Look up to see angels


Vayera is a rich portion throughout, but I linger on the iconic images in the first lines: Abraham sits at the opening of his tent in the heat of the desertday, recovering from his circumcision. He looks up and sees God, in the form of three men, often described as angels, standing nearby. Abraham rushes to welcome them and offer hospitality. They, in turn, provide comfort for his convalescence.

These images could be the cover art for manuals for our caring communities, bikkur cholim associations and chevrat kadishah (burial societies). These illustrations of mutual generosity, which provided the rabbis of the Talmud with role models for the prescribed human behavior of “walking in God’s way,” could also illuminate instruction books for our social justice projects. I pray that they can be emblems for America as it rises to greet an era of compassion and caring.

Abraham’s bounteous welcome and the reassuring visit of the men/angels provide archetypes, embodying our injunction to act in imitation of God. We Jews literally begin our day by affirming in full voice the practices of a caring community. These activities, as well as others, such as “performing acts of lovingkindness,” and “making peace where there is strife,” are enumerated in each morning’s liturgy. Every day, we recite these directions for holy behavior, along with the promise that these deeds will be rewarded both “in this world and in the world to come.”

While world-to-come” benefits are enticing, I am most concerned with rewards in this world. Having been lucky enough to visit caring communities throughout the world, I have observed the most successful ones are those that emphasize both the caring and the community. Their success is measured not just by gallons of chicken soup served, hospital beds visited or acts of social justice advocacy, but also by the longevity of the participation of the volunteers, the strength of their relationships with each other and the sense of personal satisfaction and growth that those volunteers receive from their involvement with the community. The rewards of community and individual fulfillment are the “this world” bonuses promised by the liturgy.

I believe that the people who provide the most comfort to others serve from a stance of altruistic self-interest. This paradoxical phrase implies that those who serve do so not just to “help the unfortunates” or “give something back,” but also because they recognize that in helping others they learn about themselves and have an opportunity to grow. They know that comforting a mourner may remind them of their own unfinished grief issues or that visiting a sick person might expose their own fears of vulnerability. They know that serving meals at a homeless shelter may raise questions about their own values or those of their neighbors. They know, as well, that confronting these issues in the company of others will make them deeper, stronger people, more able to serve others and more at peace with what it means to be human. They discover that those who best serve others cultivate their hearts of wisdom through companionship when they return to their caring colleagues to speak of what they have witnessed in others and what it has taught them about themselves. They debrief together. They study together. And they pray together.

These successful caregivers and community advocates know that, as the Talmud tells us, we serve round things in a house of shiva because “like the pea, sorrow rolls. Today’s mourner is tomorrow’s comforter and today’s comforter is tomorrow’s mourner.”

There is no condescension in service to those in need. There is a recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.” All of us must cross that bridge. Our greatest gift to each other and to ourselves is to provide and find companionship on that narrow bridge.

We train caregivers and community advocates to recognize the commonality of human experience by asking them to look into the eyes of others in the room and see not just the superficial things that differentiate us and may cause us to have pity on challenged individuals but the spark of God that we all share. Then, we instruct them to ask each other, “What is it that keeps you up at night?” This invitation to share deepest concerns helps to identify situations and issues that need our attention.

Volunteers refine their ability to hear the needs of others as they decide which actions they will take to provide support and healing for individuals and the community. This form of “leadership by listening” has roots in the community organization techniques of the Industrial Areas Foundation, where President-elect Barack Obama began his career. “Leadership by listening” was the foundation of his campaign. Volunteers were instructed to call voters and listen to their concerns rather than tell them what they should believe. Moved by what they heard, they turned to each other when they hung up the phones. Sharing their experience, they built a community that is much deeper than a campaign.

As we sit at the opening of our tents, nursing the wounds of war, fear and economic distress, may we lift our eyes and perceive a new era for our country. May we, like Abraham the Patriarch, be comforted by the appearance of what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature” as they come to transform our country into the caring community for which we pray every day.

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. She can be reached at mekamot@aol.com.

Creative Judaica Takes Different Path


 

Walk into any Judaica store looking for a Kiddush cup, candlesticks or spice boxes and you’ll find yourself confronted with a plethora of silver and wood and an abundance of carved or engraved Jewish symbols from Stars of David to Lions of Judah.

Painter and sculptor Tobi Kahn tries to break that mold with his innovative ceremonial objects which eschew kitsch and present Judaica in an entirely new light.

“I want to make people realize that creating ceremonial objects can be special and transformative,” Kahn said in a recent interview from his home in New York.

The fruits of Kahn’s labor can currently be seen in his national touring exhibition, “Avoda: Objects of the Spirit,” at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library.

The exhibit is a collection of Judaica the 52-year-old Kahn created over the last 20 years to be used in private ritual ceremonies for either his family or his friends. There is not a single identifiable Jewish symbol on any of his pieces — no Stars of David or Hebrew text.

Every time the exhibit arrives in a new place, Kahn holds workshops for students to create their own ritual objects.

“I tell them to try and be honest with what interests them, to make something that they can relate to,” he said.

Placing paint, glass, wire and beads in front of those who take his workshops, Kahn said many have argued that they did this kind of thing in second grade.

“But I say to them, ‘You first tied your shoelaces in second grade, too; it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever do it again.’”

As adults, Kahn said, we interpret things differently and it’s important to put our own personal touch on our work.

Kahn says his ritual objects must work on three different levels: “They must work visually, be functional, and meet halachic standards, so there’s not a Jew anywhere who can say ‘It looks great, but it doesn’t fulfill halachic obligations.’”

Although the New York-based Kahn described himself as “committed to traditional practice,” he still believes it’s important that his work appeal to Jews of all denominations. “I am Jewishly educated but I’m also artistically educated. I’m as fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright as I am by midrashim. My work is an amalgam of both.”

Kahn also said it was serendipitous that his exhibition arrived in Los Angeles in time for Passover. One of his works is a three-tiered seder plate with Egyptian figurines holding it up.

“The tiers are designed to hold the three matzot,” he explained, “and the Egyptian figures are there because I do believe we were slaves in Egypt.”

The whole mystical idea of moving from slavery to freedom is also at the heart of this particular piece. As such, Kahn chose gold and lead as the colors.

“The gold represents redemption and the lead color represents the chains that the slaves wore,” he said. “It was important to me that the plate looked ancient.”

Kahn is also keen for people to create their own objects for their seders.

“I think making your own objects helps you experience and define the holiday differently,” he said. “It adds to the dialogue, and brings a whole other element to the festival. If you start to think visually about every experience, it then makes it a core experience.”

He has even taken this idea one step further, holding an “Artists Seder” every year for the last three years where different artists attend and interpret the different parts of the seder through their

medium and without the use of a haggadah.

Kahn said he would like people to contact him directly and tell him how the creation of ritual objects impacted their seder and their personal experience.

“Anyone can do this and create a wonderful, meaningful Jewish experience,” he said. “You don’t have to have had an art show at the Whitney to make a ceremonial object.”

Contact Tobi Kahn about your seder creations via e-mail at agarbowit@avodaarts.org. “The Avoda: Objects of the Spirit” exhibit is on display until May 31 in the Ground Floor Rotunda at the USC Doheny Memorial Library, 3550 Trousdale Parkway, University Park Campus, Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 740-2070.

 

Can One Imagine Another Herzl Arising?


 

The funeral took place in Vienna on July 7, 1904. The stunning announcement had come on the 4th: Theodore Herzl, dead at age 44.

Here is Stefan Zweig’s description of the day:

“A strange day it was, a day in July, unforgettable to all who were there to see it. Because suddenly at every railroad station in the city, with every train, night and day, from every country and corner of the world, masses of people kept arriving, Western and Eastern Jews, Russian and Turkish Jews, from every province and every little town they kept streaming in, the shock of the news still marking their faces.” — Quoted by Ernst Pawel in his “The Labyrinth of Exile, a Life of Theodor Herzl,” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1989).

The news, presumably, had traveled by telegraph, and the people, of course, by carriage and by train. No television, no jet planes. What accounts for the numbers — and for the passion, for the “weeping, howling, screaming” at graveside, for “a kind of elemental and ecstatic mourning such as [Zweig had] never seen before or since at a funeral?”

It is now more than a century since Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State], Herzl’s signature document, was published, more than a century since he convened the first World Zionist Congress. Jewish leaders, worldwide, meet a dozen times a year in far-flung cities, speak weekly by telephone, fax each other documents daily and e-mail one another hourly; the secular media, including television, report in considerable detail on matters of Jewish interest.

Yet for all the revolution in travel and communications, it is simply impossible to imagine the death of any Jew, even if caused by an assassin’s bullet and not, as in Herzl’s case, by a heart attack, exciting the response that Herzl’s death occasioned.

One explanation: The sheer misery of Jewish life in 1894, when Der Judenstaat was published, and the elegant and simple prescription for the repair of that misery that Herzl proposed have no contemporary analogues. We were a desperate and rudderless people then, and Herzl, protected from self-doubt both by his personality and by his ignorance of the details of Jewish life, offered himself as our engine and our rudder.

But today, no matter our condition, the very ease of both travel and communication also insures, as Andy Warhol taught us, that fame is ephemeral; the speed and facility with which words, images and people move ensure both early celebrity and early contempt.

Then there is the explanation specific to Herzl: “Theodore Herzl, a Memorial” was published in 1929, on the 25th anniversary of Herzl’s death; it was edited by Meyer Weisgal, later to become president of the Weizmann Institute of Science (and also to play the part of David Ben-Gurion in the film, “Exodus,” in return for a gift of $1 million to the Weizmann Institute).

The book is mainly a compilation of tributes to Herzl; the array of contributors is stunning, including inter alia Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber, Georges Clemenceau, Stephen S. Wise, Max Brod, Israel Zangwill, Abba Hillel Silver, Ludwig Lewisohn, Mordecai Kaplan and Simon Dubnow.

Almost invariably, the contributors who knew Herzl personally find reason to remark on his ignorance of the Jews, of their culture and of their yearnings. Weizmann describes him as “a leader who knew not of the people he was destined” to lead; Menachem Ussishkin, a Zionist long before Herzl appeared on the Zionist scene, goes farther still, describing his reaction to his first meeting with Herzl:

“He has one great defect, which, however, will prove very useful under present conditions: He knows absolutely nothing about the Jews, and therefore believes that Zionism is confronted by external obstacles only, and by no internal ones. His eyes must not be opened — then his faith in our cause will be great.”

What a rich observation. And what a sad commentary on the Jews, for whom not only Ussishkin but many of the early Zionist activists had a curious mixture of sympathy and contempt. But if their familiarity bred contempt, then, apparently, Herzl’s ignorance enabled obsession.

Herzl was the first president of the World Zionist Congress. Who sits in his chair today? Most of us do not know, nor is there any special reason we should.

Today, it is the functionaries of our communities who take on the principal responsibility for Jewish destiny; in the most unlikely event that any of these should present himself as a hero, seek to grab hold of history as Herzl did, he (or, too rarely, she) would be dismissed as suffering from grandiosity.

Herzl, no stranger to grandiosity, managed in the eight short years of his meteoric career as a Jewish leader to transform Jewish life and Jewish fortune. Man and message were the same, perfectly matched to the needs of the times. It was in so many ways a simpler world back then, although it did not seem so at the time.

One cannot imagine a Herzl-like meteor today, nor the message that could overcome all the unremitting noise, penetrate the cynicism that announces itself as sophistication.

Then again, before Herzl, who imagined Herzl?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights)

 

Madonna, Marla Do Tashlich in Tel Aviv


Pop diva Madonna was among the praying, swaying and singing masses of kabbalah enthusiasts who made the pilgrimage to Israel for the High Holidays, seeking spiritual transformation through a brand of Jewish mysticism.

The "Material Girl" was celebrated by an Israeli public hungry for a touch of celebrity after four years of intifada that has scared away visitors of all stripes — famous and anonymous alike.

"I think it’s the best PR we can have," Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra said of her visit, as part of a program sponsored by the Los Angeles-based kabbalah Centre.

The world’s best-known student of kabbalah, Madonna — along with her husband, film director Guy Ritchie — was among some 2,000 devotees who descended upon Israel from 22 countries, hoping to absorb the strength of what they say are extra-powerful energies emanating from the Holy Land during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

"We want to create peace in the world. We want to put an end to chaos and suffering. But most of all we want to put an end to hatred for no reason," Madonna told an audience at a benefit Sunday for a children’s foundation run by the Kabbalah Centre.

The center, which prides itself on bringing the tenets of Jewish mysticism to people of all backgrounds and religions, has been criticized by traditional Jews who claim it has watered down kabbalah into a distorted, New Age form of its true teachings.

"The Kabbalah Centre has nothing behind it," said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media resource organization in Jerusalem. "This is proof that at least some of the people can be fooled some of the time."

Last Friday, though, hundreds of kabbalah enthusiasts clambered on the rocks by the Tel Aviv beach front for a tashlich service.

Closing their eyes and clutching white prayer books, they gathered in small groups and recited prayers.

"This is for everyone in the whole world," said one group in unison as they tossed bread crumbs representing sins into the sea.

"This is about letting go," said Kenya Berryman-Jones, a 56-year-old homemaker from Greensboro, N.C., who has been studying kabbalah for about six months.

She said she has incorporated teachings of kabbalah into her practice of Christianity: "I am learning about my true self, how to become a better person, how to share and give and not look for anything in return."

"People wanted to come to Israel to make a difference," said Miri Citron, 46, from Fairfield, Conn. She said that the force of the gathering’s energy could have healing powers for the world.

She said that all the attention focused on celebrities like Madonna tends to overshadow the fact that, like many others, they are seeking personal transformation.

The most famous personality participating in the tashlich ceremony was Marla Maples, a model and actress best known for her famous ex-husband, real estate magnate Donald Trump.

For Maples, who has been studying kabbalah for seven years, coming to Israel was an important step in her spiritual journey.

"Israel is the heartbeat of the world," she said, holding a bottle of kabbalah mineral water, marketed by the Kabbalah Centre for its spiritual properties. "Because there is so much unrest in the Middle East, we felt that it would be useful for us to come here and mediate for peace."

She said incorporating kabbalah teachings in her life has made a real change.

"It’s helped me live without so much chaos, it’s helped me deal with anger," she said. She added that, if celebrities wish to address their own spiritual lives, they are "as deserving as anyone else."

The former beauty queen from Georgia said she did not sleep at all Tuesday night. Instead, she and friends drove to northern Israel and spent the night on a spiritual pilgrimage that began with a visit to the graves of rabbinical sages in Safed and ended watching the sunrise in the hills.

Kabbalah followers believe that visiting graves of holy men can have transformative powers.

Boaz Huss, who lectures at Ben-Gurion University’s Jewish thought department, is an expert on kabbalah. He says the Kabbalah Centre represents "an innovative postmodern interpretation of kabbalah" and that the interest in its teachings reflects a broader trend of people searching alternative cultures for spiritual answers.

According to Huss, Madonna, who has adopted Esther as her Hebrew name, is playing a key role.

"The link is Madonna," he said. "[She is] one of the most influential and significant artists of the postmodern era. She shapes and is still shaping a lot of our culture and this integration [with kabbalah] is very interesting."

That kabbalah centers also draw many Israelis should not come as a surprise, he said.

"It is natural in Israel" that Israelis "will go back to something somehow connected to Jewish tradition," Huss said.

Healing the ‘wounds’


When rabbi and author Jan Goldstein was suddenly faced with the news that his 12-year marriage was ending — leaving him with primary custody of his three children — he felt his life was ruined, until he learned to make sense of his pain.

In his new book, "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" (Regan Books, $24.95) Goldstein recounts his personal journey of self-actualization and offers a nine-step process toward transforming pain into empowerment.

"The pain is not going away. But it’s going to serve a purpose in our lives if we let it," said Goldstein, an award-winning poet, playwright and screenwriter, who is now happily remarried.

In addition to being instructional, each chapter includes a story about someone who has taken one of Goldstein’s nine steps. In "Step One: Acknowledging the Wound," Goldstein tells the story of Debrah Constance, a woman who overcame the obstacles of her three failed marriages, alcoholism, cancer and a near-death car accident, and used her own experiences to establish A Place Called Home, a safe house that today provides a nurturing environment to several hundred 9- to 20-year-olds in South Central Los Angeles. In the book, Constance says, "Coming to terms with my wounds has meant acknowledging and believing in myself. It has also meant learning to believe in others."

Goldstein said that while the book is always relevant, it is especially applicable in today’s time of war.

"The images and losses have an impact on all of us … and what they ought to be doing is reminding us what’s really important," he said.

Jan Goldstein will discuss and sign "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" on Tuesday, April 22 at 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 111 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 585-0362.