Shortly after the deaths of my mother and sister in 1971, the rabbi of New Orleans' synagogue, Shir Chadash, gave my dad, Mike Brener (z'l), the honor of reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. The rabbi hoped this would engage my father in the community and deliver him from the waters of grief.
My father embraced the invitation. Like Jonah he escaped drowning.
I wrote this prayer several years ago. I read it to a congregation for the first time last year in New Orleans:
We now confront the meaning of this day
Our eyes scan the room
As we cross the threshold of a New Year,
Give us the strength to stand as a circle,
Only You know what the year will bring.
Job loss, addiction, infertility, heartbreak,
We do not ask to be exempt from the afflictions of being human.
--- Anne Brener
Jonah is so human. This prophet, who hears God's call and runs in the opposite direction, speaks for the part of all of us that would rather sit, like Jonah, in the shade, drink cool drinks, and mutter about evil, rather than arm ourselves with righteousness and set upon the overwhelming wrongs we are called to confront.
While I am no prophet, in the last year I have had the sense of being called. Like Jonah, I would not have chosen my missions. As the Days of Awe approach, I realize that it has been a Year of Awe. The Hebrew word for awe, "yirah," is variously translated as awe, fear, reverence, terror, and horror. It describes our shock when we come toe-to-toe with the great mysteries of life and death and cannot absorb them. Our spiritual imperative is to traverse the narrow bridge from the awe of fear and trembling to the awe that represents a renewal of reverence and love.
This year, with Jonah as my companion, I have taken two journeys on that bridge. These excursions have given me a frightening view of what Al Gore might call "An Inconvenient Promised Land." I have visited the Land of Mass Environmental Disaster and the Land of Cancer. I fear these might be waiting for all of us, if we remain mired in fear and denial and do not find a way to steer our community to align with the Yom Kippur biblical call to "choose life."
My call came three days before Rosh Hashanah last year. It came, not from heaven, but on my cellphone, through God's representative: the current rabbi of Shir Chadash. I was in New York, after working with the Red Cross in Mississippi. I had intended to go to Baton Rouge where the relief efforts of the New Orleans Jewish agencies were regrouping. But Hurricane Rita was approaching. I headed East instead of West and waited out the storm.
I e-mailed the rabbi to ask if I could help, thinking he would ask me to make pastoral visits to congregants remaining in Louisiana. Within an hour, he called. Most of the congregation was in Houston. He was going there to lead Rosh Hashanah services for them. There was a small group left in New Orleans. They wanted a service. Would I lead?
Like Jonah, I was afraid. In the seconds between his question and my response, I reminded myself that I had only three days to learn an unfamiliar machzor, write sermons and review Torah portions. I had never led High Holiday services without a cantor. I blow shofar poorly. Then I thought of Jonah who ran away when he was called. I said, "Yes."
A few frantic days later, I was on a plane, headed, not to Nineveh, but to New Orleans.
A flight into New Orleans used to have a party atmosphere. But on the day before the Yomim Noraim, my fellow travelers and I descended with mouths agape in horror. We looked down at the swamps that had reclaimed the Crescent City. My fellow travelers were in two categories. There were the relief workers: FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Salvation Army and others from around the world on missions of mercy and repair. And there were the returnees: people coming home from exile, having fled to havens across the Southern states and further. I was in both categories.
I was coming to bring relief, and I was coming home. I fled New Orleans years ago, not because of a hurricane, but after the deaths of my mother and my sister. So in a sense, though I have spent much time in New Orleans in the ensuing years, I was also returning from exile. I was making the journey on the day before Rosh Hashanah, the day that had sent me running from the city in 1971. For it was on the day before Rosh Hashanah in 1971 that my mother killed herself.
As I headed to New Orleans, my early losses, my efforts at healing, first for myself and then through my writing and work as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, and, now my rabbinical studies, all of this seemed to be part of some mysterious curriculum that had been preparing me for this for my entire life. My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, used to ask, "What is the question for which your life is the answer?"
My question had to have been, "Will you come to help after Katrina?"
And there was more. Thirty-five years ago, before the deaths of my mother and sister, I worked for the Ecology Center of Louisiana. I bicycled from the Garden District to the French Quarter each weekday to present a five-minute radio segment. We hoped to alert residents of the Gulf South to the dangers of the chemical by-products of the oil industry; the toxins in our food chain, water and air; global warming; the erosion of the coastal wetlands, and the potential for disaster when the Army Corps of Engineers tries to out-engineer God and nature.
That was in 1970 and 1971.
And when I returned to New Orleans, that day before the Birthday of the World, I witnessed the fulfillment of the environmental nightmare we forecast all those years ago. I visited homes weeks awash in the Katrina flotsam, reeking of mold and chemicals, penetrating every material thing that denoted daily life. Nearly every refrigerator in town was covered with the spores of long-decayed food, and set out on the sidewalk awaiting removal and disposal.
By whom? To where? I smelled the smells. In New Orleans they still smell the smells.
Now, late at night, as I begin to fall asleep, I return to New Orleans. I see the houses that are still stained with waterlines above their doorways and smell the mold that remains in many places more than a year later. I remember the gray of seemingly nuclear winter that covered the foliage, leeched by the fetid water of its verdant semitropical green. I feel the nausea that rose in me as I drove through the debris-filled streets around my father's flooded and looted store in the Ninth Ward and saw not one other human being.
But that's not the only nausea I have felt this year. Nausea has been an occasional side-effect of the treatment for the cancer found in my body shortly after I returned from my three months in the Gulf South. During these Days of Awe, I weigh these back-to-back catastrophes to see if there is a relationship between them. I try to find some meaning that will allow me to better align myself with the Holy Call to Heal the World.
As a child in Louisiana, I can remember the black skies of summer. Darkened, not by clouds prophesying rain, but by mosquitoes flocked so thickly they blocked the sun. Clouds of white followed them. Again, not the lamby clouds of impending precipitation, but of DDT belching into the sky to kill the insects. Did this give me cancer?
Or was it the secondhand smoke from my mother's Salems as I rode in the passenger seat through the streets of New Orleans, stopping periodically at the gas station, where I inhaled the sweet fumes of refined Louisiana crude? Or was it swimming in Lake Pontchatrain before it became illegal?
Or maybe the birth-control pills or the diet sodas or the hormones or the toxins in hair products and cosmetics or the fact that I did not eat enough organic? Overeating? The L.A. air? My laptop sitting on top of the womb where the tumor was found?
During these Days of Awe, we contemplate what we must do to align ourselves with the Holy Call. What better way to observe the days between the Birthday of the World and the Day of Atonement than to ponder our connection to the planet?
When Dana Reeve died, the tender eulogies remembered her grace, courage and kindness. Commentators committed to fighting the disease, finding a cure and wiping the scourge of cancer off the face of the earth. No one mentioned the earth itself.
We early environmentalists made a public relations blunder that weighs heavily on me on these Days of Awe. Instead of "Earth Day ... Friends of the Earth ... Save the Earth," we should have appealed to human narcissism, crying out, like Jonah in Nineveh, "Repent ... save yourself ... your days are numbered..." How grotesque would it have to be to be as effective as Jonah and rouse the community to break through denial and honor the sacred call of tikkun olam? And do we have time? The earth will take the time it needs to recover itself. It is human beings who are in urgent danger.
I was the first one to arrive last year at Shir Chadash on my mother's yahrzeit to prepare for the next day's service. Waiting, breathing New Orleans, I pressed my nose to the window, looking past the mud and mold, trying to see if the sukkah was still standing.
In the silence, I heard the cooing of a dove, a yonah. I followed it around the back of the synagogue. It led me over a fence toppled by Katrina, to my father's sukkah. The sukkah was standing in the courtyard, not a splinter taken by the storm.
The next day, the congregation (100 for the evening service and 170 in the morning) gathered in the small chapel, stripped of its carpet, smelling slightly of mold. Present were Jews from every denomination, from unaffiliated to Chabad. At one point a group of men from Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue destroyed by Katrina, shared the bimah with me. There are some fences that Katrina toppled for which we can feel grateful.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of "Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner's Path" (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.