Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Words in a Wagon

In the final weeks before his death in 2005, my father drifted in and out of a morphine-induced haze which, given his extravagant imagination and wit, made most of the time I spent with him during those last days poignantly entertaining.

He awoke from one of his dreams one day and said, “I had a wagon and it was full of words, like blocks. The wagon was full and overflowing, and every block had a word on it. And I pulled the thing everywhere I went. I was pulling my words in a wagon, for God’s sake! And people were saying, Rabinowitz, what do you think you’re doing? Haven’t you ever heard of a dictionary?”

My father loved words – really, he treasured them. And he shlepped that wagon enthusiastically. What a writer and conversationalist he was! He built gravity-defying edifices with words – flights of pure fancy that charmed and instructed. Anyone who ever had a conversation with my father or received a letter from him knows what I’m talking about. (You know who you are.)

I realized when he died and I understand now: my father’s legacy to me was the wagon of words. The job and privilege of pulling that wagon has fallen to me. And now I make my living choosing words out of the vast repository that has accumulated through the years, fashioning them into phrases and sentences and paragraphs, and then releasing them to take wing and fly into the world where they might, God willing, bring a smile and do some good.

Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution

Their demands were unclear. They started gathering before noon, several hundred at the start, in the park across from the plaza of the Capitol building in Denver, Colorado. They carried rough, hand-lettered signs and backpacks. I watched them from a podium on the west portico of the Capitol where I was setting up an event for my client: Colorado Call to Prayer Day.

From my vantage point, I saw a growing, restless, vocal crowd whose intentions were unknown to me. From their vantage point, they saw 200 white chairs gleaming in the sun on the plaza facing the Capitol building, a platform with flags, a podium, and an arrangement of chairs for speakers. Maybe they could make out a woman in black standing at the podium, alone on the platform, watching them. Who knows?

I do know that as I listened to them, the rhetoric ranged from reasoned to incendiary, and that this was discernible from the tone alone, without being able to hear all the words. I sensed that the crowd contained a trouble-making element. They were the loud, strident ones with anger escalating in their voices.

The state troopers who provided security for Colorado Call to Prayer Day formed a loose cordon along the semi-circular perimeter of the Capitol plaza. They stood, watchful and formidable, as my team of volunteers continued to set up for the 2:00 pm event. The state trooper liaison who kept me briefed was a short, compact woman with no-nonsense efficiency written all over her. I asked her what sort of problems she anticipated if the crowd advanced to the Capitol. This particular demonstration group, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street dubbed ‘Occupy Denver’, had been gathering, camping out and getting arrested in the park below the Capitol for several days.

“They’re very noisy,” she replied. A nuisance, I thought, but not a deal-breaker. She went on, “The thing is that they throw feces. That’s what they carry in those backpacks.” I recoiled at the thought. I wondered if that kind of hostility represented the mood and agenda of the whole crowd – I hoped not.

I mused that it only takes a handful of people throwing feces to turn a whole city against a crowd of demonstrators, many of whom might be, in fact, good citizens who are troubled about the state of our nation and are looking for answers, or maybe down-on-their luck families unable to find work and looking for a break, or maybe just Americans so frustrated with our nation’s condition that they’re mad as hell, not going to take it anymore, and looking for an outlet.

A few minutes later, the troopers got word from their undercover intelligence that the demonstrators were about to storm the Capitol. Immediately a team of riot police in full black combat gear appeared and set up a command post just inside the Capitol building. We moved all of the student volunteers inside. A small group of men and women stayed on the plaza to pray. I watched and waited from the portico, wondering what could be going through the minds of the demonstrators. Surely they must realize that they would be walking into a very, very bad situation. And without having told the world exactly what their demands were, what could they possibly hope to gain?

“We’re moving! We’re moving!” came the cry from the leader of the demonstration, clear as a bell across the plaza. The riot police moved swiftly to their places on the portico, as strong and forbidding as larger-than-life action figures, their bulky black uniforms stark and ominous against the white marble of the Capitol. I prayed and waited. Then the word came, “They’re moving to the 16th Street Mall.” The demonstrators had decided to move away from the Capitol, to the long, urban pedestrian shopping mall that bisects all of downtown Denver. “Good move,” I thought, guessing that they were going to wait on the Mall until 2:00, when they would come back to the park and try to disrupt Colorado Call to Prayer Day. We were a convenient target.

We finished setting up. Volunteers moved to their posts. It was show-time. Elected leaders and citizens gathered and took their places on the platform and in the audience.

The crowd of demonstrators moved en masse from the Mall to the park below the Capitol and began to advance, their numbers greatly increased. They didn’t look like they were coming in peace. State Troopers formed a tight shoulder-to-shoulder cordon around the perimeter of the plaza.

The program commenced. Elected leaders – Colorado State Senators and Representatives – announced the formation of the Colorado Legislative Prayer Caucus, a bi-partisan group of legislators who have committed to pray together and seek God’s will as a body. These humble and sincere men and women spoke with intelligence and clarity, expressing their desire to be used by God to make a difference for the good of their state and our nation.

The demonstrators held their ground and made plenty of noise, but the ceremony went forward without a hitch. I began to notice people from the crowd below-- ones and twos, families – approaching the steps leading up to the plaza. Some of them still held signs; most had backpacks. The troopers kept them outside the perimeter, but they sat and listened.

A friend who accompanied my husband to the Capitol event walked down to the crowd to see what was happening. He told me later that he saw an older man circulating through the crowd with a sign that said something like, “Come pray with us at the Capitol.” For people who were looking for answers, he offered an answer that drew some away from the restless mass of demonstrators to a gathering with clear direction and promise.

“If my people who are called by my Name will humble themselves and pray,

and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven

and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

2 Chronicles 7:14

Imagine if every one of us put God first in our lives and trusted Him. Imagine if we all acknowledged and worshipped God as our Creator and our Lord. Imagine if we all put aside our agendas -- personal and political – and sought His will alone. Imagine….

You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reflections on Becoming a Life Member of Hadassah

“Kol ode balevav p'nimah, nefesh Yehudi homiyah; Ulfa'atey mizrach kadimah, ayin l'tzion tzofiyah...”

I sang along in the hotel ballroom as the ladies of my mother's Hadassah chapter stood for the Israeli national anthem at the start of the fund-raising luncheon. I was then a young student in my twenties, standing next to my mother at the table with her friends. I could feel her pleasure at having me there and her pride at being able to show off to her friends that I knew all the words to Hatikvah. I was glad to give her a reason to kvell – I loved pleasing her.

Today, more than forty years later, she would be pleased to know that I am now a Life Member of Hadassah, the organization she so believed in and served with such enthusiasm and commitment. My road to life membership was not a typical one. After college, I married an Episcopalian boy from Birmingham, Alabama, who swept me off my feet with his good looks and Southern charm and who sealed the deal by agreeing with me that we should raise our children in the traditions of both of our families. And so we have.

We moved from the Northeast to Alabama over 30 years ago, shortly after our first son was born, and I was welcomed warmly into my husband’s family. We settled about 30 miles from Birmingham, in a roomy house on a country road where our three boys grew and thrived. Along with exposing them to the liturgy and practices of the Episcopal Church, I taught my sons everything my parents had taught me about being Jewish. I was aware that there was a Jewish community in Birmingham, but we were far from the city, and life was busy in the country.

The years passed and lo and behold, the children were grown and gone, my work schedule lightened, and I had time on my hands. So I reached out to a Jewish educational organization in Birmingham and got involved in a project. Again, I was welcomed warmly. I discovered that my particular “skill set” can be put to good use in Jewish community projects and I love being involved.

Last year, I became a member of Hadassah. This year, I jumped on the $100 Life Membership Centennial Anniversary Offer, which is a deal my mother, the consummate bargain-hunter, would have approved of wholeheartedly. I’m excited and proud to now stand alongside my mother and the other women of Hadassah who have made a lifetime commitment to an organization whose good works have made a difference in so many lives.

I feel I’ve fulfilled a calling of a sort. I began to ponder this after a conversation with my daughter-in-law-to-be, a lovely African-American girl who has added a new cultural ingredient to our personal family melting pot. One day when the two of us were alone, I brought up the subject of “getting to know each other better,” which is a desire of my heart. She’s a quiet girl, and I couldn't easily discern if she wanted to keep her distance or if she wanted to get closer. I told her I wanted to get as close to her as she would like. “I’m a Jewish mother,” I explained, “and I’ll be a Jewish mother to you if you want me to be.”

There was a long silence after which she asked, “What does a Jewish mother do?”

“Oh, honey,” I thought, “Where do I begin?”

I responded, “Well, there are a few stereotypes associated with Jewish mothers, like being pushy and overbearing. Then there’s the whole guilt thing – like the Jewish mother who gives her son two ties for his birthday, and when she sees him wearing one, asks, “So you didn't like the other tie?” Jewish mothers have elevated this kind of logic to an art form.

But there's much more to being a Jewish mother than just the stereotypes, and I wanted to offer a real answer to my son's betrothed. I thought a moment. “At heart,” I said, “we’re family women. We want to be close to our families and involved in their lives.”

There was another pause, during which I wondered if I had scared her. Then she replied, “That sounds O.K.” And so we’re building our relationship, my daughter-in-law-to-be and I.

We’re family women, we Jewish mothers. If we push or meddle or interrogate, it's because we want to be on the inside with the ones we love. We want to be more than connected; we want to be intertwined.

There’s another important element to being a Jewish mother: we want to help. We want to make a difference and we want to make things better, especially where our family is concerned.

For the Jews, our commitment to our people is profound and complete, and the magnitude of our family is as large as we will make it. Hadassah makes our family very large indeed, by innovating health care for a nation and equipping the children of the land to continue the legacy of education and progress that sets Israel apart.

I am proud to be a Life Member of Hadassah and I hope to carry on the tradition of service and friendship exemplified for me by my mother, Molly Siegel Rabinowitz, who taught me to be a family woman.

Deborah and Molly, circa 1995

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Talking Families: The Wedding of Shara and Adi

My cousin Shara has a photo on her Facebook page of five family members representing branches of a family tree that has grown organically from old love and new love, marriage and remarriage. She calls it “Talking Families.” I love this photo, because it echoes my understanding of what’s possible in the phenomenon of family, given an open heart and a sense of humor: you can have a family tree that grows leaf by joined leaf into ever-widening and intersecting circles.

Last weekend there was a delightful convergence of brothers and sisters, parents, stepparents, godparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, and friends of the heart in Berkeley, California for Shara and Adi’s wedding. We came from New York and Chicago, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Alabama and Wyoming, Oregon, Florida and Germany. We all stayed at the Rose Garden Inn, a compound of Victorian houses on Telegraph Avenue surrounded by graceful wrought iron fencing and filled with beautifully tended gardens. The place was basically ours for the weekend and we settled in like kids at summer camp, ready for fun.

Shara’s father Richard is my first cousin. Our mothers were sisters. Richard and his sisters Barbara and Geri and I are peas in a pod, as our mothers were, and we always have a good time together. But on Shara and Adi’s wedding weekend, the fun just started there. Between them, the bride and groom have families that are far-reaching and multi-configured. In conversation with the friendly, creative folks who make up the extended tribe, I had to map out little family trees in my mind to understand where each person connected and who was connected to whom.

Of course, it was Shara and Adi who connected us all – this couple who epitomize the Jewish concept of bashert: destined for one another, foreordained to be together. And we, the extended, evolving family, spent three days knitting our hearts together with laughter and interest and compassion before we gathered at Tilden Park, high in the Berkeley hills, to be witnesses and celebrants as Shara and Adi became echad: one in unity. We all felt it: the blessing of God is on this union of his design.

Marlene, Shara’s maid of honor, put a fine point on it in her toast to the couple. She said that when her son was about five years old, he said to her one day, “Love is the best thing.” She understood then and shared now, that this is the truth upon which to build one’s life. On that full moon, starry evening filled with joy and meaning and promise, we concurred unanimously.