TC Community 2020

A gathering place for all of us in the Torah Circle community to stay connected. At this time of social distancing, we’re doubling down on social connecting! We invite you to use this community blog space for sharing:

  • Personal reflections about life here, at this moment.
  • Torah thoughts, insights, commentaries.
  • Personal and family news.
  • News of upcoming Jewish events.

To post, just scroll down to the bottom. And we invite you to respond to what others are sharing.

Looking forward to your news and reflections!

9 thoughts on “TC Community 2020

  1. Aryae Post author

    Excerpt from Holy Beggars
    When Wendy and I visited Debbie Shapiro (called “Judi” in the book) and her husband Dovid in Jerusalem in 2003.

    Ramot Polin, Jerusalem, Israel — December 2003

    Wendy and I feel self-conscious as we wander uncertainly along the paths that curve through the low condo clusters of Ramot Polin, perched on the hills high above the northwest corner of Jerusalem. People stare at us. Everything is hexagons, and there are no right angles anywhere, not even in the streets or sidewalks. There are no signs or numbers to tell us where we are.

    This is a neighborhood of Haredi families—the most strictly religious segment of Israeli society. We see men in a long black coats and black hats, black pants and black shoes, and boys dressed like their fathers. The women and girls, walking separately from the men, wear skirts down to their ankles and have their heads covered, either with scarves or wigs, so no hair is showing.

    Wendy and I are wearing our ski jackets, mine black, hers pink. I’m wearing khaki pants, and Wendy is wearing one of the long skirts she brought for these occasions. I’m wearing a small, black kippah such as might be worn by Orthodox men who are more moderate, less strictly religious. Wendy is wearing her black hat, but it doesn’t stop her thick, wavy, light brown hair from spilling luxuriantly out the sides.

    I call Judi from my cell phone. She wants to know where we are. I don’t have a clue. She’s wandering around with her cell phone while we wander around with ours. I haven’t seen Judi in over 30 years, and I’m trying to imagine what she looks like now. The first time she came to the House, she was a thin, 14-year-old girl with a full head of black curls, dressed like a suburban high school girl’s fantasy of a Haight-Ashbury hippie.

    “I think I see you!” says Judi on the phone. She sounds excited. Her voice reminds me of the high school girl. I look up. At first I don’t see anything. Then I notice, on the second story walkway one building away, a grandmother holding a phone is waving at us.

    Wendy and I climb the stairs up to where Judi is. She smiles and doesn’t avoid eye contact with me. Although the rest of her has changed, her lively intelligence is still there in her eyes. She greets Wendy warmly by grasping her hands. Judi is very curious and very loquacious. That also hasn’t changed. She asks us question after question. We all talk and laugh as she leads us to her condo. Inside, the rooms are small and filled with the family’s stuff, but the unfamiliar angles create the feeling of additional space. She’s apologetic about the space; they’re still reorganizing since the last of her children moved out.

    Judi brings us into her husband Dovid’s study. Dovid is a thin, scholarly, frail looking man with a long, gray beard, surrounded, almost buried at his desk, by tall piles of books and papers. His quiet, almost ethereal manner makes a dramatic contrast with the solid, energetic presence of his wife. He pushes his chair away from the desk, stands up, reaches out his hand to shake mine, and nods at Wendy without making eye contact.

    I ask Dovid about his work. He smiles, then looks down, and mentions a number of medieval Hebrew manuscripts that he is restoring. I am not familiar with any of them. There are crumbling sheets of parchment and paper, some over 400 years old, where the writing is barely discernable. Using a variety of technologies and tools of interpretation, he reconstructs the actual text as it was originally written, and provides scholarly comments and references to assist in understanding it.

    As their children have left home, Judi has been getting into her career as a writer. She writes inspirational stories about people who experience God in their lives, for publication in religious magazines. It occurs to me with grudging admiration that, for all the limits and barriers of being a woman, mother, and grandmother in the Haredi world, she is much further along in her writing career than I am in mine….

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  2. Aryae Post author

    Freedom in Prison:
    A Story of my Great-Grandfather

    As I knock on the door of Grandpa Max’s apartment on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx in the fall of 1956, I’m feeling a little nervous. This is an important visit, and the first time I’ve come on my own from New Jersey, without my parents, by bus and subway, to see him.

    I’m flooded with memories of my early childhood in the 1940s. He lived in this same apartment back then, on the second floor, with Grandma Minnie before she passed away. My mom and dad and I and my little brother lived up on the fifth floor. When we went to visit them, we’d go to the elevator and press “2.” Then we’d get out, walk down the hall, and knock on their door. When Grandma Minnie let us in, we could smell the food in the kitchen.

    Their living room had high bookshelves filled with books of all sizes and colors, hundreds of them. Grandpa Max never had any formal schooling beyond age 12 in the old country. At age 15 he was able to get a steamship ticket and travelled alone to America, not speaking a word of English, seeking a better life. By age 20 he was running his own successful business, a dress factory. He was able to bring his parents, and all of his brothers except the oldest, who wanted to stay in Europe, to America. Whenever he wasn’t working, Grandpa Max loved to read. He had an insatiable desire for books and learning.

    Grandpa Max opens the door, smiles at me, puts his hands on my shoulders and invites me into the living room. We sit at the table, where he’s prepared fruit and cookies, club soda, and Coca Cola.

    “You’re going to be bar-mitzvah soon,” he says, “so it’s time for us to talk.”

    That’s when I learn the story of my great-grandfather. His Hebrew name is Shmuel, which translates as Samuel, or Shmiel in Yiddish. My brothers and I have been taught to call him Great-Grandpa Shmiel. He is over 90 and lives alone, not far from here, having outlived three wives. Every morning he walks to the nearby shul, where he spends the day studying Talmud, the 63-volume compendium of Jewish law and theology that was historically the centerpiece of Jewish life.

    “When my father, your great-grandfather, was a young man in the old country,” says Grandpa Max, “in what was then Austria-Hungary, he had to leave home and earn his own living. The only skill he had was his learning in Torah and Talmud. So he would walk from town to town and offer himself as a melamed, a tutor, to the children of wealthy Jewish families.”

    In one little town there was a pious family with three girls. In those days there was no formal education for girls, but their parents wanted them educated anyway, so they hired Shmuel. There was a spare bedroom in the basement where he could stay. He would teach them reading and writing, sacred texts from the Torah and prayers, as well the laws and customs that girls from pious Jewish families were expected to follow.

    Shmuel got along well with the girls, especially with the oldest, Miriam, who was just a year younger than he. Sometimes, after the lessons were over, before her mother called her to do her chores, Miriam would stay for a few minutes to talk with Shmuel. They discovered they had a lot in common.

    Then Shmuel would go to the synagogue to spend the rest of the day praying and studying Talmud with the older men there.

    One day two officers from Emperor Franz Joseph’s army arrived. The army needed more recruits to send to the war front in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and these officers were traveling through the countryside to forcibly recruit Jewish young men and boys. They informed Hershel, the girls’ father, that Shmuel was required to go with them. Hershel pleaded with them, saying that they needed him here, and pointing out that Shmuel would not make a very good soldier. The officers pointed out that things didn’t go well for Jews in villages where people did not obey the emperor’s orders.

    So Shmuel had to pack his belongings, go with the officers, and he was sent to the Bosnian front.

    When he got there, they discovered that Hershel was right: Shmuel was really not great soldier material. So they made him a prison guard, in a prison where they were keeping Bosnian soldiers. And they made it clear: as long as no prisoners escaped, Shmuel would be free to run the prison as he liked. But if anyone escaped, he would be punished.

    How was Shmuel, a naive young kid who knew nothing about prisons, going to run a prison full of battle-scared soldiers?

    He offered the prisoners a deal. I’ll leave your cells unlocked and let you guys run the prison, he told them. But your part of the deal is, you’ve got to take care of each other, serve the food on time, keep the place clean, and make me look good. And by the way, don’t even think of escaping. You know what those guys with guns out there will do to you if you try.

    And maybe when this war is over, we can all go home again.

    The prisoners agreed. Shmuel, who had managed to pack a couple of Talmud volumes with him, spent his days studying the sacred texts. And when the officer in charge came to inspect, the prisoners would be back in their cells, everything would be clean and in order, and Shmuel would get high marks for his good work.

    The European wars and intrigues of the late 19th century continued. Soldiers on all sides killed and died. Fall turned into winter, and winter into spring. Soon it would be Passover, the time when Jews everywhere celebrate the ancient story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. Our rabbis and sages tell us: don’t read this story as being just about that generation; this is also about your liberation, and everyone’s liberation, right now.

    As a devout Jew, Shmuel was very concerned. The most important mitzvah (spiritual practice) for celebrating our freedom is eating matzah on Passover, the way our ancestors did when they baked the dough on their backs in the desert. But there was no way to get matzah here at the front.

    Shmuel worried and worried about this until finally he came up with an idea. He would slip away from the camp, hop a train, and go back to spend Passover with Hershel and his family.

    So he rounded up the prisoners and told him his plan. “All you need to do is keep running the prison the way you have been,” he told them. “With God’s help, I should be back in a couple of weeks, and everything will be fine.” And he gave them the keys.

    When Hershel saw Shmuel at his doorstep, he nearly fainted. “What are you doing here?” he said.

    Shmuel explained his situation. “Can I stay with you for Passover?” he said.

    “What! Are you crazy? Do you have any idea of what Franz Joseph’s soldiers would do to us all if they find you here?”

    They talked. Hershel could see that this young man didn’t have much choice. “Look,” he said finally. “Stay with us here for the week of Passover. Eat matzah with us. Join us for our Seders (ritual Passover meal). And maybe while you’re here, you can teach the girls some rabbinic commentaries about Passover. But please lay low, and don’t let yourself be seen by the neighbors. And at the end of the week, you must go back.” Shmuel agreed.

    One evening as the week was coming to an end, Shmuel and Mariam found themselves alone outside the house. By themselves, away from everyone else, standing under the stars, the world felt very peaceful. They had both been thinking a lot about each other in the months he had been away. And even though they had never talked to each other about love, they both knew now: they loved each other and wanted to be married.

    “I’ll ask your father tomorrow,” he said.

    The next day Hershel nearly exploded. “What, are you crazy?” he said. “You have to get back to the front, and you have to do it now!” Miriam was standing quietly at the other side of the room, looking down.

    “I’ll tell you what,” Shmuel said. “What if I leave quietly now, go back to the front, and stay there until I’m properly discharged. When I come back, may I marry your daughter Miriam?”

    Hershel looked across the room at Miriam. She looked up at him. “If you can manage to stay out of trouble, and come back in good health and with no problems with the army, and if Miriam wants to wait for you,” he said looking at her, “then I will consent and bless the two of you to be married at that time.” Miriam smiled at her father, and at Shmuel.

    “So a couple of days later, your Great-Grandpa Shmiel was back at the prison,” says Grandpa Max. “The prisoners were all there, and everything was fine. They handed him back the keys. And the next day, as he sat down at his table, took out his Talmud book, and studied, the prisoners prepared breakfast.

    “Four years later he was discharged. When he showed up at my grandfather Hershel’s doorstep, my mother Miriam was still waiting for him. The next week they were married. Soon my oldest brother was born.”

    Grandpa Max is done speaking. We both sit there in silence. For the moment, there’s nothing more to say. In a way that I still can’t articulate, even today, he had prepared me for my bar-mitzvah.

    A couple of months later, after the religious service at Congregation Sons of Israel where we live in New Jersey, family and friends are streaming into the festivities room in back of the sanctuary, to congratulate me on my bar-mitzvah.

    The mood is festive, a celebration not just of me, but of the Jewish people. My parents and most of their generation here are the children of immigrants who came from Europe, like Grandpa Max did, in the early years of the 20th century, before World War I. My parents and their friends and relatives here are well dressed, well-off, working hard to be successful.

    We are the fortunate ones, the ones who avoided the Holocaust. But most of us also have family members who were not so fortunate, like Grandpa Max’s oldest brother, the one who stayed in Europe, who died in a concentration camp just two months before I was born. Our people have been through so much trauma and suffering, generation after generation, century after century. So the most important thing now is the new future ahead of us here in America.

    Then I see Great-Grandpa Shmiel. He came to my bar-mitzvah with Grandpa Max. He’s walking toward me, a little unsteadily, with a wrapped present in his hands. I walk up to him and give him a hug. His hands are shaking as he gives me the present.

    “Open it,” he says. I nod, and lead him with me to a table, where we both sit down, and I open the present. I see that he has given me is a pair of tefillin. These are ritual leather boxes that contain tiny scrolls, with the most sacred Hebrew prayers, inside. And the most sacred of all:

    Shema Yisrael
    Adonai Eloheinu
    Adonai Echad

    Listen Israel
    God is God
    God is One

    Traditional Jewish practice — once we are bar-mitzvah — is to say the morning prayers every day and tie one of these to our arm, so that God’s Oneness will be present in all our actions, the other between our eyes, so that we will see God’s Oneness in others, and everywhere we look in this world.

    Great-Grandpa Shmiel looks at me and smiles. “I hope you will wear them everyday,” he says.

    Ironically that’s the furthest thing from my mind. As I’ve reached ritual spiritual adulthood, I no longer believe in the God I was taught to believe in as a child. I’m no longer interested in the traditional prayers and rituals. I need to wander on my own for a while, find my own way.

    I put my arms around him and we hug each other. “Thank you so much Grandpa,” I say, “for connecting me with our history and bringing it into the present. I’ll do my best.”

    It will be many years before I start to pray in Hebrew again, much less wear tefillin. But eventually, many years later, I will. Not in the same way he did. But together with so many others at this time in history, of my own faith and others, to continually seek and celebrate the Oneness of God which connects us all.

    My great-grandfather’s tefillin today sit on a shelf right next to my bed. And whether I wear them or not, I see them every day. And when I see them I remember. I picture him studying his sacred books while the prisoners are running the prison. And remember that regardless of any kind of prison where we may find ourselves in this world, we can choose, by tying the Oneness of God to everything we do and everyone we see, freedom.

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  3. Dan Howard

    What I’ve Learned About Love
    by Dan Howard

    1) Love is all there is.

    2) If I am looking for someone to “complete” me, I will find only disappointment.
    Although certainly imperfect, I am simultaneously complete just as I am.

    3) When I pursue Love, it eludes me. When I focus on service and my relationship with G*d, Love steps up to greet me.

    4) When I depend upon someone else to make me feel lovable, I have no real love to give. I cannot give what I do not have. As I learn to love myself, so am I able to authentically love others.

    5) I need to be cautious and vigilant of my expectations of another person. Unrealistic expectations invariably leads to resentments, impatience, frustration and judgement, all of which erode the quality of a relationship.

    6) Every relationship demands 200%: Each partner must be 100% present and 100% willing to do the work.

    7) To succeed in Love I must come from a place of strength, not weakness; from a place of abundance, rather than lack.

    8) The heart of G*d is always open and the Divine Heart beats within me. But it is a sentimental, false and cruel romantic conceit to believe that human hearts can remain open all the time. The heart is a valve. It opens and closes.

    9) Love is all there is.

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  4. Louise Lipsey

    I would like to make a recommendation for people to check out some of the daily zoom meditations, classes, etc that the Institute for Jewish Spirituality is offering: https://www.jewishspirituality.org

    And here is the trailer for Sustainable Nation, which I mentioned yesterday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH2_0F-flT8 This Israeli documentary is about how a few Israelis came up with ways to bring sustainable water solutions to drought conditions in Africa and India, here in CA as well as in Israel. (it appears to still be available to watch free on You Tube for Earth Day for the time being).

    And for some other climate related recommendations, these are a couple of awesome organizations doing great work:
    Greenpeace:
    *Greenpeace.org Their website has info about urgent issues, research, actions to take, etc. (and I personally really appreciate all their great plastic pollution work)
    Also here is the video for their virtual April firedrillfriday that has several interesting segments, including one that showed an aerial view of the close proximately of those less disadvantaged to oil drilling in LA) is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuvDaWO6L1s. (FUI Jane Fonda started firedrillfridays.com)

    *Rainforest Action Network:
    Ran.org is the website for the Rainforest Action Network.

    Also here are a few other climate related links people might like to know about:
    This is a link to an Israeli Earth Day Climate and Covid 19 interview – presentation that was held with 2 knowledgable environmental activists and professors: https://www.facebook.com/ISRAEL21c/videos/155336165913623/

    This link is to the videos for the first day of the recent 3 day virtual Earth Day Live happening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCRWxZ4uSN4

    And for anyone who didn’t hear it, here is the recording of Al Gore’s brief message during Earth Day Live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui06Hf_aMK

    Louise Lipsey, RN,MSW,CIE

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  5. Aryae Post author

    Reb Aryae’s Rules of Rebitude


    1. The more you grow, the less space you occupy.
    2. The less you say, the bigger your message.
    3. The more you know you don’t know, the clearer the guidance.
    4. The less you have, the more you have to give.

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  6. Wendy Berk

    Iyyar is a month particularly auspicious for healing. Rav DovBer Pinson writes that Iyyar is an acronym for Ani Hashem Rofecha- I am Hashem your healer. He also writes that Iyyar is the 8th month of the solar year beginning with Tishrei and that the number 8 is associated with healing, especially spiral healing.

    The number 6 is associated with linear healing when one changes an assisting illness or injury. The number 7 is associated with circular healing which is the the perfect natural cycle. Spiral healing includes linear healing as well as natural healing when we also realize that everything is perfect as it is. 8 is a paradox representing nature and transcendence of of nature and the unity of doing and being.

    The above teaching is from “The Month of Iyyar” by Rav DovBer Pinson.

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  7. Aryae Post author

    I recently came across a very interesting article by author and gift-economy advocate Charles Eisenstein in Daily Good, called, “Every Act a Ceremony.” It offers a distinction between ritual and ceremony that has very interesting implications for sacred community — such as the Torah Circle and our greater Bay Area Jewish Renewal Community — especially at this time. Got me thinking about things I can do to extend the realm of the sacred in my life.

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