Monday, August 24, 2015

All for the Gush Katif Brides: Elul Ushered in by Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi

Yom sheni, 9 Elul 5775.

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi, photo from her Facebook page
I have listened to and read Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi for many years, but last night at the Great Synagogue was my first opportunity to see and hear her in person. The occasion: to raise money for the still-struggling but happily still marrying brides of the former communities of Gush Katif.

The event was a veritable Who's Who of fascinating, inspiring, hard-working women, all gathered together to raise funds for Gush Katif brides. Let me drop just a few names: Anita Tucker, outspoken spokeswoman for the destroyed communities of Gush Katif. Sharon Katz, founder of the Raise Your Spirits acting troupe and producer of the Dames of the Dance collection of amazing dancers (and many more holy projects than I have time now to post!). Fayge Bedell, whom I only know as Sharon's comedic foil onstage for the aforementioned fund-raising projects. Rivkah Lambert Adler, fellow blogger, founder of the twice-yearly Book Swap in Ma'ale Adummim, and one of the driving forces back in the day behind Baltimore aliya to Israel. And many more amazing ladies, many of whose work on behalf of others is only done in secret...

You simply must watch her in action to see Torah as beauty.
To watch Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi speaking is to witness a human being making herself into a living shofar. She uses the techniques of the singer, the dancer, the stand-up comic, the mime, the painter, her body and arms and hands the brushes to color our hearts and minds with prayer, to educate us with her prodigious Torah knowledge with humor and sensitivity. Rabbanit Yemima embodies for me David HaMelech's remark: "I am prayer."

My foremost thought when I listen to Rabbanit Yemima is how much she makes me care, makes me empathize with the plight of my sisters: those struggling to find a parnassa; those who have not yet found a life partner; those who want children but have not yet or cannot have them; those who have both, but live in the special hell of broken dreams. I have yet to hear or read anything by this special teacher without being reminded of them -- not due to some heavy-handed lecture on her part; rather, due to the heart-plucking way her voice speaks to them, reassures them, pleads with God on their behalf. How can the heart not cry out with her for them? And in humble gratitude, if we are in the position to only empathize, rather than sympathize. Thank you, dear God, for what you have given me. Let me never, ever take it for granted. Let me not turn my blessings into complaints. How dare I, when my sister or brother is not so blessed?

The talk was focused, of course, on preparing ourselves this Elul for a meaningful Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Can we drop our hurt feelings over some real-or-imagined slight? Can we stop saying "לא" (no) and replace it with "לו" (for him [or her, or Him, or anyone else besides ourselves])? Note that these two words together spell "אלול" -- the holy combination of letters for the month of Elul. Can we practice the many voices of prayer -- the shhhhhhhh, of silent, introspective, shutting-down-our-anger prayer; the kretz of a sigh that sends "to death" all of the negative things we want to empty from ourselves; the power of making our entire bodies into shofrot (ram's horns) to blast our prayers to the heavens...

Rabbanit Yemima told many stories, as she always does. One especially resonated for me. And of course, it made me cry.

The story was an illustration of the concept of "I'm sorry." With her trademark humor, Rabbanit Yemima reminded us that we Ashkenazim don't really get slichot, the penitential prayers said before and on the High Holy Days. Ashkenazim recite the slichot with varying intensity between ten days and a week prior to Rosh Hashana, before the morning prayers. That means getting up a bit earlier, and I don't envy my husband and sons this task. The Sephardim (I'm sure with the same struggles toward intensity) are asked by their tradition to get up to say these special prayers at midnight for a full month before Rosh Hashana. (This is the only thing on the "con" side of The Dearly Beloved's pro/con scale for why he does not want to switch to the Sephardi way of life.) Finally, the story, with another traditional (and heart-rending) Rabbanit Yemima device: she tells the story on herself.

I won't try to quote her full, beautiful telling of the tale. One of her special talmidot (students) was dying "of the terrible disease," and asked her to please visit. But -- to quote her painful words, spoken airily, but with excruciating pathos: "I am very important, and I am very busy..." It took the rabbanit a very long time to make the time -- but finally she did. The talmida said to her, "You didn't come for me. You came for you." And Yemima shares with us that she understood that she was only coming to the talmida finally, finally, so she could say that she checked the mitzva off her list, she had "visited the sick." And she could think well of herself... Oy! I choke now as I type the words! Which of us has not felt this? That we waited too long to do that special mitzva, but "knocked it out" finally so we could make a check-mark on our "Good Jew" list... The story ends with the sweetness that the girl became her special mitzva until she was sure that she was forgiven. In the phrase chozer b'teshuva -- one who returns to the practice of mitzvot -- the word "return" is the key. We can't just do it once. We can't just say "I love you" once, and have a marriage work. We can't just say "I'm sorry" once, and expect to be taken seriously.

There were more stories, more lessons, more patented RYM jokes. As this lecture was videotaped, I hope I can share it with you at some future date.

And when you are looking for that special mitzva, that special tzedaka, for the days of the holy month of Elul (or anytime!), consider learning with the ladies of L'ayla, under the auspices of the OU Center in Jerusalem and led by the extraordinary Rivki Segal (formerly of Baltimore, of course). And if Gush Katif still hurts your heart as it does mine, even a decade later, consider helping the children of the expellees as they marry and try to build batei ne'eman biYisrael -- donate directly or sponsor wedding gifts or sponsor community shabbat kalla events in your own homes.

Click on the photo of the document below to embiggen it, and to get the information you need.

Check out how you can help the Gush Katif Bridal Registry.

You can make a difference in the lives of people still suffering a decade after the worst crime a Jewish government perpetrated against its own citizens. And contact the devoted ladies below if you would like to sponsor a bridal shower in your community.

Lisa Goldenhersh - (050) 575-5436 or (773) 409-4091
Riki Freudenstein - (054) 432-0938 or (718) 874-2035

You can do this in any country in the world, or in any community in Israel! But if you're planning a party in Neve Daniel, check first with brand-new olot (immigrants) Shayna Levine-Hefetz and Eva Lynn Goldstein-Meola, who are planning a bridal shower here, as one of their many early Israel-based mitzvot. #OlimFromBaltimore

Let's pool the spiritual power of Jewish women to make this the last year without the Holy Temple. Oh -- and if you are not Jewish, nor a woman, but you want to help, you can also add to the wonder and beauty of the world and of this project. But you knew that... In the merit of this mitzva, may anyone you know and love who needs to find a match, who is praying for a child, whose life is far from blessed, hear good news.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

After Yesterday, Cooler-Yet-Warmer News

Yom sheni, 25 Av 5775.

And then there are days like today, filled with blessing.

We're in the Old City, on our way to the Kotel. Waiting for our son and grandchildren to catch up, we plan to sit for a moment in the shade, trying to read the minds of the Hareidi parents and four sons surrounding the bench. Are they just arriving? Just leaving? We don't want to take a space they had staked out for themselves.

"Are you just arriving? We don't want to take your seats," I say in Hebrew. The young besheiteled woman answers in English. "No, we're just going." And then she puts on mock hostility. "And if we weren't already, we are now!"

The Dearly Beloved and I play along. "Oh, yeah? Well, fine. Fine! Just fine."

We all laugh and banter some more, asking where all of us are from. We're from Neve Daniel; they're from Ramot. Before? We admit to being most recently from Baltimore.

"She's a recovering Bostonian," says her husband, no doubt quite warm in his long coat and felt hat. "It's like an addiction. It's taking a while for her to get over it." I ask where he's from. "London, and then Amsterdam."

"Ah, well, that is even a worse addiction," I tease. "How is your recovery going? And with a mixed marriage and all..."

"Slowly, slowly. It's a lot of work, but they say marriage is a great testing ground."

I tell them Rav Ezriel Tauber's explanation of marriage, about God taking two lumps of coal and rubbing them together with a lot of friction to create two diamonds.

More banter, and we part with brachot for each other's happiness and health.

And I think: what a wonderful lesson they just gave their four sons, who watched this obviously cheerful banter and blessing pass between their very frum parents and these very different Jews.

Whatever inspired the Boston-London-Amsterdam merger, may they live long and well, and encourage generations to lead with ahavat Yisrael.


As we were walking back up Yafo, trying to get our over-warm but well-fed and watered grandchildren back to the bus for home, I sent the family ahead, and stopped into the shop of my old friend Menashe to see if he could repair my excellent bag that has served me well all over Israel.

No purse works as well as this inelegant little pack. But the top zipper had finally developed a rip. Small wonder: I stuff the world into this pack. I figured if the price was right, I'd just dump my possessions into a plastic bag and leave my pack for repair to pick up later in the week. Menashe examined it carefully. Then, he jumped up, insisting that I follow him. We crossed the street and entered a shop with an assortment of Iranians working behind the counter: a fellow in his sixties behind the sewing machine; next to him, a woman who looked suspiciously like Menashe (and turned out to be his sister); a very elderly "grand dame" sitting behind her cane, her red hair covered with a fine flowered shawl. Near her was another slightly younger woman. All of them, Menashe's family, by blood or by marriage.

In rapid-fire Farsi, Menashe explained what needed to be done, hugged and chatted with a friend at the door, and bade me farewell. In minutes and for ten shekels, my pack was repaired. "Thank you so very much, a thousand times thanks, Sir, and blessings to you and your family!" I said. It sounds better in Hebrew. He smiled, I think pleased that stopping his previous task abruptly hadn't been taken for granted. But business with Iranians is never quite done... 

"I have a lovely blouse, just perfect for you," said Menashe's sister. "Ah, lovely. How much is it?" I was a little concerned, in case I would have to decline. "For you -- fifty shekels." Joyful that it was within my means, I accepted the blouse as if it had just been designed for me on the spot. We made the transaction, following which she mentioned that she had the perfect skirt...

"No, thank you. This is all that I can manage today -- but it is quite lovely."

I thanked them again, and the man behind the sewing machine insisted that if I would ever need work done in the future, I would come to him. Of course! Are you kidding? I'm practically a family friend now.

I only found out how fine my blouse was when I got it home and took it out of the package. Cut like what I was wearing today, but of such a soft fabric, with a very nice pattern... It really did feel as if my wily saleslady knew her customer well.


The kids survived the heat and allowed us to get photos of them at the Kotel as presents for their mother and the grandparents in the Old Country. And I had some experiences that reminded me of the subtle joys of living in an incredibly diverse family, in a small country, where getting along matters so very much.

I wonder if the little threads of kindnesses today will help to repair the spiritual fabric in time to bring better days? May it be so.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Heating Up to Boiling

Yom rishon, 24 Av 5775.

Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Ever take the time to watch a pot of water come to a rolling boil? It starts with tiny bubbles at the bottom of the pot, followed by steam rising from the increasingly noisy and active water, until at last the bubbles are climbing over each other violently. If the pot is quite full, the dangerously hot water can boil over. If you are too close, the burns can be devastating.

The news is daily filled with greater tension and uncertainty, not just for Jews in Israel, but for Jews around the world; and non-Jews are in just as much danger, whether they feel affected by it or not. Some "near the top of the pot" may not yet realize how hot it's getting, but those of us nearest the burner are already feeling extreme heat.

The higher than usual atmospheric temperatures have surely not helped the rising tensions.

The horrific incident of a religiously-dressed Jew murdering a Jewish girl at a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, in some mistaken belief that he was fulfilling God's desires, scares me to my core. And if this was God's desire -- which I absolutely do not accept -- I would be even more frightened. Whatever God wants from us in this situation, b'zman hazeh, my teaching by excellent and holy rabbis did not lead me to believe that killing a Jew would solve the problem. I prefer the solution of a rabbi in one Hareidi community in Israel who, when asked what should be our response to the first Erev Shabbat Gay Pride parade ever, said, "Stay home and make Shabbat. That is the best protest."

As if this is not enough, we are surely on the brink of another war with the Arabs, this time, inside our borders. I firmly believe that the suspected "Price Tag" attack that resulted in the death of an 18-month-old Arab and his father from a firebomb attack on their home will prove to have been perpetrated by a rival Arab family. But in the meantime, far too many on both sides of the argument assume that this heinous crime was committed by Jews. I don't know how the laws governing the media work here in Israel. But I know in America you're not supposed to publish headlines without "alleged" or "suspected" until the perpetrator is convicted. We are sometimes our own worst enemies.

Speaking of enemies... How's the whole embracing Iran thing going for ya? I have stayed fairly quiet on this subject, as there are many people more coherent and knowledgeable than I saying much. I will let my beloved Rabbi Menachem Goldberger from the Baltimore synagogue Congregation Tiferes Yisroel speak for me, in a letter he wrote to his Baltimore congregation. Thank you, Rabbi, for your strong words. May many more in our former home country speak out as you have done. In time.

Rabbi Goldberger, before we aged him beyond his years.
Dear Kehilla HaKedosha,                       
Erev Shabbos Parshas Ekev 5775     B"H        

Yesterday Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, announced that he will vote against the Iran Nuclear deal.  I encourage you to read his statement which is thoughtful, and very thorough.  It's available on line at Yeshiva World News as well as on other sites.  Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced he will vote against the deal as well.

I want to congratulate these men on their brave and courageous stance, under tremendous political pressure from the White House, for voting their conscience and expressing clearly the danger to the world of a wealthy, nuclear Iran, which this treaty would allow.

President Obama, in his speech at American University a few days ago, reached a new low in comparing the "hard liners" in Iran with the Republicans and stating that they found common cause with each other.  I guess that President Obama forgot overnight that he is the one who just snuggled up to the Iranian hard liners and made a deal with them, that the hard liners are not a fringe group but rather the government of Iran lead by their supreme leader, and that he found common cause with them.  I guess he forgot that the people of Iran who tried to overthrow this wicked regime in 2009 were left to themselves as he sat on the sidelines and gave them no US support.   President Obama found no common cause with them.  When he speaks I feel like I'm reading "1984" by George Orwell. 

May Hashem Yisborach, our true help and strength, have compassion on his precious nation Klal Yisroel and watch over us.  May He guide us on the right path and help us to overcome our enemies.

Good Shabbos, Shalom al Yisroel,

Rabbi Menachem Goldberger 

May this particular pot be calmed, somehow, before it boils over and burns everything around it beyond saving. And may Hashem at last decide that it is time for Mashiach, whether we deserve it or not.