Off They Go…

Next week, Danny will be graduating from high school. As I contemplate sending him off to the wilds of Boston—actually, Boston is only wild when it comes to driving; nowhere else in the country do drivers entering the rotary think they have right of way over those drivers already in it—I‘ve been considering what advice I might give him. I’m not talking about warnings such as “You can’t wear shorts in Massachusetts in the winter unless you want to get frostbite” or “I’m pretty sure if you go sailing on the Charles River and fall in, you don’t have to get a tetanus shot anymore.” Rather, I’m thinking about what advice for good living I might offer.

Judaism has a solution for this, known as an ethical will, or zeva’ot in Hebrew. The idea of instructing one’s descendants or followers dates back to the Book of Genesis, chapter 49, when a dying Jacob blesses his children and then instructs them on where to bury him. Moses, in chapter 32 of Deuteronomy, instructs the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children to observe the law. The Talmudic rabbis often transmitted their instructions orally to their sons or disciples.

The oldest existing ethical will as we know it dates back to the eleventh century. “Think not of evil, for evil thinking leads to evil doing,” instructs Eleazar ben Isaac of Worms. A century later, Judah ben ibn Tibbon wrote, “Avoid bad company; make your books your companions.” The late-fourteenth-century ethical will of Solomon Alami reflects the persecutions faced at the time by Jewish in Spain: “Don’t hesitate to flee when exile is the only way to religious freedom; don’t worry about your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”

Today, ethical wills are written by men and women both, Jew and non-Jew alike, to their sons and daughters. There are even books on how to write them; two that come to mind are Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry Baines and So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will by Jo Kline Cebuhar. I still don’t know what I want to say to Danny, beyond “Don’t drink or do drugs, be honest, and treat your date the way you would want your sister to be treated.” But I do know that if he asks if he can take his car to Boston, the answer is no.

Adventures in Docenting

I’ve reached a blogging milestone: I’m a guest blogger! Check out my post at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Skirblog.



Saying “Ah”

Last Wednesday I was driving along Hillcrest Avenue in Thousand Oaks, on my way to pick up Emily from her job as a madricha (also known as a teaching assistant) at Adat Elohim. It had been a long day, with the usual fight with traffic coming up the 101 from Valley Glen. (Those of you who know me may ask, “What on earth were you doing in Valley Glen?” To you, I say check out Anyway, the point is that I was in automatic mode: iPhone plugged in for background music; eyes on the road ahead, periodically checking the side and rear mirrors as I drove.

And then I looked up. I mean, really looked. Before me was the most amazing sunset. All golds and pinks and purples. The kind of sunset that makes you want to stop and just stare. Coincidentally (at least, if you believe in coincidences), singer-composer Beth Schafer’s song “A Way to Say Ah” started playing on my phone. I have a playlist on my iPhone called “Songs That Inspire Me”; “A Way to Say Ah” is on it. (So, for that matter, are Jeff Klepper’s “Hold Fast to Dreams,” his and Danny Freelander’s “Modeh Ani” and “Mah Tovu,” Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” “David Friedman’s “Trust the Wind,” Michael Gore’s “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1980 movie “Fame,” and Wynonna Judd’s “Testify to Love”–a rather eclectic list, even if I do say so myself.) They’re the songs that I play when I need a pick-me-up–those moments when I’m feeling pessimistic, worrying about the kids (How is Emily getting to Hebrew High this week? When will Danny hear from colleges?), or the latest school shooting, or Iran. Anyway, the lyrics of “A Way to Say Ah” speak of being in the moment–of remembering to thank God for being alive, and of not letting “my senses to be dulled to the wonders I will be shown.”

Sadly, I couldn’t stop and wait for the sun to finish setting. I didn’t want to keep Emily waiting. Still, I could pause at each red light to appreciate the ever-changing colors. I could marvel at this manifestation of Creation: “There was evening and there was morning…and it was very good.” I opened my window and took a couple of photos with my phone while I was waiting for the light to change. They’re not professional by any means–streetlights are on, you can see the taillights of the cars ahead of me. But they remind me to take a moment to be in the moment. And when I look at them, I remember to say “ah.”


What New Year’s Resolutions?

Every year, like practically everyone else on the planet, I come up with a few resolutions for the new year–things I want to do more consistently, changes I want to make. And every year, said resolutions fall by the wayside, usually even before January has ended. It doesn’t matter that as I’ve grown older and wiser, my resolutions have become more realistic: Instead of, say, promising myself that I’ll work out every day, I pledge to work out three times a week. Instead of spending fifteen minutes a day going through clutter, I’ll give it five. I start out with good intentions….What’s that, you mumble? Something about the road to hell?

This year, I decided on no resolutions. And it’s a good thing I did, too, because as December 31 progressed, the tickle in my throat I had when I woke up gradually manifested itself as a cold. I didn’t particularly mind that I was ending the year with a cold, so much as I did realizing that I’d be starting off the new year with one–because, really, who ever gets a cold for just twenty-four hours? So instead of spending yesterday rigorously cleaning or working out, or hitting some open houses, I made like a couch potato and watched NFL football (which, to tell the truth, was no different than any other Sunday during the football season). But had I planned on starting to do any sort of resolution on January 1, I’d already have failed.

I do, in fact, want to work out a few times a week, and I’d like to tame the paper tiger running rampant through my house. (I’d like to tame the teenagers running rampant through my house, too, but that’s another blog entry altogether.) I’m just not going to make myself crazy. (Said teenagers would argue that I already am, but if that’s the case, they have only themselves to blame.) I’m not going to set up a schedule. Rather, I’m going to remind myself that if I want to do these things, I’ll simply have to make them a priority. I’ll have to stop saying I want to do these things and actually do them. And I will. Tomorrow.

Rest in Peace

My heart is aching. On Monday, one of my son’s classmates killed himself. Over the weekend, another, former classmate–he had transferred to another local high school–died in his sleep, possibly from alcohol poisoning. Last Wednesday, an alumnus (someone my other son knew), reportedly despondent over grades, killed himself. In the space of five days, our community has lost three young men. The hows of these deaths don’t matter.

I grieve for these young men, two of whom were in so much pain they could not see past the darkness to brighter days and more joyous possibilities. I grieve for their friends, who are bewildered by these losses. And I grieve for their parents, siblings, and relatives, who are left with a gaping hole that will never be filled.

I did not know any of these young men, nor do I know their parents. I can only imagine the anguish they must be feeling. I’m not sure there is anything that I, a total stranger, can say that will ease their sorrow. But I can do this: I can say, if you are reading this and you are thinking of killing yourself, don’t. There is hope. You may not be able to see it, or feel it, or grasp at it. If that is the way you feel, if you are in such despair–or are feeling such anger that you want to kill yourself to punish those who will be left behind–then pick up the phone and call the National Suicide Hotlines at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Visit the website at Let someone hold that hope for you until you can claim it for yourself.

Live in peace.

Where Were You?

A generation is often defined by the significant events that occur. My grandparents were shaped by the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor; my parents, by the assassinations of President Kennedy and, to a lesser extent (for them, but not necessarily for others), of his brother Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. My generation carries the image of the space shuttle Challenger exploding at takeoff in 1986: the exhaust plumes spiralling off, the looks of horror on watchers’ faces as they–and we who were watching–realized that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Such was the case ten years ago. We were living in Alamo, in northern California by then, having moved from the Boston area in April because Barry had changed jobs. And when Barry called me early that morning, waking me, I thought it was to wish me a happy birthday. “Turn on the TV,” he said. Like millions of people around the world, I spent that day glued to my set in disbelief. I watched helplessly as the towers came down and fielded phone calls and emails from relatives that no, Barry was not in lower Manhattan that day on business. We comforted Ben and Danny as best we could–Emily was only four and a half and had no idea what was happening–and to give them a semblance of normalcy, went out to dinner for my birthday. I had never felt less like celebrating.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I mourned with the rest of the nation. I made it a habit to read the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” column, as a way of honoring the victims. Much of the focus in my area was on United flight 93 because one of the passengers involved the plane’s takedown, Thomas Burnett, Jr., was from the nearby town of San Ramon. I panicked when Barry did have to fly to New York that October. (He, of course, rolled his eyes, pointing out that with all the increased security, he had never been safer while flying.) When we were in New York to visit family the following spring, we dutifully made the trek to Ground Zero and paid our respects.

I cannot begin to understand how people can be so consumed by hate that they can commit such unspeakable acts. In her fantasy novel Winds of Fate, author Mercedes Lackey writes that “Evil done in the name of a Power of good is still evil. And good done in the name of a Power of evil is still good. It is the actions which matter, not the Name it is done for.” In an ideal world, of course, we would do good in the name of a Power of good. There would be no evil. Of course, then, we might argue, there would be no free will, either. But those are religious and ethical discussions for another day.

Every year, I have an internal discussion with myself on whether it is okay to be happy today. Can I smile and laugh; can I celebrate my birthday? And every year I decide not only that I can, but that I must. If I don’t, the terrorists win. I recently found a wonderful site, started by a then 10-year-old girl named Dahlia, for people with 9/11 birthdays: And so in a short while, I’ll sit down with the boys and watch some football. Tonight, my children and I will go out to dinner, and they’ll probably have the waiter stick a candle in whatever dessert I order. But first, I’m going to go bake a birthday cake and bring it to our local fire station, as a way of honoring the first responders who put their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe.

You Can Go Home Again…But Do I Want To?

The kids and I just returned from an eight-day trip to the East Coast. My cousin got married, and as long as we were going back East to attend the Long Island wedding, I figured we’d pop up to the Boston area to check out a few colleges for Danny, maybe see some old friends, visit with family in the New York-New Jersey area….

The best-laid plans, as they say. Danny changed career paths about a month ago, so until he figures out where he wants to go to college, there’s not much point in visiting campuses, other than driving through some just to say we’ve been there. My sisters-in-law were away with their families. We did spend a few hours visiting one because she lives not even half an hour from where we were staying for the wedding. And we did have a lovely visit with our former neighbors; in fact, we stayed with them, across the street from our old house. It happens that while we were there, yet another family was moving in, having bought the house from the people who purchased it from us. The house was suffering from a kind of benign neglect. My rose bushes had all been taken out; all that was left was a single, blackened stump with fungi growing from it. The swing set had been removed because it had deteriorated, leaving in its stead the giant sandbox, now badly overrun with weeds, in which we had originally erected the set. Overgrown, too, was the area behind the sandbox; I couldn’t find the pink and white lilacs we had planted. It was painful to see. We hoped to see a Red Sox game, but they were sold out. We wanted to go watch the Patriots practice, but on the day we wanted to do that, practice was in the morning, and that was when Danny and I had an appointment to visit Boston University. After that visit, Danny and I stopped by Barry’s old law firm. While it was fun seeing his former partners, it was bittersweet.

We did enjoy the cookout our host had for all our former cul-de-sac neighbors. It was pleasant catching up with one another. I reveled in our visit to Skipjack’s, an old favorite, where I had proper steamers with drawn butter and whole fried clams–no fancy wine-and-garlic broth or processed clam strips served, thank you very much. And the visit to the Patriots’ pro shop was fun, even if I did get a little carried away. Did Sparky really need a Patriots dog leash? And a Patriots food mat? Did I actually think Danny will use that Patriots book cover?

So what did I learn from our visit? Well, mosquitoes still love me. I have bites all over my ankles and arms to prove it. And humidity and my hair still don’t get along. I didn’t get the chance to have “real” apples, but I suspect there will be a fall tour of Boston-area colleges on Danny’s and my schedule, so that chance will present itself another time. (Oh, to see foliage. Fall foliage. Or, as Danny says, “Leaves, Mom. They’re leaves.”)

Mostly, I learned that while it was nice visiting, I’m happy where I am. Yes, I miss autumn. But I don’t miss slush, humidity, mosquitos, or sudden thunderstorms. It was more than 100 degrees here today in Westlake Village, but I’ll take that over 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity any day. Just send a few cider donuts my way come fall.

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