Category Archives: Miracles

Inner Space: The Final Crappiest Frontier

lThese are the voyages of the Starship Ken’s Brain. This is so far a 70-year mission, it’s ongoing, and it’s still a pain in the ass.

And now, 12:15 PM, it is a source of gratitude and hope.

Today’s Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, t’shuvah, turning and re-turning. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve hated it forever, but the required in-dwelling of the day and what it compels from us does not make me thunderously happy.

I’ve been up most of the night. I just got home from the morning service and Yizkor. Right now, I’m fried. Why was I up? Was it just because I ate last night after Kol Nidre, that plea to our common Maker for relief from our ill-considered vows? Because I sat down after I got home and ate? If that is what God requires, if he is that petty, well then I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I fed Misha, my cat too–off my plate, in fact (he loves nibbling on Daddy’s roast beef). I’ve been advised more than once from several directions that faith is about life, not killing yourself in the name of Law, or even of minhag (tradition with the force of Law). We are enjoined to do what we need to in order to preserve ourselves through the coming year. “Therefore choose Life.” To grab the Star Trek motif again, life is the Prime Directive. No, I am not copping out on myself when I say that my health just sucks and today feels precarious; and that having reached 70, I’m not the man who could fast as I did 30 years ago and float through the day on a wave of hunger fueled by fervor. I feel plain crappy, and now I know I’ve not lasted until the end of the day and the sundown that ironically isn’t coming to Western Massachusetts because it’s been raining all day. But that isn’t the point.

I need a nap. In the meantime, I needed to postpone any nap until I at least reached Yizkor, the service of prayers and reflections in which we remember our departed. Like in the madhouse movie with Jack Nicholson: Heaven holds the faithful departed. What can I say?–my parents weren’t terribly faithful to tradition, and in my father’s case, to one another. They weren’t much as parents, but that’s not the point, either. They were my parents, and they deserve to be remembered and prayed for with respect and the best wishes I have, or wish I had.

Last night, at Kol Nidre, I was damn near reduced to a pile of blubbering rubble. Reflection, indeed. I was dredging up the mistakes not only of the last year–and boy, were they stacked floor-to-ceiling–but of a whole lifetime. Of opportunities missed that I ought not to have missed. Of opportunities taken at the expense of others and of myself. I don’t like those kinds of memories. Too often, they are not about ourselves in relation to God, but about ourselves in relation to the people we may have wronged, even inadvertently. In one of the late Chaim Potok’s novels, In The Beginning, one of the protagonist’s yeshiva ravs warns him, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoa, that he may have to go to the graves of the dead and beg their forgiveness for his trespasses against them. And what will make it peculiarly difficult in the post-1945 post-Holocaust world, is that he may not even know where the dead are buried. How many of our dead ended up as ashes turned to muck at the bottom of the Vistula?

How can I expect my parents to ask me for my forgiveness? I gave it to them years ago. Often I was “more sinned against than sinning,” but: I ran up a few sins against them, of course, especially against my mother, on my own. Sins of theft, of entitlement, of payback, of arrogance, of the nastiest forms of pride. I wanted much, and often I gave too little. Okay, I played the flute at my parents’ graves years back; they were both musically-inclined (they passed it along to me, their only child), so it may have helped square accounts just a bit.

But today is the day to remember anyway. There is a liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, “These I Remember,” that recounts the martyrdom of the Sages in Roman-occupied Palestine in 70 CE. It’s a gory and frightful remembrance. We get to read about how Rabbi Akiba had his skin flayed off with iron combs. That’s bad enough. But remembering extends outward into more recent history. When I heard the poem recited in 1983, at Tisha b’Av in a very Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, the rabbi added names of the last stops for the departed and unburied to the chanted names of the Sages: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. German killing fields running 24×7 in the conquered province of Poland. It was a horror to have to hear those names yet again.

More than that. We recall the names of our errors, of our sins (though “sin” is so out of favor anymore). We may forgive ourselves, and the souls of the dead–wherever their bodies have gone–may forgive us as God forgives us. But the names remain. So the old Yiddish motto: Schvar zu sein a Yid. Hard to be a Jew. No lie. And it could be that at some times in any of our lives, we all become Jews.

Today I prayed for my parents, and caught myself growing tears yet again. I have not prayed for them in 16 years. It’s not a question of whether they “deserved” it or could hear and feel my soul reaching toward them. The issue on the table is that I needed to do it, not only for them but also for myself, to connect the generations, as imperfect as we have been. It is a way to forgive not only them, but to remember and forgive myself. And that is a tremendous spiritual practice.

No, Yom Kippur is not a fun day. It’s not supposed to be. It’s an exercise in remembrance, forgiveness, and resolving to make blessings even in places and at times where there’d been nothing but imprecations.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Not bad, considering I paid scant attention to this blog over the year coming to an end. Let’s say (for now) that I had a really difficult time this year; that I spread the cheer (ahem) around; and that things are looking up at long last.

Right now I’m watching an NBC retrospective on the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana. Nothing can be worse than that.

More will follow as we get to New Years Eve.

Click here to see the complete report.

So my firstborn son is now married!

DSCN0029I needed a happier note.

Jake, my firstborn, got married Sunday afternoon, June 2, to Brianne Sherwood. Yep. It’s done. It was an outdoor wedding on the first decent weather day in over a week. It was officiated by a rabbi and Roman Catholic monsignor. Ol’ Dad (me) signed a document from the Diocese of Paterson that my son was who he said he is, that he’d not been married before, that there were no impediments. They signed the Aramaic ketubah, the marriage contract, and they publicly exchanged vows and rings. Then we had this really great party.

That’s what weddings are for, I guess. No arguing, no bickering, no rehashing of past  harms: just celebration. It was so wonderful to be there. God bless them both.

All my pictures are somewhere on this computer if I can figure out how to offload them. I used to be good at that. But the more sophisticated the technology becomes, the less I know what I’m doing.

God bless you both, Jake and Brianne. Many years together, children if they come, and life together to a contented old age!

The faith journey into Hell

I grew up with Fear as my God, found the Judaism of my birth in the late 1970s, and lost it again in the 1990s. For years I tried to practice my birth faith. Then, in 1997, it rejected me. I separated from my wife the weekend before Pesach and was living alone in an apartment in northern New Jersey. After years of willful exile, I needed to reconnect. I put out a desperate cry for help via email, the phone, and a mailing list because I needed to reunite with my spiritual center: or so I thought.

“Establishment” Judaism had no place for me at any table in New York or New Jersey. “Do not turn your back on the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” How easily we forget!

I got one reply, from a rabbi (now deceased) in Pikesville, MD, who left a prepaid Metroliner ticket for me at Penn Station, along with an invitation to his home for the first Seder. “No Jew,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb to me, “should be alone on the first night of Pesach.” I went to what amounted to a glorious mustering-out party. When I returned to Jersey, “The long loneliness” described by the Servant of God Dorothy Day engulfed me again, worse than before. I began to get a sense that I was being drawn back to the attraction of The Cross, the same way it drew me in the 1970s. I did not want it. Separated or not, I had two children I had tried to raise as Jews. How could I do this? Better, how could I NOT? I could stay and shut up, become the same misery-ridden Jew as I was miserable husband. But that would not work either.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1997, I found myself praying aloud to Jesus with the promptings of a website called “Leaflets of Faith” (http://www.catholicmissionleaflets.org/). I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I began attending daily Masses in Manhattan, refusing to approach the railing for Communion even though nobody would know: God would and I would. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at a local parish near my house.

People tried to talk me out of it. Someone I loved. Even a Franciscan priest who said the best man he ever met was his lapsed-Baptist father (yet he was now the Guardian of a vitally important Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan!). I persevered and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on April 11, 1998, at the Easter Vigil.

And I promptly ran into myself, a collection of disconnected synapses, neuroses, bipolar symptoms, and alcoholic behaviors. I was being torn apart by the same guilt that had driven me out of Judaism. Disloyal husband, indifferent father, out of control. Womanizer in the making and on the make. Short-cutting employee with a volatile temper. I made myself spiritually if not physically sick. I had a confessor who insisted I was violating God’s plan for me. But how could I know that? How could HE know that? A Jesuit I knew as a spiritual director tried to talk me off the ledge but he could not. I was bound on self-destruction with my soul if not via a weapon.

When I began to heal my alcoholism and manic-depression in late 1999 and early 2000, the guilt began to fade. So I changed denominations. Makes sense, right? You’re getting better so you allow yourself to relapse. Makes perfect sense. Yet…I was warmly received and warmly loved. I did not have to fight anymore.

And yet this was not about ME. Maybe there really was a plan and I was playing games around is margins by ignoring God’s requirements for me. Poverty (involuntary), chastity (not by choice, either), obedience–but to whom? Another Jesuit I met with several times suggested I was not supposed to get an easy ride into and through Faith, that it was supposed to be difficult. Well, it has been.

Every day since 1998 has been relentless pain. Oh, not because I abandoned Judaism–when I tried to go back in 2004 via the repentance of the mikveh, it did not take and I felt even worse than before. I have lived in lonely communion ever since. I fear I have sawed off the limb behind me and only now realize I have hit the ground head-first.

I present no definitive solutions for me or for anyone else. I know only that my defections and “flip-flops” made me more miserable than I ever imagined. My only hope is that there IS some hope.

I date my true fall into fear, into adherence to the Gospel of Wealth, and my subsequent fall into abject poverty, from that moment. Defiance? Recompense? Payback, I’ve heard, is Hell; and I’ve been in it now for years. I wonder daily why God has preserved my life, why he has allowed me sobriety regardless of this almost daily temptation to drink, why one day I am almost certain to relapse into the death of the spirit that I fear as much as I crave it as the end to this misery. The end to the fear of fear. The end of psychiatric hospitalization. The end of old age. The end of imprisonment.

I lost home, found home, abandoned home. Where am I now?

Did his life speak or did he also witness or does it make any difference?

This item today in the New York Times–so incredible and difficult to believe that it’s hardly comprehensible by the mind that does not belong to God.

I have no possible explanation for why this man did not become an emotional vegetable much less a piece of cinder. The miracle is he died after a long and apparently productive life. God speed to him, along with my gratitude that I did not have his dreams.

Dog Daze! (a needed change of tone!)

CidClean2We live with this dog.

I love the dog.

He is a big, friendly mutt. Ostensibly he is part Shepherd and part Rottweiler. God alone knows what’s really in there.

When he’s asleep and dreaming he makes wolf howls. What forest is he hunting in many thousands of years ago? Somewhere in his genetic code is a memory he recalls only in sleep.

In the middle of the day the wolf howls can send me flying out of my chair until I realize what it is and that he’s okay.

He looks ferocious and he has this big set of piano keys better known as teeth. When he wishes to send a warning he just needs to bare the whole set. I guess that’s why they call him a canine?

His name, by the way, is Cid as in El Cid, the savior of Christian Spain.

Except for the big teeth he doesn’t look at all like Charlton Heston.

We love him a lot.CidClean1

He is either guarding us or he is indiscriminately making friends wherever he can.

He loves little kids and most of them, the ones who are not afraid of dogs, love him back.

Sometimes I suspect that if a thief came to the house, he’d help the thief carry out the TV.

Kaddish for Inmate 136954

I read this story with the common combination of disgust, fear, and ultimately of joy in humanity’s too rare gift for surviving even the most horrific of circumstances.

The full New York Times obituary is here.

In a way, Mr. Arouch was like one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls, except he was a superb amateur boxer who came into Auschwitz from Greece knowing precisely what he had to do to survive. He saw the main chance and he went for it. He was a betting object for Auschwitz S.S. camp guards who relieved their possible guilt and certain misery by betting on someone even more miserable than themselves.

The loser, as the Times notes, was weakened by the beating Mr. Arouch gave him, and usually was shot by the S.S. guards. “Winner take all” acquires frightening new meanings here.

There is the stuff of miracles here. I don’t know how to define it. Mr. Arouch was not a pit bull; he was not a fighting cock. He was a man, a Jew, a human being who fought not because he enjoyed it but because it was a skill he practiced to perfection, and because he had a primal urge to survive.

He did not have to extract gold teeth. He did not have to kill other prisoners directly. Theoretically, any of the men he fought could have risen up and crushed him, leaving Mr. Arouch to the same fate to which he consigned his opponents. He probably knew what the outcome would be for the men who lost. He fought because his life was desperately important to him, because the dead do not praise God from the grave.

Mr. Arouch survived to praise his maker and preserver. He married an inmate from another camp, went with her to Israel, and died there on April 25 after fathering four children who in turn presented him and his wife with 12 grandchildren. His 24-0 amateur record in Greece was remarkable in and of itself; his uncounted victories in the makeshift ring in Auschwitz was a miracle. He made betting money for the drunken S.S. guards in the death camp, but what he made for himself is beyond price or naming.

Magnify and sanctify the name of the God who created this man of spirit and grace.