Stop and Smell the Rosemary

The Practice of Blessing Makes Life a Little Sweeter

Rabbi Meir taught, one should attempt to say 100 blessings a day, each day (Talmud Menachot 43b). These blessings range from affirmations of ritual behavior (lighting Shabbat candles or putting on tefilin) to those embedded within traditional thrice-daily prayer services to expressing gratitude for learning or the food we eat.  This last type, birchot hanehenin, blessings of enjoyment, extends to those things that bring pleasure or awe to other senses too: the sight of a beautiful sunset, the sound of crackling thunder or the fragrant scent of wild herbs.

Each summer for four summers, I get to spend meaningful time learning in Jerusalem as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.  This July, I had a flat in West Jerusalem’s German Colony.  Most mornings, before hours upon hours spent pouring over rabbinic and biblical sources or listening to (terrific but lengthy) lectures, I would go jogging on a rail-trail.  The Rakevet, originally tracks for the Ottoman-era steam locomotive train, winds its way through the Jerusalem hills from the original train station, past the basketball and soccer stadiums, to the Malcha Mall.  For years this now verdant pathway was simply a run-down anachronism, oxidized rail beds guarded by a chain link fence that divided the German Colony from Baka to the East.

Rosemary on Burg's back deck

As a habit during my run along the now-manicured lawns surrounding the repurposed trail, I would pause for just a moment each morning along-side one of the ubiquitous rosemary bushes that adorn the path (and much of Jerusalem).  Reaching down to rub the herb between my thumb and forefingers, transferring the intoxicating scent to my own body, I would raise from hand to my nose, recite the requisite blessing and inhale deeply – Blessed are you YHVH, Master of the Universe, who creates fragrant spices (atzei b’samim).  This notion of reciting 100 blessings a day.  Why?  It’s about cultivating an attitude of gratitude; making regular practice of thanksgiving elevates our sense of wonder at the miracle of life (and also has the inverse effect of mitigating cynicism).

Back in Baltimore, weather permitting, I continue to bike or run outdoors from my Reservoir Hill home many mornings. I run through Druid Hill Park and its surrounding neighborhoods.  I encounter fellow Baltimoreans jogging, grabbing the paper, walking their dogs, greeting the day and one another.  I run past tenderly cultivated flowering pots and herb-laden gardens.  Sometimes I stop and smell the rosemary – and when I do I say a blessing.  With over 300 murders a year in Baltimore city, with (understandable) anxiety about politics, endemic poverty, racism and more, intentionally peppering our days with blessing liberates us from cynicism and self-pity.

When my family and I first moved to Baltimore, we rented a house on Druid Park Lake Drive, next to a series of vacant and crumbling row homes.  One day, my son Shamir (age 3 or 4 at the time) and I were standing on our minuscule back deck overlooking a shambolic alley scene.  A smile spreading on his lips, he gestured exuberantly toward the house next door and said, “Look Abba, flowers!”  I strained to see what he saw and finally I noticed: amid a pile of bricks and broken glass, a few yellow dandelions strained toward the sunlight.  I saw rubble.  Shamir saw flowers.

The city is flowering in myriad ways whether we notice it or not.  Those who notice, blossom too.  Those who take it for granted or, worse, don’t bother to absorb the sights sounds and smells of that flourishing, “they soon wither like grass” (Psalms 37:2).  These days, we have a nicer back deck.  And of course we planted some rosemary.

A version of this piece will appear in the December issue of JMORE.

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The Season of Rejoicing

When we began to think about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood, one defined by a different set of principles and aspirations than most neighborhoods of Jews, we needed to consider the extent to which our intentional (not incidental) presence in Reservoir Hill would mean focusing on particular Jewish practices.  Initially, there was some anxiety about asserting our Jewishness in majority black spaces.  Would engaging our West Baltimore neighbors signal triumphalism at worst and, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige where well-intentioned people of privilege dominate minority spaces, subtly, if unknowingly, remaking them in their image?  Isn’t it our job, said some, to listen, learn and support — to champion allyship?

Tactically, these questions are important.  Too many of us in positions of power or influence assume our resources come with answers to questions we have not been asked.  Effective encounters begin with humility.  The problem with exclusively centering the other, though, is it doesn’t allow both parties to bring their full selves to the moment of encounter.  Educational Philosopher Parker Palmer writes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Finding joy in authentic connection and service is what drives our relational work in Reservoir Hill, and last month’s Whitelock Farm Harvest Festival was a great example.  For several years now, Beth Am/IFO and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council have cosponsored an annual Greens and Kugel cook-off.  It’s a food and culture sharing extravaganza bringing together Jewish and African American foods, but more importantly, Jews and non-Jewish African Americans.

Many years the harvest festival occurs on Sukkot when Jews also celebrate our fall harvest.  So this year, a congregant lent us a small sukkah to erect on Whitelock Street.  IFO (In, For, Of) and Beth Am board members volunteered to share plans and garner feedback about Beth Am’s renovation and expansion plans, and a few of us offered ecumenical lulav demonstrations.

Kugel maven Bonnie Guralnick with Beth Am ED Ted Merwin and his daughter Leah
Beth Am past president Jim Goodman does lulav demonstrations with Reservoir Hill neighbors
Jim Goodman and Senator Barbara Robinson

The scene had a historical elegance as Whitelock was once the pulmonary artery at the heart of Jewish Central-West Baltimore.  Now it forms Reservoir Hill’s verdant core with our urban farm, German Park Playground, a community garden and the new South Lots outdoor kitchen and community gathering space.  Sukkot is called “the season of our rejoicing,” a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest.  The annual greens and kugel cook-off won’t solve systemic inequities, it won’t erase racism or antisemitism and it won’t unmake decades of neglect that marked Whitelock’s long hiatus between Jewish or black owned shops and the community farm.  

And there is more work to be done: as the contest has gained in popularity it’s drawing fewer lower income entrants.  But it’s hard to deny the joy that manifests each fall in Reservoir Hill.  It’s not the prizes awarded that matter, but the realization of shared vocation.  “True vocation joins self and service,” writes Parker Palmer, which is to say it’s not about “…scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”

A version of this piece will occur in the November, 2017 issue of Jmore.

What to Do with the Pedestals?

The removal of Confederate statues is an opportunity to think about what stories need to be told next.

Recently, much of the country has been focused on the question of Confederate monuments, iconic tributes to a bygone and — most would say — nary-missed era.  As white nationalists and neo-Nazis exploit these statues to bolster support for their warped visions of American greatness, a number of cities around the nation have quickly mobilized to remove them.

Here in Baltimore, four monuments came down in August, under cover of night, leaving behind pedestals supporting only air, photonegative memories of horses and figures that once stood proudly on those plinths. Much of the conversation in the aftermath of the statues’ removal has been what to do with them?

Put them in a museum? A cemetery? Melt them down and turn them into black heroes like Thurgood Marshall or Harriet Tubman?

This is an interesting and worthy discussion, but I have a different question: What should be done with the pedestals?

Statuary has always been somewhat at odds with Jewish tradition. Idolatry is the closest thing we have to a cardinal sin because, as I shared last month, it strives to constrain a limitless God.

But this aversion to sculptures seems to have ebbed and flowed over time.  The Talmud records (Avodah Zara 44b) that none other than Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch of the Jewish community, would utilize a bathhouse decorated with a statue of Aphrodite!

Even Solomon’s Temple contained a possible violation of the Second Commandment that prohibits creating “… any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).

The Ark of the Covenant was adorned with cherubim while housing the very tablets on which the above words were inscribed.  In close proximity was a copper serpent, commissioned by God and fashioned by none other than Moses (Num. 21:8-9) until King Hezekiah destroyed it in the 8th century BCE (II Kings 18:4).

By the time of the Babylonian exile, the Ark itself had disappeared, and when the Second Temple was built, no replacement was made. The dimensions of the inner sanctum were the same, there was space for what was biblically understood to be God’s footstool, but for the next several hundred years, the Holy of Holies would house no earthly vessel, save for the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.

This historical progression could provide a template for considering the fate of Confederate pedestals. Surely, the Holy Ark and Stonewall Jackson are not analogous! But the notion of elevating ideas and values over things, of avoiding the temptation to worship the work of human hands, is central to monotheism.

Statues venerating chattel slavery serve only to reinforce the point.  What if, in the coming months and years, these sites undermine the very white supremacy that put them there in the first place?  Pedestals, with proper oversight, could become stages and canvases.  Theater troupes could perform on and around them, content that challenges viewers to confront our city’s legacy of racism.  Artists could create temporary installations atop the platforms, tributes to Baltimoreans, ideas and values pointing us toward a more just society.  Managing these exhibitions would be a good course correction for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts after its missteps surrounding this year’s book festival.

This is my suggestion, but I offer it with reservation and even trepidation. Whatever is ultimately done with both the statues and the pedestals on which they once stood, it must be the African American community that decides.  They are the majority of Baltimore’s population, forced to walk, jog or drive past these Confederate idols for more than a century.  They are the ones whose ancestors were the property of whites.

We Jews have never needed anyone to tell us how to memorialize the numerous sins visited upon our people over time. Black Baltimoreans, too, know their story well.

Face to Face

Justice begins next-door with seeing and being seen.

Years ago a bat mitzvah student challenged my then Chicago congregation to consider a twenty-first century question: Does God have a Facebook page?  Her contention was that God, as symbolic exemplar, craves real relationships and that Facebook and other social media which have the potential to foster relationships have also become a dangerous proxy for them.  The fullest example of a divine-human relationship is God’s with Moses, which the Torah tells us occurred, not through emojis or cat video affinity groups, but “face to face” (Deu. 34:10).  God doesn’t have a Facebook page because the Holy One wants to go deeper with us, and consequently encourages us to go deeper with one another, the kind of depth not likely achieved through a screen.

Arthur Aron (who happens to be my cousin) has done research to this effect, suggesting two people, even total strangers, are more likely to fall in love if they spend meaningful time looking into each other’s eyes.  In a widely read New York Times piece, writing teacher Mandy Lee Catron describes her attempt to employ Dr. Aron’s technique:  “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

Human beings need to be seen.  This is the impulse for social media, of course: if I can acquire enough likes and loves of my kids’ adorable pics on Instagram, then my contribution of them to the world matters.  Through the miracle of modern technology anyone, presumably everyone, all over the world can see me.  But there’s something risky about this too.  Jewish tradition proscribes many sins, but idolatry is considered one of most insidious because it reduces the irreducible, quantifies the infinite and gives substance to the intangible.  A video cannot fully capture a human interaction; a photograph isn’t a face, but a two dimensional impression of one.

If images can be misunderstood, words can be too.  Twitter is perhaps the ultimate example (thus far) of how brevity is not only the soul of wit but too often of wickedness as well.  We have come to see, not least from our cyber-bully-in-chief, the invidious potential unleashed from a mere 140 characters. In an insightful op-ed this past June, Bret Stephens said about Twitter: “Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive re-tweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.

This is why Beth Am’s community work is so relational as is synagogue work in general; we wish for more people to encounter one another, in person and face to face.  Our goal isn’t necessarily to get people to fall in love but to see and be seen, to look up from screens into each other’s eyes.  Dickens wrote: “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”  It’s a powerful thing for a stranger halfway around the world to like my picture, video or story.  But talking to my next-door neighbor, “seeing someone really seeing me,” means I’ve “arrived somewhere unexpected.”  Home.

A version of this post appears in the September issue of JMore

Get Lost!

When is the last time you truly got out of your geographical comfort zone?

I write these words from Jerusalem where I am spending a month of study. This monthly JMore/Urban Rabbi column has been devoted to Baltimore justice, but what can I learn about justice in Baltimore from thousands of miles away? Jerusalem and Baltimore are very different cities. One is ancient, the other just old. One is the capital of Israel, the other home to well over 90,000 Jews on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Both, remarkably, have a pretty solid craft beer industry. And both cities, one just east of the Mediterranean Sea, the other just west of the Chesapeake Bay, feel to me at once familiar and foreign, comfortable and exotic.

My first Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, I chose the exotic. I awoke to the sun streaming in through the window of my apartment. As a pulpit rabbi, I don’t sleep in on Saturdays all that often. Not only am I in shul every week, but I need to be on time! Today, however, I slept late, and it was glorious. When I awoke a bit late to go to shul (Israeli shuls start and end early), I decided to take a walk.

I filled my Camel Back with water, pointed myself away from the usual paths, and set off deliberately toward the unknown. I wandered, sans map, sans iPhone, sans wallet, to the west and southwest. I navigated winding streets and circuitous footpaths. I ascended and descended Jerusalem’s undulating hills, asking myself what I might see around the next corner. I got lost! In doing so, I found myself noticing things I might normally ignore or overlook when heading from some point A to some point B: a memorial to soldiers who died in the 1948 War of Independence, a monastery, a beautiful playground with children frolicking in their Shabbat clothes. On my Shabbat morning walk I rediscovered wonder.

Getting lost used to be more common. In the days before smart phones and GPS, people would get lost all the time, especially when on vacation. And they’d get unlost, simply by asking some passerby for directions: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Ben Yehuda Street or the cheese place on Emek Re’faim?” But today, virtually everyone has a smart phone, with GPS. Technology protects us from the unfamiliar. And that’s sad because getting lost is one of the most important things we can do!

This is where Baltimore Justice comes in. One of the things we know from social science is that implicit bias governs much of human behavior. All humans have biases and prejudices. These can range from quite benign (liking vanilla more than strawberry ice cream) to problematic (thinking boys are better at science than girls). Implicit biases are the ones we’re unaware of, which is what makes them more difficult to address. Many Americans believe black people are more violent or that white people are less likely to sell or use drugs – even though both claims are demonstrably false.

It’s human nature to feel most comfortable with familiar places and people. We also tend to lump people together because of something called “out-group homogeneity.” When someone belongs to a group other than our own (a man if you’re a woman, a gay person if you’re straight, a Muslim if you’re Jewish or Christian), we tend to assume most or all members of that group share the characteristics of the few we’ve encountered.

How to fight this bias, to mitigate these tendencies? Spend time with more people from these out-groups.  We may not change our actual biases, but we become less likely to act on them.  Neighborhoods, like so much of American society today, are echo chambers – particularly in still-segregated Baltimore. But if we explore the unknown, get lost in someplace a little unfamiliar, we can slowly begin to unmake the hidden and incorrect messages our brains tell us. And, who knows, maybe we’ll even discover beauty and meaning as I did wandering the unfamiliar streets of Jerusalem!

A version of this piece will appear in August at JMore

Tikkun Olam: Is the World Incomplete or Fundamentally Broken?

Living in the city, one encounters a disproportionate number of younger people in wheelchairs – men, usually, debilitated by urban violence or any number of adverse medical conditions. As an able-bodied person, I wonder what it would be like to have to negotiate uncut curbs, careening traffic and potholes.

A couple years ago, I was riding my bike near the shul on Election Day when I noticed a neighbor named Mike, his wheelchair askew, wedged in a sidewalk pothole. His electric wheelchair was revving, but he made no progress. He was quite literally spinning his wheels. I hopped off my bike and helped Mike get unstuck. We had a brief chat. He was on his way to Beth Am, our polling place, to vote. I let him know the new voting machines were acting up and there was a line out the door. He may want to come back later, I said. He thanked me for the help. I mounted my bike, and we rolled off our separate ways.

The image of Mike caught in that pothole sticks with me, though, not just because streets and sidewalks in so much of the city are abysmally maintained but because Mike’s predicament that day is a metaphor for so many impoverished and/or disabled Baltimoreans. Many are stuck. Many feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Many feel crushed under the weight of generational poverty, criminal injustice and structural racism.

Many feel that way. Others don’t. And still others, fully justified in losing all hope, make a choice to focus not on privation but gratitude.

I don’t know if Mike felt beaten down by his circumstances. Frankly, he didn’t seem to be. Many of my poorer neighbors greet passersby with a smile and when asked how they’re feeling, confidently reply, “blessed!” “Who is rich?” asks the Mishnah. “The one who is content with his portion” (Avot 4:1).

When Jews talk about social justice, we often use the term tikkun olam, repairing the world. Never mind that the origin of the phrase was not really about service or justice, tikkun olam has now entered into the lexicon of modern Jewry as a fundamental principle of our faith. The question, though, is what exactly does this phrase say about the world?

The story most commonly associated with tikkun olam comes from the Ari z”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist. Luria describes the world’s existence as having resulted from a powerful explosion, a big bang of sorts, called sh’virat hakeilim. In this primordial flash, vessels are shattered, suffusing the universe with shards of fractured matter. Humanity’s task, as explained by decades of twentieth and twenty-first century rabbis, activists and camp counselors, is to repair these vessels, to heal the world. This paradigm suggests the world is fractured because it is fundamentally broken.

But another paradigm can be found in the Torah text itself. The very first verse of Bereishit is usually translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But, an equally plausible rendering is, “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The tikkun olam paradigm means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit, though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.

When I found Mike spinning his wheels near Eutaw Place, my first emotion was pity. However he ended up in that wheelchair, what a pitiful fate: to be rendered inert on one’s way to the polling place! What a metaphor for futility in West Baltimore! But Mike had no interest in despair. Mike had an election to get to!

A broken world can feel paralyzing. However, if the world is not essentially damaged but unfinished, it is not about what’s missing but what is not yet found – and only then what must be done. In this model, the world isn’t a shattered urn, a conduit to be mended. The world is a tree, absorbing the light of heaven and converting it to energy in a complex biological and spiritual process called living. The world is a scroll being written, a song waiting to be sung.

The problem with sidewalks is they are (quite literally) concrete, so it’s hard to see cracks and potholes as anything but brokenness. The Jewish task, as we roll along, is to see the journey in the sidewalk, the places it brings us from and gets us to. Only then will we know how to refashion pathways in sustainable ways, so that more of us have a smoother ride.

A version of this column will appear in the July issue of JMore (www.jmoreliving.com).

Who’s Going to Start the Druid Hill Park Conservancy?

The “Central Park” of Baltimore is great but it could be glorious.

Years ago, I wrote short blog entry after returning from a visit to L.A. During the trip, we were strolling along the ocean-front path in Venice when we chanced upon an impressive beach home with a whimsically tiny patch of AstroTurf in front. The sign read: “World’s Smallest Front Yard.” The irony, of course, is that the home had an enormous front yard: the sand and grassy areas of Venice Beach and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Worlds smallest front yard

At the time, we lived on Druid Park Lake Drive (what locals call “Lake Drive”), and I couldn’t help but think of my own neighborhood named Reservoir Hill for the large source of drinking water that serves as an aquatic gateway to the “Central Park” of Baltimore.  In our nearly seven years in Baltimore, Druid Hill Park has been our lush, vital and undulating front yard. My children both learned to ride a bike around the lake. We walk our dog there, play tennis and visit the zoo, conservatory or farmers market. We have attended concerts and art exhibitions in the park. In nice weather I jog or cycle there, enjoying the interplay of forest and grass, whimsical historic pavilions, invigorated by numerous public and private celebrations. The park is alive, and I feel more alive within it.

Druid Hill Park has deep Jewish and African American resonance, making it the perfect front yard for a neighborhood like Reservoir Hill. Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a longtime Beth Am congregant, authored a paper in honor of the park’s 150th.  “From 1920 to 1960,” he said, “Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community.” Generations of black Baltimoreans have also come to rely on the park as a place to break bread or BBQ, swim, play basketball or tennis (Arthur Ashe used to play on the “negro” courts when the park was segregated).

The park is clean, beautiful and well used. But despite its noteworthy pedigree of Olmstead influence, it has yet to reach its modern potential. Why? Funding, of course! The Park Service does its utmost to keep up with the massive task of mowing grass, maintaining pools, playgrounds and pathways and creating new ball fields and cycling tracks. But more resources are needed to make the park worthy of being what in many ways it already is: a hub of green activity and leisure for Baltimore’s vital urban center.

lake renovation

The timing is right for catalytic investment in Druid Hill Park. The reservoir, one of the largest earthen-dammed lakes in the country, is scheduled to undergo a multi-year upgrade this summer. Two enormous tanks will be buried beneath the western portion of the lake, meeting a federal guideline for open-air reservoirs and allowing for recreational use. The city plans to put in a new fountain, an amphitheater, fishing and perhaps rowboats or paddleboats – Baltimore’s second waterfront! In addition, our area was just selected for up to $750,000 in targeted grants  for improved pedestrian and cycling access. This is an opportunity, as Councilman Leon Pinkett of the 7th District put it, …”to re-focus our priorities on improving quality of life for people living in and around Reservoir Hill, making jobs to the east and our world-class Druid Hill Park to the north safely accessible to residents who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.”

How to fund the gap between what the park ought to be and city’s limited budget? Look to the actual Central Park! For years, New York City has depended on the generosity of donors to its Central Park Conservancy. Such an idea has yet to be tried in Baltimore, but it seems to me this is the moment. With societal energy around sustainability, green-space and urban renewal, Druid Hill Park is ripe for visionary leadership to invest in our verdant gem. The gauntlet is thrown. Who will raise their hand and create the Druid Hill Park Conservancy, a tool for maximizing the potential energy of Baltimore’s enormous front yard?

A version of this column appears at Jmore