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...
Some Dogs Go to Heaven

Some Dogs Go to Heaven

Though prayer can have universal themes and language, sometimes it’s less about what you say or who you’re saying it to, and more about the universal language of connection and compassion. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, there’s a therapy dog named Lulu “who comforts mourners at Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services in Westchester County, N.Y. ” by putting her paws up onto the kneeler and tilting her head down.” According to the article, Lulu was taught this “praying trick,”and “she’s an added source of comfort’’ to mourners of all ages. The owner of the funeral home says “She has a calming presence. She’s a social dog who loves people and has great instincts. She’ll curl up into a ball and lay down next to an older person, or jump around with kids. She especially helps the children, since not all of them understand death.’’ I’m not sure any of us actually understand death, though we do understand the need to take and give comfort at the most difficult times. So is mimicking the actions or motions of prayer while genuinely comforting those in the deepest throes of grief a trick, or true cross-species act of compassion? In Ancient Prayer, I discuss Pitzi, my late father‘s childhood pet, who waited faithfully at the train station in Hungary every single day for over two years for my father to return from the Concentration Camps. Pitzi wasn’t trained to love or be loyal, it was just who he was intrinsically. So back to the dog trained to mimic the actions of prayer; is pretending to pray actually prayer if it helps those around you? Lulu, the dog in the story can’t read the liturgy, nor can she express words of comfort, but she can form a deep connection with those actually praying, and she can certainly comfort those needing it the most. When the words elude you or the idea of prayer seems too far away, sometimes simply being with those needing your presence can help them through the toughest times. It isn’t a party trick and you don’t have to fake it, but even if you don’t have the words, even mirroring the physical actions that offer them solace can help....

The Non-Controversy of Donald Trump and a Tallit AKA Wrapped in Prayer...

A few weeks back there was some controversy surrounding Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump donning a traditional tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl made in Israel, and gifted him by a pastor during a visit to a black church in Detroit. I kind of shrugged and saw it less as cultural appropriation (though the part about the pastor fasting over it, while also handing Trump a Jewish prayer book gave me pause) than jumping on a particular evangelical approved bandwagon. I wrote about the concept of prayer shawls being embraced in many faiths in Ancient Prayer on page 317, and you can read it...

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...

Back to Blogging…

Not to get ahead of myself, since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is still weeks away, but I’m looking forward to seeing the back of 5775* (much as I adore palindromes, numerical or otherwise). About last year at this time my father  David encouraged me to start blogging in anticipation of Ancient Prayer hitting Barnes and Noble bookstores. Much as he helped me with the writing of the book, my father assured me that he’d be there to help me research topics for posts. But my father isn’t here anymore. He passed away in early June. So here I am sobbing as I type this, thinking that I’ll never be able to post anything worth reading without his insights and invaluable input. But I know it would make him happy and proud if I post, so post I shall. Or at least I’ll try. My father was the most brilliant man that I’ve ever met and I hope that I’ll be able to incorporate some of his ideas and favorite topics into upcoming posts. And I really hope to keep making him proud. I miss you so much Ta, I’m just hoping that you’ll be here with me in spirit as I try to share some of the things we’ve talked about over the years. Here’s to 5776! *The Jewish calendar is lunar based and predates the Western or Gregorian Calendar by 3760 years– give or take a...

Ancient Prayer to be released as a Trade Book...

I’ve got some really exciting news!! The trade division of Sterling Publishing will be releasing Ancient Prayer to the general marketplace this Fall. So that means that instead of being a Barnes & Noble exclusive, my book will be available wherever books are sold (!!!!!!). Ancient Prayer will also be promoted at Book Expo America at the end of May, and at the London Book Fair. For anyone who has wondered why they couldn’t find Ancient Prayer in their local book store or on Amazon.com, it will be on store (and virtual) bookshelves everywhere this...