Tuesday, January 20, 2015


I often find myself, lately, inspired by the words of Kay Warren.

For those of you who know me, you might find this quite surprising, since she and her husband, Rick Warren, are the founders of the Saddleback Church. Most of her words are theologically Christian in nature, and don't quite fit with all of my own ideas.

But then....those of you who know what Kay and Rick have experienced in the last year and a half will not find this entirely surprising at all. Their son, Matthew, committed suicide in 2013

Since then, Kay has been remarkably public about her grief, mostly on her Facebook page. I've been touched by many of her words, and while it's not exactly the same as our situation, her most recent post resonated with me so strongly.

She wrote:
But when Matthew died, church became a strange and unfamiliar place – not because of our congregation, but because of ME. The worship songs fell on my broken heart like sharp knives that cut me open even further – the words of healing and hope and victory contrasted with the bitter reality of Matthew’s violent death. The crowds were frightening and overwhelming – I could barely access comfort for myself, let alone come up with up one shred of energy to comfort anyone else. I felt like everyone was staring at me, watching my every move (whether they were or not), and on more than one occasion I climbed over friends and family in a frantic scramble to get outside before my sobs turned into wails.

Kay goes on to explain that eventually she figured out how to go back to regular services. She wrote about choosing not to sit in her former front row seat, but near the back. And eventually, she found her way back to the front of the church, mainly to support her husband, the preacher.

Her words resonated with me because, unlike Kay, I don't always have the luxury of sitting in the back. I've worked so hard over these last 400 days to be able to put myself in the front of a worship service, to read and lead the words that have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I can lead a congregation through prayers of praise, words of blessing, and yes, even prayers of healing and remembrance. 

But I haven't found it easy to be a participant.

One of my teachers pointed out to me that these two sides of the prayer service require different muscles. And it's so true. My prayer-leading muscles still work. I can read the words and sing the melodies, and be a part of the community as I'm doing so. It's not an act. I can lead with intention and focus, even with joy.

Oh, but participating in my own right is a whole different story. Just as Kay explained about her worship songs, it's the same for me -- no matter what the prayer's meaning, I can find a way to lift it up in sharp, angry contrast with the Sam-shaped hole inside of me. I can sit in a prayer service, I can let the words of others wash over me. I can find the music to be lovely, heart-warming, a blessing. But the challenge....I find it so difficult to open my mouth. I find it so hard to have only the task of myself, my own prayer. The intention and focus drifts....leaving me sad, frustrated, angry, and empty.

Kay found her way back to her "regular" place in worship, returning to the front row because her husband asked her to be his supporter, his guiding light. Although she didn't frame it this way, I wonder if that is for the same reason that I am able to stand in front of the congregation and lead with intention. It's because my role in that moment of prayer isn't only about me. It's about guiding and leading and helping others to prayer, helping others to find their own way to God.

When my own children sit beside me, I can open my mouth and sing or say the words. I am their mother, but I am also their teacher. Even a sliver of the role helps me to find my own way in. 

But alone....

Perhaps I'm still really not on speaking terms with God, as I've often quipped to my friends.
I'm willing to help bring others along to have their own conversations. 
I'm willing to be present when those conversations are happening.

But as I said back in June, I'm still not particularly interested in inviting God back into my own conversation. And I'm continuously grateful for a tradition that defines us as "ones who wrestle with God," because I know that this internal struggle, this fight within me and this painful path of trying to find my place...this too is holy. 

This picture was taken when I was part of the Women of the Wall prayer service on Rosh Chodesh Tevet.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Where I'm From

I am from blintzes, from Crest toothpaste and kippot tucked into a dresser drawer.

I am from no eating in the bedrooms, singing all the time, comfy couches, a grandfather clock on the wall and challah French toast.

I am from building a sukkah and hoping it doesn't rain and I am from baking hamantaschen each year from Aunt Dora's recipe. I am from oranges on the Seder plate and really big Havdalah candles. I'm from Birkat HaMazon in the back of the car on the way home from McDonald's. I'm from honey cake even though no one really likes it.

I am from wearing a hat when my mother is cold and doing mental math at the dinner table when my dad asks. I'm from turning into the skid when it's icy and pushing the seat back when I get out of the car. I'm from birthday cake at Thanksgiving and sponge cake at Passover. I'm from Bubbie's pull-apart coffee cake too.

I am from stories of the Aaron family sitting around drinking coffee and eating cake, and I'm from visiting the family neighborhood at Second Home Cemetery. I'm from aunties and mandelbrot and matzah ball soup. (And I'm from soft and hard and hard-in-the-middle.)

I'm from thick binders filled with photos, from telling stories, from sharing stories, from living stories. I'm from the generations that move through me as my father tells me how much I look like Bubbie from Appleton. I'm from my Bubbie's mun cookies and a book on the nightstand. I am from laughing.

I'm from stringing a guitar and playing piano so I can get a driver's license, and I'm from cream puffs at the State Fair each year. I'm from corn on the cob from the farm stand and taking pictures at Old World Wisconsin. I'm from Door County and Madison and Oconomowoc and Milwaukee. I'm from St. Judy's Comet. I'm from swimming in the Brown Deer Pond and lifeguarding at the high school pool.

I'm from trying to cook hot food in the refrigerator (but it never works) and putting the forks on the left and the knives on the right. I'm from Shabbat dinner on Friday night at Bubbie and Zeyde's house and frozen custard with friends after services. I'm from properly passing the bread at the table and is this trip really necessary?

I'm from summer camp.

I'm from Saturday morning cartoons and Brady Bunch reruns. I'm from library books and imaginary friends and To Cast a Giant Shadow. I'm from stories of a Land I knew was mine but didn't visit until I was practically an adult. I'm from good grades or else and call-waiting and a princess birthday cake with a real doll in it. Just once.

I'm from family above all else and I'm from phone calls every day. I'm from the most unconditional of unconditional love and I'm from finding joy and love and love and joy. I'm from each day matters and making the world a better place. 

I am from blessings.

Based on the original poem, Where I'm From by George Ella Lyons, found, with explanations, here.

Inspired by beautiful words from Galit and Nina, but also from many others (links lost over the years of meaning to write this and not quite finding the words -- it's been sitting in my "drafts" folder forever). So why did I write this today? I was inspired by the work of System Ali, a unique and remarkable rap group comprised of Jaffa-ites from Arab and Jewish backgrounds. Where are we from, they asked...and this poem came to mind. This is not what I shared with the group, but what I wrote when I came back to my room later.