Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Old Synagogue

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

The old synagogue sits stubbornly closed
amid the open stores along Ave. U.,
its two main doors locked shut
as passersby speak Russian and Chinese.
For me, the shul  might as well lie
on the other side of a mountain pass,
requiring a leap of faith I am unable to make
since the days long ago when punch ball
prevailed over prayer and time spent inside
seemed more detention than worship.
Maybe if the doors were open just a bit,
and I could peek inside, the deep dovening
would entice, but because the doors are closed,
mostly in my own mind, I’ll walk on by,
sit at my favorite diner seat and contemplate
why my life spins in spiritual confusion.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Shabbat: Our tool for attention literacy

by Beth Kissileff (Pittsburgh, PA)

At my book group last night, one of the members told us that she had to fire a student working in her lab the next day. It was not a task she relished, but he was not performing his assigned tasks. Instead of following directions, he was checking his email or texting on his smartphone.

“I don’t understand it. He has a degree in molecular biology. He’s not stupid. But he just does not know how to pay attention. I can’t have someone like that working for me,” she explained.

We were regaled with other tales of people oblivious to those around them— a job candidate who spent the whole time checking his email while he was being given a tour of his new potential workplace and taken to lunch (guess who did not get that job), and a panel where one of the three people on the panel, speaking to a large group, had his laptop open, typing, during the time he was supposed to be a panelist and engage with an audience.

Where has our collective attention gone? How can we learn to exert some degree of control over these devices that are everywhere in our lives?

There is a simple and ancient low-tech answer: Shabbat.

Shabbat is a time to simply exist in the world, not to engage in any of the 39 rabbinically described forms of work that make a mark on the world, but to appreciate and accept what is. The enforced rest of a traditional Sabbath, with a break from the electronic distraction of emails and iPhones, creates an ability to focus and notice the world from a sensory perspective in real rather than in virtual time. It helps with endurance because even if a week is crazy, you know there will be a day off to look forward to. A stoppage of time, a cessation from work. In my Shabbat world, people take time to prepare special food, to sit and eat meals with each other, to be nicer than during the rushed work week, to converse, interact, and learn a bit of Jewish text.

Shabbat is a way to gain what writer Howard Rheingold calls “attention literacy.” http://blog.sfgate.com/rheingold/2009/04/20/attention-literacy/ The ability NOT to multitask (which has been shown by all measures to fail horribly at getting the requisite tasks done because all are done more slowly and less well when one’s attention is focused on multiple variables) will soon become a rare and sought after ability. Employers will flock for potential employees who are able to master the self-control to put down their devices and pay attention. Those of us able to turn off and unplug will be in the minority in the 21st century and valuable to both ourselves for our unusual abilities to focus, as well as to employers for our unusual skills.

The other advantage of turning off electronics for 25 hours is that it allows us to be present to those in our physical orbit. I worry about how my children are learning (or, rather, not learning) to interact with others. Although my daughter can spend the whole day texting, I don’t know whether this deepens her relationships and adds to her friendships. When complaining about this to a psychiatrist friend with a daughter the same age, she said that teens are “connected but at arm’s length.” That is it exactly, the distance that a text or an email puts between people. It is not the same as a letter with the physical imprint of another.

I spent hours as a teen swooning over letters from boys, felt a thrill to see my name written by him. Hearing someone’s voice directly on the phone is a completely different process from the impersonal one of seeing pixels on a screen, whether on a laptop, iPad or cellphone. If you use no electronic devices for a day, Shabbat forces you to be in relationship with those around you. It is the only time during the week my family of five can be found in the same room, reading, together without risk of a phone to disturb us.

I have been riding a bicycle as my main form of transportation for the last few months. Recently, there was a problem with my bike’s brakes. I didn’t realize it at first, but, gradually, I noticed that no matter how hard I squeezed, the bike would not come to a complete stop. I finally knew that I absolutely had to get the bike fixed when I was going down a steep hill which had a well trafficked street at its base. I clutched the brakes and panicked, realizing I was still careening madly down the hill with no hope for stopping as I was getting closer and closer to the hectic intersection with its whizzing cars. I finally jumped off the bike, banging up my middle-aged knees, in order to get the bike to come to a stop.

I went to my local bike store the next day. When I rode down the hill with $73 of mechanical work on my bicycle, the experience was totally different. I was in control of the ride because I knew that I could stop when I wanted. The pressure of my hands on the brakes slowed me down, and I came to a complete stop, at will. I felt so relaxed and in complete control of every aspect of my trip because I knew that I could control my ride.

For me, this is the perfect metaphor for Shabbat. It’s a day that gives us control of our week knowing we can put some brakes on and stop all kinds of distractions and work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shabbat allows me to stop and think so I can manage my to-do lists. Stopping clears away small things so I can focus on larger ones. That kind of attention literacy is something we all need.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013), and has received writing fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the Lilly Endowment. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in JewishFiction.net, Tablet, Shma, Zeek, the Jerusalem Report and Jerusalem Post, Moment Magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Review of Books, Hadassah Magazine, Slate.com, and the News and Observer (Raleigh, NC). She uses her brakes in Pittsburgh, PA where she lives with her family.

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Writing Practice: Leaving Egypt Behind

Every year when we sit down to begin our Seder, I look around the table, amazed at the effort that it took for all of us–family and friends– to come together.

We have finished cleaning and shopping and cooking and preparing the Seder table. It’s time to open the Hagaddah and recite Kiddush over the First Cup, and then read the first words of the story: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”

Each year I’m awed by the sound of these words, the first words of the Hagaddah, as they ring out across the ages. They are words that sing of our people’s endurance and faith, and they remind me as we wash our hands, lift our cups, break our matzah, dip our herbs, open the door for Elijah, and sing our favorite song about the little goat that we have been given a precious gift.

On Passover, we celebrate not only our gift of freedom but the gift of being Jews and sharing a memory of communal faith in whatever it is that supports us as we step into the unknown, one foot after the other, day after day, year after year, century after century.

Imagine what it must have felt like to leave Egypt. We abandoned everything we knew–the comfort of a regular routine, a place to cook, eat, share stories, make love, and sleep every night–all for an unknown future.

Freedom meant learning to live with not knowing where we’d settle the next night or the night after that, not knowing where we’d find food or ways to defend ourselves or a clear path into the wilderness.

For hundreds of years we lived as slaves. How could we have stepped away from all that we knew? How could we have gone from the heartache of slavery to full independence in one night? How could we have taken such a huge leap of faith from the known to the unknown–into the sea and beyond?

Every year, as we prepare for our Seder, it’s a struggle to leave behind whatever I’m doing, to pick up stakes and move on, so that I can focus on the holiday. And then for the week of the holiday it’s a struggle to forego hametz and eat matzah. But then I remember that we managed centuries ago to pack up our belongings and put one foot in front of the other and make our way into the unknown.

Egypt became a memory, a place to go back to one day, and our future became our destination, the place where we could find the freedom to become whoever we were meant to be.

What will you do with your freedom this year? How will you live your life as a Jew now that you are no longer a slave?

Will you celebrate the many possibilities waiting for you? Or will you mourn the past and all that you left behind?

Before taking another step, can you pause a moment and write about the challenges of stepping into the unknown?

How does freedom give you the opportunity to explore a new, different side of yourself?

What does it feel like to look at the world after leaving Egypt now that you’ve passed through the sea and reached dry land on the other side?

Can you hear the lamentations of those still unwilling to leave Egypt behind?

Or do you hear the joyous sound of Miriam and the women dancing with their timbrels and singing the Song of the Sea?

Bruce Black

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Passover, writing practice

Conjugations of God

by Ilan Braun (Le Tour-du-Parc, Brittany, France)

There is no past or imperfect tense
In the Creator’s Utterance
Everything is present and perfect
What has been proclaimed at the Dawn of Time
Still rings hollow to our ears
The Creator cannot be ‘past’
He is beyond Time
Neither yesterday nor today nor tomorrow
He is the Fullness and the Unity of Time
The Whole, the Infinite
Continuum
He is permanent
He is “the” Permanence
At every billionth of a second of our lives
Within each heartbeat
HE IS!
Not human conjugations of Time
Futile and morbid
How to conjugate the time of God?
Just as we can not really explain the swelling of waves
Crashing on the shore
GOD is the first wave
Breaking on humanity
Its divine spray wetting our faces and our souls

Ilan Braun is a retired French journalist who wrote for L’Arche. A poet, writer, painter and amateur historian on the Holocaust and post-war Jewish clandestine immigration to Israel, he has lived in Israel and Australia and visited over 30 countries.

You can read more of his work in Labyrinthe poétique: De la terre au ciel (Publibook, Paris, 2009) and in English (“The Oak of Tears”) in Under One Canopy: Readings in Jewish Diversity, edited by Karen Primack (Kulanu Inc. Silver Spring, MD. 2003).

For more information about his work, visit: www.ilanbraun.dr.ag

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Memorable Seders

By Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

“Look at David,” Aunt Sophie exclaimed. “It happened again. Remember last year, when he fell asleep at the Seder table and his sweet curly brown hair dipped into the matzo ball soup?”

I remember my earliest Passover Seders. I was five or six, and we sat around a beautifully set table surrounded by many family members at my grandparents’ house. Most memorable was my red-bearded Opa in a flowing white caftan. Reclining on a grand wing chair with a propped up fluffy pillow, he looked like an elderly angel in the light of the silver candelabra, which gently glowed on everything.

Some of the foods on the Seder plate – parsley, horseradish, hard-boiled eggs, onions, and matzo – we children were not anxious to consume. What we hungered for was the golden chicken soup with floating matzo balls. However, we weren’t permitted to eat a morsel before the formal recitation of every word of the first half of the Haggadah was read. It took more than an hour.

Nothing changed except the location when, years later, the Seder was held at my parents’ home. Although older, I wiggled impatiently in my seat. The reading bored me. It was all in Hebrew. Only my father understood the words. But when the Four Questions were asked by the youngest male child, everyone perked up.

Four cups of wine were consumed at the Seder table. A special goblet of wine was filled to the brim and reserved for Elijah, the prophet. The night’s drama took place when a child was assigned the honor of opening the front door to let Elijah enter. It was always nighttime, and my heart raced as I imagined all sorts of frightening images on my way to the entrance. It seemed an eternity until I was permitted to close the door. Everyone looked at the wine. Had a sip been taken? We agreed that the silver goblet was only a bit depleted. The elders explained: “Children, Elijah visits so many homes; he only drinks a little at each house.”

For the past two decades, the Seders have been held at my house. Now that I’m the matriarch, I have radically changed the tradition. At our table we have relatives and guests of varying races and religious persuasions: Jews, Methodists, Catholics, atheists, and one Muslim. The Haggadah has been rewritten in English by my family. The revisions give women recognition, long overdue, for the years of hardships that they endured and for their years of leadership, too.

One year, my 82-year-old sister-in-law, read The Four Questions (instead of the youngest boy). Another time, my 10-year-old granddaughter was chosen to lead the Seder. My father never would have permitted it. We’ve come a long way.

At our Seder we eat gefilte fish and matzo ball soup before reading the Haggadah. The most relevant aspect of our Seder is the homogenous mix of people sitting happily at our table. reminding us that life is good.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938.  Throughout her life Helga has painted and has had numerous art exhibits in New York, Miami and Sarasota. She is the author of  Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, a memoir, and has published several articles in The Sarasota Herald Tribune and The Tampa Tribune, as well as stories in several magazines and anthologies, including We Were There, published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum.

This story originally appeared in The Tampa Tribune and online at Tampa Bay Online. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

For more information about Helga, visit:

http://www.sptimes.com/2006/11/16/Floridian/Dear_friends.shtml

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2747937-dear-helga-dear-ruth

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