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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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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Unbutton That Coat!

We are in the middle of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading into the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. Tradition teaches that during Elul, “the King” descends from the Heavenly castle and walks through the fields, accessible to all who yearn for connection with the Divine. It is a month when we are urged to look inward and face our shortcomings; to look back over the past year and take stock of where our actions did not measure up to the self we want to be; to look forward to these imminent Holy Days of celebration, prayer, repentence, forgiveness and hope.

As we hope to be forgiven, we also struggle to forgive others. Do they not deserve what we so dearly pray for? Our tormentors are human, too. They suffer the same shortcomings as we do. Why is forgiving such a challenge? Why do we hold on to our wounds so tightly? As I meditated this morning an image came to me of a tightly buttoned coat. We all wear such a coat, woven on a loom of sorrow and anger, disappointment and resentment. Fastened with buttons that symbolize blows to our heart, this coat often becomes justification for who we have become, for how our life has turned out.

Take a few minutes of quiet and settle into your coat. Feel its contours, the seams of righteous hurt that hold it together. Mentally finger its many buttons. Perhaps the top one was formed of a primal trauma; the two below it the consequences that followed.  The next one, big and square, has sharp pointed corners. Perhaps they remind you of thoughtless words and deeds sent your way once, twice and thrice upon a time. There are buttons below this one: small, medium and large. You know who gave them to you; you keep them tightly sewn to your coat like a merit badge earned in Scouts.

What would it take to undo the buttons? To shuck the coat once and for all and be free? Not entirely free from the pain perhaps, but free from the constriction that keeps you from living fully and imbued with the joyful life you deserve.  Could you undo a button and forgive the one who gave it to you? Maybe just a small one. And then what about another? Forgiveness doesn’t mean what was done to you was OK. Forgiveness means you will no longer allow another’s ineptitude to comandeer your life. Try another button. Can you feel the coat loosening? Inhale deeply. Feel the freedom that forgiving another brings you.

This is hard work. It is not completed in a single month or even in a lifetime. Yet year after year, this month of Elul gives us the opportunity to practice forgiveness, to strive toward becoming the person we want to be, to be forgiven and enter each New Year cleansed, hopeful, and inspired. And the coat? You may well reach for it again out of habit.  It is familiar and quite comfortable after all. Without thinking, you might even put it on. But in this new year, perhaps you’ll simply place it lightly around your shoulders. Or carry it over an arm for a day or two. The buttons you can leave alone.

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Psalm 150 Redux

Our summer study of Psalms ended with Psalm 150, the last one in the Book of Psalms and thus the last writing in the entire canon known as Writings, in Hebrew, Ketuvim. Psalm 150 is a joyous song of God-praise. Its words are words of  honor, gratitude, and love.

As we have done with each of the ten Psalms we studied, we took it upon ourselves to   “make Psalm 150 our own.”  How we did this was up to us: choosing, and expanding upon, a single line that spoke to us; drawing a verse or the entire Psalm; setting it to music or dance; re-writing it in personally meaningful way.  Psalm 150 is filled with with jubilation: blasts from a ram’s horn.  lutes and lyres, clanging cymbals. It is filled with Hallelujahs, in Hebrew “Praise Yah!” 

Here is what Psalm 150 inspired me to write:



If only,
the voices of all souls,
all the notes of your music
and motes of your light
could find their way
to praise You.

You, Shechina*
giver of life.
sustainer of breath.

dawn bringer
moon riser
star caster.

Resident within and essence of,
like a synecdoche You
are the heavens.

here at the keyboard
it’s just me.

Whose soul will praise you.
Whose breath will acclaim you
with the drum of her heart
and the strings of her tendons.
With her palms as cymbals,
her lips pursed into flute.

She, me,
if you are synecdoche then
so am I.

And thus, the voices of all souls





Debra Darvick, 2021

*The female indwelling presence of God.

The photo at the left is my mother at age four or five.
It was likely taken by her father, Dr. Jacob Moses Leavitt.

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I am studying Psalms with a group on Zoom.  Each week, in addition to studying, discussing and taking apart the week’s Psalm, we have the opportunity to interpret it, rewrite it, draw or paint it, set it to music. A couple of weeks ago a line in Psalm 42 inspired this poem. Hear my reading of it, if you like.


“…my enemies revile me when they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ “ Psalm 42:11

Oh, you enemies!
Would you stop already?

Reviling us since,
since when?
Since forever.

Taunting, torturing. terrorizing.
Dor l’dor
taking our lives.

And for what?
To still your own mishegoss?
Soothe your envy?
Quiet your incessant fears?
Your perennial angst that
we grow too large?

Pharaoh tried. Abimelech, too.
And Balak?
At the very edge of milk and honey.
His curses sprouted blessings.
We wove them into song.
Daily song, no less.

“Where is your God?”

Funny you should ask.
Did you forget that
water became blood
staff became serpent
an entire raging sea
became a dry path to freedom?

Has it worked,
this obsession of yours?
Are we gone?
Have we quit?
Ginnick already.
Give it up.

Have you phased out the moon?
Placed a bit upon curling tongues
of wave
and halted the oceans?
Rockets and planes aside,
Have you forced gravity into submission?

“Where is your God?” you ask.
As if one bad day or pogrom or
Holocaust proves anything
but your own eternal sickness.

Our God is here.
Our. God. Is. Here.

In our prayers.
In our hope.
In our desperation
and in our anger.
In our believing
our composing
our writing
our children
our inventing
our striving
our healing
our learning
our studying.

“Where is your God?” you ask.

Our God is in our living.

Give it up, silly kinder. Let it go.
As the moon
as the tides
as gravity

We are here. Ad Olam.
For. Ever.

Debra B Darvick © 2021


Dor l’dor — from generation to generation
mishegoss — craziness; senseless behavior
Ginnick — enough
kinder — children (rhymes with cinder)

photo courtesy of Martin Darvick











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