Unorthodox; Embracing Kali on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah; ‘May you be be inscribed in the Book of Life’ by Joyce Zonana

Sri Swami Satchidananda

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from one of my spiritual teachers, a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda, whom I had immediately recognized and accepted as my guru when I first encountered him in the Summer of 1965. I was initiated by him in 2001 and received a mantra that I repeated daily for all these years. Yet here was Sary telling me I needed to adopt a new mantra, a prayer or praise and veneration for the fierce Hindu Goddess Kali. Here is exactly who I need these days, brandishing her ten arms, beheading demons and absorbing their blood, in a sari made from the skin of a Bengal tiger. She wears a belt of skulls and manifests her fierceness with a red tongue hanging from her lips. Creator and Destroyer, she is impeccable she catches their blood so that they don’t proliferate. Precisely who I need know after my diagnosis, six months ago of glioblastoma.

Continue reading “Unorthodox; Embracing Kali on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah; ‘May you be be inscribed in the Book of Life’ by Joyce Zonana”

Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess – redux – by Joyce Zonana

On our table, the crimson pomegranate seeds my mother had carefully separated from the skin glistened like jewels illumined from within; a pale green jam made from the grated flesh of a gourd, scented with rosewater and studded with thin slivers of blanched almonds, shone with a numinous, interior light. Bowls of black-eyed peas simmered with cinnamon and tomatoes were arrayed beside a delicately-flavored leek omelet, breaded and fried brains, roasted beets, fresh dates, apples, and—best of all—a previously untasted new fruit of the season: usually fresh fig or persimmon or prickly pear.

Joyce Zonana

When I was growing up in my Egyptian Jewish immigrant home, each of the High Holidays was imbued with sacredness, thanks largely to my mother’s efforts to create a meaningful gathering of family and friends. Around a long table, covered with an embroidered white cloth and set with sparkling silver and delicately fluted china, she served at each season the festive meal that made manifest for us the presence of the Divine.

My father, an Orthodox Jewish man, followed the tenets of his faith, praying each morning and attending synagogue each week. But it was my mother who brought to life the seasonal festivals that also characterize Judaism. As a child, I longed to pray with my father and I envied my brother and male cousins who studied and recited the ancient Hebrew; I resented having to polish silver and set the table. But today I’m grateful for my mother’s quiet teachings.

Passover had special meaning for us because our family’s departure from Egypt seemed a reenactment of the ancient Exodus. But Rosh Hashanah, that holy day without explanatory narrative, seemed even purer in its celebration of abundance and blessing, renewal and return.  Each year, I looked forward to the new moon in Tishrei that coincided with the arrival of autumn in New York and the beginning of the school year.

Continue reading “Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess – redux – by Joyce Zonana”

Hagar, the Divine Witness, and the New Year by Jill Hammer

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year, is not, as one might expect, the creation of the world (Rosh haShanah was Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, 9/18-9/20).  Instead, the set reading is Genesis 21, the story of how Sarah, wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac—a joyous occasion indeed, given that she is ninety years old.  But then Sarah becomes anxious that her husband’s other wife, Hagar, also has a son, Ishmael, who could inherit from Abraham, and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from the household.  This year, reading this tale, I am seeing a story that shows how when we think about success, abundance, and consequences, we include some people in our consideration but not others. In this tale, the Divine includes the perspectives of the unwitnessed even when we do not.

In Genesis 16, it is Sarah (originally called Sarai) who first arranges a sexual relationship between Hagar, an Egyptian woman enslaved to her, and her husband Avraham, who has been called by God to create a new nation.  God has promised her husband Avraham a great posterity, but they do not have even one child.  Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in order to produce an heir (no consent on Hagar’s part is recorded). When Hagar becomes pregnant, the text suggests that Sarah has become “light” or “diminished” in Hagar’s eyes.  In other words, Hagar no longer treats Sarah as her owner.  Sarah complains to Avraham, and Abraham gives Sarah permission to do whatever she wants with Hagar.  Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away. An angel arrives while Hagar is sitting by a well, and directs Hagar to return, for she is to give birth to a child who will give rise to uncountable numbers of offspring.  During this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: El Ro’I, the God who sees me. Continue reading “Hagar, the Divine Witness, and the New Year by Jill Hammer”

On Not Eating Gefilte Fish by Joyce Zonana

What does it mean to be an Arab-Jew in the twenty-first century? For me, it means recognizing and honoring Arab culture: the music, food, language, and customs my parents brought with them when they emigrated from Cairo in 1952; it means feeling a strong bond with other Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, refusing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize and “other” any of us. It means respecting the claims of displaced Palestinians and protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also means not seeking to equate our displacement with Palestinian displacement, as some Jews from Arab countries have sought to do, in a transparent effort to discredit Palestinian suffering.

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?”  “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”

It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.

Continue reading “On Not Eating Gefilte Fish by Joyce Zonana”

The Thirteen Attributes of Shekhinah: A Prayer for the High Holidays by Jill Hammer

On Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement), and on the festivals throughout the year, traditional Jewish liturgy includes the Thirteen Attributes of the Divine. Exodus 34:6-7 is the first to mention these thirteen attributes, or thirteen names really, for God.  This Rosh haShanah, as part of my work as a creative liturgist, I offered a new meditation on these thirteen attributes, dedicated to the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

In the biblical story, Moses asks God to show him God’s face, and God’s response is that Moses cannot see God’s face but “I will make all My goodness pass before you.” God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, passes by the cleft, and recites the following:  YHWH, YHWH, compassionate and gracious, patient, abundant in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving mistakes, and cleansing…”  The liturgy actually cuts off the rest of the text, which is harsher, in favor of retaining the loving divine attributes. At the new year, when the liturgy invites us to reflect, consider our actions, and acknowledge the brevity of our lives, Jews recite the text as a prayer to invoke God’s mercy.

Thirteen is a somewhat uncommon sacred number in Jewish tradition (seven, ten, and twelve are more common), but it’s a frequent sacred number in my practice.  In my spiritual tradition, at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, we place at the core of our work thirteen netivot, or paths, of sacred action.  We also call them the “archetypes,” the “priestess paths,” or “the paths of Shekhinah.” Each of these paths—maiden, midwife, prophetess, mother, wise woman, shrinekeeper, lover, weaver, etc.– comes from an ancient way in which women embodied the sacred.  As a community, we use these paths as a guide for how to serve the sacred and one another, and we also understand them as faces of Goddess. Continue reading “The Thirteen Attributes of Shekhinah: A Prayer for the High Holidays by Jill Hammer”

Drawing the Four Together: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Immigration.

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oLast Sunday, the Czech Republic’s Narodní Divadlo (National Theater) had its opening celebrations. The National Theater is a big thing here sort of like America’s Hollywood where actors, actresses and directors are household names. The opening celebration is even broadcast on television by Česká Televize (Czech TV, the national television company).

This year, Narodní Divadlo and Česká Televize have decided to dedicate all of the profits of the day’s long events to one organization: Organizace pro Pomoc Uprchlíkům (Organization for Aid to Refugees). It is the longest running and the most well-known NGO in the Czech Republic helping refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. In addition, it also happens to be where my partner is a lawyer and Head of the Legal Department. So I have a personal connection.

As the High Holy Days begin tomorrow evening, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to immigration and Sukkot. My reflection starts with the fact that we too were once refugees. We too were once persecuted and forced into slavery. We too escaped and wandered in a foreign land even though sometimes we yearned for the comfort of the familiar. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of this history. At the same time, we have also been unwelcomed by many, been seen as suspicious and have even been expelled from the many lands we once called home. We have been murdered in mass numbers too many times to count. All of this is to say, that we know the situation of the down-and-out, because we have been there. Likewise, we have in many places overcome it and have a mission to help others in similar situations.

Continue reading “Drawing the Four Together: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Immigration.”

Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess by Joyce Zonana

Joyce Zonana head shotWhen I was growing up in the 1950s in my Egyptian Jewish immigrant home, each of the High Holidays was imbued with sacredness, thanks largely to my mother’s commitment to a creating a harmonious and memorable gathering of family and friends.  Around a long table, covered with an embroidered white cloth and set with sparkling silver and delicately fluted china, she served at each season the festive meal that made manifest for us the presence of the Divine.

My father, an Orthodox man who prayed each morning and went regularly to the local Sephardic synagogue in Brooklyn, privately followed the tenets of his faith.  But it was my mother, unconsciously devout, who brought the public rituals of our religion to life.  As a child, I longed to be at prayer with my father and was envious of the men and boys who studied and recited the sonorous ancient Hebrew; I did not want to be confined to polishing the silver and setting the table.  But today, as an adult, I am grateful for the silent teachings bequeathed to me by my mother. Continue reading “Rosh Hashanah and the Goddess by Joyce Zonana”

Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman

ivyIn June, my friend, Shifra, and I became Co-Chairs of the Ritual Committee at our shul. During the past few weeks, we have occasionally turned to one another and said, “I can’t wait for the High Holy Days to be over!”  Then, we have paused realizing what we have said and have sworn that we didn’t mean it.  We don’t.  Truly, we don’t.  But we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of detail required for the days to go well.  There are babysitters to find, flowers to pick-up and drop off and pick-up again, kiddushim to organize, chairs to arrange, musicians to contact, mahzorim to bring up from the basement, bulletins and programs to coordinate, volunteers to recruit, parking to find for Tashlich, carpets to be cleaned, pianos to be tuned and so much more.  Thank G-d there is a committee and a community to help us, but we still have much of the organizing and synchronizing to do.  It’s a lot for two people who also have jobs, family and other responsibilities to fit in as well.

What concerns me more than anything in all of this organizing and busyness is that I won’t be personally prepared for the High Holy Days.  These days require personal, spiritual and relational work which all takes time.  I can’t show up on Yom Kippur morning and expect to have an amazingly deep spiritual experience if I have done nothing to prepare myself for it.  To me, this would be the irony of all ironies: the one who has spent the past three months making sure the shul is ready isn’t prepared herself.  Since the last week of August, I have been setting aside time away from the details to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Within the personal work I’ve done, I have found two inspirational and meaningful reflections which I’d like to share with you. Continue reading “Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman”

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