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Category Archives: Religion

Once Upon a Time, on a Board

This is a small story. It so happened that, for a short time, my wife (I still can’t say “late wife” and suspect I never will) and I were on the board of The Jewish Federation of Brevard and Indian River Counties. My wife and I. That makes this an ancient story as well.

For a short period of time, Lee and I fit that stereotype the world often holds, and holds against, Jews – we were professionals who had our own business and were, seemingly, doing well for ourselves. A stereotype held by much of the non-Jewish world and, in my experience, held onto by many American Jews as well. As a child, in a temple in Charleston, South Carolina, a city with the oldest reform temple in the United States, there too, not fitting the stereotype, we were reminded, constantly, even I, a student of ten years old, that we were not really members – we were there by the grace of the board and my father laboured weekends on the grounds, on the building, to gain entrance for my brother and I to Hebrew school, and for our tickets to the High Holy Days. But, now, now were were in. We were courted. We were voted onto the board. It didn’t last long.

This came to mind as I was party to a conversation regarding a menorah lighting, for Chanukah, in Viera. It could not be held where it has been for the last few years. In a large rotunda in the middle of a shopping area, two hundred people would be too many. It is a hazard. The Christmas tree lighting, we were told, only attracted sixty-five. Maybe that’s because Christmas trees are everywhere. Christmas is ubiquitous. But one has to strain ones neck, squint ones eyes, ask for field glasses to find a menorah.

That same area has a Night of Lights parade, or called some such thing, that blocks the traffic in several directions, detours people over four miles, results in congestion and accidents. I know this as I was stuck in that traffic, detoured, and crawled past the accidents. They have this every year.

And so someone asked if there was not a Jewish Federation which could speak to this. Perhaps talk to the powers that be and ask them to look at this fairly and logically. Here was my reply.

Brevard and Indian River. Jewish Federation. Unfortunately, that group, and their board, are as filled with hate as many other groups. I used to be on their board and eventually resigned in protest.

Here is that story.

We did much, while were were there, and maybe we were on the board for a year, to build the food pantry and make it accessible to everyone. And to promote the yearly Jewish Festival. After, a visible, welcoming group, a group that opens the door to understanding, even if it chooses to hold on to traditions, is less frightening, less mysterious. Create your own narrative so others don’t create it for you.

Then, at one meeting, charity came up, as it often did. This was after a long discussion about how to make the Federation into something that more people would want to join, and donate yearly, to. Yearly memberships were down. I suggested this was because people felt the Federation wasn’t doing anything for them, was not something that benefited their lives or that they could see benefited the lives of others. What were we doing so that people could see their money was being used well?

The discussion moved from that to making calls to past members, instead of just letters. That would do it, was the thought. That would increase donations.

Then, charity. A request to have a fundraiser for a charity in Israel. An open ended charity. No specific plan for the money. They would do with it as they saw fit when the need arose.

I asked if there was not at least a focus for the charity. Medical? Educational? Why did I want to know?

Why? I wanted to make sure the charity, our money, wasn’t going to be building houses in the West bank, or buying ammunition. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be used to shoot Palestinians.

I recall there were twelve people on the board. I recall being stated at intensely, quizzically, unbelieving, by at least four. Then, a reply. “Why? It’s not like they’re people.”

I do not recall what Lee said. (Here I am tempted to say, “She of blessed memory,” as is cuswakemeuptom, but I do not want her laughing at me.) I do not recall because I was shocked and collecting my own thoughts but I remember she spoke at length, angrily, with heart, and tore into them in a way, considering their faces, they were not accustomed. We resigned that night.

At the core, here, I believe is a problem with what it means to be Jewish. And not just for me, but what it really means. Chosen. Not chosen because we are better. Not chosen to hold our noses high. Chosen by God, if you believe in such a thing, because we can do the hard work of bringing Tikkun to the world. Tikkun Olam. To make a heaven of Earth. To collect the shards of kindness into which the world has been shattered and bring them back together to recreate the vessel of heaven. Right action, Buddhists call it. Repair the world. Which is why a Jew should stand up for everyone. Which is why Jews were at the forefront of civil rights, why there are six Jews listed among the dead on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Freedom Riders. Which is why Rabbi Heschel marched to Selma right next to Martin Luther King. Which is why we should not be for war. Which is why we should stand against poverty, against violence, disenfranchisement, and hate of all kinds, against all people. Tikkun is worth giving your life for.

This stand, and such is the pity, does not make me welcome in many temples. It often leaves me feeling lonely not just as a Jew in the United States, but also among my own tribe. And while I do not necessarily believe in God, or a god, I hold that concept in my heart. Tukkun Olam.

And that is a story from ancient history.

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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, Social

 

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Letter of Resignation

Letter of Resignation
(On my third reading of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse)

 
Vasudeva,
Is it really necessary
We live in this hut together?

Isn’t it enough
I gave you my clothes
For the privilege of tending oar?

Can I only find myself
In the eternal now of the river
Always flowing, but never the same?

Must I sit under that tree
For an entire week to find myself?
After a week, I should have found my navel by now.

Must I sit there to
Defeat my demons? Afterall, they are
At my heels no matter where I happen to be.

The lotus
Grows from mud, I know,
But I want a bath and clean soft towels.

Why can’t I find myself
In a club somewhere,
Meditating in the beat and the groove?

What about the
Constant flow of people and machines,
The never-ending now of the ever-changing traffic?

Why can’t I
Subdue my demons
Over a great meal or between olive thighs?

I resign.
Besides, Vasudeva,
You snore horribly.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, psychology, Religion

 

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20 Things You Can Do with Your Meditation Cushion (Since We Both Know You Aren’t Using it For Meditation)

The Mountain Seat Zafu and Zabuton Brochure

This is what I have. The Zabuton is very impressive and excellent at keeping the draft from coming under the door. The zafu makes a great hassock for little people or a tiny table for pretend tea parties.

Some time ago, I purchased a set of meditation cushions. A zafu and a zabuton. The zafu is a small puff-shaped cushion to sit on. The zabuton is like a small futon on which the zafu sits so your legs and feet are off the floor for better circulation, and for cold seasons. This makes meditation much easier. These are used largely by Zen practitioners, but in the Western culture where there is a synthesis of Buddhist traditions creating what is often called the Fourth Wave or Engaged Buddhism, it is not uncommon to see them used by many practitioners whether or not they identify as Zen.

I got these from The Monastery Store, a Buddhist gift and supply company that sells mainly through a catalogue. The Zafu is half kapok,very soft, and half buckwheat hulls, formable but solid, separated side by side, one half each. I sit half the time cross legged, leaning against the solid side and my more tender parts over the soft portion. The other half of the time I sit seiza, on my knees, basically, supported by the zafu, the zabuton making a soft place for my knees and ankles.  

That means I have sat each way twice.

Last year, for my birthday, I bought a burnt orange cover for it.  It looks great. In my office, where I sit next to it working.

I live alone. I have no excuses. I do meditate. I just never go and sit on it. I never use it.  But it isn’t like it sits unused, No.

My dog gets much more use out of it than I do.

This is not an unusual story. A dear friend has one too, given to her by a close friend. It is well used. Just never for meditation.

It sits in the corner of her bedroom.  her cat gets much more use out of it than she does.

It seems silly not to use the zafu and zabuton. And it is possible you may have one as well, so, since it is also possible, if you do, that yours isn’t being used for meditation either, here are some other great uses for that meditation cushion.

  1. It makes a great dog bed. Your cat might like it as well. I don’t know. It’s a cat.
  2. Do you play darts? Put it under the dart board. That way, if the darts fall, they won’t damage the floor. Or, if it a tile floor, it protects the darts.
  3. GIANT PIN CUSHION.
  4. A great addition to the children’s table at holiday family dinners. No more phone-books.
  5. Couch bottomed out? Not any more.
  6. Those pesky winter drafts won’t be a problem anymore. Nothing will get under the door with a meditation cushion shoved under it.
  7. Cold floor? Don’t like slippers or socks? Put it in front of your chair to keep your tootsies warm.
  8. Likewise, if you are short, that is “concentrated,” like me, placing it in front of your chair may enable your feet to touch the floor. Wouldn’t that be nice?
  9. Lumbar support. Fold it over and place it behind you. This also might help your feet to reach the floor
  10. Bunch it up under your knees when lying on the couch, or in bed, to alleviate that pain in your lower back.
  11. For the ladies, fold it over and move it back a bit, under your backside or under your stomach for a bit of elevation. Might want an extra cover on it though. Bottoms up!
  12. Cuddle pillow. Just in case there isn’t anyone right now to try number 11 with.
  13. Pillow fight. It’s unfair, but one strike and done. Have aspirins available. And some ice.
  14. Massage bolster. Double it up, and get to work.
  15. Build a fort. Use it for a soft floor. You know you want to.
  16. Feel like life has you banging your head against the wall. Anger management classes not working? With a heavy duty stapler or double back tape, attach your cushion to the wall and you have a perfect cushion for your kepi. Feel like punching it instead? No problem. Wail away, Rocky.
  17. Got some stairs? Lay this down and slide to the bottom. You can toboggan any time of the year now. Extra neck not included.
  18. Eat curds and whey on it. You can finally show the kids what a tuffet looks like.
  19. Lap desk. Use it on bed to hold a tray on or read a book with.
  20. Have a small car and little kids? Use it in the way back for a tiny bed. No, not while you are driving. What, do you think this is the 60’s?

Or you could just use it for meditation. I know. Stop laughing.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Culture, Religion

 

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The Photograph

I remember a photograph
I never took.
I remember.
I remember taking it.
I remember taking this photograph
Of three Tibetan monks at Chanukah
Smiling over candles we had just lit.
Lee said the prayer,
The kids watched,
I looked on,
The monks beamed.

Staying with us, eight monks
Touring the United States
Making sand mandalas
Here and there. A week spent
tapping, rasping ground stone,
Rainbows into patterns intricate
And sharp, fine and beautiful,
Complex and ephemeral.
Done, and one prayer,
A sweep of the hands
Across the surface from
The four corners in and
Gone.
The candles lit,
One asked, as well as he could,
To say their own prayers.
Chanting, grinning,
They blessed the candles, our home,
and the time we have.

There were small presents.
For the kids,
Trinkets and such,
For the monks,
Halva, dreidels,
Latkas and applesauce and a
Chocolate coin for each one.
For Lee they had a kata
White and light and flowing.
For me, a bracelet of skulls
Made of the bones of a water buffalo,
Dead of old age,
Alive on my wrist,
Whispering to me, always,
This ends. This ends. This ends.

More about Hanukkah?  Or Chanukah? More about Monks?
A New Set of Malas
Chanukah
Skeleton Dance

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Culture, Family, Poetry, Religion

 

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The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth

I don’t often sleep through the night anymore. The sleep of the righteous eludes me. The sleep of those without care seems out of my grasp. My mind is rarely clear, my body rarely at ease. I dream. I dream of times when nothing has changed, to remember, sometimes in the dream, that things have changed, find myself wondering why I dream this again and again. Sometimes I simply wake into a world so different than I dreamt in that I am confused. Some days this lifts as I get out of bed. Some days this lingers into morning, into the day..

Some nights I dream about tests ungiven, forgotten, incomplete – about my job being in danger. These are dreams of safety, or fear of losing the same.

Some nights my dreams are pleasant. Calm. Happy. I tend to remember these. But, often, I wake after them, as I do after the unpleasant ones. And wake often. Many nights I look for five-thirty to come soon so I can end the succession, dream after dream, or the lying half-awake, half-asleep. But some nights, not often, but enough that I know they will come from time to time, I sleep through the night, and the dreams are good, joyous, or happy, and I am comfortable, and all things are right and I want sleep to go on, that state of ease to continue even after the sun has risen, so I can lie there where all things are fine.

This morning I did not wish to wake. And, after waking, wanted to write. But I did what I always do – wash, dress, make my lunch, go to work, put off the writing until there is time, til work is done, til papers are graded, til errands are run. Often, the writing, the event, becomes lost. The energy dissipates, the muse becomes tired of waiting, feels unwelcome, leaves, By evening, I cannot call her back, cannot recall the feelings, cannot retrieve the compulsion. This evening I can.

I don’t know why. Perhaps having kicked wheat again, perhaps having learned to not eat late, to eat lightly, but I have been more comfortable the last few nights and, last night, I slept. And I dreamt.

I dreamt I was in a labyrinth. Dark, but not too dark. Greenish gray blocks form the floors, the walls, the distant ceiling. Wide spaces to wander between the walls told me this was large. Gargantuan. The scope felt as though it was encompassing of all that I have known, all I have been told, all I have experienced and all I knew to be the world. And I was deeply within.

And all was fine. I wandered one way, turned here, came to a wall, walked back, knowing there was no wrong choice, no bad direction, but only experience, that there was no getting out, only being within, this way, that way, moving on. It was calm. It was comforting.

Then I was at a table, tea cups full, in easy conversation with Joseph Campbell. We were talking about the symbolism, the pervasive, archetypal power of the labyrinth, from Crete, to the tribes of the American Southwest, from European monasteries to the sulci and gyri of our own brains, we carry the labyrinth in our psyches and our bodies. We discussed, unlike the common idea of the journey to the center being a search to find oneself, the labyrinth being a symbol for life itself, for the journey that can  be neither planned nor defined, that starts without our bidding and, most often, ends without our permission, with the space between one of chance, discovery, of choices and unknowable paths, each decision leaving us, like Frost, to take one road or another,, knowing either one would do, knowing the differences was at once minor and profound, immediate and everlasting, that “way leads on to way” and, even if we were to walk back again, to retrace whence we came, the road we take is now walked by a different person that the one who first laid foot there, as each choice changes who we are.

The conversation was pleasant. it was deep and comforting. it was the conversation I had always wanted with him but came not close enough to having.

Then I was back within the labyrinth. I was walking with Lee and we came to a place of decision – a crossroads – a choice of three ways. We could go left, or right, or continue straight. She stopped and looked at me and began to move to the right. I knew I had to walk on and I knew too she had go the way she had to go. And she did. I watched as she walked the first few feet from me, faded, gone. Nothing but an empty path and stone.

I was back again with Joseph. People have their own paths, he said. We can’t walk them. Even when we walk together, we are not on the same path. We can share space for a while, but when the path is clear, one must turn and nothing can stop that. That is something the labyrinth teaches us.

Then I was staring at the paths. Same as before. Left, right and forward. But I had a map in my hand. A plan. Turn this way, then that way. I knew how to go and I began to walk forward. Before I was through the crossroads the path in front of me became slowly solid, a wall forming where the path had been. My map was in my hand and my map was useless.

At the table with our tea again. Campbell leans a bit forward. Plans are fine, but take them lightly and be OK with letting them go. They may work for a while, but then we may find the way blocked and must discover ways around, or the way can sometimes disappear altogether. We must be willing to let the map go.

I wanted to lie here with this, to let it sit, but I felt the time I had was coming to its end, and the soft sound of the singing bowl told me it was time to leave my bed, to rise, and go toward my day. My day at a place I had never intended to be, doing something I never had planed to do.  Which, I know, is just another way of saying I am alive.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2015 in Culture, psychology, Religion

 

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Collecting Stones

Collecting Stones

Today is the day I collect stones.

Years ago, far away, Jews, before they were Jews, back when they were a wandering tribe of anthropo-theists who believed in a single god that they insistedGrave 1 was unlike any other, met the Canaanites, who believed in no such thing. Before they merged, even back then, we buried our dead in the ground. At first this was in caves. Then, in the ground itself. In areas that were too hard to dig, too rocky, a body would be placed on the ground and stones would be heaped on and around the body. The community would bring stones and the more people who attended, the more stones would be piled. One could tell how important, or how loved, and they are not the same, by how high the pile of stones was.

Still today, the tradition continues. One can walk through a Jewish cemetery and see graves with stones on them. Someone comes to visit and leaves a stone. “I was here.” “People still care about this person.” Over srtre gravetime, the piles grow.

The Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror—a word that also means bond. In the memorial prayer, El Maleh Rahamim, we ask the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life”—tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that this person’s memory continues to live on in us, through us. And the practice is not kept to just Jews who have passed, but one may see pebbles on the grave of any beloved or respected. If you see pebbles, you know a Jew has been there. You know the person is loved.

Tomorrow I bury my father. Unlike my grandmother, whom I myself buried, my mother—and soon my father to join her—is buried in a “waterproof” concrete casket buried in the ground over which a concrete lid is placed over which a marble lid is placed and secured with four large bolts. I shooed the workers away and secured the bolts myself. It was not the same, one shovel after another, but it was some closure. Tomorrow I will do the same.

bernstein graveWhat strikes me about this cemetery, other than the non-Jewishness of keeping a body from the elements, securing it from the waters, protecting it from the natural process that brings it back into the Earth, is this—a nearly complete lack of stones. Oh, the graves have stones. They are brought in, small ones, in pockets and handbags and baggies. But there are none to gather—as though the ground had been cleared, swept, scraped free. There should be a sign. “There will be no gathering of stones here. No. We have made sure of it.”

First breath. Last breath. In between, we collect stones.

And, so, today I collect stones.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in Culture, Family, Religion

 

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Seven Questions for Adam: An Interview by Craig Smith

Seven Questions for Adam: An Interview by Craig Smith.

 

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