These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons of Jacob’s issue came to 70, Joseph being already in Egypt.
So began last week’s Torah reading in synagogues — physical or virtual — around the world.
It’s the beginning of the book of Exodus, the harrowing and thrilling story of how the ancient Israelites left bondage in Egypt; struggled against God, their leaders, and themselves; and finally began to forge an identity as a people responsible for and to itself. Think “The Prince of Egypt” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs”: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but yourselves can free your minds.
So much drama. And yet the book of Exodus begins not with God splitting the sea, not with the plagues, not with Pharoah or the birth of Moses. It begins with genealogy: a list of ancestors, an accounting of who was where at what time.
For missing the mark with idle fingers that play solitaire instead of writing … For missing the mark with stubborn legs that stay planted on the couch instead of carrying me to bed on time … For missing the mark with an unsatisfied mouth that snacks late at night … For missing the mark with hands that have not even begun taking down the sukkah … For missing the mark with narrow eyes that see all of my flaws but few of my virtues …
For all of these, I forgive myself, I pardon myself, and I purge myself of shame and guilt.
Well, not really. But I’m trying.
For the first time since this blog’s inception in 2015, I did not write about the Jewish season of repentance and return. I didn’t write about Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. I didn’t write about Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year. I didn’t write about Yom Kippur, the day of atonement on whose liturgy I based the confessions above. I didn’t even write about Sukkot, my favorite holiday, the Jewish Thanksgiving (although I’m sitting, as I write this, in our sukkah — the temporary hut that commemorates the fall harvest and underscores the transient nature of our lives).
Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.
Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.
Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?
My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.
In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)
I have a recurring dream in which I’m at someone’s house — sometimes I live there in the dream, although not in real life; sometimes I’m a guest — and I need to take out the trash.
Well, not the trash exactly. Not stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage. Sometimes it’s recyclables, piled up in a garage or basement or storeroom. Sometimes it’s yard waste — bags and bags and bags of it.
Either way, it’s a large accumulation, weeks’ or more likely months’ worth. And now it’s the eve of the pickup day, and I need to shlep it all out to the curb. It will take numerous trips, and it’s getting late, and even if the people who live in the house (my parents, in some dreams) aren’t worried about it, I know it’s my job to clear it out.
I don’t remember having that dream last night, but I woke up this morning thinking about it. Why, I wondered, do I repeatedly dream about this mundane household chore? Continue reading →
It’s autumn. It’s the autumn of my life, and that cliché is falling upon me like a ton of dead leaves.
On the yearly calendar, it’s the very beginning of autumn. The trees are overwhelmingly green. As I type this, sitting on the deck, I’m wishing I wore shorts instead of jeans. But time moves fast: When I began writing this, our autumn sedum was light pink. Just two days later, it is approaching the deep red it will soon become.
On the calendar of my life, I am deep into the third season. That doesn’t sound right, but I can’t dispute the numbers.
I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.
I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.
Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.
Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.
My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.
Mom’s second yahrzeit — the anniversary of her death on the Hebrew calendar — just passed. It’s almost seven years since Dad died.
We gathered in November 2017 to eulogize Mom, mix her ashes with Dad’s, and scatter them in a Florida river. My aunt and cousin sang “On Eagle’s Wings.” I heard another cousin say, as he scattered his cupful of ashes: “Goodbye, good people.”
But I wasn’t done with those good people, so I brought a ziplock bag of ashes home with me. (Pro tip: when traveling with cremains, give TSA a heads-up.) That winter, we scattered a small amount in our neighborhood park. My plan was do it twice more: that spring at Brandywine Creek, one of my favorite childhood spots, and in the summer after planting trees in memory of my parents. Four seasons of commemoration and tribute, marking out the year in places that are important to me. Continue reading →
The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.
And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.
That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.
But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.
B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.
But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.
This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.
Though my father and my mother forsake me, The Lord will gather me in.
These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.
Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.
In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.