Saturday Afternoon, Sixth Floor

The green elevator doors at University of Tsukuba

(Photo credit: moonhouse)

Shabbat afternoon I visited an elderly woman near the end of her life. When I arrived she was dozing, so I slipped into a chair by her hospital bed. I watched and prayed, nothing very fancy or formal, just opened my heart to the Divine as I sat next to her.

I was just about to leave a note and tiptoe out when she woke. She and I had visited often before this recent drop in her health, but this time it was a more one-sided conversation. We held hands and she talked to me. It was the conversation that takes place at many such bedsides: memories, regrets, accomplishments, a taking-stock of a life as that life nears its close. It was not a formal Vidui – not time for that yet – but an informal rehearsal, an experimental trip down the checklists of her life.

Despite what one sees at the movies, these are not usually dramatic monologues. We all have similar worries: Did I love enough? Was I loved? Was I good to those who loved me? Is there any unfinished business? Sometimes the conversation is rather like a defense attorney’s closing argument: I WAS good enough. I WAS good to my family. But there always echoes in the wake of those statements the question softly added, “Wasn’t I?”

I am a witness, and I hope to be a comfort. I am aware in those moments that someday I will be on the other side of that conversation. We are all here only for a little while.

The visit ended and we said our goodbyes. I may see her again, but nothing is certain. No family was there at the time so I slipped out the door. I walked to the elevator, where the door opened and closed on me and my thoughts.

Women and The Wall


Over the past few months, I’ve used this space as an opportunity to discuss a what it might mean to “have it all, spiritually” and my own personal struggles with connecting to communal prayer with my family in tow. Rather conspicuously, I avoided fully discussing the role a place can play in helping to lift mundane thoughts into fulfilling prayers. Mainly because whenever I think about it in the context of the country I live, it makes me feel like this.

Love it or hate it, the Kotel provides a powerful symbol of Jewish spirituality (and peoplehood). The Western Wall of our ancient, destroyed Second Temple remains the traditional physical place we direct our prayers. Jewish scholars like Judah HaLevi composed longing poetry about it. Synagogue architects perform miracles to try to ensure our sanctuaries point towards it. Nonetheless, for many Jewish feminists, the Kotel can represent the suppression of prayer, not its ascension.

But last Thursday, Israeli District Court Judge Moshe Sobel upheld a Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruling; he stated that “there is no reasonable suspicion that the [Women of the Wall representatives] violated a prohibition in the law governing holy sites.” This signals a seed change. It validates and empowers women to pray openly, communally, and in traditional prayer garments at the holiest of Jewish sites.

In response to this ruling, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz – the Western Wall’s head rabbi – expressed an important anxiety. He worried that this would turn the Kotel into a site of “antagonism between brothers.” Indeed, I feel the same disquiet about the Western Wall’s recent history; although, perhaps for different reasons. I fear that preventing half of the Jewish population from fully participating in their religion at their holiest site will create animosity between siblings; it is grievous and unjust that sisters cannot use the same avenues to seek spiritual fulfillment as their brothers. Furthermore, in a world in which girls see young women steadily attaining parity with their male peers in almost every other aspect of their lives, how can they love a religion that doesn’t? And why would their mothers encourage them to?

My daughter and the Kotel

Blessing for the Coffee Maker

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Recently I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”

Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.)  But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.

Blessings in Judaism are curious.  We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” [Blessed].  The Object of our blessing is always God:  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.]  So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”

One answer to this is that Sally made coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.

Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.

Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing.  Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.

The Fringes of Tradition

In 1980 when I was in my first year of rabbinical school, I decided to try out many new rituals including wearing a kippah, tefillin and tallit for prayer.  I was not raised wearing any of these and but I had remembered fondly sitting and playing with the fringes of my father’s z”l and my brothers’ tallitot as I sat next to them in services and seeing them scramble to find a kippah to put on as they entered our synagogue.   I always liked the beauty of the tallitot themselves and the ritual of the folding and fitting the tallit into its perfectly soft velvet bag after a service.   But, even though I was in the midst of crashing through the gender wall of Judaism, I was ambivalent about simply taking on formerly male only rituals without further investigation as to how they fit into my life.  I decided to begin by attending regular morning worship and slowly to experiment with other things..  I tried out wearing a kippah after of course searching to find the “perfect” one.   I found I liked the idea of covering my head as part of dressing for prayer.  It fit with the concept of being “dressed appropriately for every occasion” that had been drummed into my psyche by my parents.  

I then decided to move on to the tallit and Teffilin.  Teffilin made me feel very uncomfortable.  I felt less connected to tradition and more distracted during morning prayer.  Consequently I never adopted Tefillin wearing as a regular spiritual practice. Tallit wearing was so different.  I began by borrowing whatever ones we had at hand.  I tried all styles and designs from the “curtain panel” type that hung around the neck to enormous blanket type Tallitot that totally enveloped me.  I came to love the warm feeling of being hugged close as I prayed and tried to find a spiritual center.   Clearly the tallit was for me!  But now I wanted my own tallit and its own special bag.  I started shopping around for one and was mesmerized by the beautiful choices available each more stunning than the next and plenty that were not the “old” black or blue striped version.  Clearly this ritual fit me in every way!

As I shopped though I realized that there was something missing from the process but I could not understand why I could not finalize a choice. Until I finally realized that despite the fact that I was a 21 year old rabbinical student setting out on my “adult” career path, I needed my parents involved in this purchase.  I remembered the moment my parents gave each of my brothers their tallitot as they became B’nai Mitzvah and I wanted the same claim on both my religious and family traditions.  I decided to learn how to chant from the Torah and have my parents give me my tallit to wear for the first time when they came to visit me in Israel.  We shopped together for my tallit and I wore it as I chanted the Torah. I felt the warm presence of my parents and my tradition enveloping me as I stood at the Torah wrapped in my new tallit.  Years later for my father’s 60th birthday I reversed the tradition and presented him with a new tallit.  

I have since acquired many additional tallitot each special in its own way.  I am beginning the process of making my own tallit which I plan on making from scratch from raw wool which I will dye, spin and knit or weave myself.  I know as I go through the steps of making this special tallit that each thread will help link me to the ancient rituals of my tradition while  also uniquely representing my own journey to claim the beauty and traditions of my people and my family.