Elul 21: Bubbles by Phyllis A. Sommer


I lived in a beautiful bubble. A perfect little world. Sure, there’s lots of bad stuff out there. Sure, people are dying, they’re sick, and they have terrible problems. But, I lived in a beautiful perfect bubble: healthy family, four gorgeous children.

Then, my bubble burst. Actually, it didn’t just burst. It exploded into thousands of little shards that cut me, that cut my family, that sliced us open from top to bottom, and that left hundreds of little scars all over us. When Sam was diagnosed with leukemia, he was six years old. Less than two years later, at the age of 8, he died. From the moment my first child was born, I wasn’t the same person. From the moment that my second-born child died, I was irreparably changed again.

Oh, if only I could return to that bubble. If only I could find myself back in the beauty of that perfect existence, floating and bouncing along on the breeze. Of course, I can’t. I’m forever out here, without the bubble. I never could quite imagine how I would live outside of it. Like an astronaut in a suit, like a scuba diver with a shark cage…
I wondered what would happen if my bubble wasn’t there. Would I be able to breathe the air? Would I be able to survive?

Life in the bubble was lovely, and life outside it is not the same. But, I have discovered that without it I can still breathe the air, and I can still move. I can reach out to so many others, all of us in our bubble-less worlds and all of us in it together.

Phyllis A. Sommer is a Rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois and a popular blogger. www.imabima.blogspot.com

Elul 20: People Plan, God Laughs by Jhos Singer


My 55 years on this planet can be neatly divided into two periods: Before Parenthood (B.P.) and Since Parenthood (S.P.). Everything I, as a gender queer feminist, knew, believed, and thought about both God and childrearing B.P. could be summarized as:

  1. My God was not patriarchal, punitive, a rage-aholic, or snarky.
  2. I would be a kind, patient, fun-loving, and permissive parent.
  3. My children would be kind, patient, fun-loving, and cooperative.

Yiddish meets this naiveté thus: Man tracht und Gott lacht, people plan and God (the patriarchal, punitive, and snarky kind) laughs.

As toddlers, my two youngest were difficult and polar opposites (“like night and an orange,” it has been said). Between them someone was always crying, bleeding, hungry, angry, or in need of the bathroom. Neither slept through the night, ever. In no time, my B.P. cardinal rules were broken. I yelled, I manhandled, I counted to three, I threatened, I insulted, and I punished. Three years S.P. found me devastated, broken into a million pieces.

On Yom Kippur that year, after having reluctantly wrapped my lips around the androcentric language of Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King,” it struck me that I was praying to a God capable of both erratic, scary outbursts and compassionate, loving forgiveness. Suddenly I was staring into a full-length cosmic mirror. Of course our liturgy is filled with parental imagery! Who better than the King of all Fallible Fathers to consider our supplications? S’lach lanu! Forgive us!

In that humbled, weeping moment, something turned, and I grew up. God and I shared shattered dreams of the perfect relationship. Whether between parent and child or Divine and human, relationships are seldom without their breakdowns. But, love and forgiveness heal what we damage in our pursuit of perfection. Amen.

Jhos Singer is a maggid and musician, and has served the Coastside Jewish Community as its head teacher and service leader since January 2000. www.coastsidejewishcommunity.org

Elul 19: Significance by Ken Chasen and Micah Chasen


Sometimes, reading from the Torah at a bar mitzvah only becomes a Jewish boy’s coming of age moment once he steps off the bimah, and the Torah keeps on speaking in unanticipated ways. Each of us read Parshat Lech L’cha, separated by thirty-two years. Each of us was surrounded by four generations of loving family, crowned by the presence of our sole surviving great-grandparent. And, each of us experienced the death of that great-grandparent – the death of that generation – before the next Shabbat arrived. At first, the imposition of such sadness upon our simchas felt unfair to us. While other kids were sorting through photographs and opening presents, we were visiting hospitals and sitting shiva. It was hard not to feel as if we had been cheated in some way.

But then shiva ended, and we returned to the bar mitzvah photos. And, each of us, in our own generation, arrived at the same epiphany: “Look … she was there.” It was the growing-up moment when life’s majestic marriage of impermanence and permanence first became real for us. Nothing can keep us on this Earth forever, but neither can anything remove our imprint from this Earth forever. We were here, and it matters. In the Torah portion we shared across a generation, Abraham was sent on a journey to a place he did not know. He was asked to trust that his life’s adventure would make him into a blessing. He would shape and change lives. It would be forever known that he was here.

So it is with us. It’s a lesson we learn and relearn with the dawning of each new year. We never outgrow it or master it. We just circle back to rediscover it as we step into the awesome responsibility of writing each next chapter in the Book of Life.

Micah Chasen is an eleventh-grader and Counselor-in-Training at Camp Alonim. His Dad Ken is Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple. www.leobaecktemple.org

Elul 18: A Mosque of Inclusion by M. Hasna Maznavi


As a young girl growing up in California’s largest mosque, I always felt welcomed and included. Women were on the Board, my sister was president of the youth group, men and women of all cultures prayed together in the same space.

Once I left home and began exploring mosques outside Southern California, I realized many didn’t reflect the same sense of community I’d always taken for granted. Many mosques favored cultural practices of secluding women over Islamic practices of inclusion. I saw women separated from men by a curtain, behind a wall, or praying in another room entirely. I felt cut off from my ummah, from access to knowledge, and from the beauty of my ummah’s diversity. It was hard not to internalize this disconnect in God’s houses as a lack of worthiness of my connection to God altogether. I wanted to return to the Islam of my youth.

It was only in college, after finishing Muhammad Asad’s English translation of the Qur’an, that I felt empowered to demand inclusion. No longer could anyone convince me that these customs were ordained by Islam – my proof was in God’s Word. I soon discovered the rich history of Muslim women’s involvement in Islamic scholarship and leadership – most surprisingly, that the Prophet Muhammad more than once instructed a woman to lead a mixed-congregation prayer.

I started studying under a female sheikhs and hafidtha, and the learning from a female religious authority inspired me to build America’s first Women’s Mosque.  My dream is to create a safe space that encourages leadership and scholarship for all Muslim women. Together, we can help return the ummah to a day where women’s voices, perspectives, and experiences are held in as high regard as they were during the earliest days of Islam – when our beloved Prophet fought tooth and nail to uphold women’s rights in the midst of his society. To make him proud by restoring our ummah’s beautiful light would be the greatest achievement possible. InshAllah, that will be the art of our return.

M. Hasna Maznavi is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She is the founder of the Women’s Mosque of America, opening in Fall 2014.

Elul 17: Turning Back by Arna Poupko Fisher


Why is it that, when I catch my mother’s face looking back at me in a passing window reflection, I am filled with a sense of completion, oneness, and calm? While I fully promote (and paraphrase) Woody Allen’s famous “Annie Hall” quip about relationships – “life is like a shark, it has to constantly move forward or it sinks” – for me, moving forward increasingly means turning back. I define my sense of self by the extent to which I feel true to the “original” version of me.

So, at 44 years old, I bought a horse and re-connected to the amazing feeling of being gently lifted over a jump. I joined a dance class and fell back to my default of claiming the right-hand corner of the first row. I sought out music that filled my childhood home. “What’s this all about Alfie?” (Yeah, yeah, old films and soundtracks, too.) Is there something about the desire to return to that which we once knew and loved that is more than just nostalgia? Is it possible that the earlier versions of who we are and how we conceive of ourselves are somehow truer? Or, is it just the fear of aging, through which the younger self eclipses the older?

Rabbi Soloveitchik instructs us in the power of the “lonely” self who is uninhibited by the habits of the “social being (who) is superficial (and who) imitates and emulates.” He states that the “lonely man is free.” Perhaps, as long as life’s journey seems committed to the unpredictable – in both the worst and the best ways – the allure of the younger, untainted self is the search for the predictable and the dependable: the core of each of us which we readily recognize and the peace that this brings.

As the prophet Isaiah urges, “In returning to still and rest you will be saved, in quiet and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Arna Poupko Fisher teaches in the Judaic Studies department of the University of Cincinnati and is a member of the core faculty of the Wexner Heritage Program.

Elul 16: Returning to Struggle by Bradley Solmsen


We are people who return. Each year we return to the beginning of the Torah and (re)-cycle our calendar, and each week Shabbat returns to us.

There are places each of us returns to. As a people we left the land of Israel, went on a long, challenging journey, and then returned a different people.

I am thinking about the people and places that call me to return.

When I was 16 years old I fell in love with Israel on a summer trip, and I have felt called to return. I am writing this piece now from Israel. It’s the place where I feel most alive, most connected, and most compelled to think about and to act on the responsibility that we all have to make a difference in the world. I asked my wife to marry me here, and two years ago we shared Israel with our daughters over the course of a sabbatical year. It’s where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were called … called to be connected to one another and to be in relationship with God. It is a place of deep complexity and challenge and at the same time a place of richness and strength. It is more than a place. It is also a people … a people struggling to bring more justice into the world. Israel means “the one who struggles with God.” I know that I need to keep returning to this sacred struggle. This approaching year we are commanded to give the land a rest – the land this year takes a sabbatical. Every time I return I learn new things, meet new people, and face different challenges. I am blessed to be part of a people so committed to returning and to finding new ways to bring hope and peace into the world. Our work is not yet done.

Bradley Solmsen is the North American Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. www.urj.org/youth

Elul 15: Sins of Past – Repaired by Asher Lopatin


In college I was the “big man on campus.” Well, not all of campus… just Hillel. One guy always bothered me. He wanted the glory of leading services on Friday nights (Kabbalat Shabbat) for the big crowd at Hillel, but he never showed up when we needed people at Hillel for services on Shabbat mornings. In fact, he committed the ultimate crime: going to Young Israel instead of Hillel on Shabbat mornings. We weren’t good enough for him. I felt that it was just not fair to Hillel. My rule: unless you show up Saturday mornings, no leading Friday night. Needless to say, this guy – actually a nice guy by other standards – was not happy. His girlfriend, with whom I had been very friendly, was furious and never forgave me, even though I spent an entire Shabbat apologizing.

Flash forward, and I am Gabbai (commander-in-chief) of Shabbat services at the school where I work. Once again, something annoying and demeaning to the prayers occurs: a student asks for his father to lead services, but the father is late … very late. The son really wants his father to lead services. We are plotzing. Finally, I ask a friend to start leading services. He starts. Just then, the father arrives. Frustration! My first inclination is to say, “Mister, you came late. That is not fair or respectful to us. You should be punished.” But, I remember my disaster in college when I punished the Kabbalat Shabbat leader.

God punishes; we do not. Tefillah, prayer, is about mercy and kindness, not about putting people in their place. I needed to learn from mistakes of the past and to move beyond myself to what is right.

I asked my friend to kindly allow the student’s father to take over. I have been close to my friend and to the offending student, to this very day.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school that teaches an inclusive, open, and welcoming Torah. www.yctorah.org

Elul 14: Going Viral by Duncan Sennett


This past November of 2013, I wrote my bar mitzvah d’var Torah about how the definition of traditional marriage has changed and advocated in favor of same sex marriage. It was uploaded on our synagogue’s website and, within two weeks, it had gone viral. I was invited to speak on Laurence O’Donnell’s show on MSNBC. I was interviewed by newspapers, tweeted by celebrities, and was even invited to speak at the URJ Biennial. As of today, over 280,000 people have watched a speech that was intended for just my friends and family at my bar mitzvah.

Some people wrote extremely angry and violent responses about my speech and about me personally. Many others wrote about how deeply they were touched in context of their personal stories. I got feedback on my d’var Torah from as far away as England, Spain, and Israel. It felt amazing to see my message reach so many people and from so far away!

I discovered that I enjoy advocating for a cause I feel strongly about. I spent the rest of the year working with Oregon United for Marriage and loved the feeling of camaraderie. The whole thing was an extraordinary experience for a 13-year-old to have.

And, even though it was awful reading hateful messages about me and my family, I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a powerful lesson. One person’s voice really can make a difference, and if I had one small part in Oregon’s decision to overturn the ban on gay marriage, I’m really proud of myself.

The other thing I learned is that I should always do one more pass on my homework. As my mother now loves to say, “You never know. It might go viral.”

Duncan Sennett lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a member of Congregation Beth Israel. He is in 8th grade, and he studies dance and guitar.

Elul 13: The Ultimate Return by Hannah Louise Denyer


The last thing they took out of me was the Hickman line: a tube that had been tunneled under my skin through my collarbone, embedding itself within the superior vena cava in the right atrium of my heart.

After tearing the labyrinthine-like line from my chest, they announced that I had been discharged. A few hours later I was limping towards my parents’ rental car and a fragmented future.

I have tried endlessly to make sense of being defined as normal after almost dying, of being expected to ‘return’ to some kind of objective reality after months of living in a hospital.

It’s like visiting a foreign country. There lies a moment of suspension as you try to make sense of the world as it presents itself to you. You are an observer, witnessing the cogs of the machine but not contributing to its function. You sit in a cafe and order a coffee just like everybody else, but you are only a temporary fixture, whereas the others move through this world daily. To everyone else this cafe, this city, is real, fluid, and consistent, but for you, it will forever remain confused and alien.

Being sick for so long and being so close to death for such a prolonged period of time was like being asked to live and exist in a land that is not my own. You are detached and unsettled in a world that others view as normal. You are part of this world but not of it.

The art of return is to continue embodying that moment of suspension and of dissonance.

Hannah Louise Denyer is a 24-year-old writer and photographer from Los Angeles who has been based for the past few years in East London.

Elul 12: The Relationship Business by Greg Liberman


Blessed are You, Adonai our God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.

So goes the start of the Avot v’Imahot section of the Amidah. After nearly a decade working for Spark Networks, JDate’s parent company, people regularly describe me as a CEO in the relationships business. I agree. But, not necessarily in the way they think. Creating families and building communities are inspiring missions and make my past decade’s work very rewarding. What gets me up in the morning and excited to come to work, though, is the amazing team of people with whom I work.

When I reflect upon my career – whether at a law firm, a telecommunications company, or JDate – one thing that I have learned is that it is relationships that really matter. People make companies. More than what kind of work you do, who you do it with has more of an impact upon your happiness at work. It’s the people you work with and your relationships with them that make all the difference. So, whenever I am sitting in temple listening to a cantor start to chant the Avot v’Imahot, I notice the names of people. Like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, I think of how lucky I am to have worked with my own incredible teammates like Josh, Brett, Arielle, Greg, James, Rachel, David and many others. Most people spend more time with co-workers than anyone else other than family (some, even more with co-workers than family). So, whenever young people embarking upon the start of their careers ask me for advice, I tell them to focus on the people with whom they will be working.

Because, whether your job is to build communities or widgets, whether you are the CEO or just starting out, we are all in the relationship business.

Greg Liberman is Chief Executive Officer and President of Spark Networks, operators of the Jewish online dating service JDate. www.spark.net

Elul 11: Answered Prayers by Elaine Hall


Our tradition dictates, “Be fruitful and multiply.” I can do neither. When we read of Hannah’s inability to give birth, I cry Hannah’s tears. On Rosh Hashanah, I am called to the bimah to hold the Torah, unaccustomed to women receiving this honor. My rabbi gently guides, “Hold it like a baby.” I pray, “If you give me a child, I will give him back to you, to serve you all his days” (Samuel 1:7). My prayer is answered when I turn towards my grandparents’ heritage and adopt my toddler son from Russia. I am in bliss.

Reality sets in once we return to LA. My son stares at his hands, spins in circles, makes no eye contact, doesn’t speak, and doesn’t sleep. Shortly after his mikvah and conversion with the beit din, we receive the diagnosis: severe autism. Traditional therapies don’t work. Doctors look with pity, family members look with concern, some suggest I “send him back to Russia,” and others stop looking. I am soon alone – with autism. I pray my desperate prayer: “Dear G-d, please help me find a way to help my son. I will devote my life to your service.”

I discover a doctor who coaches me to follow my son’s lead. I enter my son’s autistic world and teach others to do the same. In time, my son emerges into our world. I am still alone, but no longer lonely. I created The Miracle Project Judaica, a Jewish musical theater program for other families with children who have a disability. Then, on my son’s twelfth year, I am invited to Vista Del Mar, the organization that led me to my son, to create a b’nai mitzvah program for children with autism: Nes Gadol. My son is the first bar mitzvah. He dances his prayers.

Our lives have taken many twists and turns. My prayers have been answered tenfold as I turn to faith and guidance from the Almighty.

Elaine Hall is an author, thought leader, international speaker, and mediapersonality. www.themiracleproject.org

Elul 10: Age Reconciliation by Samara Wolpe


My “coming of age” moment was the day I stood in front of several thousand people, most of whom had known me since infancy, and gave a speech about why I was raising money for cancer.

As I faced the crowd of people, I felt a startling sense of déjà vu. I had stood on this stage for my bat mitzvah. I had watched as my dad made this stage into his instrument, standing and allowing himself to seep into every corner of the carpeted platform until he had absorbed the space and with it, the congregation.

People often talk about floods of memories, but for me, it was more of a gentle trickle or a flickering television. Vague feelings, fragmented memories, and faded impressions seeped through the microphone into my voice. As I spoke, I could hear the remembered years seeping into the words and saturating them with an eerie kind of link between the past and the present. I was a child, terrified by my parent’s mortality and reliving with every mild recollection the intense horror that accompanied the words “cancer” and “chemo.” But, I was also an adult, looking through a pair of backwards binoculars so that everything looked smaller and insignificant, as though it was happening in a world unrelated to me. The end of the speech finally bridged the gap. I finished and looked into my parents’ eyes. They knew both parts of me: the frightened child and the bewildered teenager trying to make sense of tumultuous years of chaos and illness.

For me, coming of age was not about dismissing childhood and embracing adulthood. It was about melding the two with grace and understanding. While I am still learning how to do that, I felt this moment was symbolic, if not of coming of age, then of a reconciliation of age.

Samara Wolpe is a high school student and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s National Woman of the Year 2014.

Elul 9: On Being Invited by Christopher Noxon


A few years ago, I went on a big group camping trip a week after a friend’s bar mitzvah. Not entirely satisfied with the traditional synagogue ceremony, we invented a coming of age ritual of our own – all it took was a bunch of guys, some shared wisdom, and a gorilla suit.

On our first day in camp, I charged out of my cabin in full gorilla getup. I grabbed hold of Isaac the bar mitzvah boy and escorted him up a nearby bluff, where all of the men sat cross-legged in a circle. We proceeded to go around and share “secrets of manhood.”

The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked about how hardship creates character. An electrician advised Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly, and you can check out her tuchus.” But, the thing I remember most was a friend who whispered, “Everyone wants to be invited.”

Isaac liked it and the men did too. We’ve done it three times since, most recently with a mix of boys and girls and a giant chicken costume.

Who knows? Maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on, and thousands of teens will one day know the terror of being kidnapped by their elders in animal costumes. None of the “secrets” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something profound about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. It’s all about what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out, invited into a world, told you belong in an actual community – that’s a huge part of what coming of age is really about.

Christopher Noxon is a writer, daddy, and doodler. www.christophernoxon.com

Elul 8: Fleeting Days by Amy Tobin


In retrospect, my bat mitzvah was about nothing less than life and death. But it’s not when I became an adult.

Girls at my synagogue did not read from the Torah. Instead, each girl led a service using a photocopied booklet based on a theme. The available themes didn’t do much for me, so I decided to make my own book, choosing the not at all limiting theme of “Life.”

My dad and I collected source material. The Life project was fun with him. We were both editors and terrible procrastinators, and we assembled dozens of quotes. We included Tennessee Williams, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Confucius, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and a Sanskrit poem. To round things out, the rabbi added Ecclesiastes 9, a meditation on death. When the big day came, I blithely chanted it in a language I didn’t comprehend. My single-minded focus was on getting the melody right. I had no idea then that my personal booklet of Life came complete with its inevitable conclusion.

Twenty-three years later, I sat shiva for my father, feeling the full weight of the final loss of both parents. In the damp, open hours of grieving, I decided to watch my bat mitzvah video. At first it was funny – the painfully solemn delivery, my obvious sense of self-importance. There I was, a pre-teen admonishing the congregation to make the most of “all our fleeting days” because “the same fate is in store for all.”

But as I watched, I wanted nothing more than to have my parents there, both to laugh and to help me remember. Their absence was and is devastating. The end of my childhood came at last in the shadow of mortality. I profoundly understood how fleeting our days are. Then I began making conscious choices about how to live.

Amy Tobin is CEO of JCC of the East Bay and a singer-songwriter. www.amytobin.com

Elul 7: Looking Outward by Tannaz Sassooni


I know that I’m supposed to have angst about my bat mitzvah, but looking back on it, mainly what I see is a great party: a delicious Persian spread, flowing cocktails, and a buzzing dance floor. What I am angsty about is what was missing. Save for a few Hebrew school girlfriends, nearly everyone at the party was family or family friends, and nearly everyone was Iranian.

The interface between family and the outside world is tricky for Iranian Jews. Our fiercely loving family bond is truly beautiful. But, within the world outside of that community, I grew up with the clear message of “you’re not like them.” Whatever they do is fine for them, but their rules don’t apply to you. It’s a sentiment that can make it hard to find your place. There was never a directive to nourish myself with experiences or to figure out where I fit in and what my contribution should be.

As an adult, I’ve come to value defying that insularism. I get huge joy from connecting with people as different from me as possible. So, if I were to reboot my bat mitzvah, I’d change up the crowd. I’d invite my Tunisian neighbor and her Syrian friend who shared grim stories from their respective countries as we drove to an Arab nightclub one night. One spoke of a sense of creeping religious conservatism, and the other spoke of starving relatives trapped in a war zone for the other.

I’d invite my burly, tattooed former coworker who, as our lunchtime conversations grew personal, quietly confided that his ex “Maria” was actually Miguel. I’d invite my most formative old flame: a freewheeling, bronze-skinned surfer with just-passable English who taught me an openness that serves me to this day. It took me some time to learn it, but the lesson is simple: to truly know yourself, you have to look outward.

Tannaz Sassooni is an Iranian, geek, techie artist who aspires to write the ultimate Persian cookbook. www.tannazie.blogspot.com

Elul 6: Transformation by Mike Epstein


When I was first asked to write a piece regarding the “Art of Return,” I thought it would be easy. I would just write about my transformation from a weight of 453 pounds down to 196 pounds and the resurrection of my old life from before the weight gain. Then, it dawned on me that the “Art of Return” signifies much more than my physical transformation. It is about losing myself along my life’s journey and then finding myself again. It isn’t just a physical transformation (which was pretty wild), but an overall transformation of body, mind, and soul. I thought losing 221 pounds on the national TV show “Extreme Weight Loss” would be enough of a compelling story. I thought losing a total of 257 pounds in and out of the show would solve all my problems. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was only the beginning of my new journey to find my “new normal,” and I’m still working on it.

I never thought my faith would play a big role because I don’t consider myself very religious. However, it was through my faith that I was able to break through barriers and handle the curve balls thrown at me that at any moment could have ended my turn on the show. It was all about faith – faith in myself, faith in my family, faith in my religion and my Jewish identity. It was about believing in myself, never giving up, finding my purpose and passion in life, sharing it with others by paying it forward, and teaching others how to find their “Inner Hero.” It came from learning throughout life what it is to be a good person, and it was grounded in my parents, their parents, and generations of Epsteins that taught me how important it is to be of service to others and to constantly educate myself. That’s what the “Art of Return” means to me.

Mike Epstein owns Conversion Technologies International and participated in ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss,” losing 221 pounds. www.pickthepounds.com

Elul 5: Daddy’s Pockets by Basya Schechter


My coming of age story became the title song from my first album, Daddy’s Pockets. The lyrics are sparse and intense. People often ask me what the words mean. I usually respond, “They mean whatever they mean to you.”

When I was a child in Boro Park, Brooklyn, every Shabbos my father and I would walk hand in hand, singing in harmony to shul. In the winter I’d hook my arm into the deep cavernous pockets of his pea coat.

One Shabbos he said, “You can’t put your hand in my pockets anymore. You are too old for that.” That is the moment I came of age and became aware of the effect of “aging” as a girl: it quickly accelerates the process of leaving a “religious man’s world.” This process also severed my relationship with my father.

From that day on, for reasons I will never understand, there was little affection and almost no emotional connection with him. I pretended to be fine, but something about that experience cut off the special “daddy’s girl” bond we had been cultivating. I became suspicious of him and started to feel rejected. I could never find my way back to the connection that existed when I was able to put my hand in “daddy’s pockets.”

The person I am now would return back to that moment and argue the point fiercely, or find something funny and undermining to make him see how ridiculous it all was. I would fill his pockets with my snotty tissues. I would stubbornly fight for my right to his pocket. Today, I try to address emotional pain as it happens.

Back then I was too young to learn that lesson. Instead, I stopped going to shul altogether, choosing to stay home and cut lettuce.

Basya Schechter is a singer, composer, and Musical Director of Romemu School. www.pharaohsdaughter.com

Read blogger Stacey Zisook Robinson’s response to Basya Schechter’s Jewel HERE.

Elul 4: Becoming a Man by Moshe Kasher


In the book of Judges, we meet Samson. The ultimate Jewish man. His long flowing hair provided him with supernatural strength and turned him into a Jewish Superman. And let’s face it, the Jews don’t have many Supermen. My Samson was my father. Everyone’s is. But every Superman has a kryptonite. My kryptonite was shame. And California. I was born between two worlds. All year I lived as a secular kid in Oakland and in the summer I’d fly back to New York to join up with my father in Seagate, the Satmar community he’d adopted. My dad tried his best to imbue me with a love for Judaism, but much more active than that love was my own sense of shame that I wasn’t Jewish enough. Though I wore the costume, I always had the feeling I had a bright neon sign above me flashing, “DOES NOT KNOW YIDDISH!”

Then the unthinkable happened. In February of my twentieth year, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in May. My Samson was broken. His hair was gone. My anger was, too. It just seemed useless. A year later, I flew back to Seagate to say kaddish for my father on his yahrzeit. There was one problem. I’d grown my hair out, long. The prospect of going back into synagogue like this sent bolts of fear into my scalp. I melted into a twelve year old again. I ran around the house, frantic, trying to stuff my hair into a comically undersized fedora. Shame was swirling around me a thousand turns a second. I became twelve again, painfully aware that I wasn’t, that I never would be, right.

Then I took a breath.
Realized I wasn’t twelve.
Realized I wasn’t ruled by those demons from my past.
Realized I was a grown-up.
Realized it didn’t matter if they knew I was different.
Hell, I was different.
I took off my hat.
My hair spilled down onto my shoulders like Samson.
I got my strength back.
I knocked down the walls of my past with my bare hands.
I walked to shul.
I became a man.

Moshe Kasher: Comedian. Child Genius. Jew. Jew Comedian. Good tipper. Guiding light. Beefcake. www.moshekasher.com

Elul 3: Vhat eez dees? by Maz Jobrani


Growing up, my family didn’t have any coming of age traditions. No bar mitzvahs, no crownings, no sacrifice of a chicken’s head, nothing. There was, however, one incident in college when I became a man.

My dad was very generous to us. A self-made millionaire back in Iran, he was able to bring a lot of money with him to the U.S. and spoil us. Like Vito Corleone from The Godfather, he was a larger than life character, always helping people out.

Whenever I’d ask for movie money, he would reach in his pocket, pull out a wad of cash, and break me off a piece.

I became used to this until I went to college and felt it was time to stop accepting money and become a man – except for one last time. Early on at the university, my father gave me a couple of hundred dollars. A few weeks later, I paid him back with a check. He was shocked and asked in a thick Persian accent, “Vhat eez dees?”
“I’m paying you back.”
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! You pay me back? I keep in my vallet, but I no cash eet. I keep as souvenir!”

Fast forward a few weeks and I needed some money to grab dinner at the local pub on campus. I went to the ATM, put in my card, entered my passcode and was told that I had insufficient funds. “Insufficient funds?” I thought, “How was that possible? I had over two hundred dollars in there.” And then it hit me. My dad had cashed the check! He lied to me! How dare he! I was broke.

From that day forward I took responsibility for myself and my finances. I also learned that the next time I borrowed money from my dad, I would pay him back in cash.

Maz Jobrani is an Iranian-American comedian and actor. www.mazjobrani.com

Elul 2: If I Knew Then… by Michael G. Santos


Foolish, bad decisions I made during a reckless transition out of my adolescence led to my arrest on August 11, 1987. Prison gates slammed and locked me inside cages and walls. For the next 9,500 days, I lived as a prisoner, frequently walking through puddles of blood that spilled from the violence inside.

Yet, during those 26 years I learned a great deal. Stories of the courageous men and women who endured the atrocities of Sobibor, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other indignities inspired me. They convinced me that attitude and perceptions were the keys to emerging stronger than when guards first locked my body in chains and shackles. I learned by reading narratives that showed how men and women empowered themselves through a commitment to make a better world, despite the challenges they faced.

I regret my failure as a young man to learn from great leaders like Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi. Had I understood more about their philosophy on each individual’s responsibility to build a better society, I would not have engaged in the type of behavior that led to my imprisonment.

It is never too early or too late to receive such messages. When I concluded my obligation to the prison system on August 12, 2013, I knew a lot more than when those gates first slammed me inside and much more than when my descent into the vortex of crime began. I would have liked to know then what I know now.

Michael Santos is a motivational speaker who spent 26 years in federal prison. www.michaelsantos.com

Read Blogger Lia Mandelbaum’s response to Michael Santos’ Jewel HERE.

Elul 1: The Return Home by Afshine Emrani


1978-2014. My younger self awaits me in that old home. He stares at the future that would be me; I ponder the past that was him. We connect on a bridge made of yearning and nostalgia. Hesitantly, we embrace.

We fall to our knees and sob. I ask if he ever told dad about how he bounced the ball that cracked the chandelier in our living room. He asks if I will ever stop doing and start being. I say, “You should have told the satin-haired girl you loved her when you had your hand on her shoulder for the school play.” He says, “Work less, love more.”

I advise, “Be patient and familiar with discomfort and loneliness – in those moments you will burst into expressions that will be me.” He advises, “Don’t judge me so harshly.”

“Don’t let others discourage you from dreaming. Failure is a suitcase full of regrets…I should know.” He urges, “Your gray hairs, your wrinkles, and your scars are signs of battles won.”

I beg, “Never hold tightly to someone who wants to go; never anchor a ship that must sail.” He asks why I came back to visit? I applaud him for not embarrassing the math teacher when she was unable to solve a problem to which he knew the answer. He insists, “Tell your patient her grim prognosis.” I disagree. “You are too young to understand. There comes an age where hope feeds hunger more than food. You have much to learn.” He tells me I have much to unlearn.

I wonder if my younger self was wiser than the older me. I wish to return into innocence, to be born into the freedom afforded only to children, to go back to Eden, and to throw the apple into the lake that echoes my love into eternity.

Afshine Ash Emrani is a cardiologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at U.C.L.A., a writer, and a mystic.

Introduction by Rabbi David Wolpe


Freud wrote of a repetition compulsion. He thought that we reenact scenes or situations in our lives in an attempt to get a better result. Of course, if we ourselves have not changed, then the outcome will not change. So many of us go on making the same mistakes in new guises, wondering why things never seem to improve.

The essays in this wonderful booklet are about how to repeat the past differently, about how we ourselves can be different. Our souls need not be static. In the Torah, years after a bitter break, Jacob reencounters his brother Esau, and the meeting ends not inrecrimination, but in reconciliation and in tears. It changed
repetition into encounter.

What was your moment? Was there a time that you could revisit and relive as a lodestar for progress When I am tempted to despair, I recall certain moments that remind me I am lucky to be alive — like the moment my daughter was born, and the revisiting of that moment when I see her, eloquent and insightful, writing in this very booklet.

God, the prayers tell us, renews creation every day. We too can be renewed each day. Reach into your past to change your future. These wise meditations will help point the way.

David Wolpe is the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.

A Note from Craig


The word for “return” in Hebrew is Teshuva. Teshuva is often translated as “repentance” although it literally means “return.” The sages understood that to achieve real repentance, we must first return to our true or purest selves.

This is a collection of stories about people looking back. What do they know now that they wish they knew then?   What has changed?  What has remained constant?  As we prepare to move forward into the new year, the month of Elul is an opportunity to look back to the collective wisdom of our experiences as a guide for the future.  May this book of Jewels be a source of inspiration for you to re-envision, to revise and to reimagine the trajectory of your life during this season of Teshuva.

My sincere gratitude to the contributors who shared their insights with us this year. I am also grateful to our new partners at Reboot and to Ken Blaker for designing and building our new Jewels APP. Finally a special thank you to the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, Sam Rotenberg, and Rick Lupert who have returned to the task of bringing Jewels of Elul to life.

May the coming year be filled with health, joy, and many fulfilling returns.

Craig Taubman

Craig Taubman is the producer of Jewels of Elul. www.craignco.com

Coming Soon: Jewels of Elul X – The Art of Return

Jewels of Elul X - The Art of Return

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