Got Me Thinking…

how life can teach us about life

Just Plane Amazing: How first class got me thinking about teaching prayer

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Right now I am sitting on the steps of a school in lower Manhattan where I just finished teaching Hebrew school. I am the song-leader at this school, which means I get to have an awesome time singing and dancing with the kids. It also means that I have the difficult task of teaching and running t’fillah time, our little (20 minute) prayer service at the end of the day. Now when I first got the job, I was terrified. 20 minutes to do t’fillah? For kids that don’t go to shul, and don`’t really know Hebrew? What shall I do?! I’ve taught t’fillah many times, and had ideas for programs, discussions, readings, and the like. And those are all well and good, but the head of the program only had one criteria: fun. Make it fun. Unlike, it might have been implied, t’fillah in other schools, and in shul, and anywhere else. Make it fun. So we sang and we danced and we moved quickly, and I know the kids had fun. I saw it on their faces. But it wasn’t enough for me. 

Prayer is a difficult subject for many institutions because it is so hard. The first step is to admit that it is hard. It’s hard to say these words that we’ve been saying for hundreds, if not thousands of years (and for some, to say them every day.) It’s hard to speak words from someone else’s mouth, and on the other hand, to come up with something to say ourselves. It’s hard to ask for things when we’re not sure if something is listening. The list is endless. But yet, we pray. It is a crucial part of what it means to be Jewish, to live a religious Jewish life (and, in some cases, a cultural one. I have a friend who doesn’t believe in God and still goes to Friday night services, and I’m sure he isn’t the only one.) We want to pray with our students, to teach them them how to pray, what the words mean, and why we pray. That last one is crucial, but also tough. “Because we have to” doesn’t cut it for me. But neither does just singing and having fun. Without going into crazy theological discussions or shutting questions down, how do we begin to teach kids about prayer? To answer that, I first had to ask: Why do I pray? I think my answer started with a plane ride a few months ago…

Because my brother was going to Israel for the year, I decided to pop by after camp to see him and my mom before moving from Boston to New York for graduate school. My mom already had a ticket up to help me move, so we went on separate flights. Hers was direct, and mine had a layover in Atlanta. I really hate layovers. Mostly the going up and down part (I have allergies and sinus issues. Not so fun for the ears.) And to top it all off, I was flying Airtran. I hate Airtran! Argh. The first flight sucked. Small seats, not enough time to sleep, and my ears popped the whole time, even with my earplugs. I got to Atlanta, dashed to the next terminal, and plopped into my seat with an exasperated sigh.  (we’re getting back to prayer soon, I promise)

As soon as I sat down I heard a voice from the desk: “Will passengers Light, Smith, and Daniels come see the clerk please?” I have to get up? Argh again! I pull my stuff over to the woman at the counter, who takes my ticket, rips it up, and gives me a new one. “We need to empty seats from standby passengers so we’ve moved your seat.” I looked down at the ticket. 3B. 3B? That means…. first class! My whole demeanor changes instantly. “Thank you!” I say, a bit confused why I, of all people, got to fly first class. “Thank you so much!”

The “thank you’s” didn’t stop. I said thanks to the woman who took my new ticket as I headed onto the plane, thanks to the woman who took my drink order (I got a complimentary beverage, and not the soda kind!) thanks to the man who brought me that beverage, and so on. And everything was so surprising! The woman next to me was also bumped up, and we kept exclaiming and cooing, “Wow, these seats are so big! There’s so much legroom! I’m so comfortable!” We couldn’t stop smiling. And while most of the people in first class looked bored and so over it, we were absolutely giddy. We couldn’t believe it. Us, of all people, got to fly first class. Imagine that. 

Being bumped up to first class was a gift. I did absolutely nothing to deserve it. Maybe they wanted an L name, maybe they did a random lottery, but in any case, none of that was my fault. I didn’t work for it, I didn’t try for it, it had nothing to do with me.  After the plane touched down, that’s all I could think about. It could have been anyone else, but it was me. That seemed, after repetition, like a statement about my life. I didn’t need to be born. I did nothing to deserve my existence. It could have been anyone else. 

And because I didn’t deserve it, everything was so amazing! The normal, worn, torn, blue leather seats became miraculous. So big! So comfy! Wow! I’d read so much about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of “radical amazement,” but I never got it until that plane ride. Everything becomes amazing when you realize that it could all be gone, it could all be different, it could all disappear. It’s a miracle! The folks that flew first class all the time did not seem to experience the same ecstatic interest, because they were used to it, while my row-mate and I saw the world with new eyes. Living in “radical amazement” is seeing the world for the first time every time you open your eyes, recognizing how incredible and inconceivable the very nature of our existence is. 

But is this something we can teach? Can we really inspire radical amazement in others? It begins, I think, by cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” from a young age. One family service a few months ago, I started by asking the kids, “What do you do when someone gives you a gift?” Answers included giving a gift back, saying thank you, writing a thank you note, giving them a hug. “But that’s for small gifts. What do we do for big gifts? Like our families, our lives, our earth?” 

“We pray! We thank God!” They got it immediately. And that’s the beginning. Recognizing that a) there are always things we are happy we have, big or small, and b) we are so lucky and blessed to be alive on this earth; these are things that can begin in childhood and build for the rest of our lives. Looking closely and being more observant can also help us recognize the beauty and miracles around us. Ever seen the spiny veins of a leaf? The shapes the clouds make as they pass by? The different shades of blue in your own veins? They’re amazing! Kids already have that wonder; it’s called “child-like” for a reason. But it needs to be cultivated so it won’t be lost; or, at least, so it’s easier to find when they grow out of teenager-hood. 

So back to the beginning: Hebrew School. This week I decided to do something different. I told the kids that we were going to have some silent prayer time, and that during that time, I wanted them to think of something they are thankful for. From the big to the small, I said, everything has something they are grateful and glad that they have. I wasn’t sure how many responses I was going to get, but everyone raised their hands!

Thank you God for video games!

For my brother!

For the internet!

For food!

For clothing!

For being awesome!

And the list goes on and on.

This is a good start, but it’s not radical amazement just yet. Maybe it does need to come from the inside. But there are things we can do, for others and especially ourselves, to cultivate that radical amazement. Recognize that you did nothing to deserve your birth, that your existence is a miracle, that you are on this world by the grace of God, say Thank-You every once in a while. See the world for the incredible, beautiful, surprising place it can be. Even if you don’t get to sit in first class. I can get into a giant tube in New York, fly through the air, and be in LA in 8 hours? Now that’s amazing. 


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Are these tomatoes vegan? How a week on the farm got me thinking about the limits of ideology

Originally posted in May 2012

Note: I spent last week with the Jewish Farm School and Hebrew College on a program called To Till and To Tend (or, To Work and To Guard as some of us renamed it). It was an incredible week of farming and learning and I recommend it to everyone. But how to share the events of this week without making it sound like a long diary of a list? That couldn’t even begin to capture it. Instead, I just want to share a few events and how they got me thinking. I really like this format. It’s like a “d’var experience,” using an event in one’s life to spark an idea (instead of a traditional text). What do you think? We could be on to something…

The Thursday of my Jewish Farm School trip, we went to visit the Food Project in Dorchester. The Food Project is an incredible organization that runs farms all over Boston and engages the neighborhood in community building through workshops, volunteer programs, and just being a beautiful spot of ground for people to gather by. The head of the Food Project there took us on a tour around the area, showing us the many backyard gardens and farms that had been there for decades. Then we arrived at the Food Project greenhouse, where we were greeted by rows and rows of eight-foot tomato plants. It was like entering a jungle. Each plant relied on a pulley system to keep it growing straight. Our guide explained the intricacies of tomato growing, the wires and the irrigation and the fish emulsion… Fish emulsion? If we had been an old-school movie, a record would have scratched the music off. We participants looked around at each other with puzzled expressions, especially myself and the other vegan on the trip. “You feed the plants… fish?” I asked for clarification before jumping to any conclusions. 
“Yes!” said our guide enthusiastically, “We buy it straight from the wharf nearby. It’s just all the leftover fish parts, they make it into liquid and we buy it in barrels. It’s full of such-and-such nutrients.” (I forgot which ones, but it was a formidable list.) I was still trying to process the meaning of all this, when one of the group leaders piped in to the silence. 
“What’s the alternative?” he asked leading-ly.
“Petroleum fertilizers,” said our guide shaking her head. “Not sustainable. Most organic farms use animal by-products. Bones, blood, hair…” I think I remembered sticking out my tongue at this point. 
And then it dawned on me. “So I’m vegan, but the plants I eat might not be?” Cue the laughter from the group. And yes, put that way, it was incredible amusing. As we walked to the next stop, the amusement continued. Someone said it must be “carnivore’s revenge.” “This must be the best-kept secret in the vegan community,” said another. “Well now Eliana can’t eat anything!” said almost everyone at some point or another. What I heard was, “Guess you’re not really vegan!”
I laughed at these jokes because of the absurdity of it all, because of the ridiculous notion of plants eating animals. But at dinner that night, someone posted a sign that said “tomatoes not vegan” next to the plate on the buffet line. I decided not to eat them. More jeers, more laughter. And yes, it was amusing. But for me, this was not just an interesting tidbit of information. This was a dilemma that pitted my values against each other. On the one hand, I support environmentally sustainable farming practices, including limiting our reliance on petroleum. On the other hand, fish emulsion may be a sustainable by-product, but it’s a by-product of an industry that I don’t support. I’m not just vegan for kicks, but because I believe that it’s better for my health, the health of the planet, and the health and security of all beings involved. Non-vegan tomatoes weren’t an amusement for me, but a challenge. Fellow trip-goers asked me what I was going to do. I answered that of course I support organic farming and will continue to eat organic, but it seems like the lesser of two evils now.
Let’s jump all the way to Shabbat afternoon. Sitting on the grass outside of our dorm building at Mt. Ida college, we were being led by Rabbi Or Rose in a rousing discussion of Shabbat and Shmita (agricultural practice outlined in the Torah for letting the land rest every seven years). The first task was to discuss, in hevruta (study partners,) what we love about Shabbat. My hevruta and I talked about rest, joy, community, and other aspects of Shabbat we held dear. Then we were instructed to switch gears and talk about what makes Shabbat challenging. My hevruta was bursting to talk about this! She loves Shabbat but lives in a small town without many Jews, has a family that isn’t so keen about her becoming more observant, and struggles with whether or not to work on Friday nights. I agreed that it can be tough, and told her a story I’ve told many people to illustrate this point:
After my year in Israel, I was reinvigorated and excited to delve deeper into Jewish practice, including more stringent Shabbat observance. On my first Friday night home, my mother comes to me and says, “Eliana, we’re going to Anne’s for dinner. You can either get in the car and drive with us, or sit here at home by yourself.” Sigh. So much for that. 
Rabbi Rose pointed out how interesting it is that something that is called a taste of the world to come can be so full of difficulties. It reminded me of something Rabbi Ethan Tucker said at Mechon Hadar during the college week of learning this past January, where the focus was Shabbat halacha (Jewish law): “The way you observe Shabbat now is no indication of the way you will celebrate Shabbat the rest of your life.” We many know what our ideal Shabbat would look like but may not be in the community, physical location, or monetary situation to make it a reality. Our ideology needs to wrestle with reality as we continue to grow. When this all came together, I finally realized what bugged me so much about the non-vegan tomatoes.
When people find out I’m vegan, I am sometimes met with a barrage of questions about my decisions. Do you eat honey? Do you wear leather? Do you ever eat anything from an animal, ever? These kinds of questions feel like they are meant to poke holes in my ideology, to prove that since I can’t be a “perfect” vegan, that I’m not one at all. Let’s flip the questions:

Do you carry?
Will you ride in a car?
Will you use electricity?
Do you keep Shabbat?

Now for me at this moment, the answers to the first three questions is “yes”. But the answer to the last question is also “yes.” I really grapple with my practice. I probably said “my complicated relationship with halacha” at least four times on the trip. But I grapple because I care about Shabbat, because I care about law and tradition and community. Would I like to live walking distance from all my friends and go to a shul with a strong Shabbat community? Yes, ideally, but I can’t right now. Would I like to only eat tomatoes that have been fertilized with human-generated compost? Yes, ideally, but I can’t right now. There are practical roadblocks to my ideology.  It even sounds like the word “ideal” and exists on a purely philosophical perfect plane. Translating it into the real world is where it gets tough. But if something really matters, don’t give up on trying. “You are not required to finish the task but neither are you allowed to desist from it” also applies to creating a personal ideology that works with your values and in the world. 
As we allow ourselves the space to grow and grapple with our beliefs, we must extend that same opportunity to others. To often we dismiss people as “not being a real such-and-such” because they don’t have it all figured out, because they question and struggle. Or, we dismiss the struggle itself because it isn’t a dilemma for us so obviously we must be doing things right. To the first point, the struggle proves the importance of those values in the person’s life. If they didn’t care, it wouldn’t even be a question.  And to the second, it only seems obvious because you don’t hold the same values in the same order of importance. It’s not a dilemma for you, but it’s a very real dilemma for others. 
There are people who believe in being vegetarian but need to deal with a protein deficiency or a gluten intolerance. There are people who believe in the Democratic party but want to support the other candidate in a local election. And there are people who believe in the value of Shabbat but don’t live close enough to a synagogue to walk. If we don’t want to end up in a padded room by ourselves, we must learn to translate our deepest held values into the real world. We must not give up on what we are passionate about, but we must recognize that other people have different value systems and dilemmas. Only by respecting and dialoguing with each other can we grow along our varied paths. Maybe those paths will be lined with fish-eating tomatoes. Or maybe not. 

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Here we go again: How a friend got me thinking about starting a blog

Last year, I had a blog. Before that, I also had a blog. I have had a blog off and on for many, many years, and none have been sustainable. I’ve never been so comfortable talking about myself, which seems to be what blogs are all about. But last week, I was inspired to repost a piece from last year, and I got great feedback. And then my good friend called me up to talk about it. So I decided to start this blog, and repost that piece from before, and then keep writing. The gist is this: Our lives are text. Our experiences can be learned from , drawn from, and inspire us. Reflection can help us achieve this, and this blog is that reflection. I’m exciting to keep writing, and if you like this method, please use it and let me know how it goes!

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