December 22, 2006

Christmas "pearls" from my Christian friends

Santa and Unicorn (cloth painting, tied to a balcony)
in Wadi Nisnas, Haifa, Israel

Jean's message
Tamar . . . May we all bring peace to our hearts and to our worlds. This year we [the Bridgeview School in Cape Cod, Massachusetts] gave each member of the staff a “peace” bracelet with the word imprinted on it in seven different languages. And as always, to remember that it starts within.

Happy Hannukah and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! All celebrations of life and vigor and weakness and being given what we need. Love to you, and thank you for the love you send.
Jean [Christmas 2005]

Stephanie's message
Approaching Christmas 2006, in her engaging blog post, Finding Baby Jesus, Stephanie invited readers to “. . . make it a priority to seek out the baby Jesus.”

Stephanie piqued my curiosity, prompting me to ask —

Please share some of the process of that seeking out, and how you have come to understand baby Jesus. I imagine that elements of your response might offer to someone who is Jewish, me, the wisdom of your tradition.

Stephanie's reply —

Tamar - One of the things I like most about you is your sincere desire to dig deep and understand the values and thoughts of others. This will be a fascinating voice conversation, but for now . . .

Christmas and Easter are the two holiest days of the year for a Christian. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ, God's only son and our savior. In the Bible, Matthew 1:23, it says "The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son and they shall call him Emmanuel," a name which means "God is with us." This miraculous birth is the true reason for celebrating Christmas.

But, the meaning of Christmas has been expanded, twisted and turned to a point where many Christians, myself included, have often lost sight of what's important. Sure it's a joyous annual tradition to decorate a Christmas tree, attend holiday gatherings, purchase gifts for loved ones, write letters to Santa, drink eggnog, spray fake snow (OK, I won't go there) . . . and I truly LOVE this stuff. But without the birth of Christ and our ongoing pursuit to nurture our relationship with Him through prayer and actions, the annual traditions are meaningless.

What do I do to seek Him out? It's an ongoing journey for me, not just this time of year, but each day. I often get too caught up the day-to-day of life, but I have identified a few simple activities to help me keep Jesus in sight on my path.
  1. I made the decision to attend church regularly so I don’t have to decide if I want to go each Sunday morning. I go even if I don’t feel like going and I always leave with a good feeling.
  2. I put a bible beside my bed. Just seeing it there each day when I wake up and go to bed reminds me about what’s most important… my relationship with Jesus and the significance of my physical presence in this world to serve Him. When I pick it up, I flip around, land randomly and typically end up reading more than I intended.
  3. I read a great children's Bible, “The Rhyme Bible Storybook” by Linda Sattgast, to my children before bed. Simple stories. Great characters. Loads of action . . . from surviving a great flood to defeating a giant to walking on water. It's fun to read rhymes and it's a handy cheat sheet for understanding the big people's version.
  4. I pray everyday. I used to think my nanny was kooky for saying "Thank you, Jesus" at random points throughout the day. Now I do it, though not out loud. It’s comforting to know Jesus is with me throughout the day, so I try to keep him entertained and appreciated.
P.S. More often than not, He seeks me out when I’m doing something other than the activities listed above. I’m thankful for that.

Happy Hannukah and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
All celebrations of life and vigor and weakness.
Jean Rice (1946-2006)

Christmas Day service at Immanuel Church in Jaffa, Israel

December 19, 2006

Ohad is Bar Mitzvah!

This is it —
The big day
has come...

Tons and tons of
Mazal tov!!

We love you...
The Zamzamiot ———>
Eliana, Orit, Mevasseret, Inbal,
Adi, Racheli, Neta, Chanah-Gila

With this giant poster, cards, and multicolored ribbons and balloons, the Zamzamiot (B’not Sherut Leumi [National Service Girls] volunteers at Zichron Menachem) decorated Ohad's bedroom as a surprise two days before he was a Bar Mitzva.

Ohad and the Zamzamiot have become great friends since meeting at the internationally recognized prize-winning organization that has been supporting kids with cancer and their families in Israel since 1990.

For many months, Ohad had been preparing for his Bar Mitzva – studying the Torah portion and Haftara he would chant, and learning the texts' meanings and messages in the life of the Jewish people and in his own life. And, as noted in my previous blog entry, Ohad had also been learning about the leukemia he has been fighting and its meanings and messages in his life.

“Life experiences shape us,” Ohad opined to me recently. “When I meet children as young as age four in the hospital, I have great compassion for them because they don't understand why they must get treatments and take medicines they don't like. OK, I am young, too, though I understand, and it helps.”

Last Shabbat,
on a crisp sunny morning in Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, Pa'atei Mizrach synagogue was bursting with Ohad's adoring parents, siblings, grandparents, other family, friends, teachers, and neighbors. When the Torah was removed from the Ark, and brought to the podium, in a sweet, strong voice Ohad recited the blessings and chanted, section by section, the portions.

First, from the Torah —

א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו--בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. ב אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו; וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם. ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו--כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים. ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו--וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם. ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד, שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ. ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲלֵיהֶם: שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. ... — בראשית פרק לז

Meanwhile, Jacob settled in the area where his father had lived in the land of Canaan.
These are the chronicles of Jacob:
Joseph was 17 years old. As a lad, he would tend the sheep with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives. Joseph brought his father a bad report about them.
Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, since he was the child of his old age. He made [Joseph] a long colorful coat.
When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than all the rest, they began to hate him. They could not say a peaceful word to him.
Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.
Listen to the dream I had, he said to them. — Genesis 37-44:17

And then from the Haftara —

רָנִּי וְשִׂמְחִי, בַּת-צִיּוֹן--כִּי הִנְנִי-בָא וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְתוֹכֵךְ, נְאֻם-יְהוָה. ... וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר: לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת. — זכריה פרק ב

Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. ... This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the LORD of hosts. — Zechariah 2:14-4:7

We fool ourselves into thinking we know the future when we don't; into thinking that what appears true today will appear true tomorrow. Life holds much mystery. Meanwhile, we celebrate and we love.

December 08, 2006

With my first havruta, still learning after all these years

From Shimon, a handmade card and an aloe-vera-olive-oil-infused gift set
Today, I rode Bus 70 from Tel Aviv to Givat Shmuel where my friend Shimon crams eating and sleeping into his life; he is a doctoral student in psychology at Bar Ilan University. "I am fulfilling all the requirements of my department while adding my own curriculum in my major and beyond," explains my havruta, learning partner since 1999 when we met in the Atlanta Torah MiTzion program.

Visiting with Shimon is a gift of precious time with inestimable value. Though we are separated in age by decades, have widely different life experiences, and usually hold opposing religious beliefs and practices, our friendship celebrates the differences. We laugh much while trading ideas and references, from book titles to podcast subscriptions, and from updates on mutual friends and the upsides and downsides of living in two nations, Israel and the USA.

"Read Saʻarat nefesh [Burning Soul] by Yoram Yovel, one of my professors," Shimon replies to a question on mental illness and therapies in Israel. "Download a podcast of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg from the Speaking of Faith and Values" podcast channel, I instruct him as our free-wheeling discussion veers toward narratives, storytelling, and blogs. Before I catch the last bus to Tel Aviv (today is Friday, and Shabbat begins at sunset), we cram in a session on his laptop where I subscribe him to this podcast channel for a free downloadable weekly radio program featuring conversations with theologians, scientists, ethicists, and other thoughtful voices on religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Imagine my astonished delight while snacking on Shimon's treat — a chocolate-chip sweet, herbal tea (for him), and cappuccino (for me) in the lobby cafe of a residential skyscraper, when he drew from his briefcase two surprises — a handmade card and an aloe-vera-olive-oil-infused gift set! The card, a photo taken four years ago when we toured Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon's Jerusalem home, shows Shimon and me gazing at the glass-encased 1966 Prize in Literature gold medal and diploma. The back of the photo reads, as follows:

בס"ד [Aramaic abbreviation for "with Heaven's help"]

It has been almost 7 years since I first met you. Oh, and
it's also your birthday...
I guess we both deserve congratulations...
Happy birthday!

Thank you, dear Shimon: havruta, guide, humorist, role model, friend, teacher, comforter. May you continue going from strength to strength.

Related post

Wrestling with texts and observing shoes

December 02, 2006

Happy birthday to me!

A hand-painted card — tucked into an envelope and addressed in English and in Hebrew – arrived in my Tel Aviv mailbox minutes before my birthday. "May this year bring only joy and radiant being," penned Susanne, classy woman, talented painter, and two-time Tel Aviv roommate extraordinaire!

Thank you, Susanne, for your gifts, and thank you, everyone who has helped make this past year joyous and radiant for me. Together, you have been providing the yeast to help me raise, sustain, and spread joy and radiance in both democracies where I am privileged to vote!

And in both democracies, and elsewhere on the planet, where insanity reigns relentlessly as governments and citizens often brutalize the least among us, my birthday wish is for all beings peace and justice.

Peace, because I believe, as my hero Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." Justice, because, as my hero cautioned, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."