Self / No Self

Below is my first Toastmaster speech. The assignment was called “The Ice-Breaker” and the task was to introduce myself to the group.

Hello everyone. Today I’ve been asked to introduce myself. Sounds easy, yes? But I ask:

Is there an abiding self who can be introduced?

Am I the nice Jewish girl from Chicago, never questioning the many rules of an orthodox religious practice?

Am I the radical anti-war activist attending six meetings a day, building People’s Park in Berkeley, demanding Third World Studies, and marching in the streets?

Am I the feminist working for women’s rights when the mainstream media and even public television found the movement to be amusing, even laughable?

Am I the artist, disillusioned with political activism, trying to create a new reality through art?

Am I the wife and mother, shaping a more evolved next generation?

Am I a research writer and graphic designer, contributing to public health? And learning to mediate at the university to help people to better communicate with one another?

Am I the humanist rabbi trying to foster interfaith dialogue with the goal of increasing understanding between people of all beliefs and trying to help alleviate suffering?

Am I the doting grandmother (bubbe in Yiddish) whose heart aches with love for her three grandchildren?

To be honest with you, I am torn between two ways of looking at this idea of the self. The first way is one that is inspired by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen. He said (this is a very loose rendition):

“To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

But then, there is the Chassidic tale about Rabbi Zusya:

Rabbi Zusya, a wise and pious man was near the end of his life and he was weeping. His students gathered around and asked him, “Rabbi Zusya, why are you crying? You have led an exemplary life.” Rabbi Zusya answered them. “When I die and go to heaven, the angels will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses, leading the people out of Egypt?” They will not ask me, “Why were you not Solomon, offering wisdom to the people?” They will ask me, “Zusya, why were you not Zusya?”

No Self / Authentic Self

So, who am I – this person standing here before you all? Is there an abiding self who can be introduced? Would we want there to be such a self? If so, is there a thread that holds these selves together into one self?

Some people say that we are the stories we tell.

In that case, I am the forgotten self, the authentic self, the nice Jewish girl, activist, feminist, artist, researcher, designer, mediator, mother, rabbi, bubbe, toastmaster attendee, and I’m very happy to meet you.

Moving from fear to joy

Have you seen the “horse learning about water” video? Some say this video has gone viral. I try to understand why. Here’s the link, if you would like to see it for yourself:

I’ve been pondering why the video has so much power. For those of you who may not have access to the video, I’ll briefly describe it. We see a pre-teen girl sitting on a horse, leading it toward the bank of a body of still water, likely a pond. The horse is clearly afraid and backs up. 1HORSE APPROACHING WATER The girl leads the horse again – again the horse backs away. In the next scene we see the girl, now off the horse, leading the horse by the reins toward the water. 2HORSE LEADING ON FOOTThe horse backs away again. But the girl is patient and persistent. She puts her foot in the water, and circles of water radiate from where her foot entered. She does this repeatedly and the horse looks at the rings of water and appears interested and puts its hoof in the water to3HORSE GIRL SHOWING WATER CIRCLESo. Slowly, the horse appears to be more and more comfortable in the water. The girl leads it in further. The horse splashes the water with glee. 4HORSE SPLASHThe girl laughs and laughs and the horse, its comfort level quite high at this point, keeps splashing and splashing. The joy of the splashing is punctuated by the girl’s infectious laughter. Pure joy is expressed by the horse and by the girl. If we empathize with these two beings we experience deep fear, patience, curiosity, and joy all in a period of 2 minutes and 19 seconds!

I wonder why I am so taken with this video. I begin by googling the symbolism of horses, since I know that if I had seen a mouse, or even a small child get acclimated to this water I don’t think I would have responded as strongly as I did. My search is unsuccessful – I mainly find posts about spirit animals and the meaning of horses in dreams. These posts do not resonate for me at all. I’m left to my own imagination – so here goes:

Horses are powerful creatures. The level of fear that I experience if I identify with this powerful creature is high. I am that horse and I feel the strong discomfort of discovering something new that scares me to the core of my being. Something guides me, though, to face up to this fear. I see someone else modeling comfort with water, and I realize that with this support and guidance, maybe I can try to face my fear. Not only is the fear overcome, but also the experience that follows is indescribably joyful.

I find myself wondering about what I’m afraid of. What is standing in the way of my joy? My first thought is that I am afraid to express my feelings to family and friends. I grew up in a fairly non-expressive family, the reins held back because of fear of total loss of control and mental illness, a real and persistent problem in my mother’s family. As I write this, the tears come, so I think this is real. The water in the video perhaps symbolizes life and the free and full expression of emotion. This is what I have to learn to splash in and not back away from. Luckily, I have the good fortune of having a persistent guide, who, though I resist again and again, keeps grabbing my reins and pulling me toward the water. Perhaps this is why the viral horse video has so much appeal for me. How about you? What is your fear? What stands in the way of your joy?

From black and white to grey

My husband and I like to relax in the late evening by watching a movie or a television series. Lately we’ve been watching Girls. Have you seen this series? It’s about young twenty-somethings in Brooklyn and their angst over supporting themselves, expressing themselves, their relationships, sex, and life issues in general. We watched a couple Season 2 episodes (and if you comment on this post, please don’t reveal anything . . .we’re taking this slowly), and I woke up thinking about these characters and how self involved they are. As a boomer I ask myself why I would

LenaDunham be interested in such self-involved people. I tend to be judgmental and I don’t like that about myself, but why would I be interested in this program? None of the characters do anything for anyone else. The closest thing to service is that one character is a high-end hostess. Of course, the main character is a writer and perhaps what she is writing will have relevance to others – though perhaps not. At one point she has a writing assignment to get out of her comfort zone, to take cocaine and go wild and write about it. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that scenario, although, perhaps the idiocy that transpires in the episode is a life lesson we might take from the story. Or maybe she is doing art for art’s sake. As I think that thought I have an “aha” moment! Over the past week I’ve been photographing my old paintings that I’ve had stored in the basement for as long as 30 years. I no longer have room to store these paintings and will be releasing them to family, friends, and non-profit institutions that will display them. This morning I thought about why I had stopped being a painter and chose, instead, to become a humanist Jewish leader and then a rabbi. Here is a short version of the story.

I grew up conservadox, attending a Conservative congregation, but with my mother keeping the law in a more orthodox way than most of the congregants. However, as a teenager I left the orthodox path after witnessing hypocrisy within my community; my civil rights activist rabbi was the first to abdicate to “blockbusting,” moving out of our community at the first sign of an African-American family moving in. I was quite appalled, as only the very young can be appalled; I saw everything in black and white, and had zero tolerance for hypocrisy. It was easy to be disillusioned as an adolescent.


photo from Getty archives

When I went to college and became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, I thought about World War II, and believed that as a Jew it was my obligation to take a stand, and not let a people be destroyed the way my people was destroyed in Europe. My activism was first curbed by the dominant-male personalities of the leadership within the student left. I joined the women’s liberation movement, assuming that women would be more respectful than men. Of course I was wrong. I discovered that to simply state what you believe is right, and to fight to create change without looking within oneself, can be counterproductive. One doesn’t change other people’s minds unless one totally respects the other person, whether or not they agree with you. To nurture the ability to hear another person requires a great deal of effort and skill. At the time of my disillusionment with political activism I wasn’t ready for the task, and I turned to create my own world of paintings. This didn’t require any effort on my part to change anyone but myself. I painted some beautiful paintings, showed these in galleries, received a fair amount of acknowledgment for my efforts, but felt dissatisfied—I think, at least in part, because I was raised as a Jew with a sense of obligation to a community (and not just a community of art lovers).


If you’d like to see more of these you will find them here:


So, if I wasn’t going to change the world through political activism or art what did I need to do? At the same time that I asked myself this question, my daughter completed a multicultural curriculum at her public school. She became interested in her own cultural roots. It was time to look for a Jewish community for my children! I searched and found a local chapter of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and we all went to Yom Kippur services. This was the beginning of a long involvement with humanistic Judaism. This involvement led me back home to my Jewish roots. Soon after joining Kol Hadash, I was asked to go for training to become their leader. I completed this training in 2 years and led the group for 5 years.

Check out to learn more about Humanistic Judaism

Check out to learn more about Humanistic Judaism

Acting as a spiritual leader for Kol Hadash was a challenging and rewarding experience. I found, however, that the more I learned about Judaism, the more I didn’t know. After stepping down from my leadership role in Kol Hadash, I embarked on a journey of Jewish learning that brings me to today. My Jewish learning led to my ordination as a rabbi in November 2014 and will be a permanent part of my life.

Now, I, the rabbi, take the painter’s, my, paintings and photograph them. I lift each heavy painting out the side door of my house, haul it onto a bench, lean it against the house, and take a photograph. I go back and forth more than 30 times over a week. Sometimes I gasp at the beauty of the piece and this brings me into a spiritual zone that I was in when I produced the painting. Perhaps my criticism of Girls is really a suppression of the artist in me. We humans are complex. We can be personally creative and socially responsible. I hope that by my age I can learn to think in grey and not just black and white!

Simple pleasures

I’m trying to take my Shabbat consciousness and bring it to my everyday life at least some of the time. By Shabbat consciousness I mean being aware of what is happening in the moment and attempting to not think about plans or goals – cultivating a sense of satisfaction.

This year begins and I’m most struck by how satisfied I am by simple activities.

Example I: Today there is no work. I wake up, wash, and put in my contact lenses, then stroll into the kitchen, turn, and take a large onion out of the pantry. I peel the onion and slowly slice it into thin slices. photo(1)My eyes tear a little as I separate the thin rings of onion. I warm the iron skillet and after a few moments pour in a fair amount of grape-seed oil until it looks hot but is not yet smoking. I scrape the onions into the skillet and hear the loud sizzle as the thin rings hit the pan. I stir them with a wooden spoon and lower the heat. The aroma is wonderful. I’ll let the onions cook for 20 minutes. After they caramelize they are sweet, no longer sharp and tear provoking. I think about how amazing it is that a simple onion can go from pungent to sweet in 20 minutes! How lovely! They will be the main filler for the omelet I prepare for Al and me. Delicious!

Example II: Lately I’ve been cutting through the weeds in our garden. The blackberries and anise stalks have taken over. We have a large backyard area because our lot is a standard size lot in San Francisco and our house is quite small. There is an enormous amount of space for blackberries, anise, vines, all kinds of native-growing wild foliage to thrive – with or without a drought. The weeds have grown so high over the years. Between my day job and taking classes I didn’t think there was time for working out back so the weeds flourished.

photo-1Sometimes I liked the jungle-like appearance back there but now I’d like to help create a space where my grandchildren will be able to play. Every day I go out back and weed for 1 ½ to 2 hours. I cut through the brush, pile the debris in the front of the yard and then cut the branches to fit into huge garden waste bags. I hear the birds and smell the earth and breathe the fresh air. All I have to do is step outside my own house and I’m in nature. What a pleasure it is to simply cut weeds, hear birds, and smell the earth.

Example III: My good friend calls me in the morning. “Do you want to walk to the top of Bernal Hill?” she asks. Yes, surely I do. I eat breakfast, get dressed and we start out on our walk, catching up on what is new for each of us. We see a woman two blocks away and my friend asks her if she took art classes with her. The woman did not, though she is an artist and attends art meet-ups that my friend may want to attend. We talk with her for quite a while and we’re all quite happy to stand outside talking about our lives. My friend and I walk further, continuing our conversation about things we’re going to do in the New Year, about children, grandchildren, life, how lovely the day is. We walk for 1 1/2 hours and make it to the top of Bernal Hill. The view is amazing and the walk back is lovely also. We both know how lucky we are to be able to walk 9 miles up and down hills. We don’t take this for granted.

photo (22)Sweet onions, birds, weeds, earth, friends, conversations, sunny days, walking up and down hills – I am grateful for these simple pleasures.