The Only Three Words You Need

Every year I go to Rosh Hashanah services with expansive hope, born out by experience, that some wisdom and truth from our tradition will land softly on my heart and I will take it with me through the next year as comfort and north star.

Reading earlier posts from this time of year, I marvel at how much has remained constant, though so much has changed. In this post from seven years ago, Christopher and I wanted to greet the new year at the ocean, while our kids refused to budge. The same was true yesterday, but now our boys are plenty old enough for us to wave goodbye without grandparents materializing at our front door to babysit, as they did years ago. In fact, so much time has passed that the rabbi’s sermon this year about ethical driving (practicing “patience, gratitude, and forgiveness” behind the wheel) arrived at the perfect moment for our 15-year-old firstborn’s ears.

For me, the wisdom and truth I longed for this year came in a brief comment by our rabbi. She mentioned that the author Anne Lamott has written there are only three prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. This became my simple and complete prayer. I stood with my eyes closed and silently repeated these words instead of the pages of prayers in my hands. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”

There it was, instantly. A physical transformation, a steady flow of peace. Thank you thank you thank you thank you — for this loving, brilliant man standing by my side; for the blossoming young man next to him; for the kind, curious boy at home nursing a cold while watching (inappropriate) cartoons. Thank you thank you thank you thank you. And for the challenges I have to face, Help me help me help me help me.

I do love December 31st, how we light up the darkest night sky with twinkly lights and candles and fireworks. And I love our Jewish New Year’s Eve in Autumn, when there’s still enough light to see the world by, to embrace it and thank it for its beauty, its blue sky above brown California mountain ridges, its temperate Pacific waves tumbling toward me as I gather up my burdens and transfer them to a handful of bread crumbs or shells and let them fly into the ocean.

For all of this, the gratitude and the challenges, the beauty of these people and this earth, the final prayer…Wow.

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Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I’m thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.

Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee

Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

Countdown to Showtime(s)!

May is a big month for we thespians who make up the Diamond-Heisen parental team.

Christopher is reprising of the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (the first time was in the 10th grade; this time is at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Maybe it should be called “Goys and Dolls”?) He’s so shy in front of an audience, and a camera, and a microphone, it’s a wonder we could get him back on stage.

 

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As for me, I get to join twelve other women performing original monologues (that’s really hifalutin talk for telling stories) in Expressing Motherhood.ExMo-Brunch-2013

It opens this Friday, which may be responsible in part for the pit in my stomach.

It’s not that I’m nervous to perform. I’m nervous that I won’t remember my story.

I’m taking a quick break from memorizing my story and figuring out the “who-picks-everyone-up-after-school” schedule to boast about the two women who are the brains and hearts behind Expressing Motherhood, Jessica Cribbs and Lindsay Kavet.

In her return to The Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed them (in Lindsay’s backyard) about the Expressing Motherhood show, the creative impulses that led to its development, and what it means about modern motherhood.  Maria could write a few stories herself.

No word yet on when the piece will air on The Today Show, but I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, wish me and Christopher luck!

Washington Crossing 739

The (Great Big Parenting) Book

As some of you know, I’ve become something of a Torah study geek of late. Weirder still – my sister is now hooked, too.

It’s something I never ever never pictured myself doing. I thought it was for people who, you know, believed that Torah is the word of God, and that we’re supposed to do things because the Torah said so, unquestioning. Not me. Never me. I am a Reconstructionist Jew who sees divinity in the miracles of the universe — like the tides, sunsets, and the way my brain is telling my fingers how to move so I can express my ideas to you. I can get a little spiritual, but don’t begin to tell me that God wrote us a story or that, come Yom Kippur, he is taking names.

So how did I become a Torah Study groupie?

Read all about it in this week’s Jewish Journal, available in print for you traditionalists, too.

 

 

Fridays with Amy

My friend recently told me about her “favorite hour of the week” – Torah study with Rabbi Amy Bernstein at Kehillat Israel. “It’s my vitamin,” she’d gushed. I decided to try it out.

I’m hooked. I enjoy these stolen moments of spirituality and lessons in how-to-be-a-human. So occasionally on Fridays, I’m going to write about the best wisdom-nuggets from that morning’s Torah study.

Today: The Innocence of Children (aka The First “Dream Act”)

(For those who want to follow along, this morning we read Numbers, chapters 13 and 14.)

I’ll cut to the chase. God had had it with the Israelites. Totally furious and fed up. (Ever had one of those days with the kids?) God had led these former slaves out of Egypt, shown them the land of milk and honey, but they were too scared to fight for it. “We’d rather die in the wilderness than go there,” they said.

God was ready to kill them. But good old Moses interceded, praising God as “abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression.” God cooled off.

A bit. “Okay, you want to die in the wilderness? You got it.” God let them wander another 40 years in the wilderness, until the adult generation who couldn’t shake off their enslaved mentality was gone. They wouldn’t see the promised land. But God did not consign their children to the same fate. Their children were spared.

“Your children who, you said, would be carried off — these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected.”

At this point in the story, Rabbi Amy paused. “Judaism never holds children responsible. After they become B’Nei Mitzvah they are responsible for their choices, but never before.”

I think how this is reflected in our modern culture – the separate Juvenile court system, a minor’s inability to enter a contract, or even how my son couldn’t log on to vote for MLB All-Stars online, because his birth year revealed his youth. We do not hold children responsible, certainly not for the actions of their adults.

I drove away from the synagogue out to the secular world of errands and work, and flipped on the car radio. The big news of the day brought me right back to Torah study. President Obama had announced a policy to allow the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents, to stay. (Or at least to apply for work visas for two years.)

As the radio report concluded, I thought with pride: We have a Jewish President.

Yes, yes, opponents will say this act was a political attempt to woo voters. Maybe, maybe not. All policies are political — if you enact policies people agree with, they will vote for you. And if you act with kindness and forgiveness to children who are willing and eager to live the American dream, to toil in our land of milk and honey, you are living the values of Torah, and you’ve got my vote.

Fridays with Amy

My friend recently told me about her “favorite hour of the week” – Torah study with Rabbi Amy Bernstein at Kehillat Israel. “It’s my vitamin,” she’d gushed. I decided to try it out.

I’m hooked. I enjoy these stolen moments of spirituality and lessons in how-to-be-a-human. So occasionally on Fridays, I’m going to write about the best wisdom-nuggets from that morning’s Torah study.

Today: The Innocence of Children (aka The First “Dream Act”)

(For those who want to follow along, this morning we read Numbers, chapters 13 and 14.)

I’ll cut to the chase. God had had it with the Israelites. Totally furious and fed up. (Ever had one of those days with the kids?) God had led these former slaves out of Egypt, shown them the land of milk and honey, but they were too scared to fight for it. “We’d rather die in the wilderness than go there,” they said.

God was ready to kill them. But good old Moses interceded, praising God as “abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression.” God cooled off.

A bit. “Okay, you want to die in the wilderness? You got it.” God let them wander another 40 years in the wilderness, until the adult generation who couldn’t shake off their enslaved mentality was gone. They wouldn’t see the promised land. But God did not consign their children to the same fate. Their children were spared.

“Your children who, you said, would be carried off — these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected.”

At this point in the story, Rabbi Amy paused. “Judaism never holds children responsible. After they become B’Nei Mitzvah they are responsible for their choices, but never before.”

I think how this is reflected in our modern culture – the separate Juvenile court system, a minor’s inability to enter a contract, or even how my son couldn’t log on to vote for MLB All-Stars online, because his birth year revealed his youth. We do not hold children responsible, certainly not for the actions of their adults.

I drove away from the synagogue out to the secular world of errands and work, and flipped on the car radio. The big news of the day brought me right back to Torah study. President Obama had announced a policy to allow the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents, to stay. (Or at least to apply for work visas for two years.)

As the radio report concluded, I thought with pride: We have a Jewish President.

Yes, yes, opponents will say this act was a political attempt to woo voters. Maybe, maybe not. All policies are political — if you enact policies people agree with, they will vote for you. And if you act with kindness and forgiveness to children who are willing and eager to live the American dream, to toil in our land of milk and honey, you are living the values of Torah, and you’ve got my vote.

Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.

Finding the heart for the fight.

On the wall above my desk, over my right shoulder, is a framed homemade Obama lawn sign created last October by me and my young sons. Bold block capital letters outlined in black markers, filled in with red and blue crayons, it said everything we wanted to say: “OBAMA.” Right next to that is a framed poster saying “Yes We Did. November 4, 2008.” My mom and my sister have matching posters.

Down the hall in the kitchen, a Hillary Clinton button still shines on a bulletin board crowded with family pictures, Bar Mitzvah invitations, and newspaper clippings, revealing my initial hero in the last Presidential campaign. My mother and I vied to be Hillary Clinton delegates to the Democratic Convention. When that didn’t pan out (for any of us), my mom and I hopped an airplane to canvas door-to-door for Obama in suburban Las Vegas.

I think you get the picture. I’m a born liberal. A lefty. A political being. I’m also a lawyer, a person comfortable with words, persuasion and argument. At least I should be. But start in on the merits of any emotionally-charged policy debate–health care, anyone?–and I go all floppy in the head. I forget my facts. I fall apart.

It is so embarrassing. I need a Democratic Toastmasters. Because when the facts start flying, I’m like the post-season Dodgers with runners in scoring position: I choke. I don’t get it. I should be able to hold my own against Limbaugh-ites and Fox-heads. But when the debate starts, I get so riled! My cheeks flush, my blood heats, my veins burst. My politics live in my heart.

Lucky for me, I know some others who don’t get flustered this way. When it comes to the health care debate, here is one person who said what I would have liked to. Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California, nailed it. We are our brothers’ keeper. Lives are at stake. We cannot stand idly by, or we are complicit. And, oh yeah, government does a pretty good job with this sort of large scale thing. Check out the whole sermon/speech at http://www.kehillatisrael.org/prayer_holydays.php?id=2129 And when I find some more good posts, I’ll add them.

Happy reading, and remain calm.