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Twice Blessed

Deborah JoselowFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

Among the first Jewish stories I ever heard was the Kabbalist version of creation. I found the notion of each human life as a journey to connect light deeply inspirational. This piece is a collage, snippets from my own attempts to claim my broken shards as pieces of a holy vessel.

Rabbi Deborah A. Joselow currently serves as managing director of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR) of UJA-Federation of New York. In this position, Deborah works with a team of outstanding professional and volunteer colleagues in order to fulfill the organizational vision to inspire Jewish life in New York, in Israel, and around the world. COJIR’s portfolio is devoted to Jewish education and experience and embraces learners of every stage of life and venue. Deborah is an ordained Reform rabbi with a master’s degree in Jewish education. Prior to joining UJA-Federation of New York, Deborah served the Union of Reform Judaism as the director of educational planning. Deborah lives with one husband, two dogs, and three children in Westfield, New Jersey. In their precious free time, the family enjoys cross-country skiing, kayaking, and reading.

Preamble: the invitation for this evening was to dream but it has been a difficult summer even for the most hopeful. I found my only solace in the local newspaper; road closures, nominations for school board candidates and the police blotter with little tributes to small town normalcy. But outside and within many storms raged and there was no quiet harbour either in my mind or at my keyboard. As I sat and tried to craft a vision to share tonight I was, frankly, empty. So, what I am prepared to offer is a slim collection of lessons that I have accumulated over a career that has spanned nearly two and a half decades. When I began to learn Hebrew I created my own silly system to memorise vocabulary. “Open the window, in Hebrew chalon, in order to dream, in Hebrew, chalom.” Was one of my phrases; Tonight I am opening my personal transom thank you in advance for the gentle listening.

For my sake the world was created, you are but dust and ashes. I was born clenching two small scraps of paper, one in each hand. I have always wondered about this. Was it an oversite? Did the angel who softly touched my lip scooping away my wisdom simply forget to check my palms? Or was this a bit of heavenly mischief, some tiny act of rebellion challenging the status quo? No matter, the damage is done. And these two scraps have followed me around my entire life. You are but dust in ashes, is a bit like having concrete feet. I am definitely earth bound but not in a way that is always appealing. My yoga teacher will often encourage her students to feel the power that comes into our bodies from the ground. I try. I try to mentally cut through the floor, to access the surging, pulsing core of the earth, to tap into that limitless supply of energy but I always fail. I must be content with just organising my lumps of clay and standing still.

You are but dust and ashes. I do not day dream. I find myself instead intent on the moment. To my husband’s chagrin, I cannot properly play the game of “what if?” “What’s the point?” I say. “Why wonder what if when you live in what is?” I have a deep sense of appreciation that can only be awed by what is in front of me. Mountains, rivers, ocean, sunset, I can lose myself in every ray and wave until they set or recede. It is no surprise that I wear a tallit gilded with the words, ‘Hineni’, ‘Here I am’.

For my sake the world was created, it took me many years to figure out that my lack of light was not the same as having no beacon. Not all talent is obvious. But in a world that favours the apparent one doesn’t get a lot of encouragement for sitting on the side line. It was a good vantage point for my own soul, even if it was sometimes slightly lonely. Thank goodness for faith.

For my sake, the world was created. I gained strength by losing ground. On campus I was a religion major among budding tycoons, a public school graduate among prep school legacies, a non- Christian among Protestants. In Rabbinic school I was a Jewish illiterate, everyone knew all the songs, knew all the acronyms, even it seemed, knew one another. I explained to my advisor that I felt like a foreigner. He suggested a good therapist.

For my sake the world was created. When you fail to appear on any radar screen you can suddenly move freely. We call visible light colour but in fact, mathematically, no light can actually be seen. And in the sweet knowledge of the ever-present invisible I’ve found my calling. The spaces between the letters, that’s my turf.

You are but dust and ashes. They say that the forties are the decade of loss. I did indeed lose too many people I loved very much. With each new hole, I found a different kind of space. It was empty, to be sure, but it was vast. I did not know how to navigate but at least here there was room to stretch and try to catch my own breath. I learned that most of us only use 40% of our lung capacity. That 60% of the air we breathe actually stays in our lobes getting old, stale and musty. As I was struggling for fresh air my friend and colleague was in a struggle for her life. “Fight” they told her, “fight, you can beat this!” She would simply shake her head and refuse, “I cannot fight the vessel that holds my spirit”, she said time and again until finally I heard her. In her honour I gave up fighting against myself and others. I remembered that I was raised to march for peace, now I will not rally for any war, even if it is just. Instead I drink my tea from a mug that proclaims, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

For my sake the world was created. You have a different trajectory when you decide on a career dedicated to the background. It isn’t loud, there is no flash, no sizzle, no dazzle, no glitz, not even sometimes an obvious path. You will be judged as aloof, stand offish, hard to get to know and understand. You’ll be encouraged to be louder, speak more often, say what you feel even when the pulse of the world is pounding through your veins so loudly that it takes all your restraint not to shout, “don’t you hear that?”

You are but dust and ashes. When I started to lose my hearing my world changed just enough to tip the balance. Vertigo creates a new rhythm and you slowly get used to marching to a beat that only you can feel. The ringing in your ear is indeed incessant. And suddenly you realise that while you may wobble you will not fall. Most ordinary things, a room that does not spin, a conversation in which every word can be heard are suddenly extra ordinary. Crossing the street and staying on your feet can in fact be a transcendent experience and you realise, this is the challenge and this is the work; To embrace the frailty. Moses asked to see G-d’s face and instead Moses was shown G-d’s back. According to Samson Rafael Hirsch, when you stand at someone’s back you have the most intimate view. You see the world as they see it. You see their very breath. With the inhale the shoulders lift, with the exhale the body makes space for more. This back is not an insult or a defence. It is a deeply personal statement. I am asking you to stand in my shoes and I am willing to stand at your shoulder and peer into your abyss so that together we can perhaps, safely make the crossing. So this, this is for those who exalt in the shadows, for those whose dream is plumbing and wiring, for those who are passionate about veins and arteries, who acknowledge the finely balanced networks that sustain this entire human enterprise. This is for those who delight in designing the set and pulling back the curtain so that someone else can step into the spotlight. This is for those who prowl the edges and tirelessly mind the margins, searching for the ones left behind eager with words of encouragement, “you can stand, walk, run and even fly.” Each of us is born clenching two small pieces of paper, one in each hand. Two blessings that will follow us around for the entirety of our lives. Thank you.

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