Madoff’s decades-long fraud reflected something essential about the American dream, and, in fact, our human longings.

People were not necessarily looking to get rich. They just wanted a safe place to put the money they’d worked so hard to save — a safe harbor, buffeted from the ups and downs of the market, of life.

But this is impossible.

In physics as in stocks, in spirituality as in lasting love, we’re reminded that what goes up must come down. And then, most likely, it will go up again. In the words of my favorite Buddhist sutra, “It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world … that everything changes, nothing remains constant.”

Change is not just a basic fact of life — it’s the basic fact of life. And yet with the exception of a few dopamine-loving thrill seekers — some of whom can certainly be found on the floor of the stock exchange — we humans are generally known to resist it.

Change is destabilizing; it makes us feel unsafe. Even a relatively small shift can strike fear in our hearts. The markets plunge and investors rush to sell, even though all the experts advise against it. Not a single person is in any physical danger, yet the news is on the same sort of high alert reserved for earthquakes and train crashes.

My favorite Jewish teaching on change comes from the mystics, who envision an endless back and forth (or perhaps up and down) as the basic state of existence. They believe that the state of being alive — of being itself — is ratzo v’shov, running and returning. The world is in a constant state of transition, shuttling back and forth between divine energy and worldly matter.

Our spiritual lives echo this motion, as well. We run to God, our souls drawn to the fire of transcendence, of holiness, to change our lives and find our best selves. And then we return to our own limited self, because we must, to remain alive and in one piece. And then the process begins again.

This is how we love one another, too. Studies show that although babies thrive on being close to their mothers, they need to break eye contact after a certain period of time; if the mother does not turn away, the baby will. This continues into adulthood; although times of alienation can feel like awful emergencies, they are in fact part of the fabric of love. We run to each other, to love each other; we make ourselves anew, forgetting everything that came before. And then we return to ourselves, back home to our own particular body, our story, our limits, our needs.

Ratzo v’shov, run and return, bull and bear, sacred and mundane, coming together and coming apart and coming together again. This is what it means to be alive.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Photo from Vimeo

Loving B’nai Mitzvahs

In American pop culture, the words “bar mitzvah” don’t exactly prompt religious awe. Instead, a cocktail of humor, pathos, anxiety and cost comes to mind.

And while these are certainly part of the picture — there’s nothing to be done about the brutal realities of being 12 — I see the whole process from a very different angle.

I’ve been tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students continually for 18 years. Most of my adult life I’ve been teaching kids to sing the tropes for Torah chanting, to lead prayers, to write their commentary on the weekly portion. I often officiate the ceremony, too, for unaffiliated families.

I don’t have to think about catering, invitations or the social intricacies of eighth grade. Instead, I have the luxury of thinking about the ceremony as a tribal initiation, a passing-down of traditions and knowledge, a confirmation of the continuation of our people.

From this point of view, I offer this small ode to the beauty of bar and bat mitzvah.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery.

Sometimes my students come to the Torah Hut, a little free-standing office in my backyard lined with holy books. Often, we meet online. But it hardly matters; either way, week after week, ancient melodies come to life in the air between us.

We step into our archetypal roles as teacher and student, one of us passing on the tradition, and one of us receiving it, and each of us being changed in the process.

Our vocal cords vibrate with the same frequencies of our ancestors, our lips pronounce the same letters. We wrestle with the issues raised by the Torah portion — and invariably, my students’ questions about the text echo those of the rabbis, written a thousand years before.

But teaching Torah is only half of my job. The other half is to help strengthen the student’s spiritual life. What do they believe about the Divine? What does Judaism mean to them? How do these ancient traditions carry over into our contemporary lives? At 12, a young person is finally able to ask these questions.

These conversations have no right answer, of course. Whether a student is a passionate believer in God or a committed atheist makes no difference to me; I am here to be their guide in discovering what it is they believe.

At first, my students often have great difficulty articulating thoughts about spirituality. I explain that it’s not their fault. Life in secular America does not offer us many opportunities to talk about our own personal spirituality, and as advanced as we are with technology and academics, spiritual intelligence is underutilized in our daily lives.

So, we start with baby steps. In one of my favorite assignments, students write interview questions for their families — about “spiritual” matters but not including the word God, since that word often shuts down conversation entirely. They report the answers back to me; then I interview the students with their own questions. The resulting two hours of conversation are a window into the inner lives of the entire family, and a beautiful acknowledgment of their diversity of beliefs — simply as humans, beyond their roles as parent or grandparent or sibling.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery, wonder and a place beyond intellectual knowing.

In order to stand in that sacred place, we have to remove our shoes, as Moses did at the burning bush. To be at once carefully attuned to our intuition and utterly inexpert — a skill I hope my students will remember long after their Torah portion has been forgotten.

So, when I think about a bar or bat mitzvah, I think not about cracking voices, or slideshows or theme colors. Instead, I think about the end of childhood, the very beginning of adulthood, and families in the slow, exciting, heartbreaking process of that transition.

I think about communities gathering to affirm the beautiful traditions of our tribe, the sacred words we have carried over ages and exiles, which have improbably made it to this very day and are now our responsibility to pass on.

I think about how lucky I am to get to spend an hour with a 12-year-old discussing ancient alphabets, modern social justice and the meaning of life.

And I think about how lucky we Jews are, to be given this path to walk together through one of the great transitions of human life.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Photo from Max Pixel.

Prophets of Eros

As a Jewish girl growing up in a non-Jewish suburb, I often wondered, while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which of our neighbors would have hidden me and my sisters in their attic. Recently, I find myself asking a more adult version of this question: After profound trauma, would I have been able to find my way back to eros, to a fully lived life?

One of my favorite rabbinic legends describes the ancient Israelite women seducing their husbands while in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh oppresses the Israelite men with backbreaking labor as a subtle form of genocide: They are too exhausted to make a new generation of Israelites.

The Israelite women realize that their tribe is in danger, and according to the rabbis, they take action. Drawing their husbands out to an orchard and gently teasing them, they lift up handheld copper mirrors, saying, “I’m more beautiful than you are!”

Both Dr. Ruth and Esther Perel lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit.

In this midrash, the ancient Israelite women are not just heroines of tribal continuation. They also are keepers of eros. They teach pleasure despite oppression — survival of both the body and the soul.

Which brings me to today. In an era when sexuality tends more toward the commodified and the alienated, who teaches us about the inner erotic life, with its vulnerability, pleasure and its ability to transform us? Who are today’s prophets of eros?

This is not a rhetorical question. I have an answer — actually two, and both are Jewish women: Ruth Westheimer and Esther Perel.

During that same era of girlhood when I wondered about my neighbors hiding me, I also listened covertly to Westheimer’s late-night radio show on a tiny AM radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow.

My most important sex education wasn’t the embarrassing biology lessons of middle school, but “Dr. Ruth’s” teachings of how pleasure, self-acceptance and joy can be accessed through the erotic.

Perel is a generation younger, a couples therapist finding rather unlikely celebrity these days. In her beautiful, moving podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” Perel invites us into the intimate space of couples therapy as she helps people access their connection to eros after trauma.

Sometimes the trauma is past abuse. Often it is an affair. Occasionally it is simply the trauma — for women and men alike — of living under patriarchy.

I find myself now listening to Perel’s podcast with an adult version of my previous mania for Dr. Ruth’s radio show. In fact, the two women have much in common. Both lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit. Both possess charming accents. And both are Jewish women who grew up in displaced communities profoundly traumatized by the Holocaust.

When Westheimer was a 10-year-old girl, her father was taken by the Nazis, and her mother placed her on a train out of Germany, hoping to save her life. This was the Kindertransport to Switzerland. She would never see her mother again.

Perel was born a generation later in Antwerp, Belgium. She is the daughter of two Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors who lost their entire families in the camps. She writes beautifully about how her parents, who had lost 16 siblings between them, nonetheless taught her about joy and eros:

“Trauma was woven into the fabric of my family history (and would inspire my work for years to come). They came out of that experience wanting to charge at life with a vengeance and to make the most of each day. They both felt that they had been granted a unique gift: living life again. My parents didn’t just want to survive, they wanted to revive. They wanted to embrace vibrancy and vitality — in the mystical sense of the word, the erotic.”

I see Westheimer and Esther Perel as our modern incarnations of the ancient Israelite women in Egypt.

All of them share a prophetic Jewish women’s voice; all are guardians of eros. Their very response to trauma is finding a renewed commitment to life force, to joy — and to helping other people access their own erotic selves.

Thinking back, I remember that Anne Frank, too, wrote about finding eros. Even in her brief life, even in the very midst of tragedy.

The light and the dark intertwine. No matter how dark the past, we can recommit to finding the beating heart of eros, and remember that life can — must — still be lived in all its fullness.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Poem: How to Sail

Scrape the curse off the parchment. Stir the broken letters
into a jar of water. Make a woman drink it: thus said
Elohim. But why: thus said Molly, twelve years old. Now I
was the teacher. We sat there, two black flames in a room
of white fire. We were sailing on a wind that passed
through the open window of a room next to the
marketplace, two thousand years ago

“How to Sail” first appeared in “Divinity School,” published by The American Poetry Review, 2015.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, musician, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her book “Divinity School” won the 2015 APR/Honickman First Book Prize.