Feb 26, 2017

Thoughts in Shul

In 2001, Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, fell on September 18, only a week after 9/11. That's the first time I remember having to go through a security checkpoint to enter a synagogue.

When Jon and I were in New York a few months ago, we passed the Park East Synagogue on our walk from my grandparents' apartment to the subway. Jon pointed out the police presence in front of the building. "What's going on?" he asked. I'd been in my own little world and hadn't even noticed the cruiser or the cops; it took me a minute to snap into focus.

"It's Saturday morning," I finally replied. "There are services. They're here for the congregants. In case - you know, in case of anything."


Yesterday, Jon and I went to our synagogue to celebrate our friends' aufruf, which is when a soon-to-be-married couple is called up onto the bimah for an aliyah, the recitation of a blessing over the Torah. I wasn't worried about going to shul despite the recent wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in St Louis, but I did feel like walking through the front doors was an act of resistance.

As the familiar melodies washed over me, I grounded myself in the service. I don't speak Hebrew; my bat mitzvah, after which I stopped attending Hebrew School, was long enough ago that I don't really remember the translations for the prayers. But the ebb and flow of the chants mirrors my own heartbeat, and I can lose myself in the nigun even when I don't know exactly what we're saying. During the v'ahavta, I remembered a scene in Orson Scott Card's Shadow of Giants, one of the sequels to Ender's Game, in which Petra visits her children for the first time since they were born:
"I love you," she whispered. 
"Loveyoutoo," murmured Andrew. 
Petra was glad that someone had said those words to him so often that the answer came by rote.
I was suddenly tremendously strengthened by the idea that our kids will be able to recite the v'ahavta without thinking. Of course the meaning of the prayers matter, but it is such a comfort to imagine the words and tunes that my people have passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years so ingrained in our children that they can be recalled by rote.

I read the translation for the v'ahavta as we continued praying:
You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your might.
Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
Impress them upon your children.
Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away,
when you lie down and when you get up.
Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;
inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Thus you shall remember to observe all My commandments
and to be holy to your God.
I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God:
I am Adonai your God.
Resistance indeed.

Feb 15, 2017

Intentional Self Care

There's been a lot said since the election about the need for those of us who are horrified by Trump's election and the ascension of the new GOP to take care of ourselves. Alongside fighting for others - or for ourselves, if we're personally affected by policies (or proposed policies) that oppress people who aren't white, straight, cis men who practice the "right" brand of Christianity - we're encouraged to take time away from social media and the news, to surround ourselves with people who love and support us, and to ensure we stay both physically and mentally healthy.

Most of us practiced self-care in one way or another prior to January 20, 2017 - we binge-watched shows on Netflix or treated ourselves to pedicures or indulged in take-out and a bottle of wine or signed up for a trendy new exercise class. And, I'm guessing, we're still doing all of that. How we indulge in "me time" probably hasn't changed radically in the last few months.

But what we're taking care of ourselves for has, for many of us, changed radically. I imagine that lots of you reading this hadn't been tremendously politically active before; God knows I wasn't, not really. Prior to November, self-care just meant retreating from the normal stressors* of life. So, from here on out, I'm going to make an effort to embark on (rather than descend into) a more intentional kind of self-care that will prepare me for sustained engaged resistance.

In fact, I want to suggest that enjoying the very things that are currently under threat is an ultimate act of self-care right now.

I first thought about this when Jon and I went to hear the National Symphony Orchestra at the end of January. The program was Russian; it started with a violin concerto by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who fled to the USSR in 1939 to escape the Nazis but lost most of his family in the Holocaust, and the second half was devoted to Shostakovich's Eight Symphony, which was written in 1943 as the second in a trilogy of responses to World War II. (Believe it or not, the concert was planned a year ago, before anyone knew how relevant the music would turn out to be.) The symphony is profound, "a deeper and more personal observation on the human consequences of war, tragic in every sense" and represents "the mature thoughts, more bitter, more resigned, and more strongly yearning for peace . . . for true peace, not a noisy victory celebration. [Shostakovich] wanted to paint horror as well as hope; omitted from the range of his images was triumph." The first movement, described in the program notes, constricted the breath in my chest and drove me nearly to tears, but it also cleared my head and reaffirmed my resolve to fight.

Over the last few weeks, I've found that the times I've felt most collected and, perhaps counterintuitively, also the most energized have been the times I've immersed myself in art and literature and compassion. Attending that concert, reading The Handmaid's Tale, marching for equality alongside hundreds of thousands of others, learning about our civil liberties and the responsibilities of being part of a democracy, dancing with my fellow congregants in our synagogue on Shabbat as Jews have done to welcome the sabbath for thousands of years - participating in acts of resistance, both communal and private, turns out to be restorative for me. I still turn off regularly, and I'm sure that those who have been fighting longer and harder know better than I what they need to do to ensure their health and sanity, but I have discovered that losing myself in active engagement can be the best form of self-care.

What about for you?

Comments are open on this post.

*I recognize how privileged I am to be able to say that. I wish I had been more aware - and started fighting - earlier, and I deeply regret I wasn't. I can't imagine how exhausting everything must feel for those who have been engaged and active for years. If you want to read more along these lines, Elon James White had a good Twitter thread on this the other day.