Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Living large (movie)

Tonight, we went and saw סיפור גדול/sipur gadol (otherwise known as "A matter of size") at the Goggleworks here in Reading -- we liked it!

This Israeli movie tells the improbable story of a wash-out from a weight loss club who forms his buddies into a Sumo wrestling team (with the help of his Japanese boss at a local sushi restaurant). Both of us enjoyed it, although afterward we debated how Israeli the movie really was. But we both agreed that there was something particularly Israeli about how the movie understood what large bodies are about. While it's true that Israelis can be just as cruel to overweight folks as Americans, in this country our prejudices about fat people are not only that they're ugly, but that they're incapable -- especially incapable of doing physical things. But in this movie, there seemed to be an assumption that large folks are capable of physical things, and that it was not some great leap for them to be training for a physical activity. One idea we had was that perhaps this assumption of physical capability was tied to compulsory national service. Whatever its roots, it was a refreshing cultural difference.

I recommend it!

Monday, June 28, 2010

First tomato!

Today, we picked our first tomato of the season -- a Wapsipinicon peach. It's one of the heirloom varieties we are trying this year. It was a little bit fuzzy on the outside and had a mild, low acid flavor. Here's a close up:

A typical summer storm blew in a bit before Minna decided to "take the plunge" and pick it (and thus the wet spots on her shirt above) -- it was a bit of a gamble as the ripe color isn't too much different from the unripe color, and we weren't sure we knew how to tell it was ready.

You open Your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature by Your will!

As the Psalmist says . .
From First tomato (peach!), 2010

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bone, grit -- and being your brother's keeper

I don't often write about movies I haven't actually seen, but when I heard a sound clip on NPR's Fresh Air from Winter's Bone -- a story of a teenage girl seeking her fugitive father so her family's house will not be taken in lieu of his bail -- I was taken back in time. While this voice was, on the one hand, very contemporary, it also took me back to 1880, and the voice of Charles Portis' own fictional girl teenager improbably pursuing a fugitive across dangerous territory in his 1968 novel True Grit (later made into a film that won John Wayne an Oscar). Both voices seemed somehow out of time, almost biblical in their plainness and spirit.

It had been decades since I read True Grit, so I searched the Web in search of excerpts. Reading the below from the opening pages of the novel (excerpted at the bottom of this NPR article here), I was surprised to find myself choked with tears. The narrator -- the teenager Mattie Ross -- is describing, in the plainest of words, how her father was killed by his drunken tenant while the two men were away on a business trip together. The tenant, Tom Chaney, felt he had been cheated at cards and had grabbed his rifle to go in search of the men he had gambled with. Mattie's father, without a weapon, went in pursuit of him in an effort to stop him. He did not get far before Tom Chaney turned on him without a word:

Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot him in the forehead, killing him instantly. There was no more provocation than that and I tell it as it was told to me by the high sheriff of Sebastian County. Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I cannot tell you for sure why those words touched me so, but it brought to my awareness that I have been working very hard to be my fellow's keeper in recent weeks, as well as how dangerous such a path can be. But what really made me cry may not have been the fear; it may have been the realization of my determination -- no matter the risk -- to follow that very basic, implicit command that stands nearly at the very beginning of the Torah -- the command to not be like Cain. The command to indeed be the keeper of one's fellow. Even when it is very hard.

This week will see the Fast of Tammuz, a day commemorating the disaster that was the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, an event that would be followed some three weeks later by the destruction of the Temple itself, a disaster that might have destroyed the Jews as a people, but did not. We were sustained by our faith, by the knowledge that our Torah is a Torah of righteousness and justice -- a Torah that demands we care for our fellow. And for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you, too, will be sustained by the Torah of truth and justice, and find true grit when you need it.

Less is more -- pruning: in life, in gardening and in spiritual care

Up until about an hour ago, this poor guy was a very bushy, healthy-looking plant of basil. But, under the influence of this gardening video, I decided to prune it back almost to nothing -- all in the hope that I could slow down its growth, and thus extend its life.

I've been looking for ways to slow things down in my own life as well. I remember a couple of months ago, sitting on a couch with a fellow doctoral student at NYU and working on a project together. It was the first chance I ever had to really interact with this colleague, and I was surprised to find how
The stalks from the three plants I pruned
Pruning (late June)
much we had in common about how we thought about our lives and our work. For both of us, it is important to do more than one thing at a time. And, as challenging as it might be to try and do something like hold down two full-time pursuits at one time, that it was a kind of challenge that we both very much needed -- the contrast of having "feet in two different worlds" helped us to be more grounded. It helped us to not get caught up by our tendency to become obsessed with one thing, like that "one thing" is everything. It helped us keep our perspective both focused and balanced.

So, I hope not to give up this multi-tasking aspect of my life. But, over the last 12 months or so, it's been more like I had three full-time pursuits than just two and it's been quite a strain at times. Mostly, I feel incredibly proud of myself reflecting back on the last 12 months. I became a certified chaplain education (by being approved as an Associate Supervisor in the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education) -- something that I achieved in about as short a time (less than three years) as is theoretically possible. I started a new path as a researcher of education (as a doctoral student in the Education and Jewish studies program at NYU). I found the time to go to some key conferences and meetings, including the Jerusalem Spiritual Care Conference (that included a historic delegation of American CPE supervisors, seeking to give Israelis guidance on how to set up their own professional spiritual care certification and training) and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains conference in Boston (where I gave a workshop on personal Midrash). I also recently attended both the Network for Research in Jewish Education conference where I presented some of my work to other education professionals, and the Oraita spiritual retreat where I studied ancient Jewish sources relating to spiritual (and self-) care with other rabbis. And I continued to work as a CPE (clinical pastoral education) supervisor amid all this, as well as finding time and energy to keep growing my relationship with Minna and to be her partner while she embarked on her own multi-task of starting work as the spiritual leader of a congregation, while finishing her five-year path towards rabbinic ordination.

But I've, nonetheless, been glad to have the change-of-pace that is my summer work -- where I am focused on mostly one task (running a full-time unit of CPE, with my six students, all either seminarians or people who recently finished their seminary education).
Here are the leaves that I picked from the stalks.
Pruning (late June)
It's a reminder that what I really love most is being a teacher -- the kind of teacher who has the privilege of having intense relationships with his or her students and the privilege of having the opportunity to perhaps have a profound impact on their respective journeys as people, as professional workers in ministry and as spiritual caregivers and leaders. Although I also very much want to be involved in research about education, all of my passion and insight for that research has its roots in my personal experience working with students.

So, for this summer I'm pruning myself back for a bit, trying to slow down some and focus in one area (as well as on things that are just fun and restorative, like gardening). My hope is that this pruning will yield not only immediate benefit (a more-rested, less-stressed Alan), but also will yield a richer harvest when I reenter the researcher/student part of my life when I return to NYU in the fall!


Getting back to my _real_ garden for a bit (ie, the one with plants and vegetables), I have some things I want to share beyond the pruning (by the way, if you're interested in learning how -- or if -- to prune tomatoes of their so-called "suckers", there's good info and a video here).

First, I was really excited to see our first flower on our eggplant, today, which means that there is some real hope of having our own crop of these most special of vegetables!

From Pruning (late June)

The excitement is because we've sometimes come close to losing hope for this plant. As you can see from the pics below, something is eating its leaves.

Pruning (late June)

Here are a couple more pics showing the current state of progress:

Looking up at two of our upside-down ones -- a cuke in foreground and a tomato behind
Pruning (late June)

My hope is this one will grow enough that I can "train it" to the lattice of the fence (actually a door) here.
Pruning (late June)

Peppers starting to yield!
Pruning (late June)
And the cucumbers are starting to have their first flowers!
Pruning (late June)

And they are climbing up the strings I gave them to the top of the fence!
Pruning (late June)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

First fruit

The peppers were the tortoise to the tomatoes' hare (translation: I had expected our tomatoes to yield the first fruits of the summer, but we ended up harvesting a pepper (yellow banana variety) as our very first fruit this very evening). We ate it raw as we stood outside -- it was delicious!

Thank You, Holy Blessed One, for sustaining us and upholding us and enabling us to once again reach this wonderful place!

Monday, June 21, 2010

All tied up

Well, I'm not much of a knot tier (and I've never grown cucumbers before), but I'm hoping that these guys will reach out their little tendrils (it's creepy; they really do grab ahold of things) and climb up the twine to the top of the fence here where I hope they will happily live on the trellises.

Meanwhile, the rest of the garden is starting to look like a jungle. It's been some 20 years since I've had the opportunity to grow plants in the ground (last year's efforts were all in containers). I think we might have our first tomatoes in two weeks or so!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Smiling your way through the binding of Isaac

We've had many great teachings here at Oraita so far, but I especially appreciated Rabbi Professor Max Ticktin's fresh approach today to studying one of what can be the most troubling Holy text of all -- the sacrifice, or binding of Isaac. He brought us a number of modern texts -- including one by Woody Allen -- that struggle with this text in an effort to find meaning, meaning relevant to our own lives, today. One, written by his wife, makes a creative use of a psychological perspective to redeem God's role in "testing" Abraham, and sees a lesson for us all in the story for how we might relate to our children in healthy ways.

I hope to share much more with you soon!
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

What is Midrash, what is Holy imagination (the view from Oraita)?

Midrash -- from the Hebrew language root for seeking or demanding -- is sometimes described as a Jewish method of Bible interpretation. But this is much too narrow a view. Midrash is about imagination. In its classic form, it is the imaginings -- imaginings often in the form of story -- of our Sages about the things they found in their Holy scriptures. They added story onto story, in the process creating new meaning that made the biblical text their own, relevant to their lives and concerns.

We, too, as I have argued elsewhere, can make our own Midrash -- by composing our own new stories that we can layer along with the holy texts of our tradition. Some, however, would say that even my definition of Midrash is too narrow, and that Midrash need not even relate to the biblical text.

This week, I am at Oraita -- a gathering where rabbis and Jewish scholars come to learn together. This meeting is focusing on Midrash. Natan Margalit -- Oraita's director -- made his own effort today in opening the meeting to say what Midrash, or the conversation about it, is about: "Truth is a conversation of discipline and passion over time," he said, borrowing from Parker Palmer. He continued, "This conversation we share -- that's where truth is." He made reference to the metaphor of water, the idea that the Torah is like water and that our conversation about Torah is like drops of water: "Torah wears down that resistance to truth."

I'm looking forward to learning with the scholars who are here, including JTS' Burt Visotzky, who says he will be teaching four classic Midrashim that touch on a Jewish approach to a topic so important to the practice of pastoral care (to being a spiritual caregiver to people who are suffering) -- theodicy (why God would allow bad things to happen to good people, etc).

I hope to bring this learning back to my community -- and my chaplain students -- to enrich our learning together this summer.

It's exciting!

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Rabbi Minna Bromberg at Hebrew College in Boston, June 6, 2010.

Here are some more pics.
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Friday, June 04, 2010

Neither them, nor their reward -- suffering, and how to talk about it

One of the things I am grateful for from my recent trip to Israel for a spiritual care conference, was the opportunity to hear Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon teach a text that I had learned many times over the years, but had almost forgotten about somehow. I'm no mind reader, but I think I know something of why Ramon chose this text to introduce herself and her group of Israeli colleagues to an American delegation of chaplains who had come to advise the Israelis on how to professionalize pastoral care: because the text speaks to a particularly Jewish way of understanding suffering -- and to tell the Americans (mostly Christian) that, for all the Israelis desire their help, a Christan approach suffering is not what was desired.

I think Ramon was wise to introduce herself with this text but I also think the beliefs and spirituality expressed in it are too universal to be claimed only by Jews -- which is why I started my teaching to my (all Christian) chaplain students this summer by learning it with them at the beginning of this week.

The text from Talmud Brakhot (full text and translation) tells of us three times when an ailing rabbi is visited by one of his colleagues. Each visit has key elements in common. All three ill rabbis are asked by their visitor about how they feel about their sufferings -- are your sufferings welcome, even beloved, to you? "Neither they, nor their reward," is the answer. Then the three stories diverge from each other for a bit -- some words and such pass between the two participants. But then, finally, as all three stories approach their end, the visitor says the same thing -- "give me your hand." The ill one reaches out his hand, and he is lifted up.

There is something so empowering about the right our tradition gives us to say "neither they, nor their reward" in the face of our suffering -- to be given permission by the example of the most faithful of our Sages that it is possible to detest our suffering while still loving God and remaining true to God and our tradition. To be free from feeling we are commanded to welcome all our suffering as somehow being God's work.

I was reminded of something else when I taught this text to my students this week -- that the problem with the insensitive questions that so many untrained chaplains ask is not the content of the questions. It's how and when they are asked.

We were studying the part of the story where one of the Sages asks some seemingly insensitive questions of his ill friend that seem to be imposing his beliefs on him: "Why are you crying?" he asks the ill one:
  • Is it because you didn't study enough Torah in your life? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that -- we have a saying that says the only thing that really matters is if you directed your heart to God.
  • Is it because you didn't make enough money in your life? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that -- not everybody gets to be rich.
  • Is it because of the lack of children? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that either, children can die after all.

Learning this text again with my new students helped me see is that these are not just examples of bad questions or statements -- they're also universal examples of the major things that come to a person's mind as they realize their life may be coming to an end. They ask themselves what kind of person have I been and what kind of life did I lead? A good one or a bad one? A full one or an empty one? The three questions above correspond with three major categories where people ask these life review questions:
  • Spirituality -- did I do right by God or my faith tradition? (This text, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, uses Torah study to represent spiritual good.)
  • Material matters (I would include not just material wealth here, but career accomplishments)
  • Family matters (children)

So, if the ancient rabbi's questions were problematic, it was not the content that was their problem. The content they represent correspond with universal things that many suffering people would like to talk about. The problem comes in how these topics were broached. Did the suffering person volunteer that he or she wanted to talk about them or did the caregiver impose them? How is it that a caregiver can appropriately invite a person to talk about the things that are most dear to him or her -- that concern him or her most at a time of deep crisis in his or her life?

I hope the rest of the summer with my students will be devoted to answering that final question. And that we all, including myself, will grow to have a clearer idea of what the answer might be.

I'm excited about it!


I write these words in Boston as a moment not of of suffering, but of joy approaches -- the ordaining of my life partner Minna on Sunday as a rabbi (at Hebrew College here)! The image to the right, from our recent trip to Israel, is one of Minna doing one of the things she is very best at -- singing . . . . and through her singing, helping people find joy and meaning in their lives and in their relationship with the Holy.

Minna, I hope it is the will of the Holy Blessed One that you will have many years of raising your voice and putting your hands together in service of God, Torah and the people Israel. And that many -- all the seekers among us! -- will know some small piece of the incalculable joy and meaning you have brought to my life. Long may you run!


Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Upside down!

Even though the full recommended week hadn't passed since I first put seedlings in my home-fashioned upside down planters (more about how I planted them here), I turned one of them this morning.

As of this evening (as I bbq-ed my dinner), it hadn't fallen out yet!

Here's a couple of other views of it:

From Planting upside down

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