I write from a Portland which has been blanketed in smoke from the forest fires for the past week, and a world mourning the passing of Justice RBG.
Thankfully, we are here to fight on in her name, and to pass the torch when it’s time. And thankfully, the air quality improved yesterday and we immediately ran outside after a week during which it wasn’t safe to breathe the air. And yet we are tremendously lucky that we and our home are safe. Here’s an active (as of 9/17) google doc someone has put together listing the least-funded GoFundMe campaigns for fire victims, many of whom are Latinx. If you prefer to donate to an organization assisting fire victims, here’s the Red Cross page.
And here is a photo Elijah (age 6) took of me heading out to perform a socially distant bat mitzvah in a student’s living room.
MUSIC AND FILM NEWS!
Amidst it all, art continues – thank goodness. And I’m truly honored to say that I’ve been selected as one of nine composers for the BMI Composing for the Screen masterclass with film composer (and Julliard professor!) Rick Baitz. I’ve become increasingly serious about this part of my work, and studying with a master has been incredible.
Working on A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff is pretty much keeping me in one piece. So grateful for my weekly zoom meetings with the post-production team! We will begin submitting a work in progress version to festivals in a couple weeks, and in the coming months we’ll be in touch with info about private screenings for those who have contributed to our fundraiser – and possibly one last fundraiser to enable us to submit widely and hire a publicist.
AN INTENTION FOR THE NEW YEAR
Finally, I want to leave you with some thoughts about Rosh Hashana this year – essentially a blessing for all of us as we head into the New Year. I am grateful for the Orot community in Chicago, IL for inviting me to contribute these to their weekly email, and for allowing me to share this with you all. Here it is:
A BLESSING FOR THE NEW YEAR: FORGET THE WORD “INEVITABLE”
Because I live in Portland, Oregon, which has some serious yard vegetation culture (and fairly plentiful water), watering my yard can take quite a while – which means I listen to a lot of podcasts while watering.
This has only increased since the pandemic hit, and life has contracted to the boundaries of our home and yard. Over the past six months, I’ve listened to Esther Perel counsel couples while I dug up old bushes and grass; laughed out loud at Jon Lovett on Pod Save America as I planted new succulents; cringed at my own culpability while listening to Nice White Parents as I lay out a new path of hand-me-down paving stones.
Which leads me to the moment when, finger on the hose nozzle, I listened to an episode of the Tim Ferris Show in which he interviewed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – and Rabbi Sacks dropped a piece of wisdom which immediately became my main kavannah for Rosh Hashana this year.
It came in response to Ferris’ question about the pervasive feeling that our culture is too far gone to save – that, in Tim’s words, “we are just on the descent in the lifespan of a collapsing empire.”
I’ll quote Rabbi Sacks’ answer directly:
Forget the word inevitable. It doesn’t exist. Forget it. Delete it. Search and delete. We are going to come up, in a few weeks’ time, to the Jewish High Holidays, right…And we are going to do the weirdest thing. Listen carefully. We are going to say a prayer, which goes, “On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is written. And on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is sealed.”…So that is the perfect statement of fatalism. It’s going to be written over the next 10 days, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And then precisely two minutes later, the entire synagogue erupts with the words, “But prayer, penitence, and charity avert the evil decree.” Nobody ever accepts any verdict as final in Judaism. We completely throw out the concept of inevitability.
Standing there, watering the rosemary bushes, I experienced one of those rare, quasi-chiropractic perspective shifts.
Like Tim Ferriss, I’m tempted to see the events of the past few years as a story arc with a foregone (and terrible) conclusion. Unconsciously, I’ve even thought of this as a “Jewish” way to look at what’s going on, in the sense that we Jews are well acquainted with impending doom, totalitarian societies, and the need to be watching out for the moment when “worrisome” tips over into “time to flee.”
But Rabbi Sacks was saying was the opposite: that the Jewish perspective is equally one of hope, of radical transformation, of teshuvah (and tzedakah and tefilla) as acts that can literally rewrite our story.
Two weeks since I first heard this interview, the smoke from forest fires is beyond the government’s official toxicity scale – so dangerous that I now wear a gas mask while watering my garden. (I have never owned a gas mask before this year; I bought it earlier this summer to protect me from the police, who tear gassed Portlanders nightly as we protested for Black Lives Matter – further supporting the “collapsing empire” narrative.)
It sometimes feels like the world is closing in on us. First, Covid made the human world unsafe, but we had nature. Now, my children cannot go outside because of the dangerous air. Our universe is getting smaller and smaller – but we are tremendously lucky to have a home. Gassing protesters in the street is indeed dystopian – but the fact that so many people gather to fight for Black lives is a beautiful and luminous thing.
It is difficult to hold these realities at once, and yet, both are true.
In the same way, all that is broken at this moment – the oppression, the climate devastation, the fear and ignorance and uncertainty – this all coexists with the fact that, as Rabbi Sacks says, the verdict is not final. Yes, we can read the dire warnings of Unetanah Tokef on the front page of the newspaper – devastation by fire here on the West Coast, and by water in the Southeast. And yes, this is terrifying. But the end of the prayer represents another truth, which lives not in the newspaper, but in our hearts: we can still change the story.
I have always loved the “who by fire” passage in Unetanah Tokef – how it grants me a quick slide-show of my own many possible demises, bringing me face to face with my own mortality. In this pandemic year, however, we are already face to face with our own mortality. We are already focused on the life-or-death struggle to protect our planet, our health and that of our neighbor – the struggle towards justice and kindness and decency. This year, we need the “who by fire” passage a bit less.
So thank goodness (or thank the Rabbis) for the fact that, as Rabbi Sacks points out, that just as fire and water are not the end of the prayer, they are not necessarily the end of the story.
A few days ago, Rebecca Solnit posted an excerpt from her book, Hope in the Dark, along with this new message, written as fire tore across her home state of California: Right now [hope] doesn’t mean envisioning rosy futures; it means knowing that the worst case scenarios are not inevitable, and every day we are choosing together what direction we head in.
What direction will we head in? This year, to me, teshuvah means not just “return,” but movement. As Solnit writes, “Worst case scenarios are not inevitable”; as Rabbi Sacks says, “Forget the word inevitable.” Fear tells us we know the ending, and it’s going to be bad. But our tradition tells us that God is not the only one who writes in the Book of Life. We, too, are writers. We wrote our way into this story, and we can write our way out.