Entering 5784: Erev Rosh Hashanah. Service led by R. Rachel Barenblat & Cantorial Soloist Ziva Larson. Mini-sermonettes by Dr. Suzanne Graver, Sandy Ryan, & Dr. Len Radin on the theme of "Returning."

On Returning: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784

In our tradition of inviting CBI members to speak during our Erev Rosh Hashanah service, Sandy Ryan, Dr. Len Radin, & Dr. Suzanne Graver offered mini-sermonettes on September 15, 2023 on the the theme of “Returning.” All three mini-sermonettes have been reproduced below for those who were unable to join us for this service, as well as those who wish to “return” to the words they heard that night.

Please click on the title of the mini-sermonette that you would like to read below in order to expand the section and reveal the text.

Back to Basics
By Sandy Ryan

When I was asked to think about the theme of “returning” for Rosh Hashanah, I thought about the ways in which the liturgy at the High Holidays encourages us to return to the basic tools of Judaism as we face the coming year – to “soften the decree” of Rosh Hashanah between now and Yom Kippur with prayer (or tefillah), tzedakah, and teshuvah – repentance, or more literally, “returning.”

I work as a therapist with teenagers, and that work both challenges me and informs my thinking about how we all care for ourselves. It’s an anxious-making world out there, and I would not be a teenager again for love or money. (I have learned so much from these kids!)

A dear friend of mine who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder taught me as helpful a mental health skill as I ever learned in graduate school. “When things feel out of control, go back to the things you CAN control.” Return to the fundamentals. In working with my clients, I have identified some of these fundamentals. I’ve shared this advice with dozens of teenagers (and not a few adults). I stick post-it notes on my own mirror and get my own therapist to remind me. The fundamentals are basic, but like maintaining the practices of tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah, what is fundamental is not always easy.

So as we prepare to return to connection with ourselves for the fundamental tasks of Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to return with you to some of the fundamentals of caring for our own emotional well-being.

The basics are these – number one. Breathe. Take a deep breath in and out. Remember that you are a body, a whole creature of many miraculous moving parts. Your nervous system reacts constantly to stimuli, and in many of us it is hypervigilant, looking always for danger. One of the most effective ways you can soften the decree of anxiety is to breathe, deeply and consciously. I am breathing in; I am breathing out.

Most of the body’s reaction to anxiety is autonomic, but with careful attention, we can control our breathing, signaling our body. Like, “no, thank you, anxiety, we do not need to run away from a snarling lion at this time, we are just giving a little talk in front of the whole synagogue, it’s cool, little buddy, breathe, we got this.”

The second basic is to care for your body. It is not just the place where you live: it is literally you. The software of our consciousness runs on biological hardware. In the daily environment of body shaming, Instagram #goals, and the billion dollar industry that authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski call “the bikini-industrial complex,” it can be very, very difficult to make a home for yourself in your body. The entire “self-care industry” makes us think that taking care of our bodies is expensive, time-consuming, and requires experts to sell us goods and services. But at the end of the day, whether or not we have a spa day lined up, we need to honor and care for the body we have. The body we are, not the one we imagine we could or should be.

Sometimes it can be really difficult to build a home for yourself in your body. For myself, I always find that part of the teshuvah I need to make at this time of year is making peace with myself. I might accept that one of the things I can DO about my own anxiety is to change what I am doing to take care of my physical self. But how do I determine what I need? What are the basics of these basics?

So, imagine a tiny child. The baby cries and we don’t always know what it needs. But we all know how to troubleshoot this, right? We see if the baby is clean. If the baby is hungry or thirsty. Has the baby rested enough? Does the baby need to be held? Does the baby need to play?

So see, I tell my clients, you already know how to check in with yourself. What do you need? Do you need a shower? A snack? A nap? A hug? To bounce up and down? And crucially – because you have seen a baby, and probably taken care of a baby – you know how to do this without judgment. The baby cries, you feed them. You give them a cuddle. You sing a little song. It’s what they need. It’s fine.

Now – perhaps remembering that all of us are every age we have ever been – I ask you to imagine that YOU are the baby. You are worth every bit as much compassion and patience and love and care now as you were then. Now ask yourself, what do you need? Can you turn toward that without guilt or shame?

At this season we are reminded to take responsibility for our missteps, and to recognize and repair when we cause harm. But Judaism does not tell us to feel shame either about our needs or who we are. Shame and guilt do not motivate people, and our religious tradition knows that. Instead we grieve, we acknowledge our harm, we return and repair and always, always try to do it better this time.

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what your inner infant wants. Maybe you feel cranky, like a toddler about to have a meltdown, but you’re not sure quite why. I offer a little rubric that some of my teenage clients taught me from social media:

When you feel like everyone hates you, sleep. When you feel like you hate everyone, eat. When you feel like you hate yourself, take a shower.

It’s cute, sure, but it’s also a really good way to trouble-shoot the problem. Our needs really don’t change that much, over the course of our lifetimes. Are you tired, boo? You hungry? Need your diaper changed? Look at that – it’s the same trouble-shooting we just did for the baby. Go back to basics.

With my clients I also sometimes call this the “low-hanging fruit.” Your needs may be complex. Your situation may be treacherously difficult. Your emotions may threaten to overwhelm you. But didja eat today? Did you sleep? Showered lately? Taken your medication? Talked to somebody? These are the basics. They will help you manage whatever is in front of you.

And that last one – did you talk to somebody – is its own category. We are social creatures. We need connection. Our needs change over time, but touch and talk are fundamental. We are social beings. Even the most introverted of us needs connection and a sense of belonging. One of my favorite things about Judaism since I converted is that sense of belonging to something so much older and bigger than myself. That has become one of the ways I find connection – davening here with all of you, and singing in our little choir.

When I spoke to Rabbi Rachel about this, she reminded me that even Torah study, our most fundamental mitzvah (because it leads to all the others), is traditionally done with a hevruta. Some of our prayers require a minyan. We’re not in this alone; we’re supposed to have each other. That’s the whole reason we live in a community.

You can find connection in your family, either the one you were born with, the one you chose, or a little bit of both. You can find connection in your relationships, be they romantic or platonic. Connection can be difficult, even in these days when we are supposedly more connected now than we ever were. But we cannot be isolated. The baby needs to be held and comforted. To hear someone sing it a little song. And maybe someone else needs connection as much as you do. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

We can’t fix everything in the world. The world has been in a considerable state for some time, and tikkun olam remains our charge. It is not required that we finish the task, but neither are we meant to refrain from beginning it. The services over the next few days ask us to “return to who you are/ return to what you are/ return to where you are/ born and reborn again.” The things we can control. The basic building blocks. The things the baby needs. The low-hanging fruit.

Breathe. Turn toward yourself with care. Connect.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah.

Return to Childhood
By Dr. Len Radin

Two months ago, I cycled 500 miles across Iowa. I rode for seven days with over 30,000 cyclists and slept in a tent as part of a massive one-week long bike ride called RAGBRAI which ends in the Mississippi River. For an entire week I felt like I returned to my childhood with all the wonder, excitement, adventure and discovery which that implies.

Like any child, I was excited to take on the challenge for the third time. This week would prove to be a huge challenge. One day, the heat index reached 100 degrees. The air felt like I just opened an oven and had to turn my face aside to prevent being burned. I was beyond exhausted and stopped for a rest at a fire station. A kindly, elderly woman who was a local EMT saw me and said, “Sugar, you sit yourself heah.” She said that I was not walking in a straight line and my eyes did not seem focused. Then she placed a wet towel on my head. She reminded me strongly of the kindly, older school nurse when I was in first grade in Atlanta. She said, “Honey, take these” and gave me two tablets with a glass of water. She said they were electrolytes and that I should finish the entire glass of water. I at first refused the tablets, but she looked at me silently with a kindly but firm stare that meant she wasn’t moving until I did exactly what she said. Who was I, a lowly first grader, to argue with the school nurse? So, I downed the salt tablets and water and sat there to rest and cool down. In a while she returned. I started to feel normal, or at least as normal as I get. Being childlike gives one the permission to rely on others occasionally. It gives us permission to enjoy very unadult activities in an innocent, joyful mode.

That evening, I started to go to bed in my tent very early so that I could wake up in the not so hot early morning. I was interrupted by a loud wailing siren. I peeked my head out of my tent and saw people running out of the camp. “Run,” I heard urgent voices shouting, “Storm will be here in ten minutes.” I quickly put on my shorts and tee shirt, and took the time to move my bicycle which was standing near my tent against a brick wall of a building and run along with the crowd to safety. Near the camp there was a huge indoor arena that seemed to be built like a fortress, as if it were built to literally withstand the forces of a major storm. When I was less than 100 feet from the huge steel doors of the building, I witnessed the power of nature. The temperature dropped within minutes from the scorching heat of the day to actually a bit chilly. The winds picked up to a deafening crescendo. It became dark in an instant and began to rain, not down but sideways. People were screaming and there seemed to be an eerie low-pitched vibration all around me. Right before I went through the huge doorway into safety, I paused and looked up. If I ever felt like a little boy in a big world, this was it. How can anyone witness that scene, that power and not feel that there is something else in the universe. Nature, God, a beautiful power far greater than little me. The child in me thought, “God, this is fun! I’m going to run back to the camp and take pictures of tents flying through the air.” Oh, my goodness, my bike, I thought in a panic. I have to save my bike! I had images of Dorothy running into the storm to save Toto! The curious child in me told me to experience all of life’s miracles and wonderment. There were other voices in my head, however. These voices were from Darlene and my dearly departed parents. The three of them said in unison, “Leonard Radin, grab your tushy and drag it into that building, NOW!” Hearing voices in my head was crazy enough, but since these were the voices of reason, I complied and went through the large doorway to safety. That night I had a sleepover in the massive arena with 1000 plus other cyclists. I later learned that Anna, a friend of mine, incorrectly heard that I elected to stay in my tent. She ran out into the storm frantically searching for me, a real-life Aunt Em, looking for Dorothy. My tent was destroyed but I did find all my stuff. Even my dusty bike not only survived the storm, but miraculously was now cleaner than it was before the storm! My RAGBRAI ride was not only a challenge, it was also a scary childhood adventure.

On the last day, toward the end of my 500-mile Odyssey as cyclists came within five miles of the finish line at the Mississippi, we were greeted by crowds on both sides of the road cheering. A high school brass band was playing a Sousa march and banners were hung across the street. There was a woman who I didn’t know riding to my right. I shouted, “I can’t see where I’m going. There are tears in my eyes.” She turned to me. Her face was red, her eyes puffy and tears were streaming down her face. Both of us, both little kids, were exhilarated and about to anoint our bikes in the mighty Mississippi and finish this wonderful week of play, of having a vacation from adulthood, of just being.

So, for a week in July, I returned again to childhood, refreshing myself with a renewed sense of discovery, of appreciating the world around me, of eyes wide with wonder and amazement.

Return to the Land Of My Soul
By Dr. Suzanne Graver

I loved, throughout my childhood, my Sephardic family’s Jewish practices as they took place in our home – the Shabbat candle lighting every Friday night, the “No Work” on the Sabbath dictum, the delicious Turkish food I helped my mother make, our huge Passover seders (6 kids in my family plus many relatives), my father’s frequent after-dinner Ladino prayer:

“Ya bevimos, ya comimos, gracias Dios Bendesimos, que nos dio, and nos dará pan para comer y paños para vestir.” [We have drunk and we have eaten, thanks to the Blessings of God, who has now and always will give us bread to eat and cloth to make the clothing we wear.]

In contrast, my experiences at the Queens, NYC Conservative Ashkenazi Synagogue we attended often troubled me. I avidly read the English translations of the Hebrew prayers but greatly resented that, unlike my four brothers, I wasn’t allowed to learn Hebrew or be called to the Bimah. I disliked, moreover, the tone-deaf Rabbi’s Hebrew chanting and increasingly found him hard to respect.

Having become during my first year of college entranced by the writings I’d encountered in my required Great Books of the Western World course, I asked this same Rabbi to recommend some great Jewish writers for me to read, the course having, alas, included none. His answer was, “There aren’t any.”

The sexism, combined with other troublesome Synagogue experiences led me to turn away from religious practice. Sharing some of my doubts, my father understood. My mother did not, “faith” for her being above all else a matter of feeling and Love, so she was greatly relieved when in 1960, at the age of 24, I chose at least to marry Lawrence Graver, a Jewish man. What she didn’t know was that he was a secular, not a practicing Jew, which I had by then also become.

Though an atheist, Larry was a proud secular Jew and introduced into the Williams College curriculum its first Jewish Studies course, “Imagining American Jews,” offered by the English Department, and in 1995 he published An Obsession with Anne Frank, an important book that illuminates the publication controversies and theatrical history of the Diary while also raising large and not easily resolved questions about the American response to the Holocaust.

Larry’s atheism derived above all else from his childhood experiences, which couldn’t have been more different from mine, but not because his family was Ashkenazi. He was an only child, and his father, an extremely active Communist organizer, who wrote for the Daily Worker and whom Larry adored, died 6 months before his Bar Mitzvah.

His parents and grandparents lived together in the same apartment because his parents couldn’t afford to live elsewhere, his father regularly getting fired for trying to organize the workers at whatever job he had. Having spent much of his childhood trying to mediate between his rabbi grandfather and communist father, Larry became a-political and a-religious.

We had a truly wonderful marriage, each of us feeling blessed to love and be loved by the other. In 2003, however, he began to suffer constantly from a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease that wasn’t accurately diagnosed until close to the time of his death. After suffering terribly for eight years, Larry died in 2000. The loss of my soulmate undid me. This is when, though not entirely consciously, my return to Judaism, the land of my soul, began. I was relieved to find the landscape much changed, even as I found myself able to connect to some of the ancient truths.

I’m a retired Williams College professor, and the relatively new establishment of a Jewish Religious Center at Williams encouraged my return as did the presence of a female rabbi, sexism having figured largely in my prior rejection. I attended some services there, and gradually moved on to CBI, my return finalized by the poetry and music, wisdom and inclusiveness, friendliness and warmth that CBI offers its congregants, and, above all else, by our superbly inspirational and brilliant Rabbi Rachel.

Still, though, given who I am, I remain somewhat agnostic, but the older I get, the more I accept the unknowable. What I do know is that my Jewish roots go back a very long way, my mother, Rebecca, being a Cohen and my father, Sabbatai Levy, a Levite, whose forebears escaped the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 by fleeing to Turkey in order to continue to practice their religion. So, here’s what I tell my grandchildren, when they ask me if I believe in God, as they sometimes do: “Who am I to disavow a tradition thousands of years old?” “Return again, return again / Return to the land of your soul” clearly speaks strongly to me.