October 20, 2010

A Gift

Last Friday, October 15th, I visited the new home of L.A.'s Museum of the Holocaust. I arrived later than I'd wanted, and stumbled upon a talk given by a Hungarian survivor, Mary Bauer. Sitting amongst a handful of other listeners, I soon felt her words stir my mind, my heart, my deepest feelings. I was in tears within minutes of hearing her speak. I heard her words, spoken with the distinctive Hungarian/American accent so familiar to my ears; but I also took in her entire being. Her dress, attire, demeanor, hair, eyes, skin; she was very beautiful, well groomed, elegant. She spoke eloquently, almost matter of fact about her experience of Hell. Her story was a familiar one, echoing facts I knew, emotions I knew would come. I found myself totally captivated. She survived the time in Hell with her mother at her side.

After the talk, I stayed to hear her interact with another survivor from Slovakia who came up and introduced herself. They had both been in Auschwitz, the Slovakian woman having arrived several months later, in November, vs. Mary's arrival in April 1944. Mary wanted to compare their numbers, so they both read their numeric tattoos, and watching this made me weep again. A third survivor joined in, his tattoo also showed, and he spoke Hungarian.

The fact of hearing Hungarian, the poignancy of the stories, seeing these three amazingly beautiful souls still alive and bearing witness to Hell on Earth, all this continued to flood my heart with immense feeling.

As the Hungarian man turned to leave, I went up to him and told him, "Koszonom hogy it vagyol" (Thank you for being here) and took his hand and kissed it, saying, "Kezit Csokolom" (I kiss your hand) which is the highest sign of respect for a Hungarian. Then Mary turned to me and held my hand; I bent down, again saying, "Kezit Coskolom" to kiss her hand. We chatted, with her still holding my hand. Her warmth and grace continued to captivate me. She complemented me, telling me how young I look, how good my skin looks, the things that a Hungarian woman would see and comment freely upon to another woman. Her frankness, honesty, vulnerability, warmth, sincerity, strength, genuine ease in herself - all made her compelling.

I left her presence upon her commanding me (in Hungarian) to speak with the blonde with the long hair at the counter to find out when she would next present at the museum. She wanted to see me again, not lose contact, telling me in Hungarian, "I have two sons and neither of them speak Hungarian. You can be my daughter." I started towards the counter, but halfway there I turned away and sought refuge in the adjoining exhibit hall. I found a far wall to crouch near, buried my head and sobbed. The feelings were immense. As I cried, a man walked by, slowed his pace, and briefly stopped to gently touch my shoulder in comfort. I was grateful for this stranger's touch.

I have been teary, emotional, feeling tremendous gratitude for my life, for the perfection in my life, for my ability to feel such depth of love, joy in my soul, for my decision to convert to Judaism, for the bliss I feel when I hear the ancient Prayers recited on Shabbat, when I read the words to these Prayers, when I hear the singing, the songs on Shabbat. I cry, I feel my heart is flooded. All of this, coupled with my deep feelings of love for Helena, the woman who months ago captivated my heart; and I feel full to bursting. Helena meets me, she matches me, she teaches me, she surprises me. Converting to Judaism too feels so wonderful, evokes such depth of love and awe that I'm constantly having to wipe away tears of sheer gratitude and joy. Am I truly so very fortunate to have these encounters with living History, in Temple, at the Museum, these encounters with Love, with God?

One of the stories that Mary Bauer told especially touched me, and now as I write, I feel an opening as to why it touched me so deeply.

In the mid-60's, after not seeing her mother for fifteen or so years, her mother was able to visit Mary in Los Angeles. Mary had married, moved to the U.S. in 1951 (she would have been about 22), restarted her life and had two sons. The boys were in their early teens when they saw their grandmother for the first time. Mary and her mom went to see some public performance and it so happened that Los Angeles Nazi's, in full uniform, interrupted the performance. Seeing the Nazi's so upset Mary's mother that she wanted to leave the United States immediately and return to Hungary. "I will not stay here. Under Communism I never once saw a swastika, and here with your freedoms I see one!" She and Mary fought, yelling, screaming (and as she told the story, she looked at me and said, "As Hungarians do..." and I laughed with knowing) and her mother returned home. They never saw each other again.
Mary concluded the story by telling the audience that to this day her oldest son will not speak to her; he blames his mother for him not having a grandmother.

And here is the gift:
I realized, no I FELT, viscerally, in every fiber of my being, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, the immense depth of my loss of never seeing, never knowing, never never never being held, never loved by ANY of my grandparents.

October 19, 2010

Did I Kill The Bee?

A small bee got trapped in my home this afternoon. It buzzed around my desk as I sat writing at the computer. I knew I couldn't leave it in my house, else it would be trapped by the closed windows from our latest spate of rain and cool weather.

I opened my front door and the sliding door to the balcony, and followed the bee to the window it had chosen as its escape route. But this window was screened and I literally couldn't take the screen off to allow her flight to freedom; so for several minutes, with a thin yet sturdy piece of paper, I attempted to corral her away from this window, towards the open balcony. To no avail. She was much too fast. Each time I was able to have her begin to crawl onto the paper, and slowly glide the paper towards the balcony, she sensed the change of direction and quickly zoomed back to the screened window, buzzing furiously. I'm quite sure she was nervous and angry, but I wasn't of being stung.

Next I tried to trap the bee into a cup, with the paper holding her inside. The first attempt failed, as I didn't have the paper fully covering the cup's opening. She was again back at the window. The second attempt was Successful!!!

I now walked confidently onto the balcony, lifted the paper and expected her to fly quickly away. But she crawled to the edge of the cup and just sat there.

I was fully vested in this little bee's life, only wanting longevity for her and her clan. I am terribly aware of the devastation of bee colony collapse plaguing our world and I certainly do not want the onus of a bee's death on my conscious. And I happen to like bees; I've had a lifelong fondness for these rugged, essential workers since my youth.

As I waited for her to fly off, I had the sinking feeling that I'd somehow injured her. I was close enough to see the intricacies of her body, her precious little legs grasping the edge of the cup, the distinct dark brown stripes on her body, even her thin pointed face. I prayed that she was not harmed by my maneuvers. Was she just resting after the effort and frustration of attempted escape? Can I even begin to fathom the mind of a bee? Certainly not. So I blew gently to encourage her to fly, and fly away she did!

These few minutes of my life given to help save the life of another were precious to me. Even if the soul saved was that of an Apoidea.

October 18, 2010

Can These Prayers Be Real?

Am I to believe that an entire liturgy exists which reflects my feelings for God/Goddess/Divine; which not only reflects my feelings, thoughts, heart's longings, soul's deepest desire; but expresses these thoughts, longings, desires in a form which sings to my ears, fills my heart with joy, creates a flood of emotion in my being drenching me with extreme joy and bliss; tears spilling down my face. Am I to believe that such a body of words exist?

I've read Rumi and Kabir and felt the same joy, transported to a place deep in my heart, longing for God. But I've not had the experience of reading Rumi with a group of people, with music, with tradition, with ritual. I've sung soul stirring Bhajans in Satsang and was also transported to a place of bliss and joy, tears too drenching my face. I've experienced strong group Devotion. I absolutely love how it feels.

And this is exactly why I am converting to Judaism. Here in one service, one place, every place where I am, where I turn my eyes, gaze at creation, ponder the truth of the workings of my mind, every place I consider, all conditions of humanity, every consideration of thoughtful substance, love, awe, praise, devotion, all this and more I find in the Prayers of Judaism.

When I first went to Erev Rosh Hashanah services I wasn't sure what I would find. Immediately I felt at home, amongst people who I knew, who I recognized as my own, my kin, family. I felt I belonged. I loved every minute of it. I cried for the two hours hearing music and prayers which felt so much a part of me that I was frankly shaken with wonder.

And I continue to be shaken with wonder each and every time I experience Services. Each time I hear the singing and prayers, each time I read the words to these prayers which have been repeated for millennia, I am transported to the deepest part of my being. I am shaken with wonder and awe. I am reading what my soul already feels about God/Goddess/Divine. Here in Prayer, God is Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech Haolam, Ruler of the Universe, Ahavat Olam, Everlasting Love, Adonai Echad, Adonai is One.

Here are the first two prayers of the Reform Siddur, the Reform Prayer Book, the Mishkan T'Filah:

We are called unto life, destiny uncertain.
Yet we offer thanks for what we know,
for health and healing, for labor and repose,
for renewal of beauty in earth and sky,
for that blend of human-holy which inspires compassion,
and for hope: eternal, promising light.

For life, for health, for hope,
for beautiful, bountiful blessing,
all praise to the Source of Being.

Baruch atah Adonai.
M'kot nefesh kol chai.


Tell them I'm struggling to sing with angels
who hint at it in black wrds printed on old paper gold-edged by time.
Tell them I wrestle the mirror every morning.
Tell them I sit here invisible in space;
nose running, coffee cold & bitter.
Tell them I tell them everything
& everything is never enough.

Tell them I'm davening & voices rise up from within to startle children.
Tell them I walk off into the woods to sing.
Tell them I sing loudest next to waterfalls.
Tell them the books get fewer, words go deeper
some take months to get thru.
Tell them there are moments when it's all perfect;
above & below, it's perfect,
even in moments in between where sparks in space
(terrible, beautiful sparks in space)
are merely metaphors for the void between
one pore & another.

It is the majesty of the words, the beauty of the string of thoughts, the captivating ideas, the expressions of love, faith, joy, sorrow, pain, compassion, understanding of the all too Human Condition we All suffer, the placement of these prayers in History, in the context of a People who have suffered dearly, deeply, yet who continue to see Beauty in each and every moment. It is ALL of this and more that I am In Love with Judaism.