September 28, 2011
Ani Ma’amin, I believe
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by Gershom (Rob Spruijt)
I am a painter — I paint still life in the Dutch tradition I grew up with. I love detail, and a certain obsessiveness is part of my painterly process. When I came to the United States, I learned the expression, “The devil is in the details.” In Holland we say, “God is in the details.” I always thought that was a nice metaphor for my Dutch obsession with detail. But I gradually discovered that, at least for me, it is more than metaphor.
I often struggle with prayer. I struggle with various kinds of theology, and I would like to get it right, down to the last detail. As if I would insult the Divine by being sloppy in my understanding of how to pray, what to say. Prayer is language, but I am not a native speaker. After more than a dozen years living in the United States, I have become effectively bilingual, yet all too often I find myself struggling with words. When everything depends on what is said, I am stumbling over my words.
Then I came across a poem by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which opens: “To pray is to take notice of the wonder.” Heschel suggests I shouldn’t be asking, pleading, praising, begging, etc.
Rather, he invited me to stop talking and to become aware of God in the world around me — to be in awe of the mystery. I had been looking at the wonders around me, and I had been trying to paint these for some time. And if I replaced “to pray” in Heschel’s poem with “to paint,” it made as much sense, or even more. I realized I had been praying all along.
So I paint. I also teach and I go to synagogue, and I do all the other things people do. But I mostly love to paint. I spend entire days staring at a single tulip. I do not suffer from the endless details that my eye can see and that my hands struggle to record. Rather, I enjoy discovering yet more facets of creation in something this small. I plead with the flower to yield to my longing to see more. I beg it to reveal the mysteries of being in this light or that. I don’t often stop to smell the roses; they don’t smell like much. But to sit, just for one day in my life, and really look at one.
Spending this time with even a single flower is very much like having a conversation with God. It is a gradual getting to know each other, a gradual revealing of just the tiniest part of creation. There is no doubt that I can discover only the most superficial parts, but that is all I can handle. I believe prayer does not have to be encyclopedic; it is about this awesome encounter with the source of my soul. And with every brushstroke, I invite others to look as well, to share this experience of awe around us, so we can find it in us. I actually found God in the details.
Gershom (Rob Spruijt), is a Los Angeles artist. His flower paintings will be exhibited Oct. 29-Dec. 3 at the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica.
by Miriam Prum Hess
For more than five years, my husband, Mark, and I tried to conceive a child. We consulted with many medical specialists, and after five in-vitro fertilizations and numerous other medical procedures, we were told that we could not get pregnant. We decided to adopt a child and, through an attorney, connected with “Heather,” a 17-year-old living in Nebraska. Mark and I supported her through the last six months of her pregnancy and flew out to be present at the delivery. After the birth, Heather handed the baby girl to us so we could spend some “bonding time.” Our dream was becoming a reality and we planned to name our daughter Eliana (Eli – my God, ana – answered me).
As we sat in the hospital nursery rocking the baby, I turned to Mark and told him that Eliana was the wrong name for this baby and we needed to find a new name. I felt that it just did not fit the child I was holding. As we spent the next day pondering other names, the birth mother changed her mind and decided to keep the child. We were devastated!
We packed our bags and returned home with our dream again shattered.
Several days later, we contacted the attorney to restart the adoption process, and a month later we were connected with “Kara,” an 18-year-old living in Texas. We had numerous conversations with Kara over several weeks as she was choosing between several potential adoptive parents. During these devastating months, I did not feel well and assumed I had the flu or food poisoning. I kept wondering why I felt so awful, but did not seem to be spreading my illness to my husband. The night that Kara was going to inform us whether she had chosen us as the adoptive parents for her child, I felt the need to stop at a drug store and buy a pregnancy test. My gut told me that what I was feeling might be pregnancy rather than flu or food poisoning.
Mark was concerned that we would just be disappointed again. I took the test, and it instantly turned blue. Mark doubted the reliability of the test and made me take another, with the same results. The next day, my pregnancy was confirmed by my obstetrician and Kara chose another couple.
Our daughter, Eliana Simcha, just turned 16 in July. God truly answered and guided us with simcha = joy.
Miriam Prum Hess is director of the Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Jewish Educational Engagement at BJE.
by Rabbi Anne Brener
In August, I juggled three seemingly unrelated events, all taking place within three freeway exits of one another in Northern California. I took part in a weeklong Jewish meditation retreat. Before and after the retreat, I visited the community where I am officiating for the High Holy Days to prepare with them spiritually and logistically for the month of Elul and the observances of Tishrei. And I sat at the bedside of my cousin’s dying husband. None of the people or places in these events had anything to do with the others. Yet there I was, experiencing all three of them simultaneously. Three freeway exits apart.
Dare I believe that these coincidences of time and geography are the work of some Divine unfolding, perhaps even a call from some Holy force that moves the universe (aka God)? Or are they merely another of the various and unexplainable coincidences that frequent my life?
I don’t know. The mystery of the way the universe works is something that I will never understand. I’m all right with that.
Judaism schools us in the lesson of paradox, encouraging us to hold what Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman calls the tension of opposites. While we are expected to behave ethically and minimize suffering in the world, we are not meant to take things too literally or constellate too tightly around a truth. The Torah gives us two different stories to baffle our understanding of the mystery of creation. Take that, fundamentalists! You think you are so certain about how the human came into being, just keep reading a few lines in the early chapters of Genesis; there is a completely different story.
The Torah is filled with such contradictions. God, especially, confuses us, and the confusion is front and center during this High Holy Days season. God of judgment? God of compassion? The often-perplexing multiplicity of attributes ascribed to the Deity discourages us from pinpointing a definition of God in a particular and finite way. With closer and closer scrutiny, any tangible definition of God dissolves and we are left with our awe at the holy mystery. Yet so many people use the word “God” in anthropomorphic ways — trying to make sense of a God created in our image, who often fails to meet our expectations of a supreme being. No wonder so many people have a hard time coming up with a concept of God that works for them. They are searching for something they can understand, instead of just standing in awe at the mystery at the core of the universe that even the most sophisticated scientists would not endeavor to define.
This leads me to believe that what I believe doesn’t matter (a self-imposed paradox). What matters is that I show up. I left the retreat to sit at a bedside and chant familiar prayers to ease my cousin’s husband’s passage. I listened to the concerns of my High Holy Days congregants, trying to allow their needs to override some of my own ideas about the “perfect” services. I paid attention to the teachers at the retreat and to my own breath as I experienced visceral gratitude for the gifts of their words and the exquisite landscape. Overwhelmed with appreciation for so much that I do not understand, I invoke the spirit of the season, as I say “hineni” (I am here) to another year of awe.
Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She is on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion, California.
by Jay Sanderson
A short time ago, our community lost one of its most committed, most genuine leaders, Sam Rosenwald. Sam cared deeply about his family, his friends and the Jewish people.
Weeks before he passed, we had lunch together. Sam had been fighting stage-four esophageal cancer and he knew that his fight was almost over.
While I felt very sad, Sam was strong and optimistic. That day, we discussed our teenage children, their futures and the Jewish community that they would raise their children in.
Sam looked at me and said, “The Future Is Now.”
It was a line that I had heard often in my life. In the past, it had sounded more like an advertising slogan — like “Just Do It!” — but coming out of the mouth of a man whose own future was slipping away, it felt like a prophecy.
I asked him what he meant, and he looked right at me, almost through me, and he didn’t answer.
I knew what he meant, even though I wanted him to say it. We never had the opportunity to talk again.
Sam knew my story. I never imagined that I would be the president of The Jewish Federation, but I had become increasingly concerned about our Jewish future.
I felt that standing on the sidelines was no longer an option. I had sat in too many conferences and meetings over the past two decades discussing Jewish identity and continuity with many of the same people.
It’s time to stop talking.
I know what has to be done. Engagement and education must become our top priority. Summer camps and trips to Israel for high-school students and young adults have proven to be extremely effective. I need to lead a communitywide effort to motivate and enable more young people to go to camp and Israel. Day-school education needs much more support and supplemental education needs real reimagining.
I believe that most of our disengaged want to be a part of the community, but they have different ideas, needs and visions. Our institutions need to be challenged and supported to be open to them, and new models must be developed. It is time for big ideas to be developed and implemented.
Sam didn’t want me to forget that we don’t have the time to wait.
The Future Is Now. It is time to take action.
Jay Sanderson is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
by Abby J. Leibman
I’m not so naïve that I believe all people will help you all the time, but in my professional life and in my personal life, time and again, I have seen people step up in remarkable ways. People will help you without thought of compensation, without a sense of obligation — they will help you solely because you need the help, and you need it from them.
I believe this, and I see it in my professional life, of course — as I work to address hunger in America, and in the work I did to address discrimination. I see literally thousands of people donate time and money to those who are in need. It is a remarkable hallmark of American culture that we act on our compassion for others, and when we see a need, we respond.
It is no less true in my personal life. I believe that for those of us who are used to being oh-so-competent, strong and self-reliant, even acknowledging that we need help, let alone asking for it, can be a virtual impossibility. Perhaps that’s why so many people may find my belief so naïve. I understand that. I, too, was one of those people.
When you live in a city of the size and complexity of Los Angeles, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. There is no shortage of “experts” who will tell us that Los Angeles is a place that is characterized by narcissism, self-importance and shallow relationships. They extol the virtues of small towns with neighbors who support one another through good and bad times and contrast that to their perception of Los Angeles as a place where such actions never take place, and how people would be ridiculed if they even dared to act with such compassion. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. That small-town experience is not based on the geographic size of a community; it’s built on relationships. And those relationships take root and flourish even in a large, busy metropolis like Los Angeles.
In 1995, when my twin sister, Nina, was murdered by her husband, and her two small children came to live with me, I saw the fruit of the relationships I had built. Not just my closest friends and family, as one might expect, but a remarkably diverse cross-section of business, professional and personal contacts. At that moment, I was far too vulnerable to have access to my typical response to a crisis: I can handle it. I couldn’t handle this. And people came to me and offered to help, and I said yes. Partners in law firms wrote thank-you notes to condolence cards, took my niece and nephew to Disneyland and took my place on panels; movie producers and business executives brought meals to my house and drove carpool for me, took my nephew to soccer games and comforted me. Some of them were people I counted among my friends, some were people with whom I had just a passing business acquaintance. No one asked anything of me — they all asked what they could do for me. It was not just the services they performed, although those were truly invaluable, it also was the message they brought: I was not alone, they were there for me and would be there for me whenever I needed them. I may not have known that before, but I know it now. And so I believe, I know, that when you are in need, people will help you.
Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
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