God=Memories

As I walked toward the Federal building on Wilshire today to join the Pro-Choice rally, I started to have what I have rarely ever experienced… a panic attack.  And I didn’t know why.

As I approached the protest alone, no sign in my hand, just hoping to be counted as someone who showed up, my heart started to pound. I wandered the length of the people, and walked to the curb to join the protesters chanting and hooting and waving signs, not knowing what exactly to do with myself. I paused next to a small group of people banging on percussion instruments, and someone put one in my hand.  I started striking the drum stick against the bell along with the communal beat and… cried. With each “beep” of approval from a passing car or “woo” from the protesting crowd, my eyes welled up again, and I still did not really understanding what was triggering this reaction.  I fought back the tears (trying not to look like an idiot crying on a street corner while banging on a bell in the middle of a protest), but the release was immense none-the-less. And then it hit me why this was happening.

We all are carrying around so much pent-up emotion these days.  We all have so much doubt and fear about the future of this country and other countries embracing extremist views.  We are worried about the environment, our freedoms, our rights, bigotry, war, and hatred. It’s noisy, and if we just carry on… go to work and feed the dog and hang out with the kids, we can kind of ignore the cacophony for awhile (and that’s important too, because life also has to continue and 24/7 of feeling like this may drive us all insane).  But the reason I cried is because I had to stare right at my fears by standing with those protesters… fear that our rights will be taken away, fear that our government is inhumane, fear that we are heading toward ecological disaster, fear of war, fear that the current level of hatred and anger of this world is insurmountable.  I just couldn’t keep it all inside anymore.

After the tears, and several rounds of letting out my emotions on a bell, I gave the instrument to someone else to bang on for awhile and started to walk away.  I must say I felt a little better. And as I headed to my car, I started thinking about what I was supposed to write a blog about today (this wasn’t it), which led me to chanting the Shema to myself over and over, like a mantra.

I was going to write about our last Shabbat when we talked about defining God as Memories.  I won’t get into all of why… that will be another blog someday. But if it is so that God=Memories, then it turns the meanings of the prayers we say at Shabbat inside out and upside down, including the Shema.  Here is the traditional translation of each word of the Shema.

Shema (Listen or Hear)

Yisrael (The people Israel – let’s expand it to ALL people)

Adonai (our substitute name for God which means “my Lord” but Adon also means Master or Leader so… “my Leader” is a possibility)

Eloheinu (our God)

Adonai (see above)

Echad (One)

If God=Memories, then we could theoretically translate the Shema alternatively as this: Listen, everyone, I am led by our Memories, I am led toward Oneness.

I cried today because for so many of us, our memories of this time in history are and will continue to be painful.  I cried because of memories of a time when we weren’t all so afraid. I cried because I fear for the future I won’t see, and the memories our children will have to endure.  I cried for the memories being formed by women who can’t make choices, by immigrants who are being separated from their families, by the children who have been in lockdown at schools.  But as I chanted the Shema on my way to my car, I remembered that these memories are the fuel for how we handle tomorrow. We are led by these memories, even if they are unpleasant, and we CAN lead ourselves toward a time when more of us see the connectivity in all things, that we are all part of One, and that we better start acting like it.  

Shema Yisrael.. Listen everyone.

Adonai Eloheinu… I am led by our memories

Adonai Echad.. I am led toward Oneness.

May the memories of today, the joyous ones and the painful ones, lead to a future with more understanding, compassion and connection.  And if you feel panicky one day, like I did today, maybe this new translation of the Shema can provide you with a mantra in times of struggle.  

But don’t walk away from the fear. 🙂

For inspiration, hear our Shema here.

Reflecting on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Me: “So, tell me what you have already learned about the Holocaust?”

My class: yawn.

With yesterday being Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I had the challenge of figuring out how to talk about the Holocaust with my 5th-7th grade students at Cool Shul.  One wouldn’t think it would be a challenge, but it is. Now that in many schools a study of the Holocaust is part of the curriculum, some of my students seem almost “over it.”

It’s odd to think of anyone (even a pre-teen) being “over” learning about the Holocaust, but it’s true.  We are so grateful that such an education is no longer kept to the synagogue or the dinner table. We want generation after generation to be well-educated on the subject and to make sure that not just Jews, but all people, understand what took place so they can lead us into a future without such atrocities.   And yet, once it is part of the curriculum, it isn’t “special” anymore within a Jewish education context, and sometimes kids have a Been-There-Done-That feeling… probably because at some point they had to take a test on the subject rather than just experience it.

This is where art comes in.

What captures the joy and agony of the human spirit better than art?  As I became frustrated that my students weren’t glued to every word during my lesson about the quality of life for children in the Ghettos, I realized that what did move them was the poetry and art works left behind by those children.  It was the stories, the sounds, the music, the paintings, the written words that finally moved them and took them out of their hormonal slumber and into engagement (if you want to check out the website we used, go to http://ghetto.galim.org.il/eng/ and be patient, it takes awhile to load).

Another artful moment was the evening before when I attended a Yom HaShoah event at the synagogue where I used to be the Cantor.  Once again, it was music and poetry and stories that lifted us out of ourselves and transported us through time. The Rabbi (and one of my mentors), Neil Comess-Daniels, asked a minister to read the following poem that Rabbi wrote back in 1996:

Twelve is a small number.

We purchase items in increments of twelve.

Twelve million of anything is unfathomable.

How much the more so twelve million murderers?

Six million Jews and six million others…

Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically “imperfect”,

The politically and/or morally abhorrent.

Twelve million is as unknowable as one dozen is certain.

Yet, we must know this number, this twelve million, for this number knows us.

This number has shaped us.

Everything we are and can be will be measured in increments of

Twelve…million.


It left me and everyone else in the room speechless.

I was honored to sing during that event, and one of my offerings was a stripped down version of one of my most favorite choral pieces, written by Michael Horvit in honor of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  It is the setting of a poem found written on the walls of a basement in Cologne, Germany, left there by someone hiding from the Gestapo (you can hear me sing it by clicking the poem or the picture at the bottom of this post [and yes, that’s my dog jingling in the background]):

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when feeling it not.

I believe in God even when God is silent.

I can’t sing this piece without feeling the tears start to swell.  How can three sentences pack so much emotional depth and complexity?

Perhaps the most interesting art piece for Yom HaShoah this year is an unbelievably creative project by @eva.stories.  This Instagram account is following the true story of a young girl with the premise of: what if a Jewish girl living during the Holocaust had Instagram?  No, it isn’t a piece of music or a poem or a novel, but it is an attempt to reach today’s teens with a thoughtful, artful, contemporary look.  Although it has drawn some criticism, I totally appreciate this attempt at a modern take on Holocaust education and art.  As an educator, I love the audacity to try a new “art” form.

So, what does this all mean?  It means…

Create art.  

Whether you are a choreographer, songwriter, composer, painter, storyteller, photographer or film maker (and ya don’t have to be a pro, a dabble will do!), keep documenting our times so we can express what is happening today to future generations. We may not be facing anything like a Holocaust in the U.S., but we are facing historic and troubling times. Many of us don’t know what more to do than what we are already doing to bring more compassion to our nation and the world.  Many of us fear that most of our efforts are demonstration rather than action. But when we feel that way, let’s turn to our imaginations. Let’s create, and create, and create to capture our thoughts and experiences and the stories we are told.  As we know, sometimes it is just one image, one lyric, one frame that can change the hearts and minds of America.

It may be a splatter on a canvas, a turn of a phrase, or even a bit of comedy that will alter the course of history.  Why not from your hand?

Shabbat Shalom

“Rantor” Diane


Invitation to the National Day of Unplugging

Last weekend, I read a wonderful article in the New York Times about unplugging.

Oh, I just heard you sigh.  Take that back! This is different.

This article was written by a New York Times writer whose column focuses on the intersection of technology and business… in other words, someone for whom it is not easy to unplug.  And he didn’t. This article is simply about his journey toward having a healthier relationship with his smartphone.

Come on!  Now I’m pretty sure I felt you roll your eyes!

We all know many of us are like rats in cages, continuously pushing that little button for a fix.  As a wise friend said to me recently, “I changed my phone habits when someone showed me that it is no longer a tool we use, but that we have become a tool of it.”  Frightening.  

So, this quick blog post is NOT about giving up technology.  After all, I am LOVING the new laptop with which I’m writing this blog.  But it is an invitation to change our relationships with technology.  Our inclination to unlock our phones just to “check what happened” since the last time we checked it… like… 5 minutes ago… is changing our brains, our relationships, our habits, and our culture.  So, let’s stop sighing and rolling our eyes, and just do these three things (I’ll try to do them too!)…

  • Read this article.  I know none of us want to think about unplugging, but do it for your yourself.  Do it for your kids. Don’t be afraid. You won’t be sorry. 🙂
  • In honor of this weekend which is the organization Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging, come to Cool Shul this Saturday morning for an Unplugged Shabbat event.  We will have some old fashioned Board and Card games at 10:30am, and some old fashioned snacks, too! For details, go here: https://www.coolshul.org/event/unpluggedgames.  
  • Ok, so you’re still hesitant, and you aren’t going to do either of those things above?  Fine. Be that way. At least read these quotes from the NYT article, and do me a favor, during this National Day of Unplugging from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday evening (yes, folks, that’s Shabbat), find a time to literally put your phone in another room, if at all possible, and feel the freeing effect of having no idea what’s going on, at least for an hour or two.  Trump can wait.

Quotes from Kevin Roose,

Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain:

“My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.”

“I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton.”

“…her program focuses on addressing the root causes of phone addiction, including the emotional triggers that cause you to reach for your phone in the first place. The point isn’t to get you off the internet, or even off social media — you’re still allowed to use Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms on a desktop or laptop, and there’s no hard-and-fast time limit. It’s simply about unhooking your brain from the harmful routines it has adopted around this particular device, and hooking it to better things.”

“I became acutely aware of the bizarre phone habits I’d developed. I noticed that I reach for my phone every time I brush my teeth or step outside the front door of my apartment building, and that,  for some pathological reason, I always check my email during the three-second window between when I insert my credit card into a chip reader at a store and when the card is accepted.”

“Mostly, I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.”

“It’s an unnerving sensation, being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019.”

“Studies have shown that people who don’t charge their phones in their bedrooms are significantly happier than those who do.”

“Psychologists have a name for this: “phubbing,” or snubbing a person in favor of your phone. Studies have shown that excessive phubbing decreases relationship satisfaction and contributes to feelings of depression and alienation.”

“But I cannot stress enough that under the right conditions, spending an entire weekend without a phone in your immediate vicinity is incredible. You have to try it.”

Convinced yet? Okay, no matter how we do it, let’s try to unplug a little bit this weekend, maybe even for that full 25 hour period of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  No, there is no need to ignore the phone call from Grandma, or the fact that your daughter will call when she needs to get picked up, but perhaps we can at least get off of social media and observe ourselves when we are habitually checking our email or Instagram.

It can all wait. But our souls and the connections we have with our friends and family cannot.

Love, “Rantor” Diane

P.S. Total honesty? I’m waiting in a restaurant for a to-go order as I finish this blog, and I totally just clicked on my iPhone twice to look at my email when there was no need to. I am so busted!!!

Don’t Wish Me a “Happy New Year”

Since Cool Shul hosts a Shabbat service only once per month, last Friday was our “New Year’s” Shabbat.  Hope you enjoy my talk for that Shabbat. 🙂

Love, Rabbi Di

Our Torah portion this week is Parshat “Bo”, which means come. During Parshat Bo, where we experience the final three plagues, God tells Moses to go (bo) to Pharaoh.  You may have noticed that I translated bo as go, even though I just said it means come.  Rarely does a translation say “come to Pharoah,” but that is what it actually says, and many have wrestled with the fact that the word is confusing in its use.  Why would God say, “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go”? It’s a fun puzzle to try to solve.

In my research, I found that most commentators agree that in God’s telling Moses to come, and not go, God is present with Moses during his interactions with Pharaoh, so God is really saying “come with me” to Pharoah.  Another idea is that God is hovering near Pharaoh all the time, so God is asking Moses to come to where God is already present.

Of course, I have another interpretation to add, and it fits perfectly into the New Year’s theme.  

Be it the secular New Year or the spiritual New Year of Rosh Hashanah, we often say to each other (when using English), “Happy new year.”  During Rosh Hashanah, however, when we greet one another in Hebrew with Shanah Tovah Umetukah, we wish each other a good and sweet year.  My question for you is the following: is good or sweet the same as happy?

To me, what may be good or sweet doesn’t have to come with the pressure of making us happy.  Depending on what has gone on in one’s life during the prior year, a good year or a sweet year may not necessarily lead to happiness, and it certainly won’t lead to happiness all the time.  Good or sweet might just be improvement or going in the right direction.  And what does being “happy” even mean? It’s not the same as present or content.  Being happy or not seems too black and white for me, too two-dimensional. Personally I think we all are often kind of happy and kind of not.

One of my students studying the creation story talks about the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden as taking away our happiness because we became aware of all of the problems and possibilities of our world when we ate it.  But, he asks, “Is it better to just frolic around the garden like a bunny… unaware and simple but happy?” To face our powers and weaknesses is, in many ways, to be unhappy. So he also asks, “Would we want it any other way?” And so there we are — happy and unhappy, but maybe content that way, and perhaps that state is even the key to the meaning of life.  So wishing each other a happy new year is asking us to move away from what might be a healthy state of being and setting each other up for failure.

Maybe the purpose of the inspiration for renewal at a new year, is not to become more happy, but to get a step closer to home… to being the people our natural states are asking us to be.  Perhaps we can make New Year’s resolutions not to go toward something we aren’t, but to come… or “bo” back to ourselves.

Returning to Moses, we have to remember that he grew up in the Pharaoh’s court.  While it’s believed that the Pharaoh of the exodus story could not possibly be the Pharaoh of Moses’ youth (and no one has figured out if there is a true Moses/Pharaoh relationship anyway), Moses’ return, at least in the story, is a march to his old home and to everything he left behind.  I think that the word “come” is used because Moses isn’t just moving away from his life, but he is actually coming home to a familiar place. As frightening as it would be to be put in the position of being the reluctant hero as Moses was, imagine how frightening it would be if we were also returning to our old homes, to a place we had to run from.  Moses is coming back to face a part of himself, his history, and his experiences within Egypt. He has to come to himself.

And so, with New Year’s, we can focus on those usual surface goals – like the ever present losing weight and going to the gym —  but so often those kinds of resolutions fall away and dissolve partly because the hope is to become something we aren’t rather than coming home to what we already are.  Perhaps we need to focus not on a product, but on a process, on “bo”, on coming toward ourselves and what can free us, just as Moses had to “bo” in order to be completely free from his past and be strong enough to free others.

If you’ve already made some New Year’s resolutions, it isn’t too late to retool them.  Let’s see if we can focus on our potential. Let’s see if we can focus on activities and expressions that create wholeness within us and for those around us.  Let’s see if the promises we make can be about coming and not going.