Yesterday, Rabbis Eve, Isaak, and I met with three conversion candidates who will soon go to the mikveh. These conversations are usually quite rich, and this was no exception. One theme that was brought up was the significance of Shabbat. Reading the essays of our newest “members of the Tribe” was overall a heart-warming experience. Their passion for Judaism, its traditions and culture, and the blessings of a religion that embraces questioning and wrestling is beautifully affirming.
Most families have at least one great storyteller in their ranks. You know, the person who holds court on the holidays, entertaining and regaling others. That person. For me, it was my Poppa Jake. The twinkle in his eye. The emotion he imparted. The way his voice changed pitch. It didn’t matter if he was spinning out a nonsense tale or describing one of his travels, he held our rapt attention. Perhaps he’s the reason that I have always been fascinated by stories.
This Shabbat marks the start of the month of Av, within which sit two remarkably different observances. The first is Tisha B’Av, or the 9th of Av (starting Saturday night, July 17th), during which we mourn the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and a host of other calamities that occurred on the same day. The second is Tu B’Av (July 24th), which is often called the Jewish Valentine’s Day.
After college, I lived in New Mexico for a few years. Two friends were from “The Land of Enchantment” and on previous visits I had fallen in love with the high desert terrain, rugged beauty, and the “Three Nations” (Indian, Chicano and Gringo as they were called in those days; clearly the vocabulary has changed) whose stories together created a rich cultural milieu.
Strange thoughts occur during a pandemic. Early on, in the first weeks of shutdown when we didn’t know much, we placed a container of bleach water outside the house and dipped our shoes in it before reentering the house. The panic and concern were so heightened back then. At the same time, a segment featuring Dr. Sanjay Gupta demonstrated how to wipe down food containers after a shopping run.
Gun violence is on the rise in Portland. There have been over 400 shootings this year. Over thirty homicides. As a transplanted New Yorker, the state of our beloved city is hauntingly familiar. I grew up when New York City claimed the dubious title of America’s most dangerous city, its grittiest city. New York was the homeless capital of America back then. It was a town standing on the abyss. Looking at the trendlines here in Portland is a bleak exercise. For me, it raises a series of dismal and worrisome flashbacks.
Maybe it’s because my wife is a therapist. Or maybe it’s because my favorite religious literature is the writings of Hasidic masters. Both psychology and Hasidic thought want to understand how our our inner thoughts and impulses drive our perceptions of the world. Both recognize that the human soul carries within it many unknowns that create unconscious habits. Without awareness of those almost instinctual patterns, we tend to repeat ourselves.