Love deep, or: Twirling

My first diatelle

I
want to
Nay, need to
Must- simply must
Express love deep for you
Aroused by the depths of our trust
‘Tween ashes and ashes; ‘tween dust and dust
Souls float together above the ground and the sky
We spiraling-twirling through gale and gust
Flowing on respect true and lust
One another - pursue
Together - thrust
As birds do
We two
Fly


I love trying out new forms of poetry, and I just discovered the diatelle form via Linda’s lovely poem ‘Rain’, which you absolutely should read for its vivid imagery and flow. I am so appreciative of d’Verse for introducing me to so many fantastic and supportive poets.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not

Tonight is New Year’s Eve so before I get into the substance of this post, I would like to wish all of you a Happy and Healthy New Year! 🥳


So… New Year’s…

Growing up in America, this was not a holiday that I marked in any way, shape or form. Truly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was the transition between December 31st and January 1st any more significant than that between any two other calendar days?

The funny thing is that New Year’s Eve had once been a very big deal to both of my parents. You see, my mother had grown up in Lithuania, and my father had grown up in Russia, both under Soviet reign, both celebrating Novy God (Новый Год), which designates the Russian New Year’s celebration. Today, this holiday remains extremely popular in countries that were formerly part of the USSR, as well as in Soviet emigrant communities worldwide.

The elimination of religion was an objective of the USSR’s official ideology, with the goal of establishing state atheism. Therefore, most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia (Grandfather Frost, a decorated fir-tree) were moved to New Year’s Eve after the Revolution and remain associated with Novy God to this day.

For my parents, Novy God belonged to the regime they had escaped from in the mid-70’s, the regime, which had nearly succeeded at obliterating their Jewish heritage. While they both considered themselves secular, they strongly embraced their Jewish and Israeli identities, shedding themselves of Soviet culture and traditions.


I was eight or nine years old when I first met my father’s parents.

My father had been lucky enough to get out of the USSR in the mid-70’s, but his sister and his parents were only permitted to leave in the late 80’s, just before the Soviet Union’s final collapse. Developing a relationship with my formerly non-existent (from my perspective) grandparents at that age left me with some very vivid memories, including a seemingly insignificant moment that I only came to appreciate many, many years later.

It so happened that upon one of our visits to my grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, I was flummoxed to find that my grandmother had purchased place mats with Christmas trees for their little apartment. As an Israeli-born and American-raised Jewish boy, I was truly flabbergasted. “We’re… Jewish. Why would you buy these?”

That’s when my parents somewhat casually explained the holiday of Novy God and its symbols to me. My grandmother hadn’t intended to purchase Christmas place mats – she’d intended to purchase them for Novy God. Still, even then, upon my first exposure to the concept of Novy God, the significance and complete pervasiveness of this secular Soviet national holiday was not made clear to me; and I didn’t reflect upon the fact that my parents had never, ever mentioned this tradition to me before.


For many years, I continued to regard Novy God with suspicion as a non-Jewish holiday that had incorporated Christian symbols. To me, it represented assimilation, which was the ultimate threat to the Jewish people. However, having moved [back] to Israel as an adult changed my perspective and attitude dramatically for several reasons.

First of all, in today’s Israel I encountered many Jews who had repatriated to the Jewish State after the USSR fell apart. Whereas my parents had been among the lucky few to be granted permission to leave the USSR in the 70’s, and whereas their citizenships had been revoked due to their betrayals of the Motherland, those who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors. These new immigrants retained their ties to Russia, Ukraine, etc., wherever their families lived; and they could visit them freely.

Also, whereas during the late 1960s and the 1970s, only ~163,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, immigrants and descendants of immigrants from formerly Soviet Jewish communities residing within the State of Israel today number around 900,000. In fact, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel include an enlarged population of 1,200,000, including non-Jewish members of Jewish households, which represents ~15% of Israel’s total population. By virtue of sheer numbers, elements of Russian culture have become mainstream here.

Of course, many Jews in Israel continue to look askance at Novy God as a non-Jewish phenomenon, but a sizable percentage of the population continues to celebrate it. My secular Babushka (my mother’s mother) who moved to Israel in the seventies stopped celebrating Novy God because of the Israeli culture of those years, but she confided in me on more than one occasion that Novy God remained her favorite holiday. I’m certain that had she emigrated later, in the nineties, she would have continued marking this secular holiday.


Now, on a very personal level, Novy God has entered my life through my wife of nine years. Her extended family, including her mother and her grandparents, still reside in Russia, and they continue to celebrate Novy God, as do all Russians.

My wife was raised celebrating this holiday, and she loves it. Every year, she prepares various traditional Russian dishes in advance of December 31st; every year, she chats long-distance with her family members in Russia, as they celebrate Novy God together; and every year my wife and daughter visit my mother-in-law in January who leaves presents for her granddaughter underneath her Novy God tree.

This year, for the first time, my wife will be putting up a little tree for Novy God here in our home in Jerusalem, which she brought back from her last visit to Russia… and I am totally unbothered by it. In fact, I’m happy to support her and to participate. I’m happy that this makes her happy.

You see, living in Israel has removed the threat of assimilation from my personal calculus. It has become a non-issue for me. Furthermore, my wife and I are both Torah observant Jews by choice. We not only live in Israel, but we also keep the Sabbath and maintain a kosher kitchen. By personal choice, we have become the religious Jews in an extended family of secular Jews and gentiles, and we live this way because this is how we choose to express our Jewishness.

Today, secure in our family’s religious, cultural, and national Jewishness and Israeliness, I can comfortably embrace other facets of our family’s collective identity. And, so, I’m happy to wish all of you a Happy New Year! 🍾

Love, Marriage, or: Both

‘Synesthesia’ – a d’Verse prompt

My lime for you beryls with deep pine
I coral to salmon your puce
Your yellows both amber and chrome me
Your bice leaves me verting for spruce

The teals of your blues, they cobalt me 
I can't help but rose at your flush
There are kelly and coal in your sable
That leave me aplum and ablush

Please mauve me to perse at your ginger
Bister me to chestnut your green
My brick is now flaming vermilion
And my pearls glow bright aquamarine 

If I can't pea with you-- I'll go apple
My azures for you burn sapphire 
I'm sure ivory will soon saffron me...
For you've set my whole palette afire

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Synesthesia’ prompt.

This d’Verse writing challenge is to incorporate music in our poem from the perspective of a synesthete, to write a song filled with colors.

When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.