Category Archives: Judaism

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.

Bringing Charles Home: Everyday Magic, Day 863

IMG_1091The old ones, and the old gospel hymns talk about going home when we die. For Jews, it’s said that we’re in limbo, not able to truly start mourning, until our beloved is buried. On Friday, when we buried Charles in his cardboard coffin, homecoming and mourning sung through the sun-lit woods and circle of friends and family.

It was one of those Kansas days when any moment of daylight would be heavy with heat and humidity although a 9 a.m. burial was more like a light sauna than what would unfold later. Many of us met at Charles  and Khabira’s house a little after 8 a.m. to load the coffin — the lid and sides covered with notes of love and thanksgiving, hearts and mountains, wings and prayers — into the back of a pick-up truck. Then Ken climbed in to sit with Charles’ body for  15-mph drive through far east Lawrence; he later said, “Charles got one last good view of the streets that he had traversed countless times.”IMG_1093

From the sweet air-conditioning of my car, I kept the radio off and sang, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song” on the drive. It felt like Charles was all around, maybe just a little of him in the passenger seat along with bug spray, a big hat, and copies of the simple burial service we would use. Soon we were there at the edge of the cemetery that morphs into woods, a slim path leading to where Dwight put up an easel with a portrait of Charles, and a big hole in the ground next to an equally-sized pile of dirt. A crowd of friends and cemetery staff wheeled Charles into the forest where we waited.

Clumped together, the 30 or so of us plus two dogs (including Charles’ beloved Rosie), began with “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song,” one of Charles’ favorites, before Ken blessed the four directions. Then as planned with Khabira, I opened up the service for people to share whatever they wished. Some spoke of how welcome Charles made them feel like they belonged to something and someones larger than themselves. Others said if it was wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in Kansas. One of his granddaughters spoke of him catching her baby at childbirth, and others told of how he married them. Rosie walked toward the grave site and peered in IMG_1101as did one of Charles’ great-grandsons, both curious and present. Some offered up songs; others, prayers. The humidity rose, and our faces shone in sweat, love, and sadness.

Then it was time for the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead said at burial, every Friday night at services for a year, and on the anniversary of the death for years to come to remember this beloved one. With all its “v-yisda…..” words, I’ve come to see this prayer as praise for the life force embodied as the holy, particularly this centerpiece of the prayer, translated into English:

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort

IMG_1107Our Kaddish was coupled with a toast (featuring Scotch whiskey as Charles would want) as friends and staff lowered the coffin slowly and evenly. T.J. led a second toast, based on a Nigerian tradition, giving some of the  whiskey back to the earth or tossing it on the coffin. Meanwhile, a persistent hackberry butterfly kept alighting on Khabira’s hand or sleeve.

There was a Quaker song and of course this Sufi invocation:

Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,
the Only Being;
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master,

IMG_1111 the Spirit of Guidance.

Now it was time to fill the grave, and as goes Jewish tradition — and ecological and communal practice — everyone was welcome to shovel or toss in dirt to fill the grave. Singing abounded as streams of sun filtered through the trees. Although the cemetery staff was ready with a small bulldozer, there was no need: most of us took to the task, and four of the guys stayed after everyone else had left to fill the hole and make sure there was even extra dirt on top for when the ground settled.

In the end, there was the beginning: we had brought Charles home, not just by putting his lovingly-decorated cardboard coffin in the ground and filling the hole, but by letting that part of us that is Charles gather itself up and share its song of its grief, sweetness, humor, joy, light, heat, and change. Mostly, we brought Charles home to us, opening the door wider to the heartbreak of him being, in this form at least, beyond reach. At the same time, Charles becomes larger and more precious. May that homecoming continue, gathering more hackberry butterflies to itself over time.

The family will be announcing the date for a celebration of Charles’ life soon, likely to be held later in July. Please consider contributing to the family’s fundraiser here to help with extra expenses and massive lost of income: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/49gok7.

The Light, the Dark, and a Road Trip to Western Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 890

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.

Counting Stars, Time, and Remembering Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 880

10801514_10152411963826315_5462935666005367948_nLast night, I stood on the wet back deck of our house in my leopard-print fleece bathrobe late at night, head tilted back, counting the seconds between falling stars. It was late, the sheer clouds dissipating after a day of enormous rain. Inside, the clean house hummed its happy song after the warmth and light of the Hanukkah party, the air still enhanced by what frying potatoes and onions can do for a home.

All day, I had been thinking about a year ago when our dear friend Jerry died after either a short or long illness, depending on how you count. I heard the news in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Kansas City, just after leading a writing workshop at Turning Point for people living with serious illness. Hanging up my phone, I was shocked although the doctor in Jerry’s intensive care unit told us it would be a roller coaster when it came to knowing if he would survive. I remember walking into Trader Joe’s and putting various things in a shopping cart, but not whether I actually checked out or just wandered out of the store.

At our Hanukkah party a year ago, another way to count the time from there to here, still in shock about Jerry’s death, we sang two of his favorite songs–James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Chet Powers’ “Get Together.” This year, right before we lit the candles, we had a moment of silence to remember Jerry and/or whoever we loved who was gone or far away.

Yesterday, the Turning Point writers gave a public reading where they shared startling images and enduring stories of what it means to find courage, meaning, even joy in the web of mortality. The reading, held on a Saturday, resonated with Jerry dying on the Saturday I was with these writers, another way to count time. Like the Turning Point writers, Jerry struggled with serious illness. Unlike them, he didn’t go on to share his story of coming back from this brink.
Considering Jerry in the year in between his death and now has brought me surprising joys, such as finding friendship with Jerry’s sisters and brothers (he had six!) after we bonded in a hospital waiting room, telling stories of him as a boy and10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_n man around a fake fire while drinking mediocre cups of coffee. I’ve seen them at his moving memorial (“Jerry on the prairie!“), and for meals and even some music several times in Minneapolis. I tell them that we’re each other’s Jerrys now.

At the same time, it hurts when someone you love dies, especially in a scenario that, had any of us known all the pieces of the crazy-quilt puzzle, we might have prevented. I’ve ferried my guilt through many layers of rationalization, disappointment in myself, and big-picture framing, understanding both that he chose this, and I still wish I had intervened more. I’m beyond grateful for the days we had during his last week, especially the night I played James Taylor and other songs I knew he loved from my phone, held his hand, told him I loved him, and chided him, despite and because he was on a vent at the time, for not holding up his end of the conversation.

Yet the conversation doesn’t end. Shivering but determined to see more falling stars, I scanned the sky, wondering where best to aim my eyes, and how to better open my peripheral vision to catch the ride of a particle of dust from the stars to the earth. “You didn’t fail me,” I dreamed Jerry said after his death. The Geminid meteor shower didn’t either although there was a long stretch between the first two falling stars and the next. Just as I was about to give up, a large white meteor flew east to west, dissolving in the dark. I wrapped my robe tighter and went back into the warm house where sleep and the rest of my life awaited me.

Give Me Your Huddled Masses: Everyday Magic, Day 873

IMG_1068While reading news of so many American governors proclaiming that Syrian refugees aren’t welcome in their states and, over the last two days, giving presentations on the Holocaust, I keep thinking of two things: how this very country refused Jewish refugees during Hitler’s reign, and this famous quote from an Emma Lazarus poem that adorns a plaque on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Anne Frank
Anne Frank

The resonances are everywhere. The Washington Post today reprinted a poll from Fortune Magazine in July 1938 that reported that 67.4% of respondents leaned against opening our doors to refugees from Germany-occupied countries. Even more alarming is a statistic I shared with participants in my K.U. Osher class based on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 1933-1943, there were 400,000 unfilled immigration slots for European Jews, including even a request from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to get his family to America.

How this all adds up is obvious here, a place in which refugees overran, stole from, murdered, and greatly damaged the native peoples living here, and made of them refugees in their own land. My people, like your people, found or lost refuge here (found in the case of my eastern European grandparents). Although there’s plenty now that’s an overwhelming mess of infinite proportions, especially regarding how we treat each other, America and so much of the rest of the world is a constant experiment in bringing together people who otherwise wouldn’t find each other. We are each other’s huddled masses, and one way or another, we always have been.

A Quiet Moment on Yom Kippur: Everyday Magic, Day 866

Early afternoon on this day of repentance, I’m sitting on my porch, laptop open despite this being the kind of holiday when many observant Jews would put aside their electronic devices. I’ve changed out of my white skirt and top, symbolic dress for Yom Kippur although this is a custom I’ve only recently adopted, not just because it’s a way to cozy up to aspirations of being purer, but because it’s such a different way of dressing for me, a way to distinguish this night and day from other nights and days. This morning and last night, I wrapped myself in the tallis my mother gave me, a special gift I generally only wear for this holiday, to also remind me of this holiday’s distinction.

But all is not according to all the rules today or most days in my life. I’m not fasting because I’m rocking a little cold and ginormous exhaustion from just having organized a big conference, and besides, as I rationalize to myself, with a colonoscopy next week, I’ll get a good fast in very soon. I stayed at services less than a hour because I had to find a bed and get horizontal in a hurry. I also am not feeling the songs and prayers with the same passion (likely because I’m not feeling so well) that usually comes to me although I love when the special tunes and words come tumbling around, especially all the ai-yi-yi songs and Avinu Malkeinu. Then again, the thing about prayer that I keep re-learning, is that it’s a practice, not something to do because of its emotional entertainment value.

Still, Yom Kippur comes when it comes, never so predictable to me and most Jews I know who regularly have to look up when the High Holidays launch each fall. Its timing often seems somewhere between unfortunate and totally messed-up to me, but that’s kind of the point: part of the challenge of learning how to live better (which I define as according to our potential to do good in the world) is not enrolling in self-examination lessons and practices when it’s most convenient for us.

So when late afternoon comes, I will stand in my white clothes and wrap myself in my tallis, pounding my heart lightly with my fist as I’m part of our congregation’s many-layered and sometimes disharmonious call for forgiveness, atonement, repentance. I do this not just for my individual sins–which include a multitude of character flaws, poor decisions, petty conversations, and a frequent unwillingness to sit with and through discomfort or pain–but as part of a very old tribe with all manner of collective and individual sins. Obviously, a bunch of people scattered across the planet singing and pounding their hearts, listing off many forms of doing harm in this world, can’t actually atone for all the evil that is and was, but I believe in the power of this ritual to at least remind us of how we’re alive to break our hearts open in love.

Getting there takes practice, time outside of our plans for time, community, and moments like this: listening to how the wind in the leaves of the Osage Orange tree, the crickets, the snoring of the sleeping dog, and distant cars on the highway altogether tell me–and this is how I interpret the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma–that all beings are and have always been one.

Slowing Down for Sabbath: Everyday Magic, Day 840

The linguine boils happily beside the meatballs and vegetables in tomato sauce while just below them, the garlic bread warms up in the oven. On top of the water cooler, the salad waits beside the baggie of parmesan cheese, both out of the reach of the dog who will eat everything. In one bedroom, Natalie watches “House of Cards” while multi-tasking on music business stuff. In another, Daniel naps, and in the basement, Forest does things involving Reddit that I can’t quite comprehend. But the kitchen table is relatively clean, and soon they will pour around it along with Ken for our Sabbath dinner.

It’s been awhile. With everyone’s varied schedules, our young adult children living far away or moving back in for short stretches, and the general morphing of families dinners into catch-while-catch-can, we don’t get to do this much. Years ago, when the children were children, Sabbath dinners were the norm, complete with a healthy dose of sarcasm as the sweetheart babies and toddlers turns into Simpsons-quoting tweens and teens. Our regular ritual of having each person at the table say something they appreciate about everyone else turned into a chance to say things like, “I appreciate my brother for not being such a big jerk all the time this week.” Still, it was a ritual, and rituals have their power for marking off one time from another and bonding people, even in bad jokes and thinly-veiled insults.

Moreover, the Sabbath is about slowing down and savoring time, place, people, and obviously, food. This is something that continually challenges me to step gingerly over the fence of being a fierce do-er of many things to the land of being. The first few steps always feel a little shaky, but then I fall back in love with watching the sky, writing by hand in my journal, read a book with a cat asleep on me or walk with the dog. Of course, I do slip off into my computer and associated work here and there, but over time I’m tilting more toward this slowing down for a few hours or minutes or even part of a day.

Just as I’m about to close this post and drain the pasta, Ken calls: he’s running late and tells us to go ahead and eat. No, I tell him, we’ll wait.