Thou Shalt Create

This week I’ve been making the case to 5th graders that creativity is the one of (if not THE) most important characteristic of the Jewish people. Were it not for remarkable and visionary creativity I truly believe that the Jewish people would’ve ceased to exist long ago. What’s been most inspiring is their response. They have responded to this idea with tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.

Rather than simply lecturing on the creative spark within Judaism, we’ve been working collaboratively to think creatively about challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish world today. In the course of a 50 minute class period they have demonstrated, consistently, the radical creativity necessary to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

Working in teams, the students have followed a protocol very loosely based on design thinking. They’ve come up with initiatives, organizations, projects, and websites designed to address challenges and opportunities that exist in the Jewish world today. And their ideas have been truly inspiring. So inspiring that I’ll leave you guessing and encourage you to undertake a similar thought experiment with the young people in your community.

I told the 5th graders that there are many individuals in the Jewish community today that have tremendous capacity and desire to support creative projects that will strengthen the Jewish future. I believe it’s only a matter of time before such an individual finds their appetite whetted by one of the creative ideas my students quickly identified today.

Be a Blessing Liner Notes

Welcome to the “Be a Blessing” Page

First and foremost, I am very proud to share that “Be a Blessing” is available for complimentary download at CD Baby.

If you love this album and want to know more here are some extended liner notes… If you haven’t already, contact me to receive sheet music for any and all of these tunes.

Zichru L’olam/ V’Heyeh Bracha

 

Zichru L’olam/ V’heyeh Bracha are actually two songs combined into one. To make things even more confusing they are parts 1 & 2 of a 3 song “medley.”

The first part of the medley is called Zichru L’olam. It is based on a poetic passage from I Chronicles 16:15, “Zichru l’olam brito, davar tziva l’elef dor” which means, “Be ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations.” I am most drawn to this passage because of the phrase, “thousand generations.” I love the connection to history, to voices from the past, to our ancestors. It evokes mystery and a sense of profound wisdom.

The second part of the medley is called V’heyeh Bracha. “V’heyeh bracha” comes from parshat Lech L’cha where God first speaks to Abraham, telling him to leave all he has ever known. I can imagine Abraham being very scared and questioning the voice that he hears. After dropping the big news that Abraham is to leave his entire world behind, God commands Abraham, “V’heyeh bracha” (“Be a blessing”). I love the simplicity of this message. It’s not enough to simply “Be.” We have to “Be a blessing.”

There are many different ways to be a blessing. That’s the reason why there are so many voices singing in harmony in this song. V’heyeh Bracha ends with a cool, upbeat instrumental section. I hope you enjoy it! It was very fun to record!!

Halleluyah

Halleluyah is a very important song as it’s the last song on the album, the closer. It’s also the third part of a 3 song medley (that includes Zichru L’olam/V’heyeh Bracha). Halleluyah is the perfect song for the end of this album because it’s all about “praise.” The Hebrew text comes from Psalm 150—the very end of the book of Psalms. It says, “Kol hanshamah t’halel Yah” (“Let all that lives praise God.”). Imagine all creation singing a song of praise—shouting a song of praise even. That’s the vibe we’re going for here. It’s a celebration of life, living, and being a part of this amazing universe. The end of this song features a variety of different voices, all singing Halleluyah/ Kol hanshemah, in their own way. One of the groups of voices sounds very “angelic”, another sounds very “earthy.” The goal behind this idea was to bring Heaven and Earth together in a song of praise to God.

Zeh HaYom

Zeh HaYom is based on Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving that is a part of Hallel—the special collection of psalms chanted and sung on major Jewish holidays. The phrase, “Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha vo” (Psalm 118:24) often appears on wedding and b’nei mitzvah invitations as it means, “This is the day that Adonai has made—let us exult and rejoice on it.” The other Hebrew in the song is a very common expression of praise, “Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam hasdo” (Psalm 118:1). This means, “Praise Adonai, for Adonai is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal.”

The English verse in the song, “All praise to the One, shining like the sun” is meant to be a poetic interpretation of Psalm 118:1. Just as the sun is always shining (somewhere) so too God is always with us, bestowing blessings. Just as it’s cloudy some days and we can’t see the sun, sometimes we don’t see how God is with us.

This song is meant to have a southern rock/ Allman Brothers vibe. I think it’s very important that music reflect the spirit of the place where it’s created. You can hear the southern rock vibe in the guitar solo and the slide guitar work throughout.

Yihyu L’ratzon

 

The words, “yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha Adonai Tzuri v’Goali” (Psalm 19:15) are familiar to many because they are in most siddurim at the end of the Amidah as a “meditation” for silent prayer. They mean, “May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.”

Many musicians have set these beautiful words to music, so it’s a fair question to ask why we wrote a new version. Here are a couple of things that make our version unique.

First, “simplicity.” This song only has two chords. These chords repeat over and over again. Most songs have at least three chords, so this song is particularly simple. We did this because the words “yihyu l’ratzon” are simple words. We are simply asking God to accept us for who and what we are.

Second, this song evolves on the basis of harmony. It starts with a single voice in Hebrew (Mr. Kudlats) and then adds a voice in English (Ms. Kendrick), and then adds harmonies in Hebrew and English. Lastly, the song ends with a “niggun.” A niggun is a wordless melody. Sometimes music speaks louder than words and words lose their importance. By removing the words and focusing on the melody we return to the idea of simplicity.

This song is meant to make you feel peaceful, calm, and at one with yourself and with God.

With All My Heart

With All my Heart may sound like it’s based on the “v’ahavta” but it’s not! It’s actually based on the Psalm 9:1-2, “I will praise You, Adonai, with all my heart; I will tell all Your wonders. I will rejoice and exult in You, singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.”

The English lyrics are an original poem that expresses the different situations we find ourselves in as our life unfolds. Sometimes we’re leaving, sometimes we’re coming home; sometimes we’re with the ones we love, and sometimes we’re on our own. Sometimes we have doubts. But always, always, always, we can find something to be thankful for.

The music for this song is very simple. It’s meant to have a John Meyer kind of vibe.

Seek Peace

Seek Peace is based on Psalm 34. Psalm 34 asks an interesting question (Psalm 34:13), “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?” Stated differently, “What makes someone a good person.” Part of the answer comes later in the Psalm (34:15), “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu” (“Seek peace and pursue it.”). A good person is one who strives for shalom.

This song has a kind of “reggae” vibe. It features about 20 students from The Davis Academy. It’s meant to be playful and upbeat, but also to encourage people to really think about the idea of “pursuing” shalom with our heads, our hearts, and our hands.

Kol Yisrael

Kol Yisrael is based on the Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh L’Zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a). It means, “All Israel is responsible to one another.” Based on this teaching we set out to write a Jewish version of “We are the world.”

When describing Judaism many people focus on three things: God, Torah, and Israel. Each of the three verses in this song is an expansion on this “trinity.” The first verse is about Torah, the second verse is about God, and the third verse is about Israel (the people and the land).

This song begins with a single voice and piano. It builds with each passing verse and chorus. Finally, at the end of this song you hear the entire Davis Academy community (“kol Yisrael”) singing in unison.

Rise Up

Rise Up is based on the famous words of the prophet Amos (5:24), “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Significantly these words were also spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. many times during the Civil Rights Era.

Rise Up is a social justice song. It’s meant to bring people together around causes of righteousness and tikkun olam. It’s inspirational, hopeful, and upbeat. It’s also funky, so that people literally feel like “rising up.”

The vocalists for this song are the Mt. Zion 2nd Baptist Church choir, feature Ms. Janice Durden, our beloved Davis Academy receptionist.

Lastly, in addition to citing Amos and Martin Luther King Jr., there’s also a quote in the first verse from Theodor Hertzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He famously spoke the words, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Darchei Shalom

Jewish tradition makes it very clear that the Torah is meant to help us bring “shalom” into the world. Thus the well-known words from Proverbs 3:17 that we recite when we return the Torah to the ark, “D’racheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom” (“Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths, peaceful.”

The phrase, “mipnei darchei shalom” comes from the Mishnah (Gittin 5:8). In this chapter of Mishnah a number of different laws from the Torah are presented. The explanation for all of the laws is that they were created, “mipnei darchei shalom” (“for the sake of peace”). Many of these laws relate to how Jews are meant to treat the poor in their community, as well as how they are meant to interact with non-Jews. This, to me, is significant.

The chorus of this song is, “mipnei darchei shalom, for this world we call home, is not ours all alone.” It’s meant to have at least two meanings, depending on where you put the comma. For example, “mipnei darchei shalom for this world we call home.” But also, “For this world we call home is not ours all alone.” Basically, peace is good for everyone and everything. It’s good for nature and the earth, and it’s good because we have to share this world with others. The rest of the lyrics are a series of metaphors and interpretations of “shalom.”

This song has a pretty upbeat feel and also a significant musical change toward the end—when it basically turns into a jazzy jam. The instrument you hear featured is a trumpet. The basic idea here is that we should all rock out for peace.

Ki Va Moed

Ki Va Moed juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated Jewish texts. “Ki va moed” comes from Psalm 102:14 and means, “the appointed time has come.” In Hebrew “moed” refers to the three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. To me the phrase “ki va moed” means something like, “Sacred time is upon us.”

The second Hebrew text is, “Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu.”It comes from the prayer “Ahavat Olam” recited immediately before the Shema in the evening. These exact words mean, “For they are our life and the length of our days.” In the context of the prayer they refer to the idea of performing mitzvot—basically that our time on earth is measured by the amount of mitzvot that we do.

So how do these two Jewish teachings fit together? In my mind the connection has to do with the marking of time. Sometimes God tells us that a significant moment is coming and that we should prepare (“Ki va moed”). However most of the time it’s up to us to make each day holy (“Ki hem chayeinu”).

This song is a very powerful song. It’s got a strong beat, and a lot of percussion as well as electric guitar. The music is meant to convey a sense of urgency. It’s saying, “Pay attention. Life is happening now. This is important.”

Jacob’s Journey

 

Jacob’s Journey tells the story of Jacob’s ladder from parsha “Vayetze” (Genesis 28:10-19). It’s starts with a fairly literal translation of the story, but becomes more poetic as the song evolves. The Hebrew in this song is the phrase, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati” (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”). These are the words spoken by Jacob when he “wakes up” from his vision.

The music in this song is very different from the rest of the album. The Middle Eastern sounding instrument is an “oud.” This song is meant to make you feel like you are in the Negev with Jacob, thousands of years ago. The violin and viola arrangement that you hear is very intricate and meant to bring drama to the song.

Over the years many commentators have noticed that Jacob’s expression, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati” is very interesting. For grammatical reasons that I won’t go into here it’s basically as if Jacob is saying, “God is in the place and I (anochi), I didn’t know (lo yadati).” A modern commentator, Lawrence Kushner, wrote a book called, “God was in this place and I, i Did Not Know.” I love the idea of the capital and lower case “I.” For most of this song there are two vocal parts. Each vocal part sings the same words but one does so with a capital “I” and one with a lower case “i.”

This song is about Jacob’s journey toward increased enlightenment and awareness. It’s basically a song about encountering God in a new way. At the end of the song it says, “Join him at the foot of the stairwell and gaze into the light.” That’s meant to be an invitation to the listener to pursue their own enlightenment and discovery/rediscovery of God.

Beit Yaakov

Beit Yaakov is built around the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “Beit Yaakov lchu v’nilcha b’or Adonai” (Isaiah 2:5). These words mean, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

This song began with the guitar part. As the guitar part evolved it became clear that this song would be great for things like b’nei mitzvah and graduation ceremonies. Knowing that the words “Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai” made perfect sense, because they focus on the idea of the “journey” or in the case of graduation, “walking” across the stage to receive your diploma.

The English lyrics in this song are a poetic expansion on the verse from Isaiah. The words are written as if they were spoken by a parent or teacher to the child/young adult who is going on the journey.

The last verse of the has several references to other Jewish ideas. First it says, “Lech l’cha we’re with you.” This is a reference to Genesis 12:1 when God tells Avram, “Lech l’cha” (“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”). Also, the line, “May the mitzvot be a lamp to you and Torah fill your days” is a reference to Proverbs 6:23 (“For the commandment is a lamp, the Torah is a light.” This verse fits perfectly with the idea of light in the line, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

One final thought. If you take the first letter of each word in “Beit Yaakov L’chu v’nilcha” you get: bet, yod,lamed, vav. In Hebrew this forms the acronym “BILU.” “BILU” was the name chosen by a group of brave Jewish university students living in Russia in 1882 who decided to move to Palestine. They were among the first to make Aliyah to Israel in modern times and were incredibly brave.

“A Palace in Time” – TMI/ Liner Notes

It’s Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called both a “cathedral” and a “palace” in time. My daughter’s eating raspberries and watching Beauty and the Beast and I’m seizing a few moments while the rest of the family is napping to jot down some thoughts and recollections about the 2nd album of original Jewish music I wrote and created for The Davis Academy, A Palace in Time.

Let’s start with the basics– A Palace in Time is a musical exploration of the psalms and other liturgy that make up the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat is the portion of the Friday evening service that precedes Maariv. It’s a time when we focus on opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility of Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat is about creating within ourselves the capacity for active receptivity. It’s about fine tuning our ears, our eyes, and all of our senses so that we might behold the beautiful imperfection of our lives and our world, all with God’s blessing.

Pretty much every contemporary Jewish songwriter/composer has set pieces of Kabbalat Shabbat to music. Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat generally are the anchor of the Jewish people– a weekly reminder of the core values of our people and a  time to be together in sacred community. I am drawn to Kabbalat Shabbat for these reasons and because Kabbalat Shabbat is both well-known and shrouded in mystery for many Jews. Some liturgical passages are sung weekly, others remain whispered. There are recurring themes such as God’s sovereignty and creation’s collective praise and affirmation of God and many others. It’s ripe for musical exploration.

Here are some things to I want to remember about the process of creating A Palace in Time:

1. The title of the album was never a question in my mind.

2. Will Robertson, my musical chevruta and the album’s producer, remarked that he’d never started a project knowing in advance the entire track list, track order, and album title.

3. Many of the initial seeds of the melodies came to me all at once– I’m talking about 10-15 songs in a single sitting. I remember in those moments a profound sense of feeling that I was discovering rather than writing music. I continue to believe, perhaps foolishly, that “discovering” is more accurate a way of thinking about my role in creating this music than “writing.”

4. Initially I wanted and continue to want the music to feel instantly familiar and author less. Those who know Jewish music know that there are many melodies whose composers names are unknown or meaningless to us as the melodies are a part of soul. That’s my dream. My dream is that when people hear these songs they’ll feel like they’ve heard them before, like they’ve always been there, like they’re old friends.

5. Initially I envisioned very simple instrumentation for the album so that congregations would instantly be able to hear how the songs could live in their worship services. Though the recording studio seduced me into pursuing more dynamic arrangements the fact remains that every song could be rendered a cappella or with whatever instrumentation a congregation has available. The songs are meant for Jewish congregations across the religious spectrum and could easily be sung in Orthodox shuls.

6. In a similar spirit to the aforementioned musical simplicity the songs were originally intended to be only in Hebrew. I chose to include English because I felt like I wanted to participate in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat by interpreting the words in ways that reflected my understanding. All the English is optional. Some people really don’t like English in their Jewish music and I totally understand this. In the end I feel very strongly that the English lyrics are really quite beautiful and remain very true to the spirit of the liturgy.

7. The L’chah Dodi on the album was “discovered” (i.e. written) in the city of S’fat– the mystical city where the original words of this prayer were written in the 15th century. The melody came to me as I was chaperoning a group of Davis Academy students on our 8th grade Israel trip. We happened to be in S’fat on Erev Shavuot (the day leading up to Shavuot). The fact that Shavuot commemorates the giving of Torah and the revelation at Sinai isn’t lost on me. Another way of saying that I want these songs to sound familiar or that I “found” them is to say that the melodies are “mi-Sinai” from Sinai. That’s a Jewish way of saying that they’ve always been here, waiting for us to find them.

8. The percussion on the song Mizmor Shir is comprised entirely of things you’d find at or around a Shabbat table– candlesticks, spoons, a challah plate, bread knife, and trash can.

9. Even if no one else likes this music my daughter loves it and has learned much of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy by singing along.

10. The first couple of tracks on the album aren’t actually from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. They’re included as “opening songs” in the siddur of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’fila. For the song Hineih Mah Tov I reached out to the faculty and students of the Marist School, a local Catholic school with which we have an interfaith partnership. The message of Hineih Mah Tov– that it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace– is a perfect message for Jewish and Catholic teens to share with the world. There’s a deeper story here but it will be told elsewhere.

11. The student artwork is incredible. Rebecca Ganz, Davis’ visual arts teacher and I together came up with the idea of merging the traditional Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript with 1960s psychedelic music poster art. The cover, which she created with some input from me, captures one of Shabbat’s key ideas: the dual remembrance of the original act of creation and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Shabbat is fundamentally an affirmation of creation and liberation. Rebecca’s profoundly beautiful cover tells this story. I’m sure many people will be drawn to this incredible artwork and the cover in particular without ever noticing the fact that Rebecca hid the word “Shabbat” in the candles flames.

12. The closing song, Bar’chu, is what’s traditionally known as the call to prayer. It typically comes towards the beginning part of the worship service. That the Bar’chu is the closing song on this album symbolizes a couple of things. First, it reinforces the fact that A Palace in Time is truly focused on Kabbalat Shabbat– the beginning of the Friday night prayer service. Second, it subtly implies that, having taken this musical journey, whatever you do once you’ve listened to the Bar’chu has the potential to be a form of worship or devotion. Typically the Bar’chu is followed by specific liturgical passages. On this album it’s an invitation to think differently about what you’re about to do next.

13. One tough part of this album is the fact that many melodies I “discovered” for Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t make the final cut. 18 songs is more than any album really should have. God willing there will be future opportunities to bring even more Jewish music into the world.

14. A Palace in Time is inspired by a quote attributed to musician Mickey Hart who said of The Grateful Dead, “We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are in the transportation business.” Hopefully this music will transport the listener spiritually and emotionally.

The album will be available for complimentary download on all major music sites.

 

Reflections on Robert Hunter

Tonight I saw Robert Hunter perform at a small venue, City Winery, in New York City. If you open the liner notes to any classic Grateful Dead album you’ll see that many tunes were co-written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. I think it’s fair to say that without Robert Hunter there would be no Grateful Dead. But even more to the point– without Robert Hunter there’d be no Robert Hunter. I, along with countless others, think of Robert Hunter as a poet laureate of the universe and of the soul. Here are some reflections…

1. We are all family. To get to the venue I had to cross through Greenwich Village. Along the way I saw a nanny pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a toddler. The toddler was kicking and screaming, “I want mommy to push me, not you.” Mommy wasn’t there. Outside the venue I met a man who’d brought his daughter, Jubilee, to the show. Jubilee’s name comes from one of Hunter’s most beloved tunes– Sugaree. I went to the venue alone and was seated at a table with another single party. He and I struck up a conversation. It turns out that he’ll be in Atlanta for this first time this weekend. Now he knows where to eat! As we all sang some of Hunter’s most sacred music– Ramble on Rose, Ripple, Brokedown Palace, Ship of Fools, Friend of the Devil and others– we sang not quite “in harmony” but definitely “in family.” On the way uptown after the show I ended up chatting with a group of guys who are doing an American History fellowship program at Columbia. It seemed like they were old friends, but they’d all just met that week. I inserted myself into the conversation. When people boarded the train I’m sure they had no idea that three days ago we were all strangers and that I’d been a stranger only minutes ago.

2. If it’s not broke don’t fix it. Hunter mentioned that he hadn’t changed the strings on his guitar in more than a decade. Truth be told, he’s not much of a guitarist. He forgets chords, loses the rhythm and has other idiosyncrasies. There’s an ongoing debate about human beings. We’re all broken in some way, shape, or form. The debate is about whether we need fixing and who can or cannot be the fixer. Stumbling through his music with him is perhaps the most meaningful part of being in concert with Robert Hunter. After all, if he knew the way, then he’d take us home.

3. It’s not the march, it’s the movement. A Vietnam veteran said this to me recently and, like a good Hunter lyric, it’s stuck with me. Tonight’s concert speaks to a movement. It speaks to a group of people that have met one another in the place where, ideally, pretense ends and humanity soars. Hunter’s words have inspired countless people to think about the poetry of our own hearts. A community based on such a powerful and yet undogmatic legacy is something really special.

4. Great art is timeless. Great art can also be timely. But the great art of Robert Hunter is timeless. Listening to some of his music it’s impossible to determine whether it was written in the 1970’s or the 1770’s. His words inspire hope without being sanguine, they inspire love without being sappy, they inspire belief without being religious, and they are endlessly generous.

If you’re not turned on to Robert Hunter it might be a hard sell at this point. But tonight is a night I’ll never forget and I had to share it here so that I can revisit it in the future.

Here’s Robert Hunter singing most of “Ripple.”

 

 

Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”

 

 

The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.

 

Israel 2014- A Man of Life

Written for The Davis Academy Menschlichkeit blog and cross posted here.
5/16/14
The following is a poem written by Mitchell A. this evening just before Shabbat that he read aloud in front of the entire class at a reflective session at the Menorah in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is published here with his permission.
I Am a Man of Life
I am not a man of religion,
I am not a man of fiction,
I am not a man of myth,
I am not a man of fact,
I am not a man of history.
I am a man of life.
But life is weird.
Life is made up
Of all these things.
History becomes fact,
Fact becomes fiction,
Fiction becomes myth,
Myth becomes religion.
Then all those factors live
In harmony and war
All at once.
All until there is only ash.
Then history rises from that ash
And the cycle continues.
Just as life does.
I could stop writing now, but I feel like I have to try to answer the question— what is it about the human spirit that enables us to create such beautiful poetry?
Friday is a crazy day in Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims ascend the Temple Mount to offer their prayers, Jews hustle and bustle to prepare for Shabbat, tourists squeeze in a few extra visits before the entire city takes a day of rest and renewal. Today we contributed to the craziness of Jerusalem by participating in an archeological dig and going on a culinary tour of Machane Yehudah—Jerusalem’s central market place.
Approximately 10 years ago an illegal building project was undertaken at the Temple Mount. In order to create a entrance to one of the Mosques there, thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Rather than consulting with archeologists the debris was removed without any foresight or concern for preservation. It was rescued by a group of archeologists who recognized the irreparable loss that would’ve occurred if the debris had simply been discarded. As we sifted through buckets of debris we found artifacts dating from the First Temple Period (approximately 800-500 BCE) all the way through the modern era. We found two coins, the dates of which we don’t yet know, as well as many pieces of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic tiles. We literally sifted through history. Did one of us uncover an artifact that would turn fiction into myth? What about myth into religion? We made history rise from that ash.
After reviewing the day’s key archeological discoveries and washing up we headed to Machane Yehudah. Machane Yehudah is such a multisensory, multicultural, vibrant place it’s virtually impossible to describe. This year we were privileged to receive tickets that allowed (and required) us to try food or drink from 6 of the hundreds of vendors in the marketplace. We tasted food and drink unlike anything we’ve ever had before. And we loved it. All of us. Stuffing grape leaves into our mouths, olive oil dripping onto our shoes—you might say we were all “men of life.” The one thing that unites the chaotic bustle of Machane Yehudah is that everyone there is trying to feed his or her family. In that respect, Machane Yehudah just might be one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
After a few hours rest we set out for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem and the last Shabbat of our trip. Shabbat in Jerusalem means slowing down, digging deep, connecting, and opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that our spirit has something to teach us and something to offer the world.
To help get us into the spirit of Shabbat we decided to have our first “Spiritual Check In” of the trip. Spiritual Check Ins are opportunities to cultivate the reflective aspect of the Israel trip. Our spiritual check in this evening was literally miraculous. Here’s why…
The Menorah opposite the Knesset is one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. We’re never been able to stay at the Menorah for very long because there are constantly groups lining up to see it. Tonight we were able to sit at the foot of the Menorah for the entire duration of our spiritual check in—45 minutes. Our tour guides were literally in shock that our session remained undisturbed. Just as we began to “close” the spiritual check in a group of tourists arrived. It’s as if an invisible barrier had been erected to protect the sacred sharing that took place tonight—sharing that broke down some of the remaining barriers among the grade and lead to many tears, laughs, and insights.
Aside from Mitchell’s poem I’m not at liberty to share the contents of the spiritual check in. Confidentiality is part of the protocol. But what I can tell you is that we used a quote attributed to Albert Einstein as our starting off point. The quote was, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It really got the kids thinking. After briefly discussing the quote we gave the kids individual time to reflect. They could write, contemplate, or do whatever they wanted with the time we gave them. When they returned to the group they were welcome to share or not, depending on how their heart moved them. The most important part of the sharing is that it was meant to help the sharer arrive at greater clarity for themselves, to listen to what Parker Palmer calls, “The Inner Teacher.” For that reason we asked kids to focus on active listening and not to clap or respond in any other way to what was shared. Mitchell was the first to share. When we heard his poem it was clear that the spiritual check in was going to be a profound point of connection for the kids. As I said, there was much laughter, many tears, and a strong desire to continue to conversation at a later time.
Having grown even closer through mutual sharing we headed to the Kotel for what ended up being a remarkable Shabbat. The outcome of the courageous struggles of the Women of the Wall is that there is a new section of the Kotel called, “Ezrat Yisrael.” At “Ezrat Yisrael” women and men are allowed to pray together. That’s exactly what we did. Our ruach was so inspiring that others came to join us. As we sung and stamped our feet, the platform beneath us was literally shaking. At multiple points during our song session/ Shabbat service we all traded places to stand next to different people. At the end we sang the Mishebeirach and also recited Mourner’s Kaddish. I made sure to impress upon the kids that the tefilah we experienced at Ezrat Yisrael, and the Torah that our children carry in their hearts as is as legitimate as what they would experience when we ascended to the main Kotel plaza where men and women continue to be segregated. In the past I’ve felt a slight tinge of envy that the Orthodox prayer services had more ruach than our own. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud and devoted liberal Jew. For the first time, tonight, I felt that our prayer experience actually had greater beauty, integrity, ruach, and impact than what was taking place at the main Kotel. Our kids got to experience both, so it’s up to them to decide.
Last but not least, we had a delicious dinner. We wished Sam B. a happy birthday once more and even gave him a few more random gifts (I forgot to mention that his friends bought him all sorts of random chazerai at Machane Yehudah such as bathroom soap dispensers, high heels, a book in Greek, and other random items from the flea market section). I presented him with a gift from the school—a keychain size version of the Book of Psalms. In presenting it to him, right after the conclusion of our spiritual check in, I reminded everyone that the Book of Psalms gives voice to many of the emotions that were shared during the check in—joy, sadness, confusion, yearning, regret, hope, humility, pride and more. I told Sam that I prayed that he and all of us would experience the deep humanity that was felt by the Psalmist.

If the Hebrew cannon hadn’t been sealed thousands of years ago I’d make a strong argument for adding Mitchell’s poem to it. Perhaps it will appear in a book of poetry one day, or as a creative reading in a siddur. The power of having our spiritual check in at the foot of the Menorah is that it allowed us to join our personal stories with the communal stories of the Jewish people. The Menorah granted legitimacy to our various narratives by serving as a silent witness from our Jewish past. It was truly a fitting place for our check in because, after all, “life is made up of all these things.”

 

The Truth About Children

“3 Minute Poet” is exactly what it sounds like– a non-threatening way to get kids writing. The teacher provides the title (in this case “your name”) and starts the timer. The rest is up to the students. Here’s a wonderful piece by a Davis Academy 5th grader (now rising 6th grader), Isabella McCullough. It’s reprinted here with parental consent.

Isabella McCullough

creatively weird

undefined

haven’t opened the door,

but I’ve freed my mind.

clash with the heart,

the true me is still there.

If you’re looking for me

I’ll be anywhere

I’m an unfinished

book

an open-ended fairy tale

I am who I am

Isabella’s poem and the context in which it was written (“3 minute poet”) illustrates a simple but important point:

Every child is a poet.

“I know I saw that book in here somewhere!”

 

When it comes to kids it can be hard to make sweeping generalizations. Not every kid is a math whiz, or a polyglot, or an app developer, or competent with a hair brush. But I do think there are some things we can say about “every child.”

Every child is an artist.

Every child is a philosopher.

Every child is a theologian.

Every child is an actor.

Every child is a dancer.

Every child is a nature-lover.

Every child is an explorer.

Every child is a comedian.

Every child is a skeptic.

Every child is a teacher.

Every child is a boundary pusher.

Every child is a truth speaker.

The Talmud teaches that the world is sustained by the breath of schoolchildren. When we pause and consider the wonderful qualities and traits of our children, it’s hard to disagree.

Whether we live out our responsibilities towards children as parents, teachers, school administrators, or simply as caring adults who look to future generations to make the world a better place, we should ask how we are helping cultivate these characteristics and traits in our children.

Better than Talent

Every week The Davis Academy transitions from the busyness of school to the restfulness of Shabbat with a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. It’s invariably a joyful affair full of singing, skits, stories, and blessings. Our whole community looks forward to Kabbalat Shabbat and many students, teachers, and parents point to Kabbalat Shabbat as an example of the “Davis Spirit.” Last week’s Kabbalat Shabbat made a huge impression on me, so I’ll share my “takeaway” from the experience.

Lately we’ve experienced a palpable surge in student and teacher creativity when it comes to planning and leading Kabbalat Shabbat. A few months ago our 3rd grade teachers and students choreographed a Micamocha flashmob. There’s been an increase in student iyyunim, supplementary songs, and themed services. Kabbalat Shabbat is no longer just about the 45 minutes of communal togetherness. It’s being integrated into class meeting time, technology lessons, recess, and other areas of the school as students and teachers are coming to expect creativity, innovation, and inspiration from one another. It’s spilling over from school into the home, where kids are rehearsing their lines, sewing their costumes, and invited grandparents and cousins to attend. Writing now, I’m stuck again by how remarkably vibrant it has become.

Which brings me to last week. A visitor to our school could have made the statement: ‘There’s a lot of talent at The Davis Academy.’ This last week the 2nd grade class that led Kabbalat Shabbat prepared a series of riddles on Jewish heroes and leaders and came dressed in full costume. A group of 5th grade students called the “Musical Mentsches” songlead most of the prayers with their guitars and drums. We enjoyed a Tubishevat skit written and directed by a 3rd grader and ‘starring’ her entire class. Additionally we heard an inspiring Dvar Torah by an 8th grader. Lastly, we were treated to a special ‘mini-concert’ by The Davis Decibelles, our middle school female vocal ensemble. You could call that a lot of talent, but I think it’s something different and better.

Talent is a tricky thing. Embedded in the notion of talent is the idea that it’s either something you’re blessed with or something you lack. While talent can be cultivated and discovered, there’s something elusive and decidedly undemocratic about talent.

What I and others experienced at Kabbalat Shabbat last week is something better than talent. We experienced creativity, imagination, passion, joy, team work, empowerment, engagement, and spirituality. Unlike talent, I believe that these capacities are precisely the kinds of things that can and should be among the most important aims of Jewish education.

Lately a few of us at Davis have been revisiting the question of what it means to be a Reform Jewish Day School (after all, there aren’t that many out there). Last Friday I was convinced that The Davis Academy is a school that inspires students to take ownership of the Jewish story– through skits, song leading, costuming, and interpreting Torah. Our students and teachers have assumed the responsibility for keeping Judaism fresh, vibrant, honest, and relevant. They’ve assumed the responsibility not only for transmitting, but for teaching, reinterpreting, and reinvigorating the broader Jewish community. While this isn’t the only answer to the question of what it means to be a Reform JDS I think it’s a key component.

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”