Leonard Cohen is Ready

I haven’t been posting much, and after a year(s) of tremendous personal loss, I’ve intentionally tried to avoid posting about only darker topics, so most of the time I didn’t end up posting. But I was by turns comforted/devastated to read that in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the 82-year-old Leonard Cohen declared that he’s ready to die. When asked about completing works in progress or possibly touring, Cohen said: “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” In his new single You Want It Darker Cohen wields his trademark growling rasp like a light saber to deliver lyrics that seem to accuse an impossible to please God of forcing his faithful into cruel and torturous positions to prove their steadfastness. He seems disgusted and world-weary, but there’s a tiny playful spark there as well- perhaps shared only in the way of a believer who’s had his heart-broken once too often by his sometimes unrequited faith. Cohen’s no stranger to using biblical or liturgical themes or references in his music including , The Story of Isaac echoed in the refrain here with “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” the words spoken by Abraham when tested and asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. While it’s tempting to pull in the recurring theme of the sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in the name of the Hineni center founded by the recently departed Esther Jungreis, or Matisyahu‘s own riff on sacrifice, Akeda*, for now, let’s go back to Cohen’s living legacy.  I was in shul (temple/synagogue) yesterday on Yom Kippur. And while I tried my hardest to keep my mind on the prayers in my machzor, after nearly 25 hours of fasting, my mind wandered. It was during the final prayer of the day, the Neilah service (the closing prayers for the High Holy Days) that I simply listened to the exquisite imperfect singing of the entire congregation that felt almost palpable in the enclosed space. Or maybe it was just my extreme hunger that made me feel the prayers in addition to hearing them. At one point, a young boy’s voice rose above the rest, pure, sweet, clear, full of hope and fervent belief. And I felt my eyes welling up for so many reasons. I thought about my late father’s experiences during the Holocaust as a young boy, and the millions of Jewish lives deliberately snuffed out in the concentration camps. I thought about the virulent anti-Semitism in the world today and I truly felt baffled by the hatred directed at us century after century. And I thought about the years that I was quiet and did not discuss my own faith, flawed as it is. There was something else, but that’s a bit raw, so I’ll leave it for a later post. Inexplicably, I was filled with hope, the kind that comes after pouring one’s heart out in prayer and wishing every secret wish. Today, I’m trying to ease back into my day-to-day life, and yet I can’t seem to stop listening to Leonard Cohen’s new song. The background music, according to an article in The Forward, was provided...

Do Something AKA the Anti-Kvetch Kulture

There’s been much talk about how the internet seems to have inspired a sense of outraged apathy with people tweeting or posting about various causes, but not actually doing much of anything. And unlike the protest marches or sit ins that were prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s, people might post a meme or share a tweet and think they’ve done their part to further a cause or combat a dangerous political agenda. They haven’t. But there’s still time to start. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day of the Jewish calendar, begins at sundown tonight. It’s a time of fasting and prayer and contemplation. The notion being that we may have been inscribed into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but on Yom Kippur the book is closed and one’s future year is theoretically sealed for the year ahead (there’s much discourse about always changing one’s fate, but that’s a long post for a different time). In preparing for a talk about the Jewish High Holy Days, I reread a portion of my book Ancient Prayer in which I wrote about the Shema prayer and something struck me. While reciting the prayer on a daily basis (and before bed) part of the prayer is whispered: Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. As I wrote in the book, “as children, we were taught that this particular prayer was a private one said by the angels directly to God, and that we say it quietly so as not  to  anger them or infer that we are on their level. The only day that this prayer is said out loud is on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jewish people fast and pray, and are considered on the same level as angels.” The political climate feels by turns like a punchline or a punch in the gut, depending on who’s saying what. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, around the world, locally and on-campus is depressing and terrifying, with all too disturbing echoes of Nazi Germany, according to my relatives who are Holocaust survivors. Instead of feeling helpless though, I feel as though there’s so much that we can and should be doing. I know that I’m trying and will continue to do so. After years of speaking out privately and in small groups about the injustices perpetrated on Holocaust survivors by groups claiming to serve their best interests while in actuality mostly serving their own, I finally published an essay that was syndicated widely nationally and internationally. It isn’t that I didn’t try to write articles on the topic, but the groups in question have such huge influence and spending power, that they mostly shut down (or sue) anyone who speaks out against them. I also previously hadn’t been publicly vocal about my absolute support of Israel, most especially in light of the BDS movement which claims to be about sanctions against Israel, but is an unjust cause and barely veiled anti-Semitic movement. I wrote about being inspired by actor Joshua Malina’s own support of Jewish causes on his social media. But it isn’t just my support for Jewish causes that I’ve been more public about. I’m a proudly staunch feminist who feels queasy at the way many younger women seem to decry feminism as something unpleasant or shrill. I believe that we have to take better care of the planet and each other. I believe...

Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

I have to rewatch this video before I can better comment. I’d also love some background on the series and Eugene Peterson in general, but as Peterson says prayer/the psalms isn’t always pretty. The longer version is below. Meanwhile, oh, how I’d love to get a copy of Ancient Prayer to Bono!  ...

Would You Take Time To Pray During a Zombie Apocalypse?...

If you’ve been watching The Walking Dead* spin-off Fear The Walking Dead (which my DVR can’t keep straight, but that’s a post for a different blog), you’ll have seen pivotal scenes in the first episode taking place in a seemingly desecrated church. And in yesterday’s episode you’ll probably have noticed the candles, altar, and rosary beads prominently featured and in use by new to us character Griselda, (Patricia Reyes Spindola). Though the characters are unsure of just what’s going on in the world outside, there’s a sense of chaos, panic and a feeling of being trapped and throughout it all, Griselda kneels and prays. At the end of the episode, she portentously blows out her prayer candles. In an interview with FTWD showrunner Dave Erickson on The Hollywood Reporter he talks about Griselda’s prayer during the madness: She is a devout Catholic and she’s finding some degree of solace and peace in that moment and it’s important to note that behind her, Daniel (Ruben Blades) her husband is not. They’re very different. He had religion at one point and lost it and in that scene, Ruben had a note because things were falling apart outside, he said Daniel should be looking at his insurance policy so props had to generate something. He’s taking the practical route and looking for and trying to figure out what’s going to happen if his business is damaged. He’s looking to a legal remedy and she’s looking to religion. We all deal with fear, sadness and cataclysmic life events in our own ways. Some turn to prayer, some turn away. Some turn to printed words of insurance instead of reassurance. But in the end, we all are just trying to get through and perhaps retain even the slightest amount of control of a situation when all control is lost. * You can read some of my interviews with Walking Dead costume designer Eulyn Womble on The Guardian, Jezebel.com and Parade.com. Buy an advance copy of the trade edition of Ancient Prayer now or the original...

Shabbat Shalom, Doctor Sacks

Despite the sadness of the last few posts, I’m hoping that when I blog here, however sporadically, it will be about the joyful side of faith and journey to renewal and belief. That said, it hit me kind of hard to hear that Oliver Sacks, internationally renowned neurologist and author passed away this morning. More than his books or the films based on his life, it was his op-ed in the New York Times last week that made me feel part of the poignant journey he was going through as he chronicled his journey toward death. In his essay, Sacks revealed details about his childhood including the fact that his mother was one of 18 siblings and that both of his parents had Orthodox Jewish upbringings. He also discussed his own Orthodox childhood, the specter of the Holocaust, keeping of the Sabbath (or Shabbos as he called it, as did my family) and his painful alienation from both his mother and his faith. The details of his life differ drastically from my own, yet the similarities and nostalgia sometimes overlap. As a cancer survivor, I had my own copious crises of faith over the years. Yet the notion of Shabat, or Sabbath or Shabbos as a day of rest, mostly shut off from the external world was always something that I came back to, albeit not with the same stringencies I was raised with. I wrote about it in Ancient Prayer and have been more forthcoming to friends and colleagues about my need to cocoon and recharge for at least one day each hectic week. I wept as I reread the last paragraph of Sacks’s essay: And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest. Maybe it’s because it’s so close to the passing of my own beloved father, himself a concentration camp survivor, and because the memories of my childhood sabbaths are always so strong. Or maybe it’s because I, too, knew the terror of cancer and the desperate craving for reprieve from the monster within. Or maybe it’s because like most people of faith, I struggle mightily with what I do or do not believe in high contrast to what I was raised with. Whatever the reasons, Sacks’s last months and death hit me deep. I am certain that he is at peace now, and I hope someplace he will find his own version Sabbath and final time of...

Nu, God? Taking Inspiration from Ben Lee’s Spiritual Path...

It’s been a very difficult few months/year for me, one filled with almost too much loss to process, much less write about. Perhaps I’ll write about it at some point, for now though, I’m taking hope and inspiration where I can find it. One of the sources of great inspiration for me today was a post musician Ben Lee shared on his personal Facebook page. I’ve long been a fan of Lee’s music  (and quoted him in my first book Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America 40s-60s, which will be reissued later this year) and have been intrigued with his ever evolving, semi-public  journey through spirituality. In an excerpt from a new interview with the actress Rose Byrne in Magnet Magazine, Lee talks about his particular spiritual path. I was so struck by some of what he said that I felt the need to push myself to start very slowly writing again about matters of spirituality and faith. Lee graciously allowed me to share some of his more personal musings here. In sharing news about his interview with Byrne, Lee mentions sharing publicly for the first time about: …”Parting ways with my spiritual teacher of 10 years. I kept private about this until this point as I did not want to create controversy or drama, or disturb other people’s process.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot, since there are so many memoirs and articles about people who have lost their faith or parted ways with their former gurus or rabbis or spiritual leaders. For me at least, faith is so deeply personal that I can’t imagine it defined by anyone else’s description. And conversely, defining my evolved or deeply personal belief based on what I choose to reject feels equally false. The part that struck me the most deeply though, is when Lee said: “But the ultimate goal I began to believe, and continue to believe, is in an infinite experience of newness. God is always new.” That last line hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. Over the past 5 years, in trying to reclaim my faith after a bout with cancer, the very recent loss of a loved one,  and the dissolution of a major relationship, I’ve found myself questioning any description of any God– much less the all-encompassing deity I was raised with. With great loss, come great big questions and doubts. But for today at least, a glimmer. If I accept the notion that God is always new, then my belief can be exactly as it is supposed to be for right now. And right now is all that matters. Putting one foot in front of the other, remembering how to live and believe and find my imperfect faith and relationship with my God. FYI, I’ll be interviewing Ben Lee about his new album Love is the Great Rebellion and matters of faith for one of my outlets. Stay tuned!...