Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Darkness and Renewal: My Twenty-Seventh Birthday Masquerade

For a long time, I held a yearly birthday masquerade, a ball that celebrated both my birthday and end of year joy. I am reviving the tradition to enable you to play. Here's how it works:

1. Choose an Identity (when commenting, choose the Name/ URL option). Your identity can be from a book or it can be someone that you create on the spot.
2. Describe Your Costume (in your comment, describe what you are wearing, how you appear, perhaps even where you are situated)
3. Bring a Gift (and describe your gift- it can be magical, impossible and so forth)

If I know who you are in real life, I will try to guess your identity (probably by January 2nd or so). Then I will hold an Unmasking for those I have not successfully guessed.

To get a better feel for what I am describing, you can view my masquerades of years past.


Now, to set the scene...

Tonight's event is held at the Gatsby residence. The entryway is lit with eerie blue light. It opens onto a cavernous ballroom. Hourglasses as tall as a person are scattered throughout. The hourglasses contain flakes of a substance that at times looks like sand and other times looks like snow. They glitter in the eerie light and fall slowly, slowly to the other side. "Divenire" by Ludovico Einaudi plays through the sound system. Small tables that appear to be made of ice crystal are arranged throughout the room. The base of the table resembles a tree trunk while the table itself is a tree that contains various levels upon which food is set. The tables are laden with delicious miniature foods. There is marzipan in the shape of tiny fruits, sugared crescent cookies, tiny violins made out of chocolate and fruit and nut platters skillfully carved in the shape of peacocks. Tiny vials of colored drinks are also in evidence.

A ballet troupe has been hired. The females in each dancing couple are dressed as Daisy, beaded white floating flapper dresses skimming their knees, silver tiaras upon their heads. Their partners are the rakish Gatsbys, dressed impeccably in suits with black bowties. It becomes apparent upon closer inspection that each Daisy and Gatsby couple is slightly different. Their dancing shifts. Some partners depict their young love and dance joyfully while others form a mournful tableau that speaks of all that love can cost.

The song shifts. We are now listening to "Allegiance to Insurgency" by Pitch Hammer. The lights turn red, but they are still muted. Shadows hide in every corner. The ballet dancers, who had skilfully slipped from the room moments before, return in the guise of the courtesan from "Moulin Rouge" and her poet. Their dance is a battle- thrust into their poet's embrace, then pulled apart from him once more. Each time she leaves him, the courtesan-ballerina picks up another piece of flexible armor (gauntlets, breastplate) so that by the end of the dance, she is both fully clothed and stands alone.

Throughout the evening, the lights flicker, the ballet troupe reappears and their dances change. We witness the Jedi knight with his Sith lover, proud Catherine spurning Heathcliff, young David seeking his sick mother, terrifying Abel and sweet Anna and Denna and Kvothe.

The last dance is different. A mist rises up from the floor during which time large mice wearing suits, apparently from the set of "The Nutcracker," remove the ice tables and hourglasses. Trapdoors open and a field of golden sunflowers appears, pushed upward through the doors. Two children, a boy and a girl, appear to run through the field, laughing and smiling. Golden light mimicking the sun shines down upon them. It looks something like this. They play together. This is the music that accompanies them.

At the conclusion of this set, your hostess arrives. She is wearing a dress with a light blue bodice and lacy cap sleeves. The dress has a sweetheart neckline. Her hair is long and flows loose, spinning around her as she dances. The skirt of her dress is a tutu that spills around her in a motley of colors, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink and purple. She wears scuffed brown combat boots that reach slightly above her ankles.

A fiddler appears on the scene. He begins to play "Fairytale" by Alexander Rybak. Your hostess doesn't appear to be taking the lyrics seriously; she's just dancing because it's upbeat and joyful. Her skirts swirl around her as she kicks up her legs and laughs. The rest of the guests join in and the room is filled with unbridled giddy life-filled joy.

Welcome to my masquerade, one and all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Casual Encounter With Rabbi Aron Wolf

Tonight Rabbi Wolf gave me and some others a ride. A grey-bearded, glasses-wearing man with a large black hat and suit coat, he ushered us into the car with a twinkle in his eye. "I never say no to Daisy," he declared. (Daisy, whose name has been changed, was the one who had gotten us the ride.) Rabbi Wolf's car has four wheel drive and was thus perfect for the sleeting, icy roads.

I had never had an opportunity to talk with Rabbi Wolf before although I knew him as the man who sent my father out to lein megillah on Purim. My father was usually assigned to lein for women in the hospital who had just given birth as they typically felt less comfortable with young yeshiva bochurim (the other individuals marshaled for the cause). I tended to go along, dressed in costume, to put the women at ease.

During the course of our conversation, it became clear that Rabbi Wolf is a very special man. I wanted to share some of his stories with you.

He began by discussing part of what he does regarding the meis mitzvah situation in Chicago. I have heard elsewhere that funeral homes can cover 6-8 meis mitzvahs per month. These individuals are the elderly who have no remaining family, are estranged from their family or in more tragic cases, may be young people who were caught in the spiral of addiction and whose family members will not or cannot claim them. While the funeral home covers the cost of a coffin and shrouds for the deceased, Rabbi Wolf is the one who organizes a quorum of ten men, called a minyan, and brings them to attend the funeral so that he can say Kaddish.

"Today the weather was terrible," he remarked. "I had a group of ten elderly individuals and the rain was sheeting down, the wind was blowing- I told them to stay in the car. I went out and then I said Kaddish in the car. Never done that before," he smiled.

Rabbi Wolf was originally imported from Toronto, Canada to teach at Cheder Lubavitch in its early days. He taught there for several years and then realized that teaching was not the be-all and end-all of his career. He began to teach part time and then involved himself in other matters- such as creating minyanim to say kaddish for Jews who would otherwise not have that last rite performed.

I pressed him and he began to describe some of the other things that he does. "There's a number in Chicago where every time someone has a concern or complaint about the elderly, it goes to that number," he explained. "Let's say someone is saying there's an infestation in an apartment. Or let's say there's a concern someone is lacking food. It goes to that number. So we can register with the city and become the person where if the person has any known Jewish affiliation, we are the ones to go check it out."

"And what do you find?" I asked.

"All sorts of things," he explained. "Sometimes the original complaint, you go and you realize it's gornisht."

"By which you mean it's worse than described?"

He nods. "This Thursday, I went to an apartment. The city said there was a concern the woman did not have food. So I came with a bag of food and she threw me out, saying that she's a vegetarian and she can't eat the food. So I said, okay, but can I come in? Can I just talk to you? So she showed me inside. There's a blanket and a pillow on the floor. This is where I sleep, she says. She has a little dog; the dog cuddles up with her for warmth."

"Wow," I say. "And now?"

"Now, she has a bed, blankets, a couch, and the china breakers are coming in," he says happily. I'm not sure whether he's joking or serious about the last part.

"So what happened to all her furniture?" my seatmate asks.

"It's a sad story. She was evicted- and she has family, but they don't speak with her, haven't for fifteen years. This is a woman where, Chas V'Shalom, if she dies, she will be a meis mitzvah." He says it matter-of-factly, keeping his eyes on the road.

It's the casual chas v'shalom that gets me. He truly believes it will be a tragedy when this surly woman who threw him and his food out of the apartment originally passes away. He doesn't take her behavior personally- not at all. He cares about her. The love radiates off of him.

"There's a lot of chesed in Chicago," he declares, "no one will deny. But one area where I feel like it's a niche that hasn't been fully filled is caring for the elderly."

"Did you always have the patience to do so?" I ask. "From the time you were a little kid?"

"The elderly were in my life since I was a child," he answers obliquely. He's humble, not interested in bragging.

"You also have to have the right personality to do it," my seatmate interjects. "Rivki who does Tuesdays with Rivki - that group for the elderly- she can do it but even if she gets very good substitutes, people don't want to come. It's something about her."

"You have to listen," I say.

"There was a man," Rabbi Wolf says, "who walked into our Center. Our Center is on Touhy. So we ask him to put on a yarmulke and he says no. Okay, no problem, we're happy you're here. But he comes again. So I sit down with him. I see something is bothering him. I ask him, 'Why won't you put on the yarmulke?' And he looks at me and says, 'Who knows whose head it has touched?' So I realized this is a very neat, very clean man. So I find him a brand-new yarmulke. We put it in a Ziploc bag in a special place where he can always find it. He doesn't wear it on the street- just when he comes in. And then he was happy to put it on his head.'

His point is how essential it is to listen to people. To go beyond their words to their actual needs. To care.

He mentions something about free meals his center provides which come from Chalavi, a local pizza parlor. His organization had a Chanukah party to which 35 people showed up. He's trying to spread the word. I'm not entirely sure as to whether this is a form of soup kitchen or just a community venture to enable others to socialize, but either way it is kind.

"We do transportation," he continues. "Not groceries- there are other organizations that do grocery shopping and we don't want to take every person to the grocery every time they want to go shopping. But certain transportation we do, especially medical appointments. Someone calls up one day and says, can we take them to the wig shop. Now, my secretary who has been working for me for twelve years, God bless her, she asks whether this is a one-time thing or an ongoing thing. She's thinking, maybe this is a convert. The woman says it's a one-time thing. Well, my secretary continues asking questions and she finds out this woman needs a wig because she is starting chemotherapy." He pauses. "We took her to every single one of her chemotherapy appointments. She's in remission now, Baruch Hashem."

He swings the car into a turn. "It would have been so easy to put down the phone and say, sorry, we don't do that. But she listened."

"What happens when the City of Chicago sends you to an apartment with an infestation?" I ask, fascinated.

"There are all sorts of programs," he answers, "discounts on exterminators, CJE."

"But I mean, what happens if the person won't let you in?"

"So I come back again."

"But what if they still won't let you in?"

"So I come back again and I try to think what they might need where if I bring it, the person will let me in."

"He's very persistent," my seatmate says.

We've reached our destination so I clamber out of the car. I love his nonchalance, the ease with which he explains he'll simply keep going back until he's addressed the situation. This man does his work out of love for God's people - not because you pay him. He does it because he cares. He's a man I can admire, the type of man I want my children to grow up to be. He's a man who has left me feeling a little happier, a little more hopeful, because I live in a world in which he lives as well.


If you are interested in learning more about Rabbi Wolf's work, check out the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Repairing the World

Once upon a time there was a girl utterly entwined with God.

Her skirts swirled in wind made of His breath; her heart thudded to the beat of His heart. His commands weighed heavily upon her so that she bowed her head and bit her lip. Dejected, she made her way into the world, feeling terribly forlorn, bereft and alone.

But in her darkest moments she caught at His cloak and wrapped it around herself, infusing herself with its glittering motes of light. In those moments, when her soul was bleak with sorrow, His hands wrapped around hers so that she felt the white-hot flame of His knuckles and nestled into the crevice left for her body. He held her close and she felt the rain fall, a steady stream of tears as He wept for her pain at the same time that He inflicted it.

The girl sought to outrun her pain and so she pulled the rainbow behind herself, a fleeting assortment of glowing colors. Crimson brought the sun, so that dawn unfurled across the horizon, a golden sun casting yellow rays upon a rapt audience of intangible angels. Blues and indigos shadowed her cheeks, forgotten bruises that only appeared in certain light, which only incisive eyes could see. Pink tinged her lip, giving it a healthy glow, while white glowed in the orbs of eyes which sparkled with heavenly light. No matter how she ran, she could not escape the God that followed her, cocooned within her heart, carried within her bosom. She need not speak a word; it mattered not. God was with her as indelibly as her soul.

He knew her every thought and it wounded Him. Fresh blood dripped from scraped cheeks; her nails clawed across His face. Each drop fell to earth and thudded against the rich, loamy soil, taking root and blooming as a single, beautiful rose. She fought Him and she loved Him so that the two were bound in undying struggle, as she sought to escape the one who knew her more intimately than anyone except herself.

He sent her someone to ease her suffering.

At first she could not see him.

He was fit and trim and devilish, a mischievous smile twinkling in his eyes. He played at nonchalance while gambling all in a desperate attempt to win the girl who had been damaged in terrible, invisible ways.

She repudiated him.

Laughing, she pushed him back, but her laugh was tinged with bitterness for she was certain that she was beyond help, beyond salvation. Her tears were dark and salty but he licked them from her lashes and offered her his crumpled handkerchief. She laughed again, but this time with pleasure, and as she looked up at him with flickering faith he smiled.

He knew he had won.

He knew it far before she did, because she did not believe. Lost in tunnels deep under the earth, she thought it uncertain that she would ever seen sunlight again, let alone live to break through to the surface. Patiently, he extended his hand and led her through the corridors, taking her through the maze and out under the night sky. A thousand brilliant stars lit the sky and in each one of them she could see his reflection.

That was when she knew she loved him.

He had known it far before her, but in that moment a tear of liquid gold fell from his eye and rolled down his skin. She leaned forward to brush it away, her fingers soft against his flesh. The tear melted onto her finger, then hardened into a ring. It was a ring made out of his belief and joy and sorrow, a ring that spoke of tomorrows and yesterdays. It was the essence of him.

She learned him as he had learned her, poring over him like an intricate text. She learned him as they slept at night, fingers skimming over muscles and bone, knotting together to form a pillow for his head. She heard his soul whispering to the water, saw how stillness and calm bound him together. She searched for his peace and found it when he slept, because then she could follow him to the idylls that encompassed his deepest visions, and visiting, learn how to create her own.

Out of nightmares, she built ornaments, deconstructing the pieces till all that were left were tools, varied and strong. Over time, they became functional, so that instead of bits and bobs of frippery she constructed children's playthings and scattered them about their home, creating the environment that would one day welcome their child. The carpet was deep and plush, scattered with pine cones and evergreen needles. He would walk whistling through it and she would laugh to see his joy and together light would spill out of them and weave the fabric of their wold together.

At last, they had a child.

And in that child she saw all her hopes and dreams bound together in one, a glorious, glittering menagerie of opportunities and concerns. She was still fearful; the jackals had not wholly abandoned her. But the cruel God whose face she had struck no longer appeared to her so cruel; indeed, was it not His eyes that stared back at her in the eyes of her child? Was it not His face she saw when she pressed her lips to her child's cheek? Radiant and unconditional, beaming with affection, her child stared up at her.

She knew that virginal blood could stain the coat of many colors. She knew the hidden face of lust, the rampant hate that could tear her child from her arms. Despite this, she loved, and loved wholeheartedly. Her skin had been sewn back together by a patient tailor, the man who stood beside her and looked down into the eyes of this coruscation, their shining babe. His face, too, appeared to her as the image of God.

The rebuilding of her world had been a difficult undertaking. He had managed it, brick by brick, stone by stone. He had strung her together with beads and sequins and silver-tipped words and pressed her into readiness with the touch of his hands. It was her turn now.

To become a craftsman.

To become a conduit.

To repair the world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Transformation of Judah

Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of Chapter 38 in Genesis.

It has been suggested that Judah "went down" from his brothers- went down in status, because once the brothers saw how their actions had caused Jacob to suffer, they no longer respected the ringleader as much. He seems to have fallen out of favor, marrying a Canaanite woman, a practice that we know was frowned upon (see Genesis 28: 1). Two of his sons die and he refuses to let the third marry. The woman to whom his son is betrothed deceives him, pretending to be a prostitute, and then chooses not to embarrass him publicly, allowing him to make the pronouncement "She is more righteous than I." From here our sages learned that it was preferable to throw oneself into a fiery furnace (the punishment for committing adultery) rather than embarrass another. While Tamar is rewarded by becoming the ancestress of the Davidic dynasty, Judah is no longer intimate with her.

Many meanings can be gleaned from this story. The story is one of the sources for the sin of Onanism- ejaculating outside of a woman to prevent conception. There is a sense of justice being served because Tamar says הכר נא- Identify, if you please- regarding Judah's pledges, the same words the brothers used when they deceived their father and pretended the bloodied coat of many colors meant that Joseph had died. Some sages view the story as a reproach, pitting Judah and Joseph against each other. Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife, ending up in prison because of it, while Judah could not resist a prostitute's wiles.

But I believe that the main purpose of this story, one that has perhaps been overlooked- or at least, has not come up somewhere I have read- is to provide the impetus and catalyst for the tremendous change in Judah.

Think about it: According to rabbinic tradition, Judah is the one who originally determines that Joseph ought to die. He does change his mind, saying:

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, אֶל-אֶחָיו:  מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ.26 And Judah said unto his brethren: 'What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
כז  לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, וְיָדֵנוּ אַל-תְּהִי-בוֹ, כִּי-אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ, הוּא; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶחָיו.27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.' And his brethren hearkened unto him.

Judah's action has far-reaching consequences. Due to his words, Joseph is sold and Jacob is left bereft, led to believe that his son has been torn apart by a wild animal.

Then Judah sets off on his own. It is possible that he has fallen out of favor with the brothers. He takes a wife from a despised nation which may indicate his low status- or a rebellion against his father. He then has three sons. He marries his first son off, but then he dies. He marries the second son off to the same woman, but then that son dies as well. When it comes to the third son, he cannot bear to further the alliance. He claims that Tamar must wait till his son is grown but in truth he never plans to allow the two to wed.

Consider what has happened here. Judah is learning, in the most painful way possible, exactly what it is to lose a son. He loses not one son but two -and he cannot bear to let the third one go. He is then deceived by the very woman he views as responsible for the death of his sons- and must publicly confess that he is the one who impregnated her. It is a very powerful and effective lesson in empathy for his father. First, he learns what it is to suffer the death of a child. And then, he discovers what it is like to be deceived by a woman, believing her to be one individual (a prostitute) and then discovering her to be another (his daughter-in-law, Tamar). This exactly parallels what happened with Jacob, who weds the veiled Leah believing she was Rachel.

The root of the enmity between Leah's children and Rachel's children all stems from this moment. Leah was the שנואה, the hated woman. God gave her children first, opening her womb. Leah believed that through bearing these children, Jacob would come to love her. But instead, Jacob perversely insisted upon loving Rachel. It is possible that Judah, clearly a strong, decisive individual, hated Joseph not only for being the favored child, the one in the coat of many colors, the one who had dreams that set him above the other brothers- but also because of who he was, the child of Rachel, his own mother's rival. Perhaps (although there is no textual proof for this) Judah felt frustrated by his father, wondering how he could have caused this all to happen. Had he only made sure that the woman he was marrying was the right one, this enmity would never have been forged and Judah's mother would not have been so unhappy. Now Judah understands how it is possible to make such a mistake. More than that, the text is explicit that Judah is no longer intimate with Tamar. Having had his one mistaken encounter with her, he saves her from the pyre and sets her aside. Jacob remains with Leah, continuing his conjugal relations with her- but emotionally, on some level, he too sets her aside. Does Judah not remain intimate with Tamar because she had originally been promised to his son? Or is there something fundamentally impossible about intimacy that begins shrouded in deception? If the latter...Judah has begun to understand his father. He realizes now that the love Jacob felt for Rachel and for her children was not intended as a slap in the face to his mother, although that may well have been how it was perceived. Perhaps, on some level, it was simply impossible for Jacob to emotionally connect with the woman who deceived him.

It is within this context that Judah's later actions make sense. He and the other brothers return to Jacob and inform him that the viceroy has demanded that Benjamin travels to Egypt. Jacob is understandably distressed, claiming that Joseph is gone and Simeon is imprisoned and now Benjamin, too, runs the risk of running afoul of evil chance or deliberate harm. Reuben's response to this is to threaten the death of his own two children:

לז  וַיֹּאמֶר רְאוּבֵן, אֶל-אָבִיו לֵאמֹר, אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם-לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ; תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל-יָדִי, וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ.37 And Reuben spoke unto his father, saying: 'Thou shalt slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to thee.'

Reuben is overwhelmed by guilt. He had intended to save Joseph and failed. Therefore he makes this brash promise, saying that the lives of  his two children can act as sureties for Benjamin.

But Judah has actually had two children die. He knows that his brother is acting foolishly- cannot, does not understand the horror of the death of a child. The last thing Jacob would want would be the deaths of two more children should his beloved son Benjamin not come home.

Therefore, Judah intervenes.

ח  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו, שִׁלְחָה הַנַּעַר אִתִּי--וְנָקוּמָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת, גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ גַם-אַתָּה גַּם-טַפֵּנוּ.8 And Judah said unto Israel his father: 'Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones.
ט  אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ--מִיָּדִי, תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ:  אִם-לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ, וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.9 I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him; if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever.

Why would Jacob trust Judah over Reuben?

Because Judah knows what it is to have a child die. Indeed, he knows what it is to have two children die. He will truly be a surety for Jacob- because he has changed. He understands the pain that his father went through, the loss of his beloved son. Judah will ensure this does not happen again.

And indeed, in arguably his finest moment, Judah steps forward in פרשת ויגש and presents a passionate plea, detailing the story of Jacob's suffering on a deep level. He ends off with a wrenching statement:

לד  כִּי-אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל-אָבִי, וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי:  פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע, אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת-אָבִי.34 For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with me? lest I look upon the evil that shall come on my father.'
The Judah who heretofore was all about calculations- considering whether more profit could be had by slaying his brother or selling him- now finds it impossible to consider looking upon the evil אשר ימצא את אבי- that will find my father. Earlier, he did not hesitate, did not consider the impact that slaying or selling the boy would have upon Jacob- only Reuben considered that. But now, weathered by suffering, and perhaps less judgmental of his father's actions and coldness towards Leah, he is deeply affected. He would rather stay a slave and allow Benjamin, a son of Rachel, to go free.

In this moment, he has changed himself completely. Judah is standing there as surety because he has taken the place of Reuben, the firstborn. Reuben illogically threatened the deaths of his sons should Benjamin not return, thereby demonstrating that he does not comprehend Jacob's anguish. But Judah does. That is why he stands there defending a son of Rachel, a child of the person responsible- in his mind- for monopolizing his father's love. Except that he has now realized it wasn't Rachel who held the monopoly- it was Leah who unfortunately lost the opportunity to be loved equally when she chose to participate in deception. Love that has its roots in deception cannot flourish, and this is something that Judah now understands. He has lived it. It has changed him.

The bizarre interlude in Judah's life inter-spliced with the Joseph story now no longer seems so bizarre. It is there to show us what caused the tremendous change between the Judah that was and the Judah that came to be.

This idea inspired in part by Mr. Chaim Kohanchi's 'Ner Chaim' and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' 'Covenant and Conversation'