Thursday, January 23, 2014

L'dor va Dor: From Generation to Generation

When I was preparing for Harry's Bar Mitzvah about seven years ago, I put these words on his invitation:
We carry the past in our hands.

To me, one of the most significant and meaningful aspects of the Bar Mitzvah rite of passage is its value to us as a historical and cultural tradition. Jews are constantly recalling the past. Every service has us singing songs and praying prayers that have been passed down for generations, if not eons. Every Rosh Hashanah we hear the sound of the shofar (the ram's horn trumpet blown at the end of the service), a sound that pierces the soul, which you can imagine being blown from the mountaintops of the Promised Land millennia ago, calling the tribes to prayer. The words Toby learned to read and chant from the Torah are the same words with the same melody read for thousands of years by our ancestors.

In a world where everything feels so immediate, and often so ephemeral, it's something else to stop and realize that you are carrying on a tradition that began over 5,000 years ago. The tradition of your people.

I have always felt very connected to my Judaism, my Jewishness. Even though I was raised in a secular Jewish home (no belief in God) and attended a secular Jewish kindershul (history and culture, no religion, per se), I always felt wholly Jewish. When I married Mark I cemented that feeling. He was a New York Jew, and his Jewish identity was a given for the most part.

Our kids have grown up in a very assimilated world, but we have always kept a Jewish consciousness for them at home. Synagogue, Hebrew school, music, holidays, family events, conversation, traditions, rituals, foods, values. All that is tightly woven into our lives. We aren't the most observant nor the most consistent with our practices, but we do have a tradition.

So it was that a few days before Toby's big day it suddenly hit me that I had not added anything special to his service and as the "cantorial soloist" for the service and the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy, it was my prerogative to do so. I searched my files and files of songs, but it didn't take long to decide on L'Dor va Dor by Josh Nelson. I've loved this song for several years and it was just the message that I wanted to share.

The passing along of the tradition. The history of our people. The role Toby was playing in the line of his ancestors. All of that is so important to me.

In addition, this song is so beautiful and easy to sing and most of it is in English. We had a lot of friends there who could not access the prayers and songs in Hebrew. I wanted this message to be shared and understood. I wanted to move people with this prayer.

It was an excellent choice. Many people have told me that they loved it and would love to hear it again. I am always glad to introduce a new and beautiful piece of Jewish music to my community.

Here are the words. The video, above, is Josh Nelson, the composer and an amazing musician.

L'Dor va Dor
by Josh Nelson

We are gifts and we are blessings
We are history in song
We are hope and we are healing
We are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories
We are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom
Not the first and not the last

L’dor va-dor nagid gad-lecha
L’dor vador, we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L’dor vador, these lips will praise Your name

Looking back on the journey
That we carried in our hearts
From the shadow of the mountain
To the waters that would part
We are blessed
And we are holy
We are children of Your way
And the words that bring us meaning
We will have the strength to say


Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Toby with one of his little buddies at Pastures.

Weeks before Toby's Bar Mitzvah, I began to ponder what I would say to him during the "parents' speech" moment in the service. You see, after the prayers and blessings and passing of the Torah through the generations, after the sermon and the Torah reading and the blessing from the rabbi, there comes a moment when everyone pulls out a hankie and the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah march up to the podium to speak about their beloved child. I have rarely heard a parent not say something eloquent. I am almost always moved by their tender reminiscences, their insights into their child, and their quavering voices. It's a momentous occasion and calls for an exceptional speech. I wanted to do Toby proud.

Mark and I are good editors for each other. We've always weighed in on each others' writing. We also have a tendency to say the same thing when we are working, separately, on a speech for a particular occasion. It happened when we both wrote eulogies for Mark's father's funeral. It's happened other times as well. So, when I asked him, "Have you thought about what you're going to say on Toby's Bar Mitzvah?" I shouldn't have been surprised when he suggested we write a speech together.

"We're just going to end up saying the same thing anyways. Let's just start off together," he said. And that seemed like an excellent idea.

Writing it was fun. We quickly got into a groove. I wrote a big chunk. He went in, edited and wrote some more. I went back in, edited and added more. He edited. We polished together. We practiced. We honed. We're a good team.

We kept it a secret. We knew all of our kids would be surprised by the theme. What we didn't expect was the response we would get from Toby, his brothers, our niece, and many, many friends and relatives. Toby said, "Wow." From Harry, "Why didn't you give that speech to me for my Bar Mitzvah?!" My niece, apparently, turned to her father and said, "Top that." (Her Bat Mitzvah is in April!) Over all, the reaction was: What a wonderful way to honor Toby.

That was our intent. It's a very satisfying thing to be able to say out loud, in front of hundreds, what you know about your child. It's also very satisfying to tell it to your child, in such a moment...standing on the threshold of young adulthood...time stops and you grab his attention.

This is what we said:



     Toby, we are both so proud of you and what you have accomplished today. This year, preparing for this day has been an incredible journey. You worked incredibly hard, you never complained, you felt the weight of your responsibilities. You came at it with your typical sunny attitude. And you’ve shown us what perseverance, hard work, and practice, practice, perfect practice can accomplish. You’ve given us insights into the Torah and leadership. And you’ve led us in a beautiful Shabbat service. All major accomplishments. We’re so proud.


     As much as this might be a moment, when you stand before us and we have your attention, to teach you something important that we know, to share with you some little life secrets that parents are the keepers of, before we send you on your way into adulthood, Toby, we have to say that what we want to tell you right now is that you have everything you need to know right there inside you. You were born knowing what to do to lead a full and rich and joyful life.


     We were thinking we could talk right now about your leadership qualities, since that was your focus for your sermon. But, really, you already did a great job with that. However, being the third of three brothers, we think it’s really important for you to know how you stand out in the crowd. What makes you special, what makes you YOU. And, indeed, what qualities you have that will carry with you into your adult life. We believe you have some other strengths that we ALL can learn from.


     But, we’ve decided to think of them as superpowers, because we both know how important superpowers are to you, and to your brothers, and to your friends. And really, we want to talk about your superpowers because we think you should know what they are.


      1. The superpower of Golden-heartedness: Toby, I have always called you “my golden-hearted boy.” This, I think, is your greatest power. With it, you live in the world with almost-nonstop positivity. The words from the Torah that you put on your tallit, “Gimilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness, is how you choose to live your life. You are cheerful and optimistic on the darkest days, the hardest moments. I can recall so many times your smile lit the room and made things easier for us and those around you. That is a gift, a superpower, to be certain. With your golden heart you see the best in people, you believe in them, you befriend them, and you enjoy them. You are tender with small children and loving with your elders. Toby, with your golden-hearted superpower you bring boundless amounts of good into the world. As far as we know, there’s no limit for this power. So, go out into the world and spread it around. The world really needs you.

      2. The superpower of Voice: Several years ago we took you to the doctor to get your hearing checked. Why? Not because you didn’t respond when we talked to you, no, but because you talked so LOUD all the TIME! We thought, maybe you had a hearing deficit. Well, you were checked and the doctor said, “Nope…he’s just the littlest brother trying to be heard above the din!” Well, today we’re here to tell you: It’s another of your SUPERPOWERS. With your voice you speak up for yourself when needed, to share your ideas or when you aren’t being heard…which is too often when you live in a family of talkers and jokers and opinionated speakers. You also speak up for yourself in situations that might not be so easy, like when you feel you are being wronged, or someone you care about is. With this superpower you look out for yourself and your friends, you get your needs met. A really good example of this is that since you were a young boy (a young superboy) you have never been shy to speak up and ask for what you need in any situation, at a restaurant, or a store, at home, or at a friend’s home. You might have been shorter than the counter at the store, but that didn’t stop you from going forward and asking for help. There are people in this world, Toby, who don’t feel they have a voice, or a right to speak up for what they need. You can use your superpower to help them, to heal the world, and to make a difference. This is an amazing superpower of yours.

     3. The superpower of Forgiveness: You forgive faster than anyone we know. Maybe it’s being the baby of the family. Maybe it’s just your nature. Or your superpower. But, your capacity for forgiveness means this: you don’t hang on to the bad stuff for long. You move on. You get over it. And in general have a very sunny view of the world. Forgiveness as a superpower puts you in league with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s what they preached. It’s what they lived by. That’s not to say, the hurts and harms don’t sometimes get you down, but you don’t stay down for long. You have already taught us what these two men did to make a difference on the planet, what will you do with this superpower?


     Before we close, we want to point out something else that comes with being a superhero, though we’re not sure if it is a superpower, per se. And this is, Always Wear A Costume! Superheroes know this. They’re all about their costumes. And you have always been all about your costume too. Hats, snuggies, ties, trenchcoats, you have quite an arsenal.  Since preschool, at your beloved Pastures, you have had definite ideas about what you wore, and chose outfits that were always uniquely you. We think it’s a definite sign…of superheroness.  But as you go on in life remember: no capes.

     What we really want to tell you is this: Take your superpowers out into the world with you. Bring your golden heart, your forgiving heart, and your voice wherever you go. Our family is oh so lucky to have you in it, the third beloved brother, the youngest son. The world is oh so lucky to have you in it.  The world is a better place because you are in it.  And we look forward to seeing you share your gifts with the world.

     We love you.  Always have, always will.

Monday, January 20, 2014

On Leadership and Rites of Passage

The day went spectacularly well.

Toby was beyond nervous from the moment he awoke until the service began. "I'm shaking," he told me as he sat on a stool at the island, still groggy, but gearing up for the day ahead. We all gave him hugs and assurance that it was normal, not that that helped.

But once he got his suit on (and I performed a Super Mama feat of tieing an Eldredge knot in his tie) he started to feel his power, and the anxiety eased up a bit.

By the time the service started he was ready. And a quarter of the way into the service, when Mark and I, his brothers, and his grandmothers joined him on the bimah to "pass the Torah down through the generations," he sidled up to me and said, "I'm not even nervous!"

It was an incredibly beautiful service. I gave it my all, and having been working on my voice over the past several months with a wonderful voice coach, my all was pretty damn wonderful. Toby was so prepared and blew everyone away with his poise and calm and ease during the service. He taught us about the qualities of capable leaders and he chanted Torah like a pro.

A favorite moment, and one that really demonstrates how at ease he felt was when leaning low over the Torah, he began to chant, his first word coming out a squeak. "Oh! Sorry! My voice cracked!" he said, looking up at us all, a smile on his face. And then, he turned back to his work, started over and did a beautiful job. It was stupendous. What 13 year old boy is that comfortable with a cracking voice with 250 observers? We all chuckled, but I think we all were impressed that it didn't unnerve him.

The day was so good. Start to finish. All smooth. All full of love and friends and family. A boy who became a man before our eyes.

Here's his drash, or sermon, his teaching about the portion of the Torah he chanted in Hebrew for us. Appropriate for MLK Day.

Toby's Drash

My Torah portion is called Yitro. It’s from the book of Exodus, Chapter 18, verses 13 through 24. Last week’s Torah portion was full of awesome events: the Israelites got out of Egypt by crossing the Sea of Reeds, and then they spent a while wandering in the desert. While they were in the desert Moses was starting to teach them more about Judaism and every time he told them another thing about G-d, they probably got a little more scared. It was kind of chaotic.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, AKA Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes into the wilderness to meet up with Moses and the Israelites. When Yitro gets there Moses pulls him inside a tent and tells him about the plagues, the Sea of Reeds, and the manna, in other words, about all the miracles that G-d bestowed on the Israelites. Yitro, who is a priest of Midian, is astonished by the news and is also very joyful. He offers a sacrifice to G-d and then they have a gigantic feast.

The next day, Yitro observes that the Israelites are bringing all of their problems to Moses who acts as a judge for them. Yitro sees that Moses does this all day long and he tells Moses, “You need to find some people to share the burden with you. You have to choose some capable people to be the judges of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. These judges have to fear G-d, be trustworthy, and despise ill-gotten gain. Tell them that they can solve the people’s minor issues while you solve the major ones. This is so you don’t tire yourself out and make bad decisions.”

Moses abides by what his father-in-law says and hires the people to be the judges. And then, Yitro leaves.

So, I’ve been wondering, why was this parsha named Yitro? I think Yitro had as big an impact on our heritage as anyone else in the Torah. Yitro was a great leader and that’s why Moses listened to him. Yitro had knowledge and experience handling large groups of people, something that Moses needed to work on. It’s a good thing that Moses listened to him.

So, what makes a capable leader? How would Moses know one when he saw one?

According to Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, a capable leader is someone who is “wealthy, [a person] of means.” He thought that if you’re rich, people’s bribes won’t obstruct your judgment. Personally, I don’t agree with this. Whether or not you have money may not be a deciding factor in your choices. What I believe is more important is what kind of person you are.

Nachmanides, another medieval Jewish scholar, said, “a capable person is wise, alert and fair.” Ibn Ezra, also a rabbi from the middle ages, said that capable people are “people who have the strength to tolerate without fear the hardship of those who criticize their decisions.” I agree with Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra because I have studied three different leaders and I’ve found they share many of these characteristics.

Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian people to independence. He was a Hindu, but he also studied the other major religions. He practiced non-violent protest and led Indian people to independence from the British Empire. He was persistent and believed that if he and the Indian people believed in themselves they could get equal rights for all of India. He was thrown in jail many times because he was protesting something that the British government did not want. But did that stop him? No. Gandhi is a great example of a leader who…would not take no for an answer, stayed focused on the big picture, and was willing to risk everything for the cause.

Abraham Lincoln gave slaves in America their independence. He was one of the most inspiring of all of the presidents. Lincoln once said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Justice was very important to President Lincoln and he was a great example of a leader who… knows what’s good for his people and…makes the hard and sometimes unpopular call.

To me, one of the greatest people who has ever lived was Martin Luther King, Jr.   He stood up for equal rights for the black community. He truly knew how to motivate people and inspired them to get involved with his great speeches. Also, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King modeled a nonviolent approach to accomplish change. That made the biggest impact on all of America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an excellent example of a leader who inspires others to take responsibilities, who did not crack under pressure, and was a truly great speaker who knew how to motivate people.

It bears noting that all three of these men had a strong faith. They believed in something greater than themselves. This too, is common amongst many great leaders.

In thinking about leadership, I also looked inside myself to consider the qualities, skills and experiences I have that make me a good leader. For my mitzvah project, and honestly, just because it’s so much fun and I love it, I volunteer every week at Pastures, the preschool I used to attend. I help serve food and I push them on the swings. They are so dang cute! I lead them in games and teach them songs. I read them books, sometimes the same book twice. When I’m there I know to keep my calm and to always have a positive attitude. Working with those kids and the fantastic teachers I am learning how to be more patient and how to be persistent, especially when they don’t listen to me the first or second or third time.

In another favorite part of my life, I lead people in different games I play, such as Dungeons & Dragons and League of Legends. In those games, to be a good leader, I think about how people would react to the plans I make and I also think about how those plans would affect the game in the long run. I have to be on the ball, stay focused and not zone out. I have to remember the big picture and not get lost in the details. My greatest leadership qualities are my true heart, I do what’s best for the team, and I’m willing to attempt the impossible, or at least the unlikely.

In conclusion, I believe the reason this portion is called Yitro is because Yitro’s influence played a very big part in Moses’ history and thus, in our history, as Jews. Yitro offered Moses the key to being a better leader. And Moses accepted it. It’s a sign of Moses’s potential as a great leader that he listened to Yitro, a man wiser and more experienced than himself, and took his advice. If he hadn’t, Moses would’ve wasted his time and energy on things that were not important for him to take care of. And perhaps we would still be wandering around in the desert to this day.

Today I will read Torah in honor of Ben-Tzion Miller.
Ben-Tzion was born in 1931.
He lived in Latvia with his parents Hana and Shalom.
He died in the Shoah at Plavinas in 1941. He was 9 or 10 years old.
He never had the opportunity to read from the Torah.