A NaNoWriMo Excerpt

For the first time ever, I present an excerpt from my #NaNoWriMo project. I figured I’d been talking about the writing enough that I really should share a little.  The background you should know is that the protagonist is Rabbi David Zimmerman. I’m not sure anything else is necessary.

I walked into the building at about 10:30, said hello to Trudy, the temple secretary, checked my mailbox, and headed back to my office. As I dumped my briefcase on my desk, pulled out my laptop and fired it up, I pressed the voicemail button on the phone.
“Next new message, left today, at 3:46, AM. ‘Good morning, Rabbi, you don’t know me, but my name is Robert Jones. I’m not Jewish, but I read the Old Testament a lot, and I’ve got some questions. Could you give me a call at 555-0873? Thanks a lot, and Shalom.'” Robert could be a sweet guy, but a lot of these calls came from folks who were Christian evangelicals who decided to get closer to Christ by practicing his religion. Most often, they were also a little mentally unbalanced. I’d have to return the call, so that the Jews in town wouldn’t get a reputation for being stuck up or rude, but it was times like this when I wished there was more than one congregation in town, or that I wasn’t the only rabbi for fifty miles in any direction. It would be okay if there were at least someone to split the nuts with, rather than having to deal with them all myself.

Fortunately, August is a somewhat slower time at synagogues, so I had the time to return the call to Robert immediately. “Hello, may I speak with Robert Jones please?”

“This is he.”

“This is Rabbi David Zimmerman, returning your call.”

“Rabbi,” his voice lit up, and I could hear the smile through the phone cord, “thanks for calling me back. As I said in my message, I’m not Jewish, but I believe in the bible, and believe we worship the same God. And I was reading in the Pentateuch about all the sacrifices, and it got me thinking. I did some things when I was younger, when I was in Vietnam. Some things I’m not so proud of. I was young, and wasn’t a God-fearing man then, but that’s no excuse. So I was reading the bible, like I said, and I came to the sacrifices. And I realized, that I owe a guilt sacrifice. So I was wondering, would it be okay if I brought you the goat for you to make the sacrifice for me on your altar? I’d do it at my church, but we don’t have an altar for animal sacrifice.”

Now, every month or so I have a conversation with someone who is under the misconception that Judaism still looks like biblical Israelite religion. They sort of missed the last 2,000 years of change in the tradition. But this was the first time I’d had anyone actually want to offer a sacrifice (though every now and then someone had wanted to come watch us do the sacrifices).

“Robert, we don’t do animal sacrifice in Judaism. Haven’t for the last 2,000 years, almost, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“So who does your sacrifices for you? ‘Cause the bible is real clear on this, when you have to do it, what you have to bring, how many of each animal.” He sounded puzzled.

“We believe that prayer replaced sacrifice when the Temple was destroyed.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and then Robert began again, slowly, clearly trying to wrap his head around this as he was talking. “Ah, okay, then, so ah, then could you help me with the prayer thing?”

I sighed to myself, hoping the phone wasn’t picking it up. “Yes, we pray every Friday night at 8PM for the Sabbath. You can join us for that service.”

“Okay, rabbi. And do I just bring the goat to the service and you’ll pray over it then?”

Apparently I hadn’t been quite as clear as I thought. “No, Robert. No goats. We don’t pray over goats, we don’t sacrifice goats. We pray the same way Christians do, using words to talk to God.”

“Well, umm..okay. But rabbi, I know you’re the only synagogue in town, and I know your Temple isn’t, ah…the most religious kind of Judaism. Do you know where the nearest temple that could do the sacrifice is?”

For a moment, just a moment, I was tempted to give him the phone number of my Orthodox colleague 75 miles to the south. For a longer moment, I was tempted to give him phone number of HABaD in Portland, and let the ultra-orthodox black hats deal with him. But much as I may have my issues with the ultra-orthodox, I behaved myself and explained to him that, really, no Jews, anywhere practice animal sacrifice today. As he hung up, he thanked me for my time, but I’m not sure he believed me about no one doing sacrifices.

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Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse

It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve blogged. When I’ve taken a bit of a break, it always feels like I need to have something relevant to say when I begin again. Which means I wait longer to write. Which means whatever I say has to have even more meaning. Well, I’m breaking that cycle. I’m blogging, whether I have anything profound to say or not.

For me, writing is a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to use. The more I do it, the more enjoyable it is. I hear people talk about exercise in a similar way, though that’s never been my experience of it (though I do hold out hope that one of these days I’ll discover that I love exercise, and I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years). Writing, for me, is not simply about self-expression, rather, it is about figuring out what it is I need to express. This is not as solipsistic as it may sound. . .I write a blog with a keen awareness that there is an audience for which I am writing, and I do hope to entertain that audience. But at the end of things, writing, for me,  is about the process, and about the discovery.

Writing is a giant Rorscharch test. I start with an idea of where I’m going, but as I write I figure out where I’m going. I figure out what is on my mind. The good news (for you all, and I suppose for me, too) is that there is usually something on my mind. Eventually, I tend to have a point. Usually, that point has some relationship to where I started. Rarely is it what I expected.

My sermons work in roughly the same manner. I almost never write out my sermons fully, but work from outline. Sometimes the outlines are fairly detailed, including points and sub-points I want to make, texts I want to quote, specific wording I want to use. More often, my outlines look a bit different, a bit more like this:

“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14)

  • Says God
  • Says Popeye
  • Popeye =? God

And from there I’m off and running. When I give the sermon, I’ll probably wind up discussing mysticism, the Divine within each of us (as represented by Popeye), and asking what spinach represents (prayer? confidence?). The exact nature of the sermon will be based partly on what seems to be most interesting to those listening, partly on what I discover I have to say at that moment. This could be a 5 minute sermon or a twenty minute sermon (depending on the time I have to work with. . .I usually know in advance how long I will speak). For me, this moment of discovering what I have to say, and sometimes even the struggle to make sure I have something worthwhile to say, is a large part of the joy of giving a sermon. Ideally, by the end, I’ve come back around to where I started.

In this blog post, I started with a title, “Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse.” I assumed I would be writing about trying to mount a horse with a literary bent. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all. It turns out, I had something to say about why I write.

Rabbinic Nightmares

Like everyone else, rabbis have nightmaes.  We do, however, have our own special twist on some of them.

You know that dream where you’re sitting down to take a final exam in a class you forgot you signed up for, and didn’t attend all semester? Rabbis have their own special version of that dream. We dream that the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) have snuck up on us without us noticing somehow, and we’re standing in front of the congregation with no sermon. (I’m pretty sure other rabbis have this dream also). Last night, I got a new twist on it.

Over time, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good speaking extemporaneously. I may spend hours, or days, planning what I’ll say, but I can actually do most of the talking without notes. And I can, if desperate, usually come up with a fairly coherent sermon on the spot. Therefore, the idea of standing before a congregation unprepared does not fill me with appropriate terror anymore. At least, so says my subsconscious.

Side note: One of my professors in rabbinical school used to quote his wife, who wrote children’s books, as getting to a point in the plot and then saying, “let’s make it worse,” meaning, let’s get the protagonists into deeper trouble. My subconscious was apparently taking notes.

So if standing unprepared in front of a congregation  is not adequately terrifying, how is the situation made worse? Yom Kippur falls on the same day as Christmas (by the way, this can’t happen), which means I’m holding services in some hotel in a beach community. I had to fly to get there, and for some reason was bringing my cat, Artemis with me. Except I left her on the plane when I changed planes in Cincinatti. Which completely freaked me out. But I didn’t realize this until I reached the hotel. I spend hours on the phone trying to figure out where she is, and chasing around the airport, at which point I realize I’m hours late for the services I’m supposed to lead. Not only that, but I’ve forgotten it’s Yom Kippur and had 3 cups of coffee (Yom Kippur is a fast, no food, no drinks). So I finally get to the chapel at the hotel, to a bunch of somewhat displeased congregants, who were wondering if I’d ever show up.

The little chapel in the hotel has prayerbooks, but they are all a mishmash of various differnt ones, so page numbers and wording will all be different. But the congregation all seems okay with that. They tell me that’s how they do it every year: I sh0uld just pick my favorite prayerbook and they will follow along in theirs. And wonders of wonders, they have the prayerbook I’m most familiar with. I’m feeling better again, because I can fake my way through the service. So I open up the prayerbook, and begin the first Yom Kippur prayer before I find my place, because I know the beginnning. Except, as I flip through, I realize I’m having a little trouble reading the Hebrew…and it doesn’t seem to be laid out the way I expect. In fact, I realize this must have been a very early hand written copy of this prayerbook, when it was in draft state (this is a prayerbook, by the way, which was composed in the last 15 years, and was never handwritten, but a word-processed manuscript would not have served the needs of my subconscious). So I had a lot of trouble navigating, and only then discovered that in this draft of the prayerbook, the prayer I was singing had been left out for theological reasons, and I’d reached the limits of my memory. Not only that, but certain congregants were correcting me in ever more disapproving tones.

To make matters worse, the congregation was getting bored and wanted to go to the beach, so I was trying to lead services while on the bus to the beach, which was distracting because the bus driver wasn’t stopping at all the stops, and people were getting annoyed with him, and just started jumping out the rear door at whatever point they wanted to get  off, even though the bus was moving at 30 miles an hour.

Fortunately, at about this point, my alarm went off.

I’m hoping you find this as humorous as I do, in retrospect. Otherwise, this is deeply self-indulgent navel-gazing in public, which could be fodder for another nightmare.

Transitions Suck

Transitions suck, which is why I am writing a blog post at 6:20 AM on a morning when my alarm is set for 8 AM. After about 2 hours of not sleeping, I decided to get up. I don’t know that I can blame my sleepnessness entirely on my upcoming transition out of Temple Beth Sholom, but I might give it a shot.

Over the next three to four weeks I will cease to be the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom. I have been with the congregation for a year as interim rabbi, fulfilled my function, and will be moving back to full time at CubeSpace. I face this transition with extremely mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ll be glad to leading a somewhat less chaotic existence, no longer splitting my time between Portland and Salem, between CubeSpce and the rabbinate. On the other hand, I’m very much going to miss working with the congregation.

I believe in better living through chemistry, and think that antidepressants are a good thing to help one through transitions. The ability to make change with the somewhat stabilizing influence of an antidepressant is one of the minor miracles of modern society. Nonetheless, change causes stress, sleepless nights and ideally provides an opportunity for reflection.

I look back over the last year, and am  struck by how far I’ve come as a rabbi. When I started in Salem, I was scared that I wouldn’t be a “good” rabbi. I’d never really done the congregational rabbinate, outside of a student pulpit, and wasn’t sure how I’d do, or whether I could really do the job. At the end of the year, I recognize that I’ve done a good job, and am delighted the congregation seems to agree with me. I’ve made a difference in people’s lives, and in their relationship to Judaism and spirituality. I’ve prepared the congregation well for my successor, creating a situation wherein he has a better chance of sucess.By pretty much any measure I might use, I feel like I’ve succeeded as a rabbi this year.

That being said, it doesn’t necessarily make transitioning out easier. In some ways, it makes the change harder. It is difficult to move away from doing something you are good at, and enjoy, even the change means you’ll have more time for something else you are good at and enjoy. It is difficult to leave the people I’ve grown close to over the last year, but part of my job as an interim rabbi is to get out of the way now that my time is done, and let my successor have a clean slate to work with, without me hanging around.

And so, today, I had down to Salem, recognizing that there are only 3 more Thursday when I will make this weekly pilgramage which has been so much a part of my life over the last year. And I’ll begin to try to clean up/out my office.

Edit: I finished writing this, and then went and read some of the blogs I read, and was reminded that as transitions go, mine isn’t so bad. I’ve been following the blog of a woman  who recently lost her husband, and has been blogging about it extensively. I’ve found her courage breathtaking, her suffering heartbreaking. The account begins here.

Flavors of Shabbat, Flavors of Yarn

Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) begins at sundown each Friday night, lasting through sundown Saturday. It is a time of prayer and rest. A break from the business of the week, an opportunity to reconnect with your soul, your family, your congregation or the Divine. It is a day on which Jews traditionally do no work.

Unless, of course, the Jew in question is a rabbi. One of the ironies of life as a rabbi is that many of us “give up” those religious holidays and observances which we became rabbis in order to celebrate. Part of the reason many of us became rabbis was to live more in tune with the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, to have the Jewish holidays be dates of special importance, and be able to observe them. While at some level we all know that rabbis work on these holidays, but it is fairly easy to say, “but that’s different, I want to go to synagogue on the holidays anyway.”

This certainly remains true…but there is a difference between “I want to go to synagogue,” and “I have to go to synagogue.” There are weeks when I want nothing more than a Shabbat of rest, when I can catch up on sleep and rest, yet I am obliged to head out to synagogue.  I’m pleased that as Shabbat draws near to day, I’m excited about heading down to Salem for services. This week, my schedule and my spiritual needs are well synched, and I’m eagerly anticipating services.

I like the fact that there are various flavors to Shabbat…prayer versus rest; contemplation versus play. All are refreshing in their own way. I enjoy the fact that as a rabbi I have the opportunity to experience more of them than many people. Often, multiple on the same day.

Tomorrow, after services, (prayer) I will proceed to play.  As many of you know, my hobby is knitting. And knitting requires yarn. For you who come at this blog more from the Jewish side of things, let me explain about knitters and yarn: as books are to a rabbi, yarn is to the knitter. There is no such thing as “enough yarn.” Going and browsing yarn is an activity in and of itself, even if there is no intention to buy. After all, you never know what you might discover. Tomorrow, I will go play, because a new yarn shop is holding a grand opening. Yarnia is opening up, and I’m pretty excited to go explore.

Yarnia is a new concept in yarn shops, which lets you blend your own yarn. You choose how many plies  of which fibers and colors to mix. This is potentially VERY exciting (I do kind of already have some projects in mind that will be massively enhanced by having a sport weight yarn made from several fibers, one of which in a lace weight is used for another part of the same project). For me, this visit to Yarnia will be play. I probably won’t buy anything (I do try not to shop on Shabbat), but even just exploring it will help refresh me, and prepare me for the week to come.

May the Sabbath be one of rest and refreshment for all of us, whichever day we celebrate it on.