Making a Habit of Tenderness

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Yom Kippur 5779 Sermon
by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Some of you know that before I moved to Ann Arbor to serve as rabbi of this holy community, I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in New Orleans. I was assigned to the oncology ward, so my weekdays, 8 to 5, were spent with cancer patients and their families. But at least once a week I would also work an overnight shift, which meant covering any death that happened in the hospital over a 24-hour period.

I ended up witnessing a lot of deaths – sometimes one per shift, occasionally as many as three. I rarely had time in the immediate aftermath of each death to grieve or process. But it was my job to show up, fully present, each time I walked into a hospital room. So I developed a ritual for myself: After each death, once the family had left the room and the body was taken away, I would take a few moments, alone, to wash my hands twice; first with soap and water, and then again, just water. It felt like this small ritual helped wash away some of the emotional residue that clung to me, so that I could show up for the next patient and family, with an open heart.

One patient who I remember vividly, in life and in death, was a man called Mikal (pseudonym)  in his early 60s. He was the proud patriarch of a large, loud, Armenian Orthodox family. He’d emigrated to New Orleans in the 1970s, raised a son and daughter there, and established a successful jewelry business.

During the two months Mikal spent coming in and out of the hospital for treatment, I could always tell when he’d been admitted because there would a stream of visitors – family, friends, customers – spilling out of his hospital room into the hallway, laughing and talking animatedly and bothering the nurses for more fridge space in the lounge to store dishes of homemade food they’d brought.

Mikal had an aggressive form of cancer, but he was a dedicated optimist. He never admitted, at least to me, that he was dying. But he passed quickly, within a few months of his diagnosis.

The morning that Mikal passed away, I’d just started my shift when I got a call from the head nurse telling me that Mikal had just died, surrounded by his family. When I walked into the hospital room, I saw Mikal’s 32-year-old daughter Tamar lying in bed next to her father’s body. Her right arm spanned her father’s chest, and she was kissing his cheek again and again and crying.

One thing I discovered in my work as a chaplain is that the length of time family will stay with the body of a loved one varies tremendously from family to family and culture to culture.

Most families will leave within an hour of their loved one being pronounced dead.  Tamar stayed with her father’s body, cradling him and crying, for more than four hours.

And I stayed with them in that room the whole time, because that was my job, to be there, to witness, to comfort. But I was uncomfortable. Because as a Jew, that kind of clinging to a dead body felt foreign and unsettling to me.

The Torah cautions us repeatedly not to touch a dead body, because it makes the living ritually impure. Many passages in Leviticus and Numbers warn against any contact with a corpse, and then outline how to cleanse oneself if contact does accidentally happen. But beyond these biblical, archaic prohibitions, even contemporary Jewish practices around death seem to communicate a hands-off feeling.

When someone dies, we bury their body as quickly as possible. After a funeral, all those who’ve attended are supposed to wash their hands as they leave the cemetery. And when Jews walk through a cemetery, we’re supposed to take care not to walk across any graves. So it seems like as Jews, we’re supposed to avoid contact with the dead.

But: this attitude doesn’t reflect the fullness of our traditions around death and mourning. Judaism also has a number of rituals that demonstrate deep tenderness towards the dead – rituals that seem to encourage care and physical closeness. I want to highlight four of these.

The first is the custom of the shomer – guard, watchman. After a Jewish person dies, their body is taken to a funeral home, where a relative, or a volunteer, or an employee of the funeral home sits with the body overnight and reads poetry out loud to it – usually Psalms. This ancient tradition came about because of the belief that a soul could become lost and confused right after death, and hover around the body until it was buried. The presence of the shomer was meant to be a comfort to the soul. And there is always a shomer until the funeral – the body is never left alone.

The second custom also takes place before burial, and involves a group called the chevrah kedisha, a community of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial. The preparation, known as tahara, is fixed, slow, and careful. First the body is ritually washed. As it’s washed, care is taken to preserve its modesty; only one small section of the body is uncovered at any given time. Then the body is dressed in white garments, wrapped in a tallit, and laid in a casket. At the conclusion of the tahara, the members of chevrah kedisha silently ask forgiveness from the soul for any indignity the body may have suffered during the ritual. They then ask God to gently receive the soul of the body they’ve just washed and dressed and tucked in.

The third custom I want to highlight is a more public-facing one: how relatives recite Mourner’s Kaddish for a year after a loved one’s death. This tradition dates back almost 2,000 years. The early rabbis believed that when a person died, their soul would go down to Gehinnom, a temporary purgatory. There, the soul would review their life’s actions and do teshuva. The more sins a person had accumulated in life, the longer their soul would stay in Gehinnom, with the maximum time being 12 months before the soul could finally ascend to heaven.

It was believed that having living relatives recite Kaddish could help speed up the soul’s process of teshuva. Some rabbis recommended that relatives stop reciting Kaddish after 11 months – to assume that their loved one had already ascended to heaven, and had not been so sinful as to have needed the full 12 months.

The final custom I want to share with you is that of visiting the graves of loved ones on yahrzeits and before holidays. Many Jewish families will take a yearly trip to the cemetery before Rosh HaShana and spend some time at each family member’s grave. At the end of the visit they’ll place a small rock on each gravestone, a way of marking ‘I was here’.

All of these rituals fall under the umbrella term ‘chesed shel emet.’ Chesed – meaning lovingkindess. And Shel Emet – meaning truth. Our tradition teaches us, with this name, that these acts of loving care for the dead are the truest form of compassion. Why? It’s simple: The dead will never be able to do the same for us in return. Chesed shel emet is considered true altruism.

What does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? Well, last night and this morning, we’ve been repeating the Vidui and Al Chet, doing teshuvah for this past year. And, as Dave said so eloquently last night, even as we reflect on the past, we’re also meant to be thinking about the future.

Audre Lorde once wrote: ‘We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes habit.’ I’m wondering what it would be like, in the coming year, for us to reach for the delicacy and tenderness of chesed shel emet. Not, God forbid, treating the living as though they’re dead. But seeing if we can be so tender with one another, and without waiting for our gentleness to be returned.

So what would our day-to-day look like, guided by the tenderness of the rituals I just described?

Well: The shomer serves a comforting presence to a soul that may be lost, disoriented, or afraid. And of course being a shomer isn’t easy, or joyful; sitting up at night, alone with a dead body is hard. But what if, similar to a shomer, we challenge ourselves to radical accompaniment: to sitting with friends and strangers and family, even when their vulnerability or their need makes us uncomfortable. Can we show up and stay there in the messiness, even if it makes us afraid? Can we show up knowing we might not be thanked or appreciated?

And the chevra kedisha, performing tahara, the ritual of cleansing the body, with so much gentleness and respect. We could treat each other with the most delicate of touches, knowing how easy it is to cause shame or embarrassment. Knowing that sometimes we’ll still need to apologize even when we’ve done our best.

And, guided by Mourner’s Kaddish? We would assume positive intent in others. We’d believe that if a person hurt us, that they’d been doing the best they could at that moment. We’d limit how long we held grudges, held onto hurt. And we’d try to believe that even if the apology never came, that the person who hurt us was, on some level, sorry.

And finally, graveyard visits: Literally, visiting people where they’re at. What if we showed up, from time to time, uninvited, on each other’s doorsteps, bringing a gift, leaving a note, reminding someone we care about: Hey. I’ve been thinking about you.

It’s so freeing to act out of love without needing it to be returned. This kind of chesed, tender loving kindness, can transform the person who loves and the person who is loved.

This new year, 5779, can we love like this? Can we take up Audre Lorde’s challenge to reach for tenderness until it becomes habit?

On Erev Rosh HaShana, I said to you: ‘If we choose life then we are obligated to remember that although daily acts of love do not win headlines love has always existed, it does exist, and it will continue to exist. Love is an endlessly renewing resource.’

And, this afternoon, I want to add: More than just a resource like water, more than that which flows from us and to us and through us, love – chesed – is the foundation of this world. Love is the ground that we build and rebuild with each gesture, with every small act.

One of my favourite Hebrew songs is called Olam Chesed Yibaneh. The lyrics are just these three words, repeated. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. Meaning: we will build this world from love.

Let’s hold onto this possibility for ourselves, and for one another. Olam chesed yibaneh – we can build this world out of love.

Join me.

Yom Kippur Afternoon Sessions 2018

AARC Yom Kippur practice is to have afternoon sessions of learning, discussion, meditation, and song between the morning service which ends about 2pm and our community Yizkor service, which begins at 5:30pm.  The hour-and-a-half sessions are at 2:15 to 3:30pm and 3:45 to 5pm.

Workshop led by Rev Joe Summers and Anita Ruben-Meiller

Poor People’s Campaign in Washtenaw County

Justice, justice, you shall pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:18-21)

2:15-3:30pm

In this time of increased exposure to, and awareness of, the injustices in our world, our country, our state and our community, we may feel called upon more than ever to engage in activities and causes that promote justice. I know I was when I was exposed to a presentation by Rev. Joe Summers and others about the Poor People’s Campaign in March of this year.  Please join me and Rev. Summers to hear about the local and national impact of this past Spring’s 6-weeks of action, “the Call for a Moral Revival” and to find out how the Washtenaw County chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign is moving forward to have an impactful presence as we head towards midterm elections.


Text study led by Michal and Josh Samuel

Jonah, the very odd prophet

What is the book of Jonah trying to tell us?

2:15-3:30pm

 

 


Sing, Chant, Walk led by Deb Kraus

3:45-5pm

For the past two years on Yom Kippur afternoon, I have found myself outside with other members, singing and chanting our way through the afternoon between services. It’s been deeply meaningful to us, and a great way to pass the time. You are welcome to join us for all or part of this time. I’ll provide some song sheets but we will also have machzors nearby to aid us in our efforts.  We’ll meet outside if we can and inside if we can’t.


Workshop led by Deborah Fisch

Reproductive Justice: Who is Offered Up to Molech?

Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech … (Leviticus 18:21)

3:45-5pm

 

 

Concern for children ranks high in our sacred texts, particularly around Yom Kippur. The Binding of Isaac (the Akedah) rejects child sacrifice, in contrast to prevailing custom at the time. This rejection is codified by the verse in Leviticus.

Fast forward several thousand years to see what Jewish law and American law have to say about the primacy of children’s welfare … and a figure who is absent in these conversations: the mother. Who knows what is best for the child? Whose welfare matters more? This workshop uses the lens of Reproductive Justice to examine law and custom around pregnancy and childbirth. The mother/birthing person and fetus: whose rights prevail?

Yom Kippur, 2017

Our Yom Kippur services are open, ticketless, and accessible to all. Services will be led by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner and are musical and participatory. Services are held at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, the red brick building on the southeast corner of Ellsworth. More details here.

Fri., Sept. 29, Kol Nidrei, 6:45 gathering and candlelighting, service begins at 7pm

Sat., Sept. 30, Yom Kippur Morning and Torah service, 10 am – 2 pm

 Children’s Service, 10:30 – 11:30 am

Afternoon Workshops, 2:15 – 5:00 pm Workshop Descriptions

Yizkor, 5:15 – 6:30 pm, A non-traditional service offering mourners the opportunity to share some words about the person they lost. (Please plan on spending no more than 5 minutes, so all may participate)

Ne’ilah/Shofar/Havdalah, 6:45 – 7:45 pm

Break-the-fast, 7:45 or when 3 stars appear. Reservations are closed now.

Yom Kippur Workshops 2017

It’s our Yom Kippur tradition at AARC to have several afternoon sessions for study, meditation, and discussion. This year, there will be three sessions; two from about 2:15 to 3:30 pm, and one from 3:45 to 5 pm.

 

 

Barbara Boyk Rust

Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day
led by Barbara Boyk Rust
2:15pm

One of the blessings of Yom Kippur’s fast is the cleansing, purifying and opening we experience as we abstain from food and other routines.   Giving ourselves over to a day of prayer and reflection in community affords us a unique opportunity to deepen our spiritual contact.  Through sacred Hebrew chant and meditation this time together will support our entering a state of deep meditative consciousness to quiet our mind that we might hear the still small voice within and receive guidance for the year that is beginning.

 

 

Margo Schlanger

American Immigration
hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger)
a discussion led by Margo Schlanger
2:15pm

Margo Schlanger will facilitate a discussion on American immigration enforcement and the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger). Margo is a member of AARC and a law professor whose recent work has focused on challenging the Trump Administration’s ramped-up immigration enforcement; she is counsel in federal cases challenging the administration’s “Muslim ban” executive order and its effort to deport hundreds of Detroit-area Iraqi nationals who have been here for decades.

 

Danny Steinmetz

 Jewish burial and mourning practices
a workshop led by Danny Steinmetz
3:45pm

Over several millenia, Jews have developed distinctive practices for dealing with death.  Traditionally, Jews do not leave the deceased unattended before burial, and use simple shrouds and coffins. After burial the focus shifts to the mourners and their obligations to console and care for mourners. The presentation will cover some of these practices (as well as their origin and rationale) and consider implications for a Reconstructionist community. The presentation will be by Danny Steinmetz is an ex-rabbinical student and a former chair of the AARC board. 

 

Commit to Confront Racism

Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Nathan MartinIn August 2014, an African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. One of my students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was experiencing considerable distress over the shooting. She is partnered with a person of color who is from Ferguson. At the time, I sought to respond as best as I could. I reached out to the student and together we composed an email about ways people could show up at demonstrations or to send tzedaka to the organizers of protests then happening in Ferguson. Yet, I still felt somewhat helpless and ineffective in the wake of it all.

For the last two years, we have witnessed a replay of this unfortunate type of violence again and again. Deb Kraus, in her introduction to the Unetane Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashannah, helped us to take note of the many black lives that have been cut short through police shootings.

As a liberal Jew, I grew up with a narrative of how Jews were allied with and instrumental in helping to fight for civil rights in the U.S, particularly the American south. And how we too, physically or symbolically, marched alongside our African American brothers and sisters to work for change. This remains an important part of my picture of American Jewish history of which I am proud.

And, I have come to realize that simply holding onto that picture is not enough. It’s not enough for this moment in which we find ourselves today. I have been asking myself what can I do to support our Jewish communities to be important players in the work toward eliminating institutional racism that people of color face everyday in America. Some of the hardest questions I have had to ask myself are: “what role do I play in perpetuating discrimination?” and “what can I do to make a difference?” These are difficult questions to face.

Part of my exploration has involved exploring ways in which I, as a white person, live with privilege that others don’t. I recently looked through Peggy McIntosh’s “white privilege checklist” –copies of which are in the back of the sanctuary—which asks you to note ways in which one carries privilege like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race,” or “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I could go on and list others, and encourage people to take a look at the list. But the point is that, as McIntosh notes, I as a white person carry around “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day.”

I am aware that I have absorbed the biases and stereotypes that are the unspoken currency of American culture. I grew up in a primarily white, middle class suburb in Seattle. I went to Jewish day school. And because of this limited upbringing, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the richness (and challenge) that comes with growing up in a more diverse community. Instead, I absorbed attitudes of distrust and fear of people who were different than me. And even today, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed person of color, I can see how challenging it is for me to stay engaged. I don’t want to have to face the imperfections of our country. I want to turn away rather than turn toward confronting potential bias. But now is the time to turn toward. I want to help create a country where my children, and their children, can grow up in less isolation than I did, and where we can eliminate the systematic privileging of whiteness.

And, I know that I am not alone in this struggle.

Our tradition reminds us daily to reach beyond ourselves. Our daily prayers ask us to imagine ourselves in the position of the most vulnerable in our society; they tell us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and from our long history of experiencing anti-Jewish oppression we know what it is like to be harassed, expelled, and killed. Our tradition teaches us the radical teaching of “tzelem elohim” that we are compelled to remember that we are all created in the image of the divine, that we are all infused with divine goodness. Our tradition thus constantly calls us to spiritual transformation which is a core part of how we transform the world. One small exercise that I sometimes do, and not frequently enough, is to walk down the street and every time I see another person I say in my head “be-tzelem elohim” “in the image of God.” Spiritual practice such as this is one way to harness the wisdom of our tradition towards change.

We also get to reach for each other in this important work. For several years, I have been meeting regularly with a group of white men and women whose focus has been specifically on examining our own racism and how it limits us having the life we want to live. When we get together we listen to each other to share where it is difficult to notice our privilege, where we appreciate our efforts for combating racism, and talk about how we are doing building relationships with people of color in our lives. I also participated in a race dialogue last week as part of a training to facilitate challenging conversations where I listened to the messages that African Americans received about white people growing up. These are not easy conversations to have but they are important. And It is heartening to notice that more of these kinds of meetings and conversations are happening. What would it be like for more of us in this coming year to explore ways in which we can have frank and challenging conversations about race, whiteness, and the ways in which we have had to settle for less because of how we both experience and perpetuate institutionalized racism?

Finally, I am conscious that we are living in a moment of an important national conversation on race, a conversation that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement, most recently with the issuing of the The Movement for Black Lives Platform. The platform, divided up into six categories, includes dozens of demands backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and organizations working on those issues. It includes issues of mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions which we will be exploring as a community tomorrow afternoon with Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

And while I do not want to downplay or diminish the hurt that many American Jews have experienced with regard to the platform’s position and wording around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of the document is focused on some practical and some visionary ways that we can change American society for the better. I hope that we can hold this complexity in mind as we do the work of supporting change here at home while also voicing our hope that situations elsewhere in the world are not overly simplified or essentialized in their characterizations. We have an opportunity here to commit ourselves to standing up, in whatever way we can, for a new direction in our country. A direction where we work not only for our own welfare but for the welfare of those who face the daily indignities of personal and institutional discrimination.

Yom Kippur is an important moment in our Jewish year to not only take a close look at our individual drifting from the mark in which we set for ourselves. It is also a moment for us to take a careful look at how we as a society are fulfilling our obligations to support those who are vulnerable to discrimination. It is a time when we re-commit to act in addition to pray.

The Untene Tokef prayer which I talked about on Rosh Hashannah hints at this as well. The prayer notes that works of justice, of tzedaka, lessen the harshness of the decree. We need to enter this new year with the faith and the hope that our tzedek work, our work to right societal wrongs will lessen the harshness of the decree for ourselves and others in our country.

My challenge to all of us tonight is simple.

What is a concrete step you can envision taking in your personal and communal tzedek work that will move us towards a fairer, more just, and more loving and welcoming country for everyone? What can you see yourself doing in your own life to have the conversations about how racism has affected you? What would you need to do this year to be able to come back next high holidays and say, “yes, I made some important progress this past year. It’s not done, but I can be pleased with how I am contributing.”

There is a parable in the Talmud that seeks to answer the question of why the blessing over bread is given such high status among Jewish blessings. The parable talks of a king who has two sons, each of whom he gives an equal amount of harvested flax and wheat and is given the instruction to guard these items. One son builds a storehouse and puts the bundles of flax and wheat under lock and key. The other son takes the flax and processes it into a beautiful linen tablecloth and takes the bundles of wheat and processes them into two beautiful challot. The king rewards the son who took the time and attention to take the raw materials he provided and enhance their meaning and ritual beauty.

As a Jew one of the things I am particularly proud about is the way my people have made the righting of inequality central to our being in the world. The opportunity to do tzedek work in our world can be likened to the children of the king being asked to guard the wheat and flax. Will we take the opportunity to weave these materials into something more beautiful, to help create more equitable ways in which we can live together and share in the benefits of society? Or will we simply build walls around the status quo?

In the coming year may we all be called to harvest and transform the brokenness so that we may live into our commitment that all of us are created in the divine image.

Gut Yontiff

Refugees and Returning to Our Best Selves

deb-fieldYom Kippur talk by Debbie Field

The Avodah service during the afternoon of Yom Kippur has its origins in an ancient temple ritual where the high priest sacrificed a bull to atone for the sins of himself, his household, and the world as a whole. In a radically reconstructed version of this service, I want to talk to you about a project of mine that engages all three levels of the Avodah: self, community, and world.

But before I describe that project, I want to reassure everyone here on two accounts. First, I am not going to talk about sins, but about atonement. And I am using the understanding of atonement that Rabbi Nathan provided in his talk on Rosh Hashanah; that is atonement as teshuvah, as a return to our best selves. Second, I have not redefined myself as high priest, and I am not speaking from an exalted position of holiness. Instead, I want to frame this talk with the line from Pirkei Avot/Sayings of the Fathers that many of you know: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work of creation, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” So, I’m speaking to you simply as somebody trying not to desist.

I’m going to start with a story. I teach at a small college a little south of here. I have a very nice colleague in the chemistry department who is originally from Syria. One day a few years ago, he stood up in the faculty meeting and asked us all to pray for his country. And everybody said, oh how sad, how sad and then we went back to our lives.

But as the news got worse and the refugee crises began to intensify, I kept thinking about his plea for our prayers. There are lots of different kinds of prayers and ways to pray; for example, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel got back from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was asked if he had had time for prayer and he answered, “I was praying with my feet.” As Jews, we are obligated to help refugees: in the Torah there are 36 separate reminders that we must help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So, as a feet praying kind of Jew, I asked myself how I, as an individual, could pray for my colleague’s country and the people escaping from it. I also wondered how I could engage my campus community.

My first attempt was to suggest that our college house and feed a refugee family, as campuses around the country have started doing as part of a movement called Every Campus a Refuge.  I wrote a proposal that met with a curt refusal, so I redirected my energies. Eventually, the solution I came up with was to design a new course on Refugees in Modern History, which I am teaching this semester. The class includes a service learning component through a fledgling nonprofit organization called Paper Airplanes Tutoring. My students are tutoring Syrian refugees now living in various countries using Skype and Facebook. The goal is to help the Syrian young people improve their English so they can pass the language exams required for university admission. But Paper Airplanes Tutoring, and my class, also have broader goals.

According to the UN, there are 6.6 million refugees internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria, totaling over 11 million Syrian refugees. The United States has taken in just over 10,000; by contrast there are 2.7 million in Turkey. Last November after attacks in Paris, a Bloomburg News poll showed that 53% of Americans were against admitting any Syrian refugees, with an additional 11% saying they supported admitting only Christian Syrians. In the face of this huge refugee crises and our country’s opposition to helping, my aspiration is to change attitudes.

I have learned through many years of teaching that you can’t change people’s minds by railing at them. But through reading, discussing, and the investment in teaching one particular refugee, I hope that my students will see Syrian refugees as products of particular historical circumstances not of their own making, like the other refugees we have been studying in class: Jews and Palestinians, Vietnamese, Somalis, and Bosnians. More importantly, I hope my students will make individual human connections with their tutees and that the sympathy and understanding that results will ripple outward as they talk about their experiences with their friends and their parents and their communities.

I think this has started to happen. In her teaching log, one of my students described how surprised she was at how much she had in common with her student and she admitted she had assumed his culture would be alien and backward. She wrote: “We are so quick to judge others even though they are so much like ourselves; usually it is a mere difference in circumstances. I wish more people could see things this way, but I am glad that this opportunity of talking with my tutee has provided me with the human element to reevaluate my beliefs and change my current assumptions about other groups of people.”

What I’m doing is quite small. It comes out of my own desire to pray, if not with my feet, then with my syllabus, so that what I do every day can be part of repairing the world. There is so much broken in the world, but this Yom Kippur, I am trying to hang on to hope that my small, individual, pedagogical teshuvah is reaching outward to campus, community, nation, and world.

paper-airplanes-logo

Marcy’s Break-Fast Pear Plum Kugel, with Ricotta and Thoreson Farm Apples

marcys-kugelby Marcy Epstein

This is a no-holds-barred, creamy sweet kugel (noodle pudding) that necessitates a good amount of improvisation. In other words, I made this up. There are two conventional kugels Ashkenazim have turned to for over a century– the sweet apple and raisin variety, and the even more common starch-salty kugel of matzah meal, potato, leek or just plain cream sort that serves as accompaniment to a main course.

Because I made this kugel toward the end of Yom Kippur, I aimed for the happy fusion between the two, the dessert you eat as an entree, something to fill a stomach after ten servings of contrition. I combined a salty, creamy starchiness with many eggs and the earthy tang of sweet and earthy fruits. I reconstructed the tradition of eating new fruit of the fall harvest, taking t’shuvah to mean the literal turning of the spoon, I prepared noodles, ricotta cheese custard, and a great combination of fruits I doubt can be exactly replicated: this year’s extra sweet fresh Italian plums, some Bartlett pears, and (learning from Nancy and Drake Meadow how to set up jars and jars of local fruit) fresh raspberries, strawberries from Tantre Farm, serviceberries gleaned from outside a hospice, and Lodi apples gathered from a wild edge of Thoreson Farm (ironically, this farm was first to cultivate cherries in Michigan, but I only had dried cherries about, and dried fruit Kugel is a whole ’nuther casserole.) As I mentioned, improvise. Look to this recipe with open invention, an invitation into the sweet coherence of a signature on baker’s parchment in life’s divine cook book. The secret of kugel is in its ingredients and coherence.

As for coherence, I had a spiritual and practical problem. Homemade noodles would have made this recipe sound that much more home grown, true to humble roots. But practically, it was already torture not to taste the kugel while fasting– to make homemade noodles would have done me in and tripped me up. (I read the al Chet while the kugel cooked.) Wide store bought egg noodles were used instead.

pawpaw5cropped

If you really want to stretch this recipe in another locavore way, hang out with Allison Stupka and Harry Fried, and perhaps you, too, can be enthralled to the seasonal Michigan Paw Paw and its light, complex custard– this fruit could carry the kugel on its own.

One more note: this is not the kugel of my humble roots–that is a fantastic suburban pineapple kugel that I used to make with my mother, Ruth. Among the many things I turned over with the spoon was how I missed making this kugel with her. Mind you, I did most of the making, and she would talk with me, take or make calls to people from our JCC, or tell me about her hayday of hosting Hadassah meetings with this and that. Those are the missing ingredients of my own kugel, the kavanah of turning and folding, the awkward but satisfying slops where the cream and salt hit the fruit. It is in the spirit of lost-ness and return that I dedicate this little kugel to my mother and to Karen, Debbie Zivan’s mother, whom we lost this past month. I was lucky enough to share the holy days with her, to eat kugel with her, and to feel her Jewish motherliness when I could not be with my mom. So this recipe is for them and for yours.

Ingredients:
Salt, one big pinch
Butter, salted, two pats
1/4 cup Olive oil
1 bag of wide egg noodles
1 healthy cup sour cream
1 healthy cup ricotta cheese
3 tbsp of strawberry cream cheese
3 tbsp of regular cream cheese
1/2 cup milk
6 eggs
Two pears, diced
8-10 Italian (prune) plums
One pint jar of preserved fruit: mine  was apples with raspberries and serviceberries. Apple sauce can work in a pinch.
Honey to taste.

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set a couple of quarts of water with pinch of salt to boil. Add egg noodles when water is just at a boil, watch for 4-5 minutes, turn off heat and let sit. In a large mixing bowl, add cream cheese and microwave 1 minute till soft. To this, add and turn over a little milk, sour cream, a pat or two of salted butter, olive oil, eggs, vanilla, ricotta cheese, salt, and honey and cinnamon to taste. This mixture should prove to be nearly the mass of the noodles. Strain but do not rinse noodles. Add to a large casserole dish and have another smaller dish nearby in case you can make an extra for someone special. Core and chop pears. Pit and chop half the plums, leaving several halves intact. Fold cheese mixture into pan of noodles and turn. Fold canned fruit into the pan and turn. Fold chopped fruit into the pan and turn. Don’t worry about a topping for this kugel, the starch and oil in the recipe keep it from sticking (as long as you don’t over oil it), and it should have crunchy, pliant noodles on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Check to see if the custard has formed by putting in a knife and seeing it come out relatively clear of batter. Let the kugel sit a little before serving. It is best served luke warm.

Ideas for kugel are most welcome here on the AARC blog, and I can use suggestions before I expand this entry for my little Tumblr blog, New Jew Food.

 

Our Yom Kippur Workshops in the Washtenaw Jewish News

As is our tradition at AARC, between services on Yom Kippur we have several workshops where we can together study, meditate, and discuss. This year, there will be three sessions.  From 2:15 to 3:30 pm Barbara Boyk-Rust will lead “Soul Nourishment: Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day” and Ellen Dannin will lead “Yonah – It’s Much More than Just a Whale.” From 3:45 to 5 pm, Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey will lead a conversation about the modern experience of imprisonment, and what kind of conditions–physical and programmatic–create the best chance of t’shuvah.  All are welcome to join any of these workshops, whether or not you are attending services with us.

Thanks to Jonathan Cohn for writing this up for the Washtenaw Jewish News:

wjn-oct-16-web

Yom Kippur Workshops 2016

It’s our Yom Kippur tradition at AARC to have several afternoon sessions where we can together study, meditate, and discuss. This year, there will be three sessions; two from about 2:15 to 3:30 pm, and one from 3:45 to 5 pm.

One of the 2:15 sessions will be guided meditation, led by our member, Barbara Boyk-Rust, who writes:

Soul Nourishment: Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day.
As we fast and pray on Yom Kippur we are asked to be in more direct contact with our spirit and with our connection to God than any other day of the year. While we move toward this during the evening, morning, and late afternoon services, what assists us during the spaces between the services? A walk, a nap, a quiet conversation? Each may be of help. A different way of prayer is also fitting. It is a time of day when we may be longing for sustenance. Together we will create a form of soul nourishment through meditation and offering up a few sacred texts in chant. May this time augment and amplify the expression of our soul on this holy day.

Our member Ellen Dannin will facilitate a conversation about the Book of Jonah:

Yonah – It’s Much More than Just a “Whale”: We will share reading the story of Yonah / Jonah, with time for participants’ contributions, questions, thoughts. Feel free to bring your own texts.

At 3:45, you can choose between a walk, a chat with a friend, or whatever else moves you, and a session that uses Jonah, again, as a starting off point a conversation about solitary confinement. We’ll start with some materials from this T’ruah study guide (which is based on a Yom Kippur d’var member Margo Schlanger gave at AARC in 2013).  But we’ll move fairly quickly into the modern experience of imprisonment and examine the question, What kind of conditions–physical and programmatic–create the best chance of t’shuvah?  Our leaders for this session will be member Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

Ronald Simpson-Bey, leading Ann Arbor Yom Kippur workshop

Ronald Simpson-Bey

Ron is the Alumni Associate for JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), part of the steering team of the newly formed Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration in Michigan (MI-CEMI), and co-founder and advisory board member of the Chance For Life (CFL) organization in Detroit. He served 27-years in the Michigan prison system, where he founded many enrichment programs rooted in transformation, redemption, and self-accountability.  In the course of that time, he spent two years in solitary confinement. He was a jailhouse lawyer who got his conviction reversed by the courts and got himself out of prison.  He attended Eastern Michigan University, Mott Community College, and Jackson Community College, and he has worked as a staff paralegal at the former Prison Legal Services of Michigan.

On this day of atonement, join this workshop to better understand American imprisonment, and what kinds of change we need and can help with.

Mishkan/Sanctuary: Encountering the Sacred in Space and Time

Yom Kippur talk by Carole Caplan

sunsets-over-farmThe day outside is cool, but the bright sun filters through the trees and warms me every now and again. I can hear the rustle of the wind in the branches above, and the call of something further away, maybe a loon, making its way to more hospitable winter accommodations. The crackling of the leaves under my feet step after step, make it clear to me that out of nowhere and all too soon, fall has arrived.

Baba walks ahead of me, and my soul, battered and bruised from the turnings of seasons before, struggles to keep up with this wise man in every way. “I tend the path,” is all he says to me, and I wonder, if I am here to learn from him, how or why or when. We walk quietly together, yet completely alone, for a long time, step after step.

The woods grow deeper and I can smell the moss on untouched earth in this old wood forest that has stood here longer than I will even be alive. Baba moves a tree limb that has fallen in our way. Come this way he motions, and without words I hear him say, “I tend the path, Carole, for you.”

Step after step we make our way along the edge of the forest to an opening that overlooks a large field. Its expansiveness holds the possibility of future crops, of dreams, of desires, of growth, of success, of nourishment, of failure, of disappointment, of need, of drought, of lack; of death. I sense that all of these have happened here in this field before. Is it knowledge or preparation that makes the difference? Is it repentance or punishment? Is it chance or luck? I hear no answers, and quickly retreat back to the woods, overwhelmed by the acknowledgement that so many things will always remain outside of my control.

How is it that I have found myself here…here in this place…following a monk through the woods? I know I am searching. I know I am completely lost, yet I know I am somehow exactly where I need to be. Truly, this must be grace cradling me in her strong and loving arms.

My soul, that which time has completely walled off and simultaneously entirely exposed, begins to soften. I feel compelled to stop and lean against a tree too big for my arms to wrap around.

I watch as Baba walks ahead step by step. And then it happens. Through the deafening silence and the tears streaming down my face, I hear clearly and loudly what I never even knew I had been longing to hear… “I tend the path, Carole—and it is enough for me to do just that.” It was a simple but elusive validation. A much needed directive, urging me on. It is enough just to be. It’s not about how much you can do. Enough just to walk. Not to always be striving, struggling, hurrying, worrying to get somewhere. Not about what you can produce. Enough just to tend that which is in front of us on our path with our time, our talent, our hearts, and yes, with our broken souls.

Baba and I turn to head back to the others making lunch at the central house. In a wordless flash, I recognize this as a magic moment−a door through which I have passed and will have been changed forever. I don’t know how it is that I have found myself here in these woods, but I do know that here I have somehow found myself renewed.

So, this I know: I am here to tend the path. The path that has led me to a farm outside of Ann Arbor where I tend the gardens, and know it to be “enough.” The soil there outside my door holds the seeds that become the plants that provide the fruits that adorn the tables that I am being called to set–and this cycle nourishes every part of me. I hope you will visit me sometime. You see, there is a path there that wanders through the growing things that turn with the seasons. And perhaps once there, you’d like to join me, step-by-step, for a walk.