Tuesday, September 27, 2011

One good reason to observe High Holidays

I received an e-mail solicitation yesterday and was just about to tap the delete button when I noticed it was from Yad Vashem, the world-class Holocaust Museum in Israel. They were asking for money and sharing a story. It’s a story worth repeating and remembering as many of us prepare to observe the Jewish High Holidays in coming days.

Naftali Stern visited Yad Vashem on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 1978. He had a gift, a few pieces of crinkled paper filled with Hebrew prayers. It was a precious gift, something he had created years earlier when the world had gone momentarily mad and a little light was needed to brighten the darkness.

In the spring of 1944, Naftali, his wife and four children were swallowed up by the Holocaust, arrested in their little village of Satu Mare in Romania and deported to Auschwitz. His family was murdered when they arrived at the Nazi death camp in Poland and Naftali was shipped off to a forced labor camp in Germany.

He was depressed and alone, each moment filled with memories of all that was lost. His world had become a nightmare – little food, no shelter, brutal guards and backbreaking work digging tunnels and trenches around German fortifications.

Surrounded by misery, a vague and distant memory took root in Naftali’s mind. The days were growing shorter and there was a slight chill in the air. Something stirred inside his heart and Naftali recalled that soon it would be Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Many would have easily pushed that thought aside, buried it along with their families, neighbors and villages.

Naftali clung to the thought; a very small light in a very gray world. He sold a bit of the food he received one day for a pencil, sold a bit more and managed to purchase some sacks that had once held cement. He ripped the sacks into small squares then slowly began to write the entire Rosh Hashana service.

Perhaps it was simply something that was meant to be. If not, why then did the thugs running the labor camp allow Naftali and other inmates to hold a short service? It was Naftali, of course, the chazzan in his little village shul, that led services that holiday season, his sweet voice chanting the words he had scrawled from memory.

For three decades – years after being liberated, starting a new family and immigrating to Israel – Naftali held onto his special mahzor, bringing it out on Rosh Hashana to both mourn and celebrate his life and faith. Three months after he donated the document to Yad Vashem, Naftali died.

It was okay. He knew that his special mahzor – time worn and frayed, created with love for a people and faith – would be protected. Now, three decades later, it remains on display at the museum.

Over the next several days, during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as you struggle with the liturgy and ancient beliefs of Judaism – trying to make sense of the inexplicable – recall Naftali, his story and his final words.

“I pray,” he told Yad Vashem officials, “that each subsequent generation will stay true to their Jewish identity and be a link in a long chain.”

It seems to me, if nothing else, simply sitting in shul will honor Naftali’s prayer. That's a good thing. I'll worry about figuring out the more cosmic issues next year. L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu; May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Video offers fun way to approach holidays

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today, let’s sing our way into the High Holidays.
Don’t look now, but Rosh Hashana is only a week away. That means the days are growing shorter, the nights cooler and The Fountainheads have released another delightful video celebrating the Jewish New Year.

The artistic troupe, a group of young Israeli dancers, singers, actors and artists, are all students or graduates of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership. The goal of the non-profit is to create a new Israeli-Jewish identity and build a strong and diverse community that celebrates Jewish life.

That’s the sort of formal mission statement you might find on the organization’s website. Okay, that’s exactly the sort of statement you’ll find on the group’s homepage at www.bogrim.org. You’ll also spot their new video, Dip Your Apple. You can check it out right HERE.

It starts off with a blast; a loud and wailing note from a shofar, spilling off across a distant landscape. Then a talented group of young performers take center stage, backed up by a pounding and spirited musical beat. In just a few seconds you’ll probably be tapping your tootsies and thinking it’s time to figure out what you’ll be wearing at services next week.

Hopefully the easily digestible lyrics will also have you thinking about how best to change your life to embrace the coming year.

“A New Year’s rising, a new beginning; lift your head up, turn yourself around, the world is spinning; fill the magic of a new day, open your heart to a fresh start … open your heart to one another … it’s Rosh Hashana."

The Fountainheads have stayed busy the last year or so producing similar videos for Purim and Hanukkah, reaching out to the global Jewish village on YouTube. It’s an idea they share with plenty of other organizations in search of an audience.

Depending on where you sit on the cosmic spectrum, The Fountainheads offer a fun and entertaining way to engage with Judaism – if, in fact, you’re so inclined. What they sing about is grounded in Torah, but their message easily stretches across religious divisions.

For a moment, especially as we near the High Holidays, it’s nice to simply sit back and relax, take a deep breath and open our hearts to a fresh start. After all, it’s Rosh Hashana.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Feel-good flick all about the human spirit

I was surfing the web, hidden away in my little office at home when the lovely Miss Wendy yelled something from across the hall. Little did I know that we’d be crying just a few moments later.

“What’s that movie about the guy who wants to play football at Notre Dame,” Wendy asked. She was sitting in our upstairs den, apparently stuck on a movie channel that was stuck on playing a film from the early ’90s.

Truth to tell, the moment the missus mentioned movie, football and Notre Dame my throat began tightening up. When I made it across the hall, Rudy was all suited up, standing on the sidelines of Notre Dame Stadium, waiting for a bit of magic to come his way.

There was only five minutes remaining in the film and only 30 seconds or so left before Rudy’s chance faded away to ever take the field as a member of the Fighting Irish, a dream he had cherished and nurtured for years. Despite not having the grades to get into Notre Dame, nor the size or talent to win an athletic scholarship, Rudy was about to grab hold of the golden ring.

All it took was grit, determination and a heart the size of Texas. Cue the music and grab hold of your box of Kleenex!

It was the last game of the season; Notre Dame was ahead by two scores, time was running out and the coach, Dan Devine, decided to send in all the seniors who had yet to play. Well, what about Rudy?

In the mid-70s, Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger really did attend Notre Dame and actually did manage to talk his way onto the university’s “scout” team. Basically that meant he was used as cannon fodder during practices, essentially a human tackling dummy. He was only 5’6’’ tall and weighed about 165 pounds. There were 300-pound linemen on the team who crapped turds bigger than Rudy.

He took whatever punishment came his way. There was no quit about Rudy and, bit by bit, he became part of the team, the feisty little guy with the really big heart. His dream remained to actually suit up with the squad and, just maybe, be allowed to play in a real game.

Still got the tissue handy? Coach Devine, in real life, was planning to get Rudy into the game if possible. Filmmakers, however, have never let facts get in the way of a good story. A little dramatic tension was needed, so in the movie Rudy is left standing on the sidelines, his dream slowly fading away.

That’s where I picked up the film over the weekend. Of course I already knew what was about to happen; I saw the film when it was released years ago and have caught bits and pieces of it dozens of times on the tube. One of those ginormous linemen quietly begins to chant Rudy’s name. Another player joins in, then yet another. A moment later the crowd picks up the chant and soon the entire stadium is calling Rudy’s name.

The coach finds himself between a rock and 70,000 chanting fans. Rudy is sent into the game with only seconds remaining. The crowd cheers. His family cheers. The chief grounds keeper, a gruff and cynical guy, smiles and raises his arm slowly in solidarity. The game ends and Rudy is carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, his name still ringing around the stadium.

I’m pretty sure if you look up “feel good movie” on the web, Rudy will pop up high on the list. The film, btw, was named one of the best 25 sports movies in two polls by ESPN in 2005 and was ranked the 54th most inspiring film of all time by the American Film Institute.

So, the next time you spot Rudy on TV and you need a little lift, take a few moments and enjoy the drama. Just make sure you’ve got a tissue nearby.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A-mazing: Finding friend turns into journey

I spent the early afternoon today visiting Anita, a friend and former colleague from my days at that place with the printing press. She’s a patient at Emory University Hospital, a large and sprawling medical facility here in the Land of Cotton.

The university campus was teeming with students and the hospital area was filled with doctors and nurses; patients, their families and friends. Traffic was heavy and I only had a slight idea where I was headed. I spotted a sign pointing to a parking area, made a swift left turn, then dipped into the bowels of a mega-parking deck.

I passed through a floor or two reserved for health care professionals, then ignored a sign that said there were absolutely no available parking spaces for, um, regular people. Somewhere deep below the surface, dank and dark, I circled about hundreds of cars in search of an empty spot. When I spotted it, I said a little prayer, parked and then realized I had no idea where I was or how to make my way back to the street.

Off in the distance I spotted an exit sign, then spotted yet another sign pointing in the opposite direction. Fortunately before trekking in either direction, I saw another “regular” person popping into a nearby concrete bunker that turned out to be an elevator. When I reached the lobby, I walked over to the information desk and told the clerk my friend’s room number. She smiled and handed me a printed note. I offer its contents here with no editorial comment other than, WTF!

 Press “T” on elevator
 Make 2 Lefts off the elevator
 At the end of hall, turn Right towards EUH
 Dead end at Emergency in EUH
 Receive further info from Guest Services on the L

Up to this point I hadn’t realized that I was in search of buried treasure or, perhaps, on a holy quest. I managed to find my way up a few elevators, then along the halls and corridors before, yet again, I found myself chatting with another “Guest Services” worker. She offered up another half-dozen directions and, voila, only 30 minutes after parking I walked into my friend’s room.

Anita and I go back together lots of years. She’s battling cancer; filled with courage, hope and humor. Inspiring. I was feeling a little sad as we said our goodbyes, but energized by her good cheer and willingness to continue the good fight.

A few moments later, headed back to my car, I realized yet again I had no idea at all where I was. It would take another half hour, roaming around endless halls and corridors, then strolling about the campus before I managed to spot the mega-parking complex where my journey had begun. Exit signs were still pointing in two directions and I had to backtrack more than once after driving into an area that came to an abrupt dead end.

As I finally made it to the main thoroughfare on the campus, I couldn’t help but wonder if Rube Goldberg had worked as an architectural consultant when Emory planned out its hospital complex. The place is filled with more twists and turns then a Daniel Silva novel.

When next I visit, I’ll make sure to drop bread crumbs along the path. My only fear is that other visitors, lost for days in the dark and dank parking area for “regular” folks, will gobble up my trail markers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Funky video reminder High Holidays are near

Here we are well into the Hebrew month of Elul, time yet again to take a hard look at our lives and souls as we prepare for the Jewish High Holidays. The faithful have already begun the onerous task of cleaning up their stuff – misdeeds and missed opportunities – making amends and figuring out a better, spiritually lighter and brighter path to follow in the coming year.

Then there are the rest of us, especially here in the Land of Cotton, who might be praying a bit harder these days, but mostly for the Dawgs, Falcons and Braves. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a grand time to catch up with friends and family, but the spiritual stuff is buried in the background noise of life. Go figure!

That’s why the folks at Aish HaTorah, a Jewish educational and outreach program, make an effort each year to find a fun and creative way to remind us the High Holidays are nearing and we should be willing to spend at least a little time getting our spiritual homes in order. They’ve just released a new video that you can find right HERE.

It’s fun and funky, featuring a bunch of yeshiva borchers shokeling to the beat of a yiddishe hip-hop tune and offering up lyrics – stand up, sit down, pass the prayer books all around – that might get you to tapping your tootsies, and certainly will bring a smile to your face.

It will also, at least for a moment, get you thinking about the High Holidays. Do that and Aish HaTorah has accomplished its mission – again.

A footnote: I’m always amazed at the first-class editing and production values Aish HaTorah captures in its videos. They obviously spend big bucks in their media work and it shows. I’ve got some problems with their theological beliefs but quietly embrace their outreach efforts. It’s also pretty cool that they can demystify and humanize a bunch of frummies wearing black pants, white shirts, tzi-tzi and kippot. That’s a good thing for Aish HaTorah, but also for the greater Jewish community. Yasher Koach.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Moment of madness transforms the world

The few blind spots that linger around my memories of 9/11 were filled in over the weekend as the media focused on the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. The day has remained part of my life, a defining moment of the madness unleashed by terrorists across the world as we entered the 21st century.

I have little to add to the mix of remembrances from those on the scene – survivors, first responders, area residents, spectators and tourists. Meanwhile, a colorful assortment of bloviators – commentators, essayists, columnists and bloggers – have spent the last several weeks exploring and examining the impact of 9/11 and how the world has changed.

There’s been lots of arm waving and talk; politics as usual from the usual suspects and a few memorable, poignant scenes and memories from family and friends of the thousands who died on that cool, crisp morning exactly 10 years ago today.

About the only words lingering in my noggin at the moment about 9/11 and what's followed is a short chat between Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams during a segment on NBC’s evening news last Friday. Asked if 9/11 had the same sort of impact on the country as Pearl Harbor, Brokaw captured something painfully true about the epochal events that informed and defined two different generations of Americans.

Pearl Harbor, he said, was the opening salvo of World War II for the United States. The entire country was mobilized and the impact of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Naval base was immediate and sustained. The sleeping giant had been awakened and virtually the entire country became part of the war effort – men were drafted into the armed forces, industries retooled to produce war materiel, food and consumer goods were rationed; there was a sense of national purpose and unity.

After 9/11 there was also a sense of national purpose and unity, Brokaw said. It lasted for about a month or so. Today, about the only people making a real sacrifice are the soldiers and their families actively involved in the war on terror. They represent less than 1 percent of the country.

It took allied military forces about five years to destroy the axis powers during World War II. To use a silly analogy, it was like ripping off a sticky band-aid – intensely painful, but quickly done. The war on terror, meanwhile, is akin to gently pulling away a bandage from the skin of the world – a painful process that seems to go on forever. My greatest fear is that a decade from now we will still be yanking away at a soiled bit of sticky stuff that is barely covering a growing and festering sore.

It’s been 10 years. I mourn and remember the victims, salute the heroes and offer my thanks and praise for those putting themselves in harm’s way. These warriors, let's not forget for an instant, are all that stand between us and the evil that remains a palpable force in the world today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

1948: Year filled with hope – and Miss Wendy

The country had regained its equilibrium. After a decade of economic collapse, followed by years of war, the United States was once again moving ahead in search of greatness. It took a cataclysmic war to pull the country out of a dark and bleak depression that had taken hold of the world in 1929. That same war demolished old empires and created new alliances and federations.

Hope once again could be felt across the country, a hardy land filled with men and women who came of age when a darkness huge and mighty hung heavily on the horizon. Teetering on the abyss, this greatest generation struggled and fought and suffered. They found strength in one another and the rightness of their cause. And when the battle had been won, they quietly returned home – to their cities and towns, to their families and friends.

In 1948, life, yet again, was grand! Vast fields of acreage were being covered with homes in something called the suburbs; business was good and employment soared. A huge assortment of consumer goods – dish washers, refrigerators and electric stoves; portable air conditioners, radios, stereos and tiny TVs – were spilling off assembly lines like stink off poop, all aimed at making life easier and more enjoyable. And please forgive the simile!

The American dream was alive, well and affordable – at least for the rich and the growing middle class. The average cost of a new home in the burbs was only $7,700 – three bedrooms and a bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen – and a new car could be had for $1,250. A gallon of gas was only 16 cents and a loaf of bread a dime. All of that could easily be handled by most families when the average worker was making just under $3,000 a year – a small fortune in 1948!

Roosevelt was still being mourned by the masses three years after his death; Truman was in the White House and the cold war was growing chilly. Israel was declared a country and the summer Olympics was held in London.

The game of scrabble was introduced, an exciting way to spend the evening while listening to soap operas and comedies on the radio. Frank Sinatra remained hot and happening; so too Dean and Jerry, Jack Benny, Sid Ceasar and Arthur Godfrey. South Pacific opened on Broadway and Hamlet won the Oscar for Best Picture – go figure.

The mood in 1948 was festive and upbeat. Love was in the air and there was a birthrate so large and vibrant that people born during this period are now known as baby boomers. Among their numbers are politicians and artists; the rich, famous and infamous – Al Gore and Alice Cooper; Bernadette Peters, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Billy Crystal; Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ozzy Osbourne; Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower; Richard Simmons and Jerry Mathers – that would be The Beaver!

It was also in 1948 that the lovely Miss Wendy found her way into this world, taking her very first breath exactly 63 years ago today in, well, Brooklyn. She was born a Yankee but her parents, Roz and Joe, had the good sense to whisk her south to Jacksonville a few years later. It was there that I met and married her in 1975.

If you do the math, that means we’ve spent nearly 36 years together – our anniversary is in November – and celebrated 35 birthdays with one another. I was lucky; I managed to pick a mate from a vintage year. And after all these years she’s managed to both mellow and hold onto her bubbly effervescence. I think maybe it’s time to, um, pop the cork!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ritual, tradition and a final goodbye

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts. Today we explore life, death and the inexplicable.

The entire Grebnief family will be visiting the ancestral burial site on Sunday, gathering for the unveiling of our mother’s matzevah – literally monument. She died last October and was buried next to my father in the family plot that is nestled comfortably under a towering oak tree.

The area, just off one of the major thoroughfares in Columbus, is a few hours south of the Land of Cotton. It’s part of a cemetery managed and maintained by Shearith Israel Synagogue, the shul we all attended decades ago when the Jewish community was large and vibrant, a piece of the cultural fabric of this west Georgia city. Much of that community – relatives and family friends – is now at rest here.

Judaism is an ancient religion filled with laws and customs that have evolved over thousands of years. Unveilings are relatively new, a practice that has become popular only in the last century or so.

There is no prescribed format for the ceremony which, according to Jewish law, can be performed by family. Typical services are short, somewhat informal and consist of Psalms, prayers, personal reflections, the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim – the memorial prayer for the dead. Unveilings can be held as early as a month after the funeral. Tradition suggests, however, that the ceremony falls at least within 11 months of burial.

During minyon recently, a friend saying Kaddish for his father mentioned that his family had no plans to hold an unveiling. The ceremony, he feared, would simply toss everyone back into mourning and the world, once again, would turn bleak and gray. I imagine that’s a possibility.

I also think that the ceremony can serve as an exclamation point, a bit of emotional punctuation that brings an end to the mourning process. Judaism, I’d argue, gets the whole death and mourning thing right. It offers up a period for grieving and rituals to handle both the mundane and cosmic.

As we lift the veil from my mother’s marker, this last ceremony pulls us together as a family and community. We are given the opportunity to say a final goodbye. My mother is at peace, no longer suffering the pain and torment of a chronic disease, and we pray that she finds infinite rest in the sheltering presence of God.