Looking for a penny in the light (published in the Times of Israel blog)
Last Saturday night, I was invited to a sacred Rosh Hodesh Kislev women gathering. I say “sacred” in all earnestness, not because that’s how anyone of the organizers described themselves, but rather, because of how the space felt, because of the care, love and attention present. In a modest, ovely Brooklyn apartment, there were 12-15 women, most under 30 (at least one not…). When I came in, havdala was already done. There were small candles on the low round table, snacks and wine (all kosher, some homemade and most environmentally friendly). Someone prepared thoughts on the Torah portion and inspirational words from Chasidic masters; there was a guitar and songs, Jewish and others; there was time for relaxed personal sharing. Each of us comes from a different Jewish upbringing and backgrounds, from growing up ultra-Orthodox to “nothing”, but the thirst for an authentic, personal way is evident.
At the end, we all joined on the floor for an art project: In honor of the month of Kislev, the month of dreams (Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh), darkness (with the shortest day and shortest Shabbat coming up soon) and desire for light (as evident by the festivals of this season), stuff “showed up”, for each of us to make an aromatic candle. I asked if there’s a charge, and the organizer said, that’s part of her tzedakka.
Recent studies are big on how remote and uninterested is the younger generation of American Jewry; how they are ditching Judaism, and generally, oy vey and what’s going to be with them. Aside from sounding like our parents and all the things we said we’ll never say, perhaps it’s time to look again. At least around here, Judaism / Yidishkeit is alive and well, it’s just doing much of it on its own: friends meeting for Shabbat dinners and potlucks in the park, gathering for Rosh Hodesh, planning chagim, starting new and alternative minyanim, and more.
There is an old joke about a person who loses a penny in a dark alley. When his friend tries to help him, he finds him under the street lamp. ‘Why are you looking here?’ the friend asks. ‘That’s where there’s light’, he answers.
I’m not suggesting that there is no intermarriage, disinterest, criticism of Israel and other issues that need our attention. But I would like to suggest that along with that, much is happening that isn’t yet obvious because it does not look like what we’re used to. It’s not always inside one of our institutions (and that fact alone might offend us, blinds us and makes us quick to judge, yes, more things we said we’ll never do…). Costs and attitudes, dues structure and membership requirements have driven the younger generation’s Jewishness away, and they, ironically, took it back to where it always used be: home.
To the doomsayers who tell us American Jewry is diminishing, disappearing, vanishing; to those who flash scary statistics with glaring numbers, I’d like to say, just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Driving through the desert of south west Nevada, the town of Tonopa could easily be missed, if not for the Mitzpah Hotel. The Mitzpah Hotel is a historic site: until 1927 this 5 story structure was the tallest building in the State of Nevada.
Built in the early 1900’s, it was named after the Mitzpah Mine nearby, specializing in silver, and thus, sharing its name with a famous line of silver jewelry. The Mitzpah Jewelry, which is often made of two complimentary pieces, is the kind that generally was exchanged between two people who were lovers or close friends and might be separated from each other for some amount of time. It’s common to see it engraved with the verse, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,” which is right in the end of this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 31:49).
The reading begins and ends with “bookends”: There is Jacob’s journey to Haran, instructed by his parents to escape his brother and find a wife; and – his journey back, 20 years later. There are angels on the ladder in his dream, and angels meeting him as he – and his family – are about to enter Cana’an. And there are rocks: We begin with Jacob arranging a pillow of rocks as he sleeps along the way (where he’ll have his dream and G-d’s promise); then Jacob rolling the giant shepherds-rock off the top of the well when he sees Rachel approaching; and now, Jacob building a mound of rocks to mark the border between him and Lavan, rocks that “rock” their relationship, transforming them from hostile to more peaceful.
“Good fences make good neighbors” says Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall”, perhaps because a fence is not only my way of saying, “ad kan”, you only get to go so far, but it’s also my way of saying, I respect your space over there. For Jacob and Lavan, for many (many) years, life was extremely “enmeshed” and messy. It’s a powerful moment when Jacob says, ad kan and no more. Solid, strong, self-identity comes with knowing one’s healthy boundaries.