I thank Chazzan Steve Klaper, one of the founders of Song and Spirit, for the wonderful commentary below. His inspiration drew upon the last verses in Deuteronomy (Dvarim in Hebrew) that were read in synagogue over Simchat Torah a week or so ago. It speaks to me deeply. Especially the next to the last paragraph. What kernel stays with you?

In Ha’azinu Moses prepares to take leave of this world. He wants his final words never to be forgotten, so he sings them…The theme of Moses’ libretto is essentially, Don’t blame God when things go wrong.God is not there to serve us. We are here to serve God. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. God calls us to responsibility.

This whole drama began with the Adam and Eve legend in the Garden of Eden. They sinned, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, the serpent blamed God for making him a serpent. The great cry of human history is, “it’s not our fault — we’re the victims.” It wasn’t us. It’s the politicians. Or the media. Or the corporations. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system. Even the Nazis were convinced it wasn’t them. They were “only obeying orders.” And when all else fails, blame God. And if you don’t believe in God, blame the people who do. We forever seek to escape from responsibility.

Moses is saying, When things go wrong, don’t blame God. The final commandment might as well be: thou shalt not see thyself as a victim. We have power, we have agency, we’re the one life form on this planet capable of shaping its own destiny, in the image of the Divine, free, creative, and therefore responsible. The Greeks had it wrong; we’re not playthings of the gods; our fate is not already sealed before we’re born. The view of modern science, which often insists that we’re merely a collection of chemicals driven by electrical impulses in the brain, is likewise wrong. Our consciousness, our personality, our chi, our life force energy — these are all far larger than what’s in our skulls.

It is not what God does for us that transforms us; it is what we do for God. If you’re not sold on the idea of God the Creator, think of it this way: We are not defined by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to what happens to us. If we change the way we think, then we change the way we feel and the way we act. We become masters of our actions, instead of prisoners of our reactions.

This doesn’t just happen. Yes, it takes work, sometimes years of work. But, as we reach the end of Torah, we’re reminded that fate is never final. There is always hope. 

photo courtesy of Debra Darvick


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Wake Up!

This Hebrew month of  Elul is the final stretch before Rosh HaShanah. Jewish mystics gave us the metaphor of the Divine coming down from the heights of the heavens to walk among us, ready to meet up should we reach out.  No simple endeavor this. The sound of the shofar, which is heard at each morning service during Elul, exhorts us to WAKE UP!  Prepare yourself.  Release your grudges. Mend your relationships. Inspect your deeds this year; resolve to do better. Reach deeply within and as far out as you can and reconnect with the Source of All Creation.

The shofar’s call is a shout out to God to remember God’s promise to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On their merit we pray to be written and sealed  into the Book of Life for the coming year.  It is layered with a lifetime of memories. It is a profound sound, eerie, potent, fillng me with equal parts hope and apprehension. Though my life hangs in the in the balance, the shofar’s sounds ground me. My life may not be in my hands, but my conduct is. My spirtual work can temper whatever might be decreed for me this year.


Here are two examples of the shofar being blown.

The first, from Jerusalem.  I hope I succeeded in excising the rude commercial preceding it. The second, from PJ Library, is more explanatory and each sound and then puts it all together.  What do the shofar’s sounds evoke in you?


Illustration at left, courtesy of Debra Darvick

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Pennies from Heaven

The kid in me was thrilled to see a scattering of pennies at the base of a parking meter. The driver obviously had no use for them. But as I moved to retrieve them, I relived a high school scene. I’d seen a penny in the hall and bent down to pick it up. It had been glued to the floor. As I rose, mortified that I’d fallen for the trick, I heard the boys’ laughter and words about Jews always stopping to pick up a penny.

Banishing the memory, I picked up the pennies, all 19 of them, and put them in my pocket.  Martin and I went on to have a lovely dinner and when I got home I put the copper Lincolns in our tzedekah box. It is nearly full. Soon I’ll empty it and donate the contents to a shelter or food pantry. I hope those boys grew up and grew wise. You don’t have to be a Jew to know that even small change can make a difference.


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Smiles of Summer

Anyone who knows my husband knows that when summer rolls around he is in watermelon heaven. One-to-two-a-week watermelon heaven. I’m asked upon occasion how I choose a good watermelon. For me it’s been about the sound.  I “thunk” it and it has to resonate properly. There’s a slight reverberation, a hollowness of sound that comes back to me as if the vibration is coming through the juiciness of the melon. If you thunk it and you get a thud, put that melon back and pick up another.

This demo video is definitely not ready for YouTube, but I hope it will guide you to a watermelon-licious summer.

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What Would My Grandfather Do?

This just in from Mountain Brook Schools outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

A high school teacher’s history lesson in experiential learning went a bit too far when he had his students stand and salute the [American] flag with a Nazi salute. The  goal was to teach how symbols change over time. Before Hitler turned the salute into an enduring symbol of Jew-hatred, the extended arm/palm down gesture was called the “Bellamy Salute.” After the United States’ entry into World War II in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the one familiar to us all today — placing one’s right hand over the heart to show respect for the Stars and the Stripes. The sole Jewish student in the class did not join in. He  filmed, and then posted, the “lesson” on social media. He was reprimanded and told to apologize to his teacher who then further ostracized him.

“Your grandfather is probably turning over in his grave,” my husband said when the story broke. My grandfather Abe Berkowitz, whose law firm was in Birmingham, Alabama, and who lived in Mountain Brook, was a firebrand who fought with other attorneys and private citizens for civil rights. In 1948 a pro-bono case of his laid the foundation for the United States’ anti-masking law that was much in the news at the beginning of the pandemic. The law had its origins in a case he brought against the Klan for their raid on a Girl Scout camp.  Two white counselors were holding leadership training for leaders of the local black Girl Scout chapter.  The Klan caught wind of it, stormed their tent in the middle of the night, terrorized the women and ordered the two white women to leave within 24 hours. Abe took the Girl Scouts’ case against the Klan and won.

So back to Mountain Brook High School and the Nazi salute. What would my grandfather actually have done? He was clever. He was compassionate. He never blinked and he made sure right won out. I’ve got a feeling he might have asked to meet with the high school teacher to get a sense of the man. He would have asked him in      a roundabout way, and in not so many words, “What the hell were you thinking?” In his deep voice, rich as molasses,  he would have explained why the sole Jewish kid in the class would have been so upset to see his classmates encouraged to imitate a gesture that let to the murder of six million fellow Jews.

And then Abe would have met with the students. He would have started with a joke. Or perhaps related a story recounting               a personal foible or misstep. He would have had them in the palm of his hand because he was a master storyteller.  “Now boys,” he would have said, “your teacher thought he had a good lesson going. It’s kind of backfired on him. But the greater good is that he opened the door to teach a bigger lesson, a lesson about not following the crowd. A lesson of knowing your history and understanding its impact on those for whom history isn’t some event in a book but is instead family history.”

I imagine he’d continue somewhat like this:  “The thing about the Nazis was they saw the world as us and them. And the Jews?  Well, to the Nazis, the Jews were as them as you could get. The Nazis were able to get everyone else to believe this as well. That salute was part of it. That salute said, ‘It’s us against them and we are going to rid the world of ‘them.’ Now, that’s all book history. But it’s human history, too. And we,” Abe would pause and gesture with his arms to include each and every student, “We are human beings.  We are all part of part of the human family. Even that sorry bastard Hitler. Whatever I do affects you and affects our human family. Whatever you do, also affects our human family.

“Your teacher wanted to teach you how symbols change, how a different meaning can be riveted onto a benign symbol and turn it into a weapon. That salute, the arm slicing through the air that the Nazis commandeered for their own eviltry? That salute symbolizes the slicing away of part of the human family, separating them in order to murder them by sending six million Jews and four million others up the concentration camp chimneys. That’s why your fellow student here reacted the way he did. That’s why he did what he did that led to this hullaballoo.” I imagine the students, if they weren’t already, were growing a bit fidgety. “Like I said, your teacher wanted to teach you something about symbols. I hope I’ve been able to extend his lesson a bit farther. Thank you for your time, gentleman. I’ll see you around.”

Abe would have given them his heartfelt smile so warm and true that you could feel it leave his soul and enter yours. No punishment, no shaming, no recrimination. Just a lesson from a great and humble man who knew a thing or two about the human family.

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Bar Mitzvah

During our visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue, I happened upon a scene familiar and poignant to Jewish parents the world over. In the small Sephardic synagogue below the Great Synagogue’s sanctuary, a young boy was practicing for his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. His voice was high and sweet. The rabbi chanted in tandem, rhythmically tapping the boy’s shoulder as he practiced.

Most of Italy’s 35,000 Jews live in Rome where there has been a Jewish presence since the second century B.C.E. Does it go without saying that Roman Jews, like Jews everywhere, lived through one persecution and degradation or another throughout the centuries? As recently as 1982, five Palestinan terrorists opened fire upon the synagogue killing two-year-old Stefano Gaj Taché  and injuring 37 others who were departing the synagouge after Sabbath worship. There is a plaque outside the synagogue commemorating the attack.

Perhaps that’s why I was so moved watching the rabbi and his student. For millennia the Torah’s words, laws, narratives and mysteries have challenged and connected Jews across time and space. The boy I watched that afternoon in Rome would soon take his place in the indomitable arc of Jewish life and history. I bid him a silent Mazal Tov!

                                                                                         The sanctuary of Rome’s Great Synagogue.

Photo credits: Bar mitzvah student and teacher courtesy of Debra Darvick.
Interior of Rome’s Great Synagogue courtesy of Martin Darvick.

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