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Archive for June, 2011


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.


Next Month in Jerusalem

Next month I become a man, at least symbolically, when I will have my bar mitzvah in Israel, with my wife and son and a lovely group of fellow travelers.  My dear friend the Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, who is leading the trip (and bringing his own beautiful family) has explained to me that when I turned 13 (39 years ago last month) I technically became a bar mitzvah: that is, no ceremony is required by Jewish law or tradition for the transition to adulthood to take place.  You just … become a grownup overnight.

And yet there is, for me, a deep emotional resonance in contemplating this occasion, however gratuitous it might seem.  Why I feel this way is still not totally clear to me.  Nor do I want it to be, yet.  How can I feel those feelings before I am in the actual time and place?  But at the core is an awareness that the real, actual me will be taking this journey — not a reflection, or a character, or a type.  The book of my life has not yet been published, and my capacities have not yet been fully measured.  And I sense that I wouldn’t have any way of knowing — or feeling — these things if I were traveling alone.

I can be myself when I am with others with whom I share a deep bond.  If I have learned anything in my 52 years of boyhood, it is that.

Get a Download of This!

The concert film of Red Diaper Baby, beautifully directed by Doug Pray for the Sundance Channel, is now available as a direct download from Amazon!  You can either buy it or rent it (for a week) — either way … wow!!  I mean, it all feels so 21st-century (among other centuries)!

For those who prefer to kick it Old School, the physical DVD is still available — from my own online store, from Amazon, or from some other fine reseller.