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Continuing Passover’s Thread

i-hM8DHW4-X3Passover Seder ranks as every Jew’s number one most favorite, most highly attended, most fondly remembered, most eagerly anticipated of any holiday dinner of the year.  OK, you’ll hear good-natured kvetching from the women who spend the weeks cleaning the house for Passover, days to weeks preparing the food, a day or two setting the table(s). But all of that fades away the minute the friends and family arrive, with more food, with other friends, sometimes with a newborn or two about to celebrate their first Seder. It is the most joyously AdobeOLS-X3celebrated Jewish ritual of the calendar, the most open to creativity, the one with the huge mix of pathos, humor, memory, innovation, tradition and more. If Pesach were a magnet, Jews would be the iron filings.

Two years ago I described a special Seder we hosted out here in Sedona. Our kids came in from both coasts. My sister-in-law and her partner joined us. Martin and I created a biblio-drama that included a walk through an actual dry bed replete with horses (living, not drowned) standing at the shoreline, and meaningful and memorable discussions the whole night through. But this year, this year can be summed up with Passover’s defining question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

AdobeOLSBecause this year we will be with neither beloved friends nor family. This year we will celebrate with fellow Jews most of whom we know only by name and nod; a handful of whom we can call friends, newly minted. This year, at Sedona’s wonderful synagogue in the desert, we will retell Passover’s epic story of liberation with people we will have just met and sing Dayenu by joining our voices to voices we’ve never heard. And we will be and feel perfectly at home. This is the magic of Passover, the magic of Judaism. This is the true staying power of Judaism. We Jews are turtles, carrying our religion, our learning, our memories and our connections on our backs. All we have to do is connect with even one fellow Jew and we are home.

There is a lot to be said for being home for the holidays, for having one’s children fly in, drive in, come and add another thread to the cloth of family traditions. Schedules didn’t permit our kids to be with us for Passover this year. They left yesterday after a wonderful week’s visit. This Friday and Saturday they will be celebrating in their own homes, leading their own Seders, and joining other families at theirs. Will we miss them? Absolutely. But not to distraction.

I want my children to create their own traditions. I want them to weave their own threads into their own fabric of Jewish life. I want them to take the Seder experience into their hearts by making it theirs, coming to know the satisfaction of innovating, of sharing their knowledge with others and putting their own twist on what they loved best from home. I want them to retell the story of liberation with a Hagaddah of their choosing (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) and lead their own discussions on the four children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who didn’t know enough to ask. Through liberation comes return.

And so my children — Elliot, Emma, and now Elizabeth — I bless you in Passover’s spirit. May you come through the high waters of fear and uncertainty unto the shores of safety and triumph. May you come to know your heritage in a new and joyous way. May you make new friends and deepen bonds to old. May you carry your shell wherever you go, find fellow Jews, and be home.


Entering the New Year Freshly Restored

Baylinson beforeThe restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening.  We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.

I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939.  He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal.  Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.

By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.

Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room.  Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.

All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year.  My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.

And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.

Baylinson after



Hours of Devotion

Hours-of-Devotion-Dinah-BerlandA few weeks back I shared with you a chance meeting I had with Dinah Berland. A poet and book editor, she serendipitously happened upon a book of women’s prayers (tkhines) written by Fanny Neuda (1819- 1894).  This book, Hours of Devotion, was the first Jewish prayer book for all occasions written by a woman for women. It was reprinted more than two dozen times in German as well as in English and Yiddish in the years between 1855 and 1918. Although it’s a bit odd to use the word resurrection in discussing a Jewish text, that is exactly what Berland has done  — she has brought Fanny Neuda’s collection of women’s prayers to life once again, adapting them for twenty-first century readers.

I have just begun to dip into the book and find myself swept away in the current of Neuda’s openhearted love of God. Her prayers are mine; they are yours; they are the prayers of any woman who has loved, worried, hoped, dreamed, suffered.  Berland goes into great detail about how she came to edit this book, poignantly sharing the coincidences and personal heartache that paved the path to its inception.

There are prayers to be recited upon entering the synagogue, prayers whose focus is the cycle of holidays and the Sabbath. The chapter titled Prayers Especially for Women is timeless. Neuda wrote prayers for the new bride, for an expectant mother, prayers for a childless wife and for an unhappy one. There are prayers for rain, and for thanksgiving for a safe journey.  Each one a humble plea, each one raw and resonant.

I’d read reviews of this book but never sought it out. Berland and I met the week before my son married and so I did not have her book until after his wedding. Else, I might have recited Fanny Neuda’s beautiful prayer for the mother of the groom. Who of us cannot relate? These words are upon all our hearts, even if we have never uttered them. Fanny Neuda’s prayer reads in part:

Almighty God, you have proclaimed that
A man should leave his father and mother
And cleave to his wife

Thanks to you for this day—
This solemn day on which my son shall enter
Into a sacred covenant with the wife of his heart….
Bless the union of love he pledges before you today
That he may find the blessing he hopes for ––
A wife who will create joy for him,
A companion who will persevere with him
Through all of life’s changes and opportunities…

All-Gracious benefactor, One more thing
I ask of you, in whose hands our hearts rest
And who directs them as streams of water—
Grant that although my child shall leave his parents’ house,
Filial love may never leave his heart.
Grant that…he may continue to be our joy and delight,
And that the love and reverence in his soul
Be preserved for a long life here on earth…

Hours of Devotion is not a book to be read quickly but savored. There are some pages we may pray never to read; there are others that one is grateful for and will turn to again and again. For whatever reason, I delayed in getting this wonderful book when it came out. Serendipity brought it, and its lovely author, my way at just the right time. Which is appropriate, since serendipity is exactly how Dinah Berland’s superb edition of these masterful prayers written in the nineteenth century, came to be translated and brought to light once again in the twenty first.


Looking ahead to Pesach, Passover

This Jewish Life cover by Debra DarvickIn This Jewish Life, I include brief overviews of our major holidays throughout the year as a way to introduce the heart of the book: real-life stories of men and women as they pass through these seasons. In 2018, Passover begins on the evening of Friday March 30 and I’m sharing the text of my Passover overview as a sample from my book. Here it is …

“Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.”
M. Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life

PESACH, PASSOVER, follows Purim by a month and a day and commemorates the liberation of the People of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Outside of the High Holidays, Passover is likely the most widely observed holiday of the Jewish calendar. Celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel and by Reform Jews), Passover begins with a ritual meal called a Seder, an hours-long celebration filled with food, discussion and singing that enables Jews to fulfill the commandment to retell the story of our going out from Egypt.

The most distinguishing feature of Passover is matzah, a flat cracker that substitutes for bread during the holiday. When the People of Israel fled Egypt, there was no time to allow their dough to rise. The flattened cakes they ate come down to us as matzah.

The laws of Passover dictate that prior to the beginning of the holiday, the home must be cleaned of all chametz, that is, any food that might have any leavening in it whatsoever. No bread, no noodles, no cereal or cookies. The night before the holiday begins, some families conduct a chametz search. By candlelight, children set out with a wooden spoon and feature to collect bits of chametz that their parents have set around the house for them to find. These last bits of chametz are set aside to be burned the following morning. Those who observe the law in the strictest sense will have in their homes only those foods that have been certified kosher for Passover.

On the Seder table are other foods symbolic of the Passover story—saltwater simulates the tears of the Hebrew slaves; horseradish represents the bitterness of their lives. An egg symbolizes the cycle of life; charoset, a savory mixture of wine, cinnamon, apples and walnuts, symbolizes the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. Four glasses of wine are drunk, at prescribed times during the meal.

To entertain children during the long meal, a tradition developed to hide a small piece of matzah called the afrikomen during the early part of the meal. Toward the close of the evening, all children present are invited to search for the afrikomen and then ransom it back to the head of the household.

The Passover story is told in a book called a Haggadah. Haggadot, plural, may be simple or ornately illustrated. They have long been an art form in and of themselves; there are hundreds of Haggadot to choose from.




Religion: Because thinking is hard?

bumper stickerThis bumper sticker made my blood boil.

The snootiness of it, the smug denigration, the car owner’s assumption that anyone who is religiously engaged and strives to have a relationship with…dare I use the G-word?…is intellectually vacant.

Maybe I was making a judgment call of my own.  Perhaps the car’s owner was acknowledging the opposite sentiment—those of us who engage with religion don’t check our intellect at the door. It takes a lot to believe in God—a lot of thought; a lot of living; a lot of faith, reading and struggle; a lot of conversation with like and unlike minded folks. But I’m likely giving credit where credit isn’t due. For this car’s owner, the meaning of the bumper sticker lay behind door number one. And it ticked me off.

Spiritual and religious journeys are as varied as the seekers on the path. I only know my own path, and believe me, my brain is mightily engaged every time I study the Torah, read rabbinic commentaries, and even pray. I’ve learned that when the words stay on the page they are one-dimensional, often puzzling, sometimes over the top.

Until they are experienced.

Last week I was speaking with a tiling buddy whom I met at Song & Spirit. Like me, she is Jewish. Like me she grew up in a non-kosher home, eating BLT’s, enjoying shrimp cocktails. Like me, over time she began to follow Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) as they pertain to the food we eat.

She told me about visiting a farm when she was a young adult. The farmer placed one of two baby goats born that morning into her arms and asked her to take the kid into the barn. “The mother goat followed me into the barn and when I put her kid down she began to nuzzle it. Then she stopped and began looking frantically for the other kid. Not until both babies were with her did she calm down. In that moment, I understood why Torah forbids us to seethe (boil) a kid in its mother’s milk.These animals are [sensate] creatures.”

My friend quit eating pork and shellfish. She began eating according to Jewish tradition. All because some arcane sentence in the Hebrew Bible came to life in a barn, and made her think.

Religion. Because thinking is hard.

Yes. I can imagine no better endorsement for religion. Because thinking is hard. If we don’t think, we dismiss one of God’s greatest gifts to us—our minds. And then, we run the risk of becoming as flat, mindless, and one-dimensional as a bumper sticker.

Childhood echoes in Shirley Showalter’s memoir, Blush

Debra-Darvick-Reviews-BlushAuthor Shirley Hershey Showalter crossed my radar one day on Read the Spirit.  In her own words she’s “a farmer’s daughter who became a college professor, college president, and foundation executive.” Her memoir, Blush, A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, was published in September, and I finally got down to reading it last month.

Showalter grew up in a close-knit (is there another kind?) Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Her memoir traces her childhood years up until the fall she enters college. Showalter was the first in her family to head to college, making a choice that was definitely not mainstream within her Mennonite community. She describes a life few of us have lived and yet one that continually intrigues—a life pared down to what matters, a community that stands firmly against the dregs of our culture. A community rooted in its faith and history, and guided by shared values.

Twerk? Never. Work? Yes—with pride.

As you might surmise from the title, this is no Mommy Dearest memoir, but a recounting of a childhood and family life that seems nearly too good to be true. It’s not that the Hershey family was free of conflict and grief; they experienced it aplenty. But I found myself wanting more, as if even the conflicts were painted with such a light touch that, were I a dog I might have taken the book in my teeth and begun shaking my head back and forth just to get a rise out of the pages.


Yet time and again, I identified deeply with the author’s stories about going to school and feeling keenly that it was a testing ground, a place where she recognized “the ways [she] fit and the ways [she] didn’t.” I couldn’t help but think back to my own early days in first grade, the lone Jewish kid in a class of 28 gap-toothed kids all of whom knew the words to a song called Jesus Loves Me that followed the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. She wrote of her fourth grade teacher, Miss Gibble, “the most notorious teacher of them all.” But Miss Gibble was also plain, “an anomaly,” wrote Showalter, “in front of my own classroom… she would understand me in ways my first three teachers could not.”  My own Miss Gibble was my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Hirsch. That eighth grade fall was the only time in 12 years of public school that I didn’t have to feel awkward being absent on random days in September, because my teacher had been absent, too.

It was not only on the school front that Showalter’s experiences echo in the Jewish community. She wrote of the day neighbor women came to help out after her mother suffered a miscarriage and recalled hearing their judgmental whispers to one another about her mother’s housekeeping as being “not very redd up [cleaned up or put away.]” Reading that I remembered a conversation I had with a young Orthodox mother who lives in a Jewish community nearby.  “Oh, they are all ready to help in a minute, but they’re always peeking in your cholent (stew) pot, too.” Petty judgment knows no religious or spiritual bounds.

Now retired from university life, Showalter is pursuing memoir not only as a personal endeavor, but as a teacher of the genre as well. Not everyone could write a memoir titled Blush. For some of us it might have to be titled Scarlet, or perhaps Marooned. But we’ve all got a story to tell. Showalter’s memoir serves as inspiration that whatever the story, whatever our community of origin, so very many life experiences are universal, and as such they have the power to resonate quite neatly across every seeming divide.

It was Fifty-Years Ago Today…..

Debra-Darvick-Fifty-Years-Ago-Today-2Basements are the modern-day equivalent to the genizah. Genizah, (Hebrew root g-n-z) originally referred to the act of putting away or hiding. The word eventually developed to refer to the actual place where things were deposited, which I think is a perfect example of synecdoche.  Genizahs are temporary holding places for Hebrew texts, prayer books, scrolls, anything containing God’s name until the time that they can be buried. Yes, we Jews bury our holy books. Amazing concept to treat a document as lovingly and respectfully as we do a loved one whose earthly purpose is no more.

Back to yesterday and the basement where I was tackling dust bunnies that had grown to Harvey-ian dust rabbit proportions. Decades-old tins of Kiwi shoe polish, metal skewers for shish kabobs, loose screws (so that’s where they all go when I am distracted!) I opened a cabinet door and fell down the rabbit hole of time: the cards we received when Elliot was born; photos; letters from and to my mother and other relatives; a caricature a college roommate did of me freshman year; a letter from my paternal grandmother to my mother after my parents divorced in which she referenced the weather, a boy I was dating, fabric she had

She wrote: liines are fulness & it is maxi length

She wrote: lines are fullness & it is maxi length

bought to make me a dress, commenting that she had so many slips of papers she would, “have to find a new hiding place for them, but then I’ll forget to look for them.” Makes me smile to realize I had done much the same thing: hidden away her letter, forgotten it, only to find it again.

The greatest finds were my schoolwork from third and fourth grade. Stacks and stacks of spelling tests, math tests, geography and science tests.  Cotton seeds are planted in late spring. The early Georgia Indians were buried in mounds I wrote in not too badly rendered script.  Each week’s exercises were stapled together and placed into a construction paper folder whose covers we decorated with the theme of the week. My father’s signature appears in the lower left hand corner. The coming week’s menu was vintage cafeteria: Pot roast on Monday, fried chicken for Wednesday. Of course fish sticks for Friday. I don’t know what “Pop Eye” salad* was, but loved the reference to Thursday’s dessert: “Red Tokay Grapes.”  Never had peach cobbler as good since.

early Darvick (nee Berkowitz) fiction

early Darvick (nee Berkowitz) fiction

The piece de resistance was an example of early Darvick fiction. Titled Kitty in the Garden, it was sweet and subversive. “This little kitten is looking for a mouse. He looked in the garden.  He looked in the house. He didn’t find a mouse. Kitty’s master told him to stay in the house. He went outside and found a mouse. He ate it.”                              

                         Signed: Debby Berkowitz, Jan. 6, 1964                                         





* On a whim I looked it up.  Sheesh. You can find anything on the internet. Including a school cafeteria recipe for Pop-Eye Salad. If only John Dunne had had access to Wikipedia. He would have known where to find the past years and who cleft the Devil’s foot.