Spin grief’s straw into gold: Moving on from Tisha B’Av

UPDATE: Please note that the “DC Against Hate” website has been updated with more details about three inter-connected actions. See also this blog’s update.

Jewish tradition teaches that much was lost in our history due to “baseless hatred” and that few things require more of our attention than making our communities welcoming to all, strangers included. We use Tisha B’Av — the day of mourning for destruction and calamities over the ages, the lowest point of the Jewish calendar — to help us consider all that needs changing if we are to move toward a better new year for all. (Tisha B’Av fell on 7/21-22 this year, and the new year begins 9/10-11.)

The month of Elul, an important point in this journey and the last of the old year, starts on August 12 this year — which happens to be the date a group of Klan and Nazi supporters have chosen for their “Unite the Right II” rally in DC, celebrating the anniversary of the violence at Charlottesville, VA last year (because they were refused a permit in Charlottesville).

National and local Jewish groups are planning responses, but none have been announced yet (7/24), to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile, I hope Jews, in DC and beyond, are thinking of ways to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, by joining with others who oppose baseless hatred and maltreatment of strangers and the most vulnerable among us.

…get back to work
you don’t have forever

…the wounded world
is still in your hands

…get on with it
gather grief like straw
spin it into something like gold
— from Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s “Drone”
The Book of Seventy
Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Some of us will be joining already planned mobilization efforts standing together for “ICE abolition, open borders, dismantling the prison industrial complex, and ending the settler colonial system. We will confront fascism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and state violence.”

Others will find alternative ways to move into the new year with (re-)new commitment to opposing hate in its many forms.

I pray that none of us will be silent in the face of Klan- and Nazi-supporters gathering outside the White House.

DC Against Hate.jpg

Grass Roots: a holiday question and memorial reflection

As we approach the high holidays, grass shows up in two haftarah readings. What do these verses tell us in this season of repentance and return? I am pondering. Meanwhile, a recent yahrzeit called to mind the sweetness of grass as well as its transient nature. Does that, too, carry a message for the high holidays?

We learn on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort that follows the lowest point in the Jewish calendar, that “all flesh is grass,” and that “grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). Three weeks later, on Shabbat Shoftim, we are told “Mortals fare like grass” (Isaiah 51:12). (Full verses and Hebrew below)

Learning to Witness

My father, Delmar G. Spatz — called just plain ‘Spatz’ by most adults, including my mom — was raised in northern Wisconsin. He moved to Chicago after his Army Air Corps service during World Ward Two; he’d been stationed in England but still taught us to sing “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” Spatz met Bette, a native of Chicago. They married in 1951 and settled on the city’s West Side. He died in 1976, the summer I was 16.

The hole my dad left has taken many shapes over the decades. This is his 40th yahrzeit. And it appears to me this year that his death – and his life – form a hollow that creates a lens.

A few weeks ago, my older sister, Martha, and I had the opportunity to discuss some of what he taught us to see. She told me how, in 1968, he walked her out to see the tanks, deployed a few blocks from our apartment in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder and the subsequent unrest. Later that year, during the Democratic National Convention, Dad sent Martha and a friend downtown to the Prudential Building – then the tallest place around – so they could see without direct risk to themselves what was happening between police and protesters in Grant Park.

That was the year Martha turned 14. I guess my younger siblings, Amy and Bob, and I were considered too young for these particular field trips.

But learning to be a witness was a major part of our education in all the years we had with Dad. He especially emphasized noticing people and circumstances that regularly went unrecognized.

It took me a long time to realize that my classmates were not being taught see the same way my dad wanted us to see. It might take me another 40 years to explore just how the lenses crafted by my dad’s lessons worked – and continue to work – in my life.

grass2Meanwhile, though – in the way each yahrzeit seems to bring its own new facet of blessing – this year I recall another aspect of that lens. I remember Dad teaching me to notice how the strongest blades of grass, when pulled gently from the ground, would yield a hidden, moist taste treat. He helped me recognize that the greenish-white part of a watermelon, the stuff closest to the rind – that so many people toss away – is often the sweetest. And together, on many a horridly hot summer day, we witnessed how sitting absolutely still could call up a breeze more cooling than anything produced by a fan, electric or paper.
— these reflections were shared with Temple Micah on August 20, 2016.

Haftarah Verses from Isaiah

קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.

Hark! says one: ‘Proclaim!’ Another says: ‘What shall I proclaim?’
‘All flesh is grass, and its goodness is as the flower of the field;
The grass withers, the flower fades;
because the breath of the LORD blows upon it–surely the people is grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.’
— Isaiah 40:6-8, in Haftarah Va’etchanan

אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא, מְנַחֶמְכֶם; מִי-אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת, וּמִבֶּן-אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן.
I, even I, am He who comforts you: who are you, that you fear Man who must die, Mortals who fare like grass… — Isaiah 51:12, in Haftarah Shoftim

Hebrew text from Mechon-Mamre.org,
Translation adapated from “Old JPS” and Sefaria.org
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Yet More on Psalm 27 (3 of 4)

The close of Psalm 27 —

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.

Hope in the LORD; strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord [Psalm 27:14]

— is often cited as a motivational aphorism, particularly for the penitential season. This is its role in this meditation for Elul, for example.

Psalms 27:14 is employed in the Babylonian Talmud as a proof-text for appropriate attitude in prayer. The passage includes a discussion on prayer and hope, including — like the question Langston Hughes asks in “Harlem” — what happens to hope deferred.

Psalms 27:14 stands out in that it uses the second person (command) form, while the previous 13 verses are in the first person: “God is My light…whom should I fear?” etc. This raises the question: Whose heart is to hope?
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Exploring Psalm 27 — (1 of 4)

For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.

Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
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Notes on Psalm 27

Two Sources for Basic Commentary
Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]

Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.

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Rosh Hodesh Elul

Rosh Hodesh Elul
a cross-community celebration
in solidarity with Women of the Wall
and for a better 5771

Location: Adas Israel, 2850 Quebec Street, NW
(Metro: Red Line, Cleveland Park)
Time: 7:30 a.m.

Women of the Wall, or Nashot Hakotel נשות הכותל in Hebrew, is a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel. The Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty and Women of the Wall works to make it a holy site where women can pray freely. WOW chose Rosh Hodesh as the day to gather as a women’s prayer group and celebrate, through prayer at the Wall and reading the special portion for Rosh Hodesh from the Torah scroll.

A non-denominational group of women and men will be gathering in Washington, DC, on August 11, for Rosh Hodesh Elul in solidarity with WOW and to begin our own journeys toward the new year. Like the services held by Women of the Wall in Jerusalem, the DC service will accommodate participants from across the Jewish spectrum. While women will lead services, men are encouraged to come.

Please bring a tallit and a siddur, if you are able to do so.

A number of people have asked, so: Yes, we will blow shofar, as is traditional throughout Elul, beginning on the second day of Rosh Hodesh.
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