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Jewish Stuff

“I Was There”

Our second class — in the series of four that I am sharing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor, titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds” — focused on several myths that the Jewish spiritual tradition has inserted into gaps in the Torah’s account of the Sea of Reeds story.  These were from a remarkable book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, edited by Howard Schwartz, that I keep always nearby, a seemingly inexhaustible source of wonder.  I’m not sure whether these tales fall into the category of midrash — filling in the gaps left by the official accounts — but since I’m sitting here all alone in my office writing this (as far as I can tell!), I’m going to say that they do.

A couple of them imagined a further life for the relatively minor Biblical character Serah bat Asher, who — in one account we read — appears a thousand years after the parting of the Red Sea (as it is called in Tree of Souls, rather than the Sea of Reeds) and informs a rabbi and his students what really happened that day.  And they have to believe her because she was there — she was a witness.  This story put me immediately in mind of the Holocaust survivors I used to meet as a child in New York.  My mother or father — whichever parent had custody of me that day — would make a point of introducing me.  And as I shook the hand of the older man, or woman, my mom or dad would quietly point to the numbers tattooed on the forearm.  These numbers were the proof, if one was needed: proof that these human beings had once been accorded the status of things.  To look into the eyes of these survivors was, to me, to peer into infinity: to try to apprehend a suffering that I could not imagine, which, miraculously, had not succeeded in robbing them of their humanity.  And yet — and this was part of the miracle — they were “only” people, not supernatural spirits or gods.

For those of us blessed with lives of relative comfort, there is, I think, a temptation to ascribe magical qualities to those who experience enormous and prolonged suffering and degradation — which, in turn, can allow us the further comfort of separating ourselves from their plight.  It’s as if these distant sufferers become bit players in what we experience as the epic dramas of our own lives — adding color, and a sense of depth.  How much more difficult it is — how horrifying — to confront the idea, the reality, that these terrible things have happened — happen — to real people.  Then it could be me, or you — or, God forbid, our children.

It is, perhaps, paradoxical that a fanciful story about an imaginary woman — who, impossibly, lived for at least a thousand years — may help me to connect with real people in the real world in which I live, instead of cowering (as I spend so much of my time doing) in a personal fantasy that shields me from some pain, but also from action, from life, and from love.  Paradoxical, but (I think) palpably true.


Swimming with Shtarkers

Rabbi Creditor hands out the class reader.

So how tough were the Israelites, really?  This question — like a stand of reeds — lay just beneath the surface of our many discussions in the first installment of the four-session class that I’m doing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.  Titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds,” this short but intense course is an attempt to investigate what happened at that crucial moment in the Book of Exodus when the fleeing Israelites, seemingly about to be slaughtered by the Egyptians, experienced a saving miracle: the sea in front of them parted, they went through to the other side, and then the sea closed over their pursuers, killing them instead.

That sea, which I remember being referred to as the Red Sea (a pleasing name in my Communist childhood), is called, in the great modern translation by Robert Alter, the Sea of Reeds.  Which, as I have recently taken up the double-reeded oboe again — after a break of many decades — I find even more gratifying.  In fact, I was so taken by the term Sea of Reeds that I decided to make it the title of my next theater piece.  And that, in turn, strongly suggested that the piece live at the intersection of two kinds of practice: Jewish and musical.  (Yes, I typically retrofit my shows to titles that I love.  So for example, when — in researching a medical condition called Sjögren’s syndrome — I once happened upon a newsletter called “The Moisture Seekers,” it was practically inevitable that I’d develop a show about sex just to go with that title.)

The reading for this session was Chapter 14 of Exodus, in which the sea-splitting happens.  Like all the other chapters, it’s filled with language and imagery that I find endlessly evocative, confusing, and elliptical.  Alter’s notes do a great deal to elucidate the text — or at least to clarify what the confusion is about — but that still (fortunately) leaves much to ponder.  And as I mentioned earlier, in class one big, recurrent issue for us was the question of how much, exactly, did Moses and the Israelites do.  Because the narrative makes it quite clear that God was acting, in essence, as the grand puppeteer — hardening Pharaoh’s heart when the Egyptian king was about to give up the chase, directing Moses’ actions so that this (very) human being (and not God) would appear to be causing the miracles, and generally moving all the characters along in such a way that the Israelites would ultimately triumph.

So were the Israelites heroes, in the sense that we usually think of the word?  If I had any knowledge at all about ancient Greek drama, I would insert an impressive passage here about Oedipus and Fate — but I don’t, so I can’t.  And yet there seems to be a similar vibe here — perhaps an ancient vibe — that has to do with the Gods (or, in this case, the one God) having already written the stories that we humans, in our self-centered way, register as our own experiences.  So ironically, in the Exodus story — which is seemingly about the transformation of a slave population into a culture with agency — the protagonists themselves are quite passive.  Actually, worse than passive — they also do a lot of kvetching!  Often they sound like elderly passengers on a cruise ship that’s turned out to be much less luxurious than in the brochure.

But there’s something else, too — a deeper thing — that I felt from that chapter, and that I think others in the class felt as well: As much as we (or, at least, I) may, well, kvetch about it, the language also transmits an enormous amount of power.  There is, in this story — in the way this story is told — a profound empathy with those who suffer terribly, who lack agency.  And there are so many people who suffer in this way, day after day — for whom the miraculous gift of a life is something more like a curse.  What draws me to Judaism — and to other forms of theology as well (and, for that matter, to democracy) — is the idea that our purpose, in our own lives, is to try to improve the lives of others; and the belief (hope?) that a community of like-minded people can work at this together.  In what I see as a violent and quite random universe, it is incredibly strange that we might choose to spend our brief time of consciousness (or, at least, much of it) in such ethical pursuits; and so it is perhaps only fitting that it would take incredibly strange language to describe that journey — and, more important, to inspire similar journeys.

And if we’re really going to go there, together, through the Sea of Reeds — intellectually, spiritually, and physically — I think we’re going to have to be quite tough indeed.



… as in “good.” — Modern Hebrew for Beginners

If I could bring back those I love who have died, I would.  If I could save those I love who are sick, I would.

But I can’t.

What I can do is express my love to those I love.

Is it foolish to assert that I love humanity?

A voice in my head says, “Yes, you’re a fool.  ‘Humanity’ is an abstraction.  Maybe you love the idea of loving all humanity.  Perhaps you long to see yourself as someone capable of feeling such an all-encompassing love.  But the real you is infinitely more parochial.  You love your family, your friends, sometimes even yourself.  All else is a beautiful coat you are trying to wear, which does not belong to you, does not fit you, and looks ridiculous on you.”

And yet I’m telling you, here, that I love the miraculous temporary rebukes to entropy that people are.  (Is such a love even part of what makes me human?)  I feel that love so strongly that I am compelled to enter a new world of partial strangeness, so that I may try to become, at least in part, a stranger to the complacent me, to the passive me.

I read about Pinchas, in the heat of his righteous contempt, committing horrible murders — and about this character, “God,” rewarding Pinchas for these acts — and I think to myself, “That’s not me; that’s the Other.”  But this new-ish, strange-ish, Jew-ish me suspects that my response cannot end there, in complacency and passivity.  That might make me feel better about myself, for a while, but it will not make life better for those I love.  Whereas to engage with the story — to seek to draw meaning from it — may, just may, point a modest way forward.

If I do not love Pinchas, does that make me Pinchas?  In faith, I don’t yet know.


A dog doesn’t want me to be typing right now.  We’re at the Vermont home of my wife’s oldest brother, Denry, and his wife, Chris, and their daughter, Nadya.  They have two goats, one of whom has miraculously recovered from a complete de-horning, and two very friendly dogs (and, I think, two cats — they’re reclusive).

One of the dogs just licked my elbow.  At least, I’m hoping that was a dog.

Amazingly, our Israel trip happens in less than two weeks!  I have transliterated my parsha by listening repeatedly to an audio recording that Rabbi Creditor made for me on my phone.  Now I must use my rusty ear-training skills to add the music, or “trope,” again from the rabbi’s recording.  He sings much more beautifully than I will, but I’ll do my best.  In his voice, the trope sounds hopeful, joyful, uplifted — quite a contrast with the actions being described.  It sounds neither minor nor major, but in some kind of ancient musical mode.  And yet how the tune ends is on a note that I would call suspended — if it were in a typical Western key, the last note would be the second tone in the scale.  The effect, on me at least, is a feeling that the tale has not yet been fully told.

For much of my life I have felt as though I am living out, in a kind of passive way, someone else’s story.  Things happen to me, and to others, and I have hoped only not to make things worse with my actions.  It is as if my biblical namesake had simply broken the walls of Jericho and made a big mess for everyone else to clean up.  My reading of the Torah, including this bar mitzvah prep, is calling on me to act — to risk involvement in the world.

When we Jews leave the margins, do we break things?  Are we the goat in the china shop?  I want healing, and I want to keep my ironic horns — so what, O God of Pinchas and Moses, of Benjamin Netanyahu and David Grossman, am I to do?

A hunch: God wants me to be typing right now.


In Modern Hebrew for Beginners, a book I just bought at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, a footnote says:

aleph and ayin are pronounced with a stoppage of the air flow, much like the initial sound in “oh oh.”

I once interviewed Michael Tilson Thomas, and asked him what he does in the moments before he begins conducting a piece.  By way of answer, he inhaled deeply.

If I am correct in gathering that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet has no sound at all, then that gives me some confidence that how I feel as I approach my bar mitzvah in Israel — as if suspended, momentarily breathless, between two worlds — is not inappropriate.

We think of the newborn baby’s scream as her first act outside the womb, but mustn’t she have preceded that with a deep intake of breath?

Israel was a place I was raised to hate; I am going there soon with loved ones.  Who will I be once I’m there — the child I was, the man I’ve been, or something new?

My bar mitzvah parsha — the Torah portion that I will recite and respond to — concerns a zealot named Pinchas.  He committed an abhorrent act of violence — and for this was rewarded, by God, with the covenant of peace.  Pinchas’s actions in this story, and God’s, make me weep.  The zealots of our day grind our dreams into ashes.  How will we respond?  How will I respond?

I was raised on ideology; I am trying to go forward, instead, in faith.  This seems hard.  The terrain ahead looks strange.  Because it is.  Because I am not there yet.

I cannot imagine myself all the way there.  I must go there.  I must be there.

In the meantime, I catch my breath, I say “Oh oh” — and I prepare, as best I can, to take a step forward, across the chasm between before and now, between them and us.


At It Again

awgftjHad a lovely time last night at the opening performance of my run of Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.  (The run — tix and info here — goes through Feb. 27.)  Monologues are what I do, and there is an extent to which I don’t feel fully myself (professionally speaking) when I’m not performing onstage.  Entering the world of a story takes me into a kind of altered state: time is compressed, and for a couple of hours I’m not as incredibly scattered as I feel most of the time.  Plus, I get free coffee at the theater!

The postshow talkback, with my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor and my new friends Rabbi Dorothy Richman (who came out in favor of Zeus, kind of!) and Maggid Jhos Singer, was an extraordinary experience for me — and, I think, for the audience.  Once I figure out how to post audio here, I’ll try to add a recording of the conversation.  (For a listing of the remaining talkbacks, click here.)

My Big Fat Jewish Learning

One of the fabulous books we'll be reading.

One of the fabulous books we'll be reading.

I’m really excited about this: Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley will be teaching me about Jewish stuff, in preparation for my planned bar mitzvah in Israel next year — and I invite you to join us in “My Big Fat Jewish Learning”!  Rabbi Creditor has planned a short, yet wide-ranging course that will explore many meaty topics (which, of course, will not be mixed with milky topics).  We’ll read cool books, hear some things from the rabbi, then have discussions about what we’ve read.

The first meeting will be a public event at Afikomen Judaica bookstore in Berkeley (which has kindly offered a discount on all the books in our syllabus), followed by six sessions at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Each class will be 90 minutes long.  The fee for the entire course is $50-$75 on a sliding scale, with no one turned away for lack of funds.  Given the complexities of jibing Rabbi Creditor’s schedule with mine, the course schedule is a bit irregular — so please note that the classes happen on different days of the week. Here’s that schedule, along with the (still-in-progress) syllabus:

Class #1: Sunday, Jan. 16, 11 a.m.: public event at Afikomen Judaica bookstore.  Biblical Prophets, The Prophet’s Wife by Milton Steinberg, text from the book of Hosea.

Class #2: Monday, Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Mishnah, As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic text tbd.  (Please note: neither the rabbi nor I have received any kickback money from Milton Steinberg.)

Class #3: Monday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Aggadah, Tree of Souls by Howard Schwartz, a midrash/legend tbd.

Class #4: Monday, Feb. 14, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Halachah, For the Love of God and People by Elliot Dorff, the development of the verses in Lev. dealing with homosexuality.

Class #5: Monday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Modern Streams of Judaism, A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community by Jeffrey Gurock and Jacob Schacter, a Mordecai Kaplan quote in The Condition of Jewish Belief.

Class #6: Monday, March 21, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Mysticism, Afterlife, The World to Come by Dara Horn, text tbd.

Class #7: Wednesday, April 13, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Netivot Shalom.  Israeli Poetry/Theology, Creator, Are You Listening?: Israeli Poets on God and Prayer by David C. Jacobson; text: a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

For more info on this course, please email Rachel at

** Update on March 8, 2011: You can now hear audio from our previous sessions — and read Rabbi Creditor’s beautiful handouts — here.

Come with me to Israel!

250px-locationisraelsvgFrom July 13-24, 2011, I’ll be joining my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor (of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley) on a trip to Israel — my first ever (and his umpteenth)!  And we’d love you to join us!  Our goal will be to have authentic encounters (the activity prescribed by the late “I-Thou” philosopher Martin Buber) with a wide range of Israelis, and I fully expect minds to be blown.  (Is that why they make yarmulkes?)

Below is a (provisional) itinerary, to give you a sense of the trip’s scope.  For more info, please email Vicki at

Wednesday, 13 July – Israel Bound!

  • Depart on overnight flight to Israel

Thursday, 14 July – When You Come Into the Land (Deut. 26:1)

  • Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport (today’s program depends on arrival time)
  • Ascent to Jerusalem
  • Gaze upon the Old City of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade, standing where Abraham stood at the dawn of Jewish history; take in the breathtaking view
  • Hotel check-in and welcome dinner
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Friday, 15 July – Jerusalem of Old

  • In the Kotel Tunnels, walk alongside the Western Wall’s massive foundation stones
  • Tour the Southern Wall Excavations and learn about the ancient Temple at the Davidson Center
  • Travel through many centuries as you tour the Jewish Quarter
  • Return to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at a scenic overlook or a choice of local synagogues
  • Shabbat dinner at the hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 16 July – Shabbat in Jerusalem
Parashat Pinhas

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Free evening in Jerusalem
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Sunday, 17 July – Those Who Made a Difference

  • Visit the Memorial Museum, the Children’s Memorial, and the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem
  • Take a sobering walk through the history of the Jewish State at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery
  • Stumble across many authentic archeological finds in a hands-on dig through archeological matter from under the Temple Mount
  • Free evening in Jerusalem OR Evening program with a Jerusalem Masorti congregation
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Monday, 18 July – Into the Desert

  • Visit the fascinating Jo Alon Center for Bedouin Culture near Lahav for an in-depth introduction to this desert culture and some Bedouin hospitality
  • Visit Ben Gurion’s Hut in Sde Boker for personal insight into the life of this outstanding Zionist leader and Israel’s first prime minister
  • Walk through the beautiful nature reserve at the Ein Avdat Oasis
  • Dinner at the field school
  • Overnight: Sde Boker Field School

Tuesday, 19 July – Freedom Fighters or Fanatics?
17 Tammuz

  • Early departure for the Dead Sea Region
  • Ascend by cable car to Masada. Tour this impressive excavation and discuss the terrible dilemma faced by its Jewish population during Roman times
  • Enjoy a walk through the beautiful Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to the waterfall and review the biblical story of kings David and Saul “on site”
  • Stop for a dip and mud baths at Mineral Beach on the amazing Dead Sea
  • Travel north through the Jordan River Valley to the Galilee
  • Hotel check-in and dinner
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Wednesday, 20 July – The Golan Heights

  • Travel through the Golan Heights by jeep (Shvilim), off the beaten path, and gaze down over the Galilee as the Syrians once did
  • See how robots are used to milk cows at Kibbutz Avnei Eitan
  • Return to the hotel to enjoy a Lake Kinneret swim
  • Free evening on the Tiberias promenade
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Thursday, 21 July – The Northern Mediterranean Coast

  • At Agam Hahula (Hula Lake) ride family golf carts around the lake and learn about the many species of birds that migrate through Israel each year
  • Glide down the Jordan River in a kayak
  • Tour the synagogues, courtyards, and shops of the mystical city of Tzefat
  • Meet with a Tzefat kabbalistic artist in his gallery to explore Jewish mysticism through the prism of his creations
  • Hotel check-in
  • Dinner in the kibbutz dining room
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Hanaton

Friday, 22 July – In the Footsteps of Sages

  • Take a tour of Kibbutz Hanaton
  • Explore the magnificently excavated ancient city of Tzippori, home to Rabbi Judah the Prince; discover ancient beauty and evidence of a community in which Jews and Romans coexisted peacefully
  • Travel south for the ascent to Jerusalem
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at Robinson’s Arch
  • Shabbat dinner at hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 23 July – A Heavenly Shabbat
Parashat Mattot

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Summary session and farewell dinner at the hotel
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Depart for the airport

Sunday, 24 July – A Temporary Departure

  • Arrive in USA
  • Begin planning your next Israel trip with Rabbi Creditor!