From Life to Death to Life

It’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  From the elementary school next to our apartment building, we can hear children singing songs commemorating the death of six million Jewish people during the Nazi nightmare of atrocities.  At ten in the morning a siren sounds and the country immediately comes to a standstill.  We stand at attention.  On the roads, at shopping centers, through every activity of life all Israel stops to remember those who perished for no reason other than being born a Jew.

Ironically appropriate, today was also the funeral of a faithful member of the Tents of Mercy Congregation.  I’yevah, or Eva, was of Russian background and found the congregation through friends of her generation, fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  Of those who gathered at her grave outside of Haifa, the majority were also senior citizens.  Clearly one prevalent thought was—when’s my time?  One day it will be me.

At the cemetery I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a large headstone with my mother’s family name:  Mendelsohn.  Resonating in my soul was the reality of being part of a people who’ve been in exile for century upon century, and finally come home.

I don’t have a tidy conclusion.  The unavoidable connection is that life leads to death leads to life.  My beloved father used to call it “the inevitable.”  One day, barring the intervening re-appearance of our Messiah, we will all find our way to the grave.  Yet our life, when invested in others, brings forth more life.  The death of six million—in a way none of us can fully handle— led to the founding of the State of Israel only three years after the last victim died.  Next week we will observe another day of remembering.  This one focuses on the Israeli soldiers who sacrificed themselves for the existence of Israel—a miracle on the stage of history that could only have happened because men and women withheld not their lives from violent death.

When I try to imagine being in one of the death camps, or fighting the War for Independence, Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, or most recently the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, I am gripped.  The pause for the siren, also sounded on the Day of Remembrance (only one week after Holocaust Remebrance Day) puts me back in history.  But the sensation I’m looking for is present tense.  How would I feel to confront a concentration camp, bullets, canons, or the chaos of battle?  Am I made of such stuff? In every age, there is are opportunities for selflessness.  In all of our places of life and service we can choose to avoid vulnerability or to embrace the courageous step.  History beckons.

Passover in my Neighborhood

The Last Day — A New Beginning

It is the last day of Passover. Mizrachi music (Middle Eastern style popularized contemporary sound), plaintively sung in a nasal moaning, drifts across an unseasonably warm April day. Until tonight at sundown we eat unleavened bread. A week ago we had hail. Yes. On Pesach Eve, to amplify the reality of that plague in Egypt, we watched hail come down from the sky, in Israel, three and half thousand years after Egypt was deluged. Ironic? Who can plummet the ways of our God. He is at once poet and teacher, warrior and shepherd, wise and guileless.

I wrote this as all Israel prepared for this festival of freedom:

Piles of castaway furniture, extensive yard clippings, and broken toys adorn the curbs of my street. It’s Spring cleaning. Or, more precisely, pre-Passover cleaning. As never before, I get it. The ancient command to remove all leaven from our homes (Exodus 12:19,20) is aptly interpreted to include the junk and unused stuff we’ve accumulated in our post-industrial era.

The patchwork piles on my street strike some nostalgiac cord. After 3400 years, this rambunctious, defensive, restless, creative, ever-searching and not-quite-satisfied collection of Israel’s tribes still heeds the directive of Moses. Of course Moses was merely passing on what he got from the Eternal One—which generates a major question. What place does said God have in the lives of my neighbors, who are diligently ridding their homes of leaven—whether foodstuffs or broken possession?

We Jews have done a pretty good job of remembering. Remembrance and reflection are relatives, but not identical twins. We are commanded to remember, in order to reflect, in order to return to the essentials. To be challenged way inside. Does this redemption history—“…for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:9)— touch me? Am I free? Or is the “advanced level” of my material existence a smoke machine-induced fog, obscuring the most important facets of life?

Tonight it is permitted to begin eating leavened bread again. But I hope to sustain the benefits of removing the leaven, the leaven that creeps back into my heart, the leaven of hypocrisy, of superficiality, of covetousness, of jealousy, of self-focus (see 1Corinthians 5:8) . May we activate the compassion-born deliverance wrought for our ancestors by the lamb’s blood. Daily, longing for all Israel to be set free by the Lamb’s blood.

#13 – Venturing into the Unknown

In How to Think like Leonardo daVinci author Michael J. Gelb invites the reader into a beginner’s drawing course. Citing daVinci’s passion for drawing as a way of “seeing,” the learner is encouraged to look around as if never having seen his surroundings.

This “seeing things for the first time” made our voyage of the past two weeks a time of inner renewal, release, and revitalized creativity. Connie and I spent a week living in a small fishing village on the western coast of Mexico. There, she studied oil painting and I studied her learning experience. It was such a joy to serve her, to foster her lifetime calling. Much of the time she observed a master painter, while he fashioned phenomenal renderings of the non-stop sea cove/mountain scenery. I watched my talented wife getting stretched (in a good way), reaching for new technique and fresh understanding of color, brush stroke, perspective.

I brought a new camera on the trip. Listening to in-depth discussions of art and its way of seeing, I found my joy of photography reawakened. Looking through the lens enabled me to see many things “for the first time.” The drama of landscape, of every day life, of buildings, towns, and people doing business all gave me the thrill of pressing the shutter. I’m taking these moments of seeing home with me.

What else happened during this Golden Anniversary jaunt? Language. I was stretched to use a language familiar from decades past—Spanish. In the beginning of our half century together, we lived in the high mountains of New Mexico, after that in the state capital, Santa Fe. During those thirteen years many of our relationships were with people whose primary language was Spanish. Speaking it again was like a sweet family reunion.

Exercise. We did a lot of walking. In the village of Boca de Tomatlan, in the big city of Puerto Vallarta, and in the foothills of Sandia Mountain, overlooking Albuquerque, our feet carried us. Walking put me in closer touch with the earth and its residents.

Friendship and Family. We were profoundly rewarded in having quality, unhurried time with Russell and Jane. Our heart connection goes back to the primitive commune life we shared in the early 70’s. We celebrated family birthdays with fish tacos and all the southwestern trimmings. Getting to know their young adult and teen granddaughters added to the richness of our friendship. At this stage of life, it is enriching to take time to appreciate multiple generations within one family. Now, I really want to follow the life paths of these young women. They are special to me because their grandparents are my treasured companions.

Learning—Venturing into the Unknown. During this trip I’ve had fresh encounters with people, places, the sea, animals, food, and modes of artistic expression that have all expanded me. Sitting in my friend’s study, I’m surrounded by books and magazines. It’s a feast of knowledge. Yet, while stimulated, I was tempted to feel stupid, inadequately educated. My defense was to begin reading what caught my eye. I made a list of those materials I’d like to investigate when I get home. (Don’t tell Connie, but I might even order another book or two!)

So it was that on our last day I was pleasantly caught off guard by finding an article that addressed this very tendency to put myself down. “Silencing the Inner Critic,” by Jena Pincott, showed me that (A) I’m not alone in this struggle. And (B) there are practical ways I can combat that nagging voice. This is one battle I’m determined not to lose.

Of course one does not have to take a long trip to an exotic place to be expanded, to grow as a person, to rediscover the joy of life. It’s an attitude. It’s a decision. It’s a daily practice of seeing what’s around us for the first time. I wonder if Peter and John had ever seen the man begging at the Jaffa Gate (Acts 3:1-10)? I’m guessing they had. That means their attention was suddenly arrested in an unprecedented way. If I’m alert, open, positioning myself to “see as if for the first time,” I too will find new ways of seeing from day to day; and venture into unforeseen ways to touch the lives of others with Yeshua’s love.

#12 Riding and Schmoozing along the Rio Grande

“Do you wanna schmooze while we ride?” Russ asked. What could be better, I thought. Albuquerque’s crisp spring day implored us to hit the cottonwood lined trail beside the Rio Grande. And schmoozing with my lifelong friend and spiritual twin? Well, for depth and ease of heart to heart communication, it doesn’t get any better.

Connie and I stopped here as the final leg of our anniversary celebration (#50!). Our roots in New Mexico go back to our honeymoon in a cave, January, 1969. Six years in the high mountains, sans electricity, then seven years in Santa Fe left permanent roots. The highlight of our mountain years was bonding with Russell and Jane Resnik. Together we sought an alternative life. Together we discovered the Shepherd King, Yeshua. And together we were restored to our Jewish heritage through the Messiah.

Every time we come back to New Mexico we marvel at the sky, the mountains, the adobe architecture…the sky. Once we began rolling along the bike path, it was impossible to ignore the canopy of chunk style, majestic clouds that created a heavenly arch above us. A brilliant blue background intensified the clouds, as if painted on an artist’s canvas. My brain searched in vain to find a camera shutter it could click that would record the visual banquet before my eyes.

Pulling even with Russ’s bike, we schmoozed. The schmoozing was no less satisfying than the scenery. Touching subjects ranging from Jewish tradition to biblical counseling, from personal struggles to life goals, from book writing plans to congregational issues, the rhythm of our conversation kept time with the steady movement of our feet on the pedals.

Russ is a lifelong friend, the kind that makes you marvel at God’s ability to join our paths with those whose soul becomes knit with ours. In addition to being an author, teacher, therapist, rabbi, and aficionado of New Mexico’s abundant natural wonders, he’s an experienced bicycle rider. So, for me, riding with Russell was like an inexperienced fisherman sitting on the river bank next to a veteran angler.

True friendship is one of life’s greatest phenomena. It is a journey of rich reward requiring totality of heart. God called Abraham His friend. Yeshua called the disciples His friends. This tells me friendship is divine. To ride and schmooze today, with my friend Russ, was a foretaste of heaven.

#11 – Purim and the Heroic

Heroes. Heroism. Heroic. Today is Purim, the biblical holiday commemorating Jewish survival in the time of Esther. Oddly, ironically, eerily, her story is set during the Persian Empire. We’re talking about the late 5th century BCE, roughly 483-473 BC (according to Dr. Google). The greatest empire in the world at that time, ancient Persia equals today’s Iran. No wonder there’s a vibe of “We’re going to be great again! We’re going to show the world who’s boss.”

But back to my subject, heroism. Those who’ve read the story will remember its heroes, Mordechai and Esther. What makes them heroic? Why are we inspired by stories of heroism? Do I have what it takes to act heroically? And what situations in my mundane life could possibly call for a heroic response?

I once tried to be a hero. It almost got me killed. I was only about 4 at the time. Our neighbor was resurfacing his driveway. I was fascinated and wanted to help. He said “OK. Stand by the side of the driveway, here, and make sure I’m backing up straight.” He put his car in reverse, in order to tamp down the asphalt. In my small mind I took the responsibility seriously. Watching carefully, I was sure he was veering off track. I yelled, but he didn’t hear me. Not knowing what else to do, I stepped behind the slowly backing sedan, convinced that I could stop it by putting my hands on the trunk, Superman style. Yes, my friends, I’d imbibed enough of Superman via 1950’s TV to know that such things were possible, if only you willed it. Funny thing, the auto kept moving. As if all was in slow motion, it knocked me down, pinning me under the tire which stopped, by the grace of God, just as it came to rest, lodged between my legs. Nothing was damaged; no future generations of Shishkoffs were curtailed. But my bid for hero status came to an embarrassing and very nearly tragic conclusion.

In no way do I mean to compare my childhood antics with Mordechai and Esther. They faced a situation that involved the entire exiled Jewish community in Persia. By one estimate there were 1,000,000 Jews living in Persia at the time! When a vile anti-Semite named Haman convinced King Ahasuerus to condemn all of the Jews to destruction, it brought our people to desperation and despair. Unable to physically defend ourselves, we would face annihilation. However…

Esther had become queen, concealing her Jewish identity at the instruction of her cousin, Mordechai. At the time of the crisis, Esther was not number one on the king’s hit parade. Even so, still being in the palace gave her access to the king—who alone could prevent the impending slaughter. Mordechai bewailed the situation publicly, unashamed to proclaim the injustice of wholesale condemnation. At first Esther was embarrassed. Can you relate? But Mordechai would not be appeased, knowing that if nothing was done Jewry would be wiped out. He challenged the young woman, whom he had raised, to rise to the occasion, not worrying about her personal fate, but that of her people.

The outcome is well known to all who’ve read the Book of Esther. The anatomy of a hero, then, is composed of several elements. A crisis. A way to avert or delay danger. A heart that says, like Esther “If I perish, I perish.” A hero’s attitude is “saving this person, or group, is more important than my own life.” By the way, Esther did not initially want this role. Yet Mordechai’s challenge to her touched something inside. It’s that inner response that attracts me. Courage comes from the French word coeur, meaning heart. A hero rises to the occasion, fueled by a heart that has been ignited with courage.

In literature, in drama, in the news, we are drawn to heroic rescue. The story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 comes to mind. Made into “Sully,” a Tom Hanks movie, the jet made an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River! As a veteran of many commercial flights the sheer complexity and danger of such a maneuver turns my stomach. Sullenberger’s presence of mind and inventiveness under such intense pressure surely qualify as heroic. We can say that his well-developed instincts as a pilot took over. But we can only view with amazement the saving of 155 passengers and crew.

Neither you nor I are ever likely to fly a plane, much less have to make an emergency landing. We will, most certainly though, encounter broken hearts, shattered plans, unexpected weather, electricity blackouts, and countless other possible scenarios requiring improvisation. Not heroic, you say? Well, I suggest that being a hero on the daily stage of life is true heroism. We can inspire, encourage, comfort, heal, strengthen, and even rescue simply by opening ourselves to the needs and unfolding drama of the lives right where we are. And isn’t that just a touch heroic?

#10 – Puerto Vallarta

Layers of gray blur the dawn horizon. I’m looking out from the rooftop of our b&b. Distant lights from coastal hotels still flicker across the wide Banderas Bay (Bahia de Banderas). At the heart of the bay, Puerto Vallarta is a vibrant, colorful tourist town. True, tourists there are aplenty. But on the lengthy boardwalk, called the Malecon, we observed far more locals than tourists.

Restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and tchachke shops abound. The mood and tempo is laid back. People are here to enjoy, to leave their troubles and predicaments behind. I’m thankful to have such days, even knowing the complexity of life back in Eretz Yisrael, and the responsibilities that await me there.

We feasted at the Red Cabbage, a charming out of the way authentic Mexican restaurant. Lingering over margaritas (yes, we partake), my bride and I reviewed the past week. The venue was Boca de Tomatlan, a fishing village on the southwestern coast of Mexico. La Casa de Los Artistes is an imaginative complex hosting intensive art workshops. There, fresh appreciation for art arose in me, while Connie was hugely inspired by the live demonstrations of guest instructor, Jim McVicker, a master plein air painter. Plein air (outdoors, in French, literally “in the open air”) is the classic way of artists painting their subject on site. It is active, alive, immediate, and more challenging than studio painting. Light conditions change and the scene moves. This requires that the artist observe keenly and to apply her paint in the moment.

This was the centerpiece of our journey to Mexico. Teacher and students set up easels on the beach, in a botanical garden, amidst a mountain farming village, and overlooking a wooded canyon leading to an intimate sea cove. My honey has dreamed of such instruction for several years. I’m proud of her. She has returned to her life passion—creating beauty on canvas. This pursuit was largely interrupted by four decades of raising our four children and caring for an obstreperous husband. But her considerable gifting as an artist was reawakened ten years ago when we celebrated our 40th anniversary in Italy. Twenty three years separate our oldest from our youngest, So, with a few exceptions, she put aside that passion from the time we were married until the youngest got married. That encompasses 45 years, 1969-2014! Now, after some 80 paintings of increasing excellence, she longed for further coaching to grow in her craft.

So, we found ourselves in Old Mexico, on a memorable adventure. Such a hiatus from daily issues is a rare treasure. Having unhurried time in a faraway place, time to read and reflect, time to write, time to detach…this is balm for the soul. Todah lecha, Adonai. Thank you, Lord. Thank you children and grandchildren. Thank you valued colleagues. Most of all, thank you Beloved, for these 50 years and beyond. Learning to love you makes my life worth living.

#9 – Shabbat

It is Shabbat. The middle of the night. Unable to sleep, I get up and continue reading Wiesel. Again, Wiesel. This time his life, his memoirs. And I’m weeping. The agony and eloquence of this man break my heart.

Shabbat. I realize that I have not sufficiently sanctified the Shabbat. Reading of Jewish life in Wiesel’s town of Sighet, Romania, I think of my own Shabbats in Kiryat Chaim, in Israel. Yes, I do sing blessings. I especially love the melody of the V’Shamru…Exodus 31:16,17. But what has been my heart attitude toward this unusual day—one in seven? Have I really set it apart? Have I made it different enough?

It’s Shabbat. The middle of the night. A few hours ago we ate at a beach side restaurant with the other art workshop students. It was Kabbalat Shabbat. I did not drink red wine, nor did I recite the HaMotzi, blessing the bread. No crime, you say. And you’re right. But something is begging correction. It is no accident that Wiesel is speaking to me. It was for Jewish life that 6 million were slaughtered, as a hideous sacrifice. Though I am not a “survivor” in any literal sense, maybe we are all survivors, especially those born in the immediate aftermath—while the ashes still smoldered.

A big sigh I’m sighing. How can such a record of sheer evil, dealing with utter ugliness in devastating detail, be absorbed. It is beyond comprehension. Yet Wiesel, who writes about being spared in order to relate, to relive the nightmare and to honor those who perished, struggles heroically to make us comprehend.

I am on a dream vacation in Mexico, celebrating 50 years of loving and being loved by Connie Kind. Yet somehow, experiencing Eli Wiesel’s childhood and the nightmare that interrupted it, is right. Kind of like breaking the glass at the end of the wedding ceremony, to remember the Temple’s destruction amidst the incomparable joy of the chupah.