My Father’s Chest of Drawers: Parashat Shelach

My parent’s wedding picture.

If you told me that my father would outlive my mother, I would have said you were crazy. After all, he was eight years older than her and suffered with Parkinson’s and macular degeneration for years. But somehow, he managed to outlast her by about six weeks. He might have even lasted longer if not for Covid-19, which seemed to have been the tipping point. Despite their somewhat contentious marriage, he didn’t want to live without her.

The last weeks have been surreal. First my mother died on March 23rd and then my father on May 10th without their children by their side. With no time to mourn, I jumped into rabbi mode, making arrangements and leading services on the next days. We gathered live and on Facebook. No hugging. No sitting shiva. As the weeks have gone by, details have been attended to: papers filed, cellphones cancelled, cable disconnected. I’ve said Kaddish with online minyanim, finding it impersonal.

Almost three years ago, the apartment that I grew up in was emptied. Although we had hired a professional to do the bulk of the work, there was plenty to look at and think about, trying to resist taking everything. This was repeated with their assisted living apartment where there was way too much stuff. Dressed in protective wear, we–my oldest niece and I–entered their apartment and went through everything. Taking what we could. It was a bit amazing what they took. In the top of the cabinet was my father’s sailor uniform. He was drafted and sent to San Diego shortly before the war ended. There were several pieces of painted china that my mother loved. And there were lots of pictures. As I walked around the building, I was heartened to see residents and staff that I knew, saddened to hear of the facility’s losses. Still, it all seemed surreal to me.

Then, the furniture came. The thing I really wanted was my father’s chest of drawers. Not only did I really need it, I had always loved it. Its many drawers held secrets that I loved looking through. There were always strange keys in the top drawer. There was a Civil War gun in the bottom drawer that I would sneak looks at. It doesn’t work and I was never sure where he got it.

Zali settles in to the new chair.

As I sit here writing this, in the chair that my sat in my parents’ bedroom for nearly 65 years, I look at the chest of drawers and the realization of what has happened hits me. They are indeed gone.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, God tells Moses to send scouts to Canaan to check out the new land. There is a very dramatic recounting of how a representative of each of the twelve tribes was sent. Ten were scared and came back with wild stories of gigantic arachnids and huge grapes. But Joshua and Caleb stood up and told the truth as they saw it.

The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If Adonai is pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us…

How lucky were the Israelites to have Joshua and Caleb. If only someone could reassure me that my new world will be fine.


Note: Since the second day of Shavuot was on a Shabbat, and Israel and the Liberal Jewish movements do not celebrate the second day, some congregations read about the rebellion of Korach this week. It seems appropriate that this delivery sits between a portion about going in to a new lasnd and one about a rebellion. My mother always thought I was rebellious, but that’s for another blog.

 

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Rethinking Memorial Day

Memorial Day. I’ve always heard that it was the unofficial opening of summer. As much as the media talks about the beaches–open? closed? – in my memory, New York City rarely has summertime weather at the end of May.

This year, while much of the nation is back to business, and probably spreading the virus, NYC is not having sales, beaches, and parades. Officially, we are still in lockdown. And while staying at home doesn’t not honor our war dead, it is closer to the essence of Memorial Day than going out and partying. After all, the root of memorial is memory.

I never really understood Memorial Day until I lived in Israel. On Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, people stop. Restaurants and clubs are closed. There is a siren that sounds and everyone stops moving for two minutes. People get off buses, stop on highways and stand by their cars, and freeze wherever they are. Those who have died in battles and terrorist attacks are remembered. I remember being in Machane Yehuda, the open air market in Jerusalem, when the siren rang. I was near a shop that earlier that year had been bombed, killing the owner and bystanders. A women in front of me stopped, packages in both hands and stood in tears. The siren ended and we all moved on.

Israel smartly placed their Memorial Day adjacent to Independence Day. After a day filled with such emotion, everyone needs a good party. It is understood that in a young nation with so many wars and attacks, everyone knows someone who has died. This year, with the virus killing almost 100,000 people at this point, we understand that. Everyone has a parent, an aunt, a grandparent, a friend, a favorite musician that they know who died of the disease. There are too many.

When the Covid-19 virus was first identified, there was talk that that we were at war. So how will we memorialize our Covid-19 dead? Should we include them in this day, when we remember those who died in battle? Should we create a special day? Maybe the last day someone dies of it? Will that ever come?

My prayer this Memorial Day is the same as always.

May there come a day that there are no war dead to memorialize.

And I will add, may there come a day that no ones dies of Covid 19.

“Nations shall not raise a sword to anither nation. Neither shall they study war any more.” –Isaiah

I particularly like the last part. If you don’t study it, if you don’t learn it, you can’t do it.

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A Long Strange Week It’s Been

This morning I took my the traditional walk around the block that occurs at the end of shiva. According to Rabbi Peretz Rodman, “The walk outdoors serves two purposes: It announces to the world that the mourner is re-entering the public sphere, and it provides support for the mourner making that transition from withdrawal to engagement in society.” As I walked down Sixth Avenue, turning down 11th Street, I realized that there was no one to reintroduce myself to and there was no one to comfort me. Greenwich Village was quiet. I continued my walk to Seventh Avenue, stopping to stretch my ankles against a building. As I rounded back onto 12th Street, I saw a few people, no one that I knew. As I approached my apartment building, I saw a neighbor, who waved. We recognized each other despite most of our faces being covered by masks.

It seems strange that it was almost a week ago that we buried my mother. There were a few family members in attendance, my brothers, father, nieces in person and nieces on Facebook video, a cousin. The week was filled with a Zoom shiva meeting, phone calls, emails, video chats. I felt the warmth of the many extended family members and friends who have reached out. There were lots of naps and videos. There was even a Zoom memorial for an extended family member on their first yartzeit, the first anniversary of her death. I did take a few walks, but living in the heart of NYC, the threat of the invisible virus transmission is too great.

I remember when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, died. It was the beginning of winter break when I was in junior high school. The funeral was a cold, rainy day. It was that dampness that stays in my memory. I remember that I got sick from being out in the damp and cold. (Yes, I know it comes from germs.) In retrospect, I think my immune system was diminished from the loss. She was my favorite.

Shiva was at my Aunt Minnie’s house. It was always at Aunt Minnie’s. After my grandmother was no longer able to host family events, they shifted to Aunt Minnie’s house. Seders, holiday dinners, and shivas. Occasionally, my mother would host a Thanksgiving dinner or a seder, but generally, they were at Aunt Minnie’s. She had the biggest apartment. She, and my Uncle Herbie when he was still alive, had the greatest Yiddishkeit. I always felt as if I was enveloped when I walked in the door. The food was always plentiful and the most Jewish, whatever the occasion. The family was also plentiful.

As I reenter the world, the real question is, what do I do? We can’t visit my father in his assisted living apartment. There are daily phone calls. The gyms are closed and I am struggling to get into an exercise routine. Did I spend much of the last year getting into shape to allow my progress to fail in this pandemic? Should I just be happy to be alive?

Rodman explains how the mourner is greeted with the words, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” It is also traditional to say these words when someone leaves a shiva call. These words referred to those in mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As someone who is not in mourning for the Temple, and not interested in seeing it rebuilt, I am in search for the appropriate catch phrase that makes sense to the Liberal Jew.

Traditional mourning rules tell us that the death of a loved one, especially a parent, turns one’s world upside down. Death in the time of Covid-19 in like being being a die, cupped between hands and shaken all about. It’s not just that up is now down. It’s sideways and crooked and turned in multiple directions.

 

Ending Shiva

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What a Difference A Week Makes: Loss in the Age of Covid-19

Just two weeks ago, we had a luncheon in a restaurant to celebrate my spouse’s birthday. When people arrived, we joked about not kissing and hugging. When we parted, most of us forgot about the new protocol and joyfully hugged one another.

A few days later, my mother had trouble breathing. The aides at my parents’ assisted living facility called for an ambulance and sometime that night, in the hospital, she had a complete cardiac arrest. The doctors and nurses spent thirteen minutes bringing her heart back, and succeeded. Unfortunately, not much came with it. Not her kidneys, not her liver, not her lungs. Certainly not her lungs, after smoking for nearly 70 of her 87 years.

That was Wednesday night. First she was in an isolation ward before they could determine that she fortunately did not have Covid-19. Then we were able to see her. In this time of Covid-19 it was one at a time for a short period during the day. My brother left after spending some time with her in the morning. When he returned in the afternoon, he was told, no more visitors to the ICU. And that was it. For the rest of her life, she was alone. Alone in the time of Covid-19. Her husband of nearly 65 years, my father, was unable to visit her. My two brothers were unable to visit her. I was unable to visit her. They said that she was not cognizant of what was going on. I hope not. If she was, she must have been thinking, where the F- are my children. (Last night, the hospital relented and my brother was able to be with her.)

Yesterday, masks on faces, my brothers and I saw my father in the lobby of his assisted living facility to tell him it was time. Time to end her existence. Her life ended with the heart attack. In the last week, she simply existed. In this time of Covid-19, we were unable to spent time with him in his apartment. (It used to be their apartment, but I guess it is now his.) We were unable to go to a diner or Starbucks to sit together. Instead, he was in his wheelchair and we sat or stood around him while we talked to him. And now, I am preparing to officiate at my mother’s funeral.

Our family was never really large, but neither was it small. My mother was the youngest of seven and despite their all coming to America (she and her two years older sister were born here) and living to adulthood, seven daughters begat only ten grandchildren. Of those nieces and nephews, two are already gone. My brothers were more productive, or shall I say, reproductive, than I was and brought my parents five wonderful granddaughters, all of whom are grown, making their way through the world. None of the grandchildren, nieces, cousins, extended relatives and friends will be there to bury her. Just her husband and children. Not even spouses. No one is flying in. No one is traveling. Not in the time of Covid-19.

I’ve always thought that the Jewish rituals of mourning provide a beautiful structure to process loss. But I have been robbed of the communal aspects of that process. The parts of that process that are most important to me. There will be no shiva. There will be no minyanim (services). I am sure that friends will reach out, but there will be no hugs, except from my spouse. No deli, no schnapps. Not in the time of Covid-19.

There are times that change our individual lives: a birth, a death. There are times that change our communal lives: a war, a pandemic. Unfortunately, both have collided in my world and I’m sure in the worlds of many others.

Ironically, in my mother’s generation, the Hebrew word Kavod, respect, would have been pronounced Kuvid. By curtailing our practice, we are giving Covid-19 much Kavod. Unfortunately, there is no Kuvid back from Covid-19.

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Celebrating Freedom

The Gay Pride March in NYC always takes place on the last Sunday in June. This year it fell on June 30th, the last day of the month. As the world came together to recall the changes in the last 50 years since the Stonewall riots, NYC celebrated GLBTQ+ pride with marches, parades and parties. The world joined in the celebration too. In my lifetime, I have seen the Gay world expand though the alphabet and people are free to explore their identities. Whether you consider yourself Gay, Lesbian Trans, Queer, Non-Binary, or the myriad of choices out there, this is your time. Americans and many around the world are free to marry who they love, serve their countries, and join professions of their choosing.

On the heels of the high from Pride, just four days later is the Fourth of July. I always see this as one of our nation’s most sacred days. Fun, food, and fireworks. That is the hallmark of this day. Inevitably, on TV I will see a group of new Americans being sworn in as citizens and I will become teary-eyed. Is there anything more American? Welcoming those seeking freedom. So, along with many in this country, I am disturbed by the President’s coopting of the July 4th celebration in DC for his own purposes. I am disturbed by the flagrant display of military tanks being brought to our capitol. These are instruments of war while the nation’s birthday is meant to be a day of peaceful celebration. Instead, the President wants to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke. He wants to remember our military by making so many of them work on this holiday, in hot, humid, and stormy weather. (I do not blame the President for the weather. But it is DC in the summer.)

Our President believes that we should not disrespect the flag. I believe that we should not disrespect the values of the flag. It is not the flag itself that has meaning, it is what it stands for: our standing up against tyranny, our fight about the British for freedom, our support of the neediest among us, our reaching out to the work to be an example of good to the rest of the world. Our flag represents our Democratic rights of protests, our right to disagree, our right to be who we are.

Six years ago, as the Defense of Marriage Act fell and the Supreme Court effectively legalized Gay marriage, I stood in the NYC municipal building with my long time partner and we became legal spouses. We knew that it was time to celebrate our freedom to marry after almost 20 years together. (A chuppah followed six months later.)

Jews know how fragile freedom is. We have a major holiday that celebrates freedom. We remember how Pharaoh restricted our freedom and only upon a threat of death, let us go. We know how we have been enslaved. We remember this in the reading of the MiChamocha prayer three times a day so as a people, we should be wary at the caging of people in camps. (Yes, they are akin to the concentration camps.) We should be wary of shows of military might. We should be afraid of unbridled patriotism that uses the flag as weapons and not a symbol.

On this Fourth of July I pray that we take a cue from the Pride celebrations and go forward with pride. Pride in our diversity. Pride in our founding fathers who envisioned a better life than one under a king. And pride in retaining our democracy. There are budding Pharaohs everywhere. Let’s be sure that they do not get a chance to rise.

Happy Fourth everyone!

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ON BEING AN AMERICAN: WHEN HATE SPEECH HITS HOME

As I write this, it is the midterm elections in the United States. Nothing is more American than voting and I see myself as a patriotic American.

I have voted in every election since I turned 18. My first election, soon after my September birthday, was a presidential election. My candidate won and I was filled with a sense of hope for America. Since then, I have voted in every election that I could. Every primary. Every special election. Every regular election. I originally registered as an Independent, but soon changed my party affiliation to Democratic. As a New York City resident, the Democratic primary is often the election. Most years I vote Democratic. Sometimes there are candidates running against each other that I don’t like and I don’t vote for anyone.

As a Jew, I never saw myself in conflict with my being an American. When I was a kid, we used to ponder, “If Israel went to war with the United States, what side would I be on?” We didn’t understand what a ridiculous question this was, but we were kids. I never felt that my Judaism was in conflict with my being an American. (Even though I am a Hawk on Israel, I don’t agree with everything that that the current government does.) And I’ve never personally felt being a Jew in America was dangerous. That was until the election of 2016. That was until ralliers yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” That was until white supremacists marched with torches Charlottesville. That was until a gunman slaughtered 11 Jews on a Fall Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am active on Facebook. I am not easy to find as I use a pseudonym. I post about all types of things. After the murders in Pittsburgh, a friend wrote that the President had blood on his hands. Someone asked why and I wrote that the deaths were because of the President’s ugly rhetoric. This person, whom I do not know, responded:

Of all the filthy Judenrat on the planet, you are by far the most evil. How anyone could call you a rabbi is simply sickening. I’d pay to see you fed to the hyenas.

You are why people had [hate] Jews you filthy pig.

There were a few other things and then a picture of a noose. I did not respond and my friend blocked him. Unfortunately, I did not take a screen shot of the post, but I did get one of the private messages he sent me with some of the same content. I’ve reported him and did not respond. I am not worried that this man that I do not know is going to come after me. I do worry that he is spreading hate across social media and causing fear in others. I don’t live in fear from my Judaism. But I do live in fear for where this country is headed.

I know that it has been said a billion times this season, but our only recourse is voting. Voting like our lives depends on it. Voting as if our future depends on it. Voting no matter how much our feet hurt.

Hillel taught “Al tifros min hatzibur, Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5). We are not supposed to stand ideally by as our government moves. We are meant to be part of it.

Rabbi Yitzhak taught that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). We need to be part of the community.

As I was writing this, I took a break to go vote. In the middle of the day, my Greenwich Village polling place had a long line. There are no really contested elections in my district. It would be shocking if the incumbents and Democrats did not win. But like me, my neighbors said, it is our job to stand up and make our views heard in our vote. As Jews were are required to participate in our government. As Americans we are too. Do your job. Vote!

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I’M ANGRY

angry calvin

I’m angry. I am so angry. And I’ve had it.

Shabbat is one of my favorite times of the week. Sometimes, I am teaching or leading some sort of service. Sometimes, as today, I can have a leisurely day. Avoiding the rain in NYC, I was enjoying my favorite kind of Shabbat. Not moving too fast. Drinking coffee. Reading the papers and magazines that built up from the week. And watching my favorite Saturday news shows. The greatest moment of conflict was sparring with my kitties over my bagel and herring.

What I had not planned on doing this morning was texting friends in Pittsburgh to see if they were alive, to see if their families were alive.

It was a great Shabbat morning until I learned that a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with an automatic weapon. And if it ruined my morning, sitting in my pjs in the comfort of my home, I can only imagine what those in the synagogue felt. What could it be like to be chanting the Sh’ma or be hearing Torah when someone storms in with a rifle? What could it be like to celebrate your son’s bris, the ritual circumcision and naming on a Jewish boy on his eighth day of life, and have your joy smashed by the sound of gunfire, fearing he might not live to be nine days old? It is something that I hope we never know.

The President decried the violence and said that it would have been different if the synagogue had an armed guard. He said that the shooting had “little to do” with the gun laws. “If they had protection inside the results would have been far better,” the president said. “Maybe it could have been a very much different situation.” He said that stronger death penalties would stop this. Pennsylvania does have the death penalty and there is a federal death penalty. I guess that was not enough for this shooter.

I’ve notice that our pro-gun politicians never say it is the guns. According to them, it’s not the guns that kill people. It’s not the bullets that are propelled by the guns. It’s either that the shooters are mentally ill, or anti-Semitic or something else. But never the guns. However, if you don’t have an automative weapon, you cannot kill anyone with bullets. Sure, there are other weapons. But there is nothing like an automatic weapon to cause maximum death and mayhem. There is no other purpose.

I know there are those who think that teachers should be armed as a way to counteract the murdering of children in school. Maybe we should arm clergy. Let’s think about how that might work. I can imagine being on the bimah when someone comes in who is disturbed. Do they have a gun? Maybe? Off I go, Rabbi Rambo, protecting my flock. I could pull my weapon out from under my robe and fly off the bimah. Would I get to him before he gets to me? (I say “he” because this kind of violence is usually done by men.) How many people in the congregation would pull out their guns? Would bullets fly in every direction? Would I know who the “good guy with the gun” is? When the smoke cleared, would we still have a minyan?

Or, we can have an alternative reality. If we don’t have guns, no one can kill someone with one.

NO GUNS = NO GUN DEATHS

Our tradition tells us:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev.

Lo yil’medu od milchamah.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war any more.

Maybe if we stop learning how to shoot guns, people will stop dying. I would love to hear a politician talk about that.

On Shabbat, when we return the Torah to the ark, we sing:

It (Torah) is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast

and all of its supporters are happy.

Today, that happiness was shattered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

 

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Eliza, Coming Out of Mitzrayim

There is nothing like good art. Art that makes you think. Art that has nine lives.

Last week we saw the new production of My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center Theater, here in NYC. It was wonderful. This story may be on its ninth or tenth life. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which itself is based on the Greek legend. I remember seeing the movie years ago. Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins seemed like an old man compared to the young and beautiful Eliza Doolittle created by Audrey Hepburn. In the shadow of the MeToo movement, it now seems  downright creepy. This is especially true at the end where the new, refined Eliza returns to Higgins, handing him the slippers that she had once thrown at him.

In this production, Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza is a worthy adversary to Harry Haydon-Patton’s Higgins. For those unfamiliar with the story, it depicts an uneducated flower girl who comes to Professor Higgins, and by extension, his colleague Colonel Pickering, for lessons to learn how to speak properly. She is a girl who lives on the street and pines for a warm room, a place to stay. She wants to change her trajectory in life. Mired in Mitzrayim, she meets Higgins and sees him as her way out. She is willing to do the work to walk through the sea and come out free on the other side.

Mitzrayim, the biblical word for the land of Egypt, literally means “the narrow place.” At our Passover seder, we are told that each one of us should see ourselves as if we each came out of Mitzrayim. As if we each came out of the narrow place.

In today’s life we are all squeezed. While we may not feel as if we are coming out of slavery, or living on the street, many of us can feel as if we are walking through the Sea of Reeds with the water holding up on each side. Work stress. Family stress. Life stress.Will the walls of water fall before we get to the other side? Will we make it to dry land? And when we get there, what will find?

For Eliza, she works hard and transforms herself into a new person. Higgins opens the sea for her and provides her with a path to change her destiny.  She works hard every day, Unfortunately, Higgins himself has no clue that he himself is deep in Mitzrayim. He is so strangled by his own ego, he loses out on the best thing that has ever come his way. His mother, played by the marvelous Diana Rigg, can see what Henry can’t see.  When it comes to the male ego, even his mother can’t help him.

[An aside:I first saw Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peale on the Avengers on tv. She was kicking bad guys before this Eliza was even born. Her bio noted that over her career she’s played both Eliza and Mrs. Higgins. She seems like a woman who knows how to stay out of Mitzrayim.]

As we sit down at our seder tables this coming weekend, many of us will already feel like we have come out of Mitzrayim. For some it has been an exhausting time of kashering kitchens, shopping, cooking, and creating beautiful tables. For others, it has been a time of study or a preparation for seeing ones family.  Whatever your Mitzrayim is, I pray you all emerge with a new found sense of freedom.

Get ready to breathe free!

 

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The Year of Repairing Gail: My Adventures in Healthcare

When I was young, my parents were not big on attending doctors. We went for our annual exams for school, but they didn’t run for every ache and fever. Take an aspirin and go to school was their philosophy. While a little frustrating at times, we all grew up relatively healthy. One brother had his appendix out. The other, his tonsils. I sprained my ankle. Other than that, I don’t remember anything much happening. My parents’ jobs both provided healthcare insurance for the family and what wasn’t covered by one was filled in by the other. (On the other hand, I’ve had lots of dental work, but both of my parents had dental coverage with their employers and I currently have it with my package.)

As an adult, I went for my routine exams. Mostly I go to my doctors for my allergy pill and mammogram prescriptions. My first serious interaction with the health can system was about ten years ago. I did something stupid and cut a tendon in my left middle finger. At that point, St. Vincent’s Hospital still existed. (Now it is condos for the rich.) I walked down the block to the emergency room. They called a surgeon. I needed occupational therapy. I remember that the hospital bill was $50. As it turns out, the surgeon was not on my insurance plan, although I was not told this in advance. I received a $1200 bill which I negotiated down to a tenth of it and wrote a check. The OT was mostly covered by insurance.

About five years ago on the morning of the first seder, I burned my arm significantly. I went to urgent care, paid my copay and was fixed up. I needed a prescription which was a few bucks since I have a good prescription plan. I also needed a lot of bandages and such. They were not covered, but I could afford them. I’m not sure that the urgent care was the best and thankfully, a doctor friend managed my recovery for free and my partner changed my bandages. There is no scar, much to my doctor friend’s amazement.

Recently, I began to feel as if I was falling apart. I went to my doctor around Thanksgiving. I had a bit of spotting which required testing, a visit to my doctor and a specialist, and some minor surgery. My doctor was $20, testing $20, specialist visit $30, hospital expenses $200. We’ll see if there are further doctor bills, Less that $300 seems quite reasonable to deal with a pre-cancerous situation. All is well.

I also had a problem with my back and foot. My doctor sent me for an X-ray ($20) and it was determined that I needed physical therapy ($20 a visit for 16 visits). For my foot I went to a physiatrist ($30) and received instructions for my PT.

At the same time I was also suffering from a stomach problem. My physician had put me on some medicine previously but suggested that I visit an ENT ($30 a visit) who diagnosed me with reflux. Off the medicine and onto an over-the-counter product only available from England. (It’s about the same price as the prescription.) She also had her allergy specialist do a full testing on me ($30).

The good news: six months later I am feeling well, moving faster, and as a result, have even lost a few pounds. But really, the actual good news is that I have health insurance. Good insurance. And that is only because I am married. I do not receive insurance through my employer. (The state of benefits in Jewish education could be an entire series of posts.)

Let’s review, It’s A Wonderful Life-style, what life might have been like without health insurance:

  • I would probably not have had the tendon surgery, which means the tip of that finger would not move and I wouldn’t be able to play guitar for my work or pleasure.
  • I would likely have a big scar on my arm, needing to be extra careful in the sun.
  • I would continue to walk around achy, avoiding stairs.
  • I might have a pre-cancerous condition and be uncomfortable.
  • I would still be consuming Costco-sized bottle Tums.

If you think this is unrealistic, read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenerich, still the most accessible view of the working poor.

As our nation’s leaders consider cutting our nation’s healthcare, I can’t help thinking how fortunate I am to have not just access to the care, but the ability to use it. Today I heard a GOP lawmaker saying that people who live good lives are healthy and don’t need care. Hmm. I wonder what Ronald Reagan did to deserve Alzheimer’s disease? (I could think of a lot, but I doubt that Republican would agree.) I’ve heard a lot of double-talk about how people will be able to access healthcare. I can reach out and touch a lot of things; that doesn’t mean I can take them all home. Meanwhile insurance companies make record profits. I simply do not understand the concept of making money on our health and well-being. And it is worth noting that any health insurance that I’ve ever had is due to someone being employed fulltime, either a parent, spouse, or me.

I believe that healthcare is a right for all. As an American, I believe this is a fulfillment of what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” means. As a rabbi, I could probably find several textual references to prove my point, but for now, I just Googled “Jewish texts, health care” and found:

  • Leviticus: Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.
  • Talmud: Save a life and it’s as if you’ve saved the world.
  • Rambam: Healthcare is the first thing that a city has to offer its residents.
  • Shulchan Auruch: One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.

For me, the imperative comes right up front in the Torah. In the creation story we learn that we are created in God’s image. We must treat each other as if each one of us is Godly, a klei kodesh (holy vessel.) That’s the bottom line.

Most times, I might conclude a blog post like this with a prayer ending with the words kein yihi ratzon – may it be God’s will. But in this case, God is only our partner. We are expected to do our part and not just say that we can all access Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden.

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My Grandmother’s Bilkalach

One of my warmest childhood memories is of the time that I spent at my grandmother’s house in The Bronx. On Sundays, after Hebrew school, we gathered with aunts, uncles, and cousins for all sorts of special foods, lively conversation, and a good game of cards. There were a lot of us! But as the youngest of the youngest, my time to shine was on Passover, when from the end of the last bridge table I stood, with all eyes focused on me, to chant the Four Questions in the traditional learnensteiger motif. I also had a seat closest to the kitchen where the real action was. My grandmother’s kosher kitchen was abuzz for days before the seder and I was there to help with chopping of the liver, grinding of the fish for gefilte fish, and the making of my favorite, the bilkalach.

My grandmother’s bilkalach were a Passover version of potato knishes which I have adapted from memory. I have a dairy house, so mine are stuffed with browned onions. My grandmother stuffed hers with chopped liver and other sorts of meat too.

Note: I have never really thought of the proper proportions for this recipe. So feel free to play around with them. There should be twice as many potatoes as onions.

Ingredients
2 lbs white potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 lb yellow onions thinly sliced
4 Tbsp canola oil (or other light oil or margarine/butter)
¼ C matzah meal (more if needed)
3 eggs
ground salt/pepper to taste

1. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease of your choice.

2.. Brown sliced onions in 2 Tbsp of oil in large frying pans. Look for carmelization. (You can add a little sugar if you like.) Add more oil if necessary. When cooled, blot extra oil with paper towel.

3. As onions are browning, boil potatoes in large pot until soft.

4. When potatoes are soft (test with fork) drain and return to the pan.

5. Preheat oven to 375 deg.

6. While still warm, mash. Add one at a time: 2 eggs, remaining 2 tbsp of oil, matzah meal, salt & pepper. Mix together.

7. When potatoes/onions are cool enough to touch, wet hands, scoop out some potatoes and shape like a hamburger. Holding it in one had, create a well on top. Place the onions in the well and mold the potatoes to enclose the onions. When your potato-burger is smooth all around, place it on your sheet pan and repeat.

8. Using last egg, mixed with a few drops of water, brush the top of the bilkalach.

9. Cook for about 90 minutes, until tops are golden brown.

Posted in Jewish Holidays, Kashrut, Pesach | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments