Hillel’s Three Truths…

For more than two decades, I have been engaged in conversations about the “conflict” in Israel and Palestine. It is a conflict so full of competing truths that even the use of those two words (Israel and Palestine) can be seen as signals for which “side” you are on. Throughout these years of conversation I have always held a nuanced view. I have always searched for a truth that has met the complexities of life.

As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I am more than just a little bit aware of the dangers of Anti-Semitism. I know the pain and inherited trauma that comes from growing up in the shadow of a holocaust. I believe in and will fight for my people’s right to self-determination.

I think of the ancient Hillel’s first truth: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

I understand it to mean that I cannot expect anyone else to take responsibility for me if I am not taking responsibility for myself. We cannot expect anyone else to care about our people if we do not care about ourselves. And, regardless of how much we agree or disagree, I feel a very strong connection and responsibility towards my people.


As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I am aware of the dangers of hate and dehumanization. I know all too well what happens when hate and fear are allowed to grow and embed themselves into the fabric of a society. I grew up with stories of freedom fighters and allies who put their lives on the line to save the lives that would eventually lead to mine. I believe in and will fight for all peoples’ right to self-determination.

I hear Hillel’s second truth: If I am for myself only, what am I?

I understand it to mean that I cannot go through life only believing my point of view, only giving validity to my lens, only taking my side. Regardless of how much or little we have in common – in language, in lens or in experience – I feel a strong connection and responsibility towards all people, especially marginalized peoples and communities that are the targets of oppression.

It is the combination of these two truths, of these two perspectives, that allows me to see the conflict in Israel and Palestine through a nuanced lens. I can understand the need for a Jewish homeland in a world full of and with a long history of Anti-Semitism. Just as I can understand the need for a Palestinian state in a land that has a long history and current reality of being ruled and occupied by military force.

I can understand the historical and visceral fear that makes every attack on Israel feel like it could be the beginning of a new existential threat to the Jewish people. And I can understand the existential need to resist against one’s oppressors as expressed in the Palestinian intifadas of the last thirty years.

I can understand how two historically oppressed and traumatized peoples, who were each told they could have the same piece of land for themselves to rule, would find themselves in conflict and unable or unwilling to trust each other. I can also understand that the reality of the conflict is that it is not between two equally equipped “sides”. And I can understand how that does not change things emotionally for the “side” with the army because the real feeling of existential threat is so strong.

And I can go back and forth all day long and even though I don’t agree with all of the points on either “side”, I can see them and I can see how complicated this situation is. I can see that it is not as simple as either “side’s” truth wants you to believe.


As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I think about the bystanders. I think about the Germans who were “just following orders”, I think about the American Jews who thought “it couldn’t really be that bad”, I think about the U.S. government that turned away Jewish refugees.

I hear Hillel’s third truth: If not now, when?

I understand it to mean that as an American Jew who believes in justice for all people, it is my responsibility to stand up, to speak loudly and to act in defense of the values that my people have taught me. Especially when it is my people that need to hear it. Especially when the institutions that exist to speak for me are not speaking my truth, are not speaking the truth of my people, are not speaking the values that they raised me on.

And when I hear “If not now, when”, all of these complexities fade away and I am left with a very simple thought: The occupation of the West Bank and the de facto occupation and blockade of Gaza is wrong. It is a plague on both of our houses. It dehumanizes both of our peoples. The truth is that none of the complexities of the situation matter when placed next to the simple reality of a military occupation that forces millions of people to live as though in prison.

I believe in a nuanced resolution to the question of how these nations of people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will coexist. I am sickened by and scared of the hatred and racism being expressed in Israel and by Jews around the world. I am sickened by and scared of the Anti-Semitism that so easily surfaces and becomes wrongly conflated with solidarity for Palestinians.

But this week, as we prepare for pesach, as we turn our minds towards a holiday that celebrates the liberation of our people, as we prepare to sing “we were slaves, now we are the children of free people” it occurs to me that now is not the time for the nuanced resolution. Now is not the time for “it’s complicated”. Now is not even the time for shared understanding. Now is the time to end the occupation. Now is the time for our people to put down the sword of the oppressor. Now is the time to say “Enough!”

Then we can talk about nuance. Then we can talk about hateful speech. Then we can start to do the work of finding resolution. But first we need to stand up for what is right. First we need to hold our own community accountable for what is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.

If I do not stand up for the values of my people…
If I do not hold my people accountable for the actions they are committing in my name…
If I do not make my voice heard now…
… then when?

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Mets Fan’s Lament Revisited (or) Why I Still Believe…

I have been a Mets fan my entire life. In 1986 as I was turning eight years old the mets were in the middle of the most glorious of baseball runs. An uber-talented team that played with an attitude befitting the city from which they hailed. A fun and feisty team that played hard, had fun and knew just how good they were. I have vivid memories of cheering my little heart out when they beat the Astros in extra innings to win the National League Championship. And when Mookie Wilson hit that ball through Bill Buckner’s legs, I remember running out of my room screaming, cheering, my little body unsure of what to do with all of that emotion.

The exuberance of my team winning the world series was something I would never forget. And so far never has had to last twenty-nine years. Don’t get me wrong, there has been plenty of excitement and plenty of exuberant moments in my life as a Mets fan but nothing is quite like the feeling of a World Series title. And nothing is quite like the disappointment of continuously not making it there.

In September of 2008, during what was to become the second straight late season collapse by my beloved New York Mets, I decided that I needed to pay my respects to Shea Stadium one last time before they tore it down. I sat in the upper deck above the third base dugout. A few rows behind me and to my left there were a pair of Mets fans who have been quite vocal and moderately obnoxious throughout the game. About half-way through the game things start unraveling and it’s looking like we’re gonna blow another lead. At this point I hear one of these fans turn to the other and lament, “I had the fortune of being born in the city with the winningest franchise in the history of sports… and I had to be a Mets fan”.

I knew exactly how he felt. How nice would it be if, every few years, my team won the World Series? How great would it feel to know, not just hope or believe, but know that my team was going to make the playoffs – if not this year then certainly next. How satisfying would it be to have my team consistently sign the best of the best and be certain that a bad contract wouldn’t ruin our payroll for years to come? And how frustrating is it that a team just like that plays one borough over and has a larger, louder and more obnoxious fan base?

But I want to focus on a different element of that statement. He had to be a Mets fan. And that is exactly how I feel. Being a Mets fan is not something I chose, it is something that I am. It gets at a certain essence of who I am… deep down. At the core of my being I am someone who believes. I believe in people, I believe in community, I believe in the power of a team. I believe that when these three things come together we can make miracles. And I believe that rooting, cheering, hoping for a miracle is much more fun than rooting for the inevitable.

A few days removed from the bitter taste of losing the World Series I am able to recognize that this was one of those miracle seasons. At the beginning of the season the only people on the planet who could imagine, let alone predict, that the Mets would win their division and make it to the World Series were Mets Fans. And even we, if forced to think with our heads instead of our hearts, would not have predicted it. Oh yes, we believed, but we also believed that in 2008 Oliver Perez was going to lead us to post season glory, we also believed that Lastings Millage was going to be the next great star of the baseball world. We believe, we believe and we believe. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. Yes we may be cynical, yes we may sound defeatist, yes we are a bunch of superstitious, slightly paranoid, fairly neurotic nay sayers. But that is all on the surface. Deep down we want to believe, we’ve got to believe.

So on April 14th when I went to see the first game Matt Harvey would pitch at home since 2013 I was ready to believe that this was our year. Eight innings into the game when David Wright got injured trying to steal second base I was ready to believe that if we just held our own for the couple of weeks that he would be out, everything would be ok.

But as the weeks went on, the injuries piled up and our record settled in around .500, I started to get concerned. The next game I went to the mets got no-hit. Everyone was, once again, writing the Mets off, waiting for the Nationals to get their act together and play like the team they were expected to be. I didn’t want this season to follow the same old pattern I was getting used to. I wanted this season to be different. I wanted to believe.

And then a few things happened. Jacob deGrom lit up the All-Star Game. The front office decided to trade for players to strengthen the line-up. And on July 29th Wilmer Flores showed us all how much he believed. How often, in the age of “reality” TV and viral videos, do we get to see a human being show emotion and vulnerability in a genuinely unscripted moment? How often in the business of sports do we get to see a ballplayer show us just how much he wants to be a part of our team?

I watched the game the night Wilmer didn’t get traded. I watched the next day as the storm came in and it felt like those rain delays might just wash away the entire season. And I listed on the radio the next night as Wilmer Flores took in his many standing ovations and walked off with the game winning home run in the bottom of the 12th.

In the last three months I have had many conversations with people where I found myself defending my love of baseball. Each time I told the story of those three days, of the player who wore his emotions on his sleeve, the player who’s tears of sadness at the thought of having to leave the only team he’s ever known were turned to tears of joy as he rounded third and saw that whole team cheering him on, waiting for him at home. And each time I told that story I found tears creeping out of my eyes, betraying my own emotions and revealing exactly what it is that makes me believe.

By the end of that weekend the mets were moving into first place and didn’t look back for the rest of the season. The last two months of the summer and the first two rounds of the playoffs were some of the most fun I’ve had as a sports fan. Yes, losing the world series sucks. Yes, it especially sucks when four times you take a lead into the 8th inning and only come away with one victory. But even in the frustration of losing those last two World Series games there was a part of me that could recognize that this was a miracle season and this is a miracle team.

As I reflect on this past season I can’t help but think back to that half-drunk, slightly aggressive fan who’s lament has stuck with me all these years. And perhaps I hear it differently now. I had to be a mets fan. Not because there were no other options, not because I was somehow cursed, but because deep down, as a person who believes, who needs to believe, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A Little Baseball Wisdom…

It sounds ridiculous even as I write it but at this moment there is literally nothing I want more than for the Mets to make a miraculous comeback and win the World Series. In some ways winning from this position – down three games to one, backs against the wall – would make it all the more satisfying a victory. It would play right into the historic legacy of the “Miracle Mets” and redeem a team and fan-base that has lived by the mantra “YaGottaBelieve” since long before writing phrases without spaces between the words became popularized by Twitter.

This morning while texting with a friend I found myself lamenting how awful last nights game was. Another late inning meltdown by our bullpen and defense had me incredibly frustrated. Then I took a step back from myself and remembered that it wasn’t an awful game. It was an awful half inning, an awful loss and it feels awful to have once again blown a lead late in the game, but the game itself was a pretty good one. And throughout most of the game I was actually feeling great. There was a lot of tension and excitement. We were pitching well, we were fielding well, our rookie left fielder had two home runs in the game. Up until the end of the seventh inning it was a really fun game to watch.

It is, therefore, a little strange that my memory of my experience of the game was that it was awful, especially since I didn’t actually watch the last two innings. The bar I had been watching in turned off the game after the seventh inning because they were closing for a private Halloween party. When I stopped watching we were up 3-2. I only heard about the blown save later. I still have not even seen the replay of what exactly happened to lose us the game. And yet the knowledge of what happened has somehow eclipsed my memory of my own experience. It is as though the end result being a loss completely erased all of the positive moments that, had the game resulted in a win, would have become defining memories.

So what happened to the joy that I felt when Michael Conforto hit his second home run? What happened to the joy that he felt in that moment? Does that joy just disappear? The film Inside Out suggests that the memory of that moment becomes shaded in sadness but I am asking what happens to the joy that was felt in that moment itself. Where did that go? And what’s going to happen if the Mets lose tonight? Or Tuesday or Wednesday if it even goes that far? What is going to happen to all of the joyous moments that I have been accumulating over the course of this season? Will they all be turned into sad memories? Will they forever be covered with the bitterness of getting so close? Is it possible for me to find a way to hold on to the Joyous moments regardless of what happens in the end?

This question feels so important to me right now because it is something that I am struggling with in my life outside of baseball as well. How do I prevent the pain I am feeling from the end of a relationship from eviscerating all of the wonderful and joyful moments in that relationship? How do I continue to be nourished by the joy I felt from work I was engaged in even if it is no longer possible for me to continue that work? How do I hold on to the joyous moments that I experience even when those moments do not lead me to a place that I want to be?

The answer, I imagine, is to find a way to hold on to, believe in and value the little moments and experience that I have as much if not more than I value the score at the end of the game. Yes I want to win. Yes I want a relationship that lasts and turns into something that will be with me forever. Yes I want the great work I do to be able to continue in the ways that I want it to. And of course I want my experiences to lead me towards the life I’ve always wanted.

But if it’s true that you can’t win ‘em all, then it’s pretty important to learn how to take as much (if not vastly more) time reveling in the joyous moments that build you up as you take grieving the painful moments that bring you back down.

The good news is there is precedent in my life for being able to do this. In 2006, a few innings before Carlos Beltran watched strike three end all of our hopes for that season and, though we didn’t know it at the time, an entire decade, Endy Chavez made one of the most spectacular and memorable plays I had ever scene, turning what would have been a home run into an inning ending double play. I remember how excited I was in that moment. I remember how disappointed I was those few innings later.

Yes the Chavez play would have been sweeter if we won the game. Yes Daniel Murphy’s dominance in the first two rounds of the playoffs will be a better story if we somehow win it all. But at the end of the day I did get to experience those joyous moments and it is up to me to believe in and hold onto that joy even if, in the end, those moments don’t get us all the way to where we want to be.

Let’s Go Mets!

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“It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my all time favorite movies. When George Bailey wakes back up in his reality and can suddenly appreciate all of the wonderful little things that make up the life that he has lived; when he runs through the town he has always complained about living in and sees it, perhaps for the first time, for all of the things he loves about it; when he reaches his house to find all of the members of his community, all of the people whose lives have been intertwined with his, whose hearts he’s touched, having come together to help him in his greatest time of need… I cry every time.

I cry because I too forget to appreciate all of the wonderful things that make up the life that I am living. I cry because I too spend too much time wishing things were different and not seeing the beauty right in front of me. Most of all, I cry because there is nothing more powerful to me than when we as people find a way to cut through the hard edges of life and show each other that we love each other.

Yesterday was my birthday. Throughout the day as I went off to sneak peeks at Facebook and look at my text messages I continued to find myself overwhelmed with emotion as I took the time to think of each person that reached out to remind me that our lives are connected. In this last year, that has been very difficult for me, it has been the people that I know, whether I have seen them or not, that have helped me remember who I am and who I get to be.

I may not live in a small town or get to see all of the people I care about on a regular basis (or even an irregular basis in some cases) but on this day I do get to take a step back to remember and appreciate that I am living a life that allows me to know, learn with, influence, be influenced by and sometimes even hang out with so many wonderful people.

Today, as I write this, I am flying across the country. Even as I attempt to rid myself of expectation I am filled with anticipation. I do not know what this year will bring. I do not have a plan or a vision as to how it will work itself out. I am scared and I am excited.

Tomorrow I will set out on a hike into the wilderness of the Pacific North West. I have been preparing for this trip for a few months. When I first thought of this trip I thought about it as leaving my life. It was to be a moment to sever myself from the place that I was in, the place that my life had taken me. It was to act as a clean break to make space for something new. When I think about it now I see it simply as a continuation of the life I have always been leading and it is a wonderful life.

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Owning My Sports Mania

Am I a bad person if I root for Matt Harvey to break Chase Utley’s rib with a fastball on Monday night? If I won’t be satisfied unless there is retribution for the take out slide (which should have been ruled an illegal tackle) that turned last night’s game around, does that reflect badly on my character? What does it say about me that I was so amped up and angry after watching the Mets fall apart because of a dirty play, a bad call and another bullpen meltdown that I couldn’t fall asleep?

This is the problem with being a sports fan. By day I am a warm and empathetic educator and social justice activist. But at night I become a blood thirsty maniac who yells at the television and cheers when a grown man intentionally hits another grown man in the back with a 95 mph fastball. By day I facilitate team building workshops where we explore the power of win-win situation and cooperative collaboration. But at night my idea of conflict resolution is a bench-clearing brawl. By day I advocate for restorative justice practices in schools and other institution to replace draconian “no tolerance” policies and other punitive practices that treat young people like criminals and teach them that forgiveness is weak. But at night I believe in retribution, an eye for an eye, a hit batter for a hit batter, and I won’t be satisfied until my shortstop’s leg is avenged.

It is as though there is a break in my personality as soon as sports are involved. Everything I believe about how to behave in the world goes straight out of the window. All of my cooperative instincts and empathetic tendencies are replaced with a cut-throat, competitive mania that can only be satisfied through victory, or at lest excessively yelling at the television when victory isn’t an option.

Some people seem to find this troubling. I have noticed long time friends give me a look of concern upon seeing the sports fan in me come out. It is as though their entire image of me has to be reconfigured to make sense of what they are seeing. It is as though everything they thought they understood about me is suddenly up for reexamination. Their image of me now tainted by this new insight, I can imagine them searching the recesses of their memories to find traces of this “side” of me and wondering how they could have missed the signs.

But the truth is I am completely unashamed of my sports mania. I understand the absurdity of cheering for millionaire athletes because they happen to be wearing a uniform that my childhood self built an arbitrary allegiance to. I hold no illusions that the results of a sporting event are going to have any material consequences in my life, or the world for that matter. I don’t even really believe that my actions while watching a game on television are going to impact the game. But that is part of the magic. With all of the important things going in the world, with all of the actual stresses and challenges and things that I could be getting worked up over, it is quite a relief to have something to care so deeply about that at the end of the day doesn’t actually matter.

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In the Sukkah

Growing up, Andrew lived a few blocks farther from school than I did so most mornings he would come to my house and we would walk the rest of the way together. I was not a morning person in my early adolescent years which meant that often Andrew would show up at my house and I would still be asleep, or at least not quite ready to start the day. On mornings when this was the case my parents would offer him breakfast and he would settle in while the bustle of my busy house buzzed on around him. I would often emerge from my bedroom to find Andrew sitting in the living room with my baby brother, eating cereal and watching TV.

Andrew was an only child, born to Korean and Italian parents. His home was quiet and orderly. I think he must have been fascinated by the warm chaos of my little Jewish commune with our two families made up of four adults and, eventually, six kids. I don’t actually know what he thought of it all because we stopped hanging out so much in high school and lost touch soon after that, before we had the chance to look back on our childhoods with enough distance to ask each other what it was really like, before we were equipped with the linguistic tools to talk about race and culture and how our home lives impacted the kinds of kids we were, the kinds of adults we would become.

It wasn’t just in the mornings that Andrew would spend time at my house. Whether it was board games in the living room, Legos in the basement or some game we made up in the yard, he was a regular and my family loved having him around. He was curious about our lives and our traditions. The one he seemed to like the most was Sukkot. On Sukkot mornings Andrew would inevitably arrive at the house a little earlier and I would, less reluctantly, wake up so that we could sit outside in the Sukkah, bundled in sweatshirts and warm up with some oatmeal and hot chocolate.

Sukkot is one of those holidays that, on the surface, can be a little confusing. It’s the fall… it’s starting to get cold… so you build a structure outside, with no real roof and you hang out and eat your meals in it? And you do this because your ancestors spent many years wandering in the desert? And it’s also a harvest festival?

Yet, for so many of us who experienced it as children, it is one of our favorite holidays and brings up some of our fondest memories. I vividly remember building the Sukkah in the back yard, finding tarps and blankets and bamboo to make the walls, hanging branches and gourds and other things that I wasn’t sure exactly what they were to decorate it. I remember breakfasts and dinners with the families in the Sukkah. I remember playing in it, as if it were a fort. I remember lying on the ground and looking up at the sky through the openings in the mostly uncovered roof. I remember seeing wonderment up there.

Because my Jewish education was experiential rather than formal and because my family’s practice did not include Synagogue attendance, there are a lot of things that many of my peers have known or at least been familiar with their entire lives regarding traditional Jewish practices and readings that are outside of the bounds of my knowledge or practice. A few weeks ago while studying up on the more formal elements of Sukkot I came across a reading that is part of the traditional Sukkot services and was taken aback. The text, found in the prophetic book of Zachariah, basically yearns for an apocalyptic battle after which all who remain will take up the practice of worshiping the Lord by celebrating Sukkot and anyone who doesn’t will suffer and eventually die.

This holiday, which is both a celebration of the harvest and a harkening back to the days our ancestors lived as nomads, a holiday in which we raise sacred branches to the sky and welcome the ancestors into our “tent”, this holiday is about wandering and hospitality. Why then, is the prophetic text that we read about wrath and vengeance? Why do so many of our traditions and celebrations include and elevate messages of wrath and vengeance?

Of course it makes perfect sense. For millennia we were persecuted, targeted by systematic oppression, forced to wander and often killed because of who we were. Wrath filled prophecy and revenge fantasy are perfectly acceptable, even healthy when dealing with oppression. Of course our most joyous celebrations included reading texts that professed a day when we would see vengeance visited upon our enemies and all those who lived free of the persecution that we felt.

And while Anti-Semitism pervades in the world in many different forms, there is something bizarre about members of the most privileged Jewish community that has ever existed sitting in our North American synagogues, reading a text that calls for the vanquishment of all those that do not accept the word of our Lord. It is even more unsettling to celebrate these texts when the Jewish State, realized as a place of refuge for a generation torn apart, now has the means to enact such wrath and vengeance and far too often does so on a people who have not held power over us, who were not the perpetrators of our oppression.

I understand that these texts have a place in our tradition. I understand the importance of holding onto the things that kept our ancestors going for all of those years, of honoring them and the hardships that they suffered by continuing the practices that held their communities together. But our ancestors, whether in Europe, Africa, the Middle East or Asia, survived because they were able to adapt. The gift that our ancestors were given was that their religion, the glue that held their communities together, is an interpretive one. The practice of it can adapt and change, all the while staying within the spirit of our vast collection of core, guiding texts.

There is not one way to practice Judaism. There never was and there never will be. We have an astounding number of beautiful prophetic texts that are not calls for wrath and vengeance but are odes to the beautiful and marvelous world, that are calls for justice and lasting peace. It is within our power as a community of Jews to reinterpret our practices. It is in our power to say, “These texts that kept our people going when we were the primary target of structural oppression are no longer serving us”. It is in our power to search our cannon to find and elevate texts that can show us how to celebrate the lives we have, that can teach us how to behave when we do have power (as individuals, as communities and as a state) and that can guide us towards leveraging our privilege and standing in struggle alongside of those peoples who are the primary targets of structural oppression today.

The spirit of Sukkot is beautiful, is celebratory, is inclusive. The practice of building a Sukkah – of eating, of singing and of dancing in it – of inviting into it our community and beyond is demonstrative of the very best of who we are as Jews and as people. It is that spirit that my friend Andrew was attracted to. It is that spirit that makes the celebration of Sukkot a standout memory in so many of our childhoods. And it is in that spirit that so many of us spend this week building, eating, singing and dancing in our Sukkot.

As a community, we must make sure that all of our practices, as well as the texts that we center those practices around, are true to that spirit, reflective of the context in which we live and relevant to the questions that we currently face. As our ancestors did before us, we must continue to adapt to the situation of the world around us. This time it is not so much our lives that are at stake, it is our souls.

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My Book of Judgement

When I was eleven or twelve years old I found a box. It was the box to a set of camping dishes that I vaguely remember using one time on a camping trip with my family. But when I came upon the box it was empty and collecting dust in my closet. I used it to put things in, things that I didn’t necessarily have any use for but also wasn’t quite ready to get rid of. A couple times a year, when I cleaned out my room and reassessed all of my possessions, I would find this box, look inside it and spend hours with the memories each of the objects stirred. Occasionally, I would realize that a certain object no longer held emotional value and I would get rid of it. More frequently I would add new items that I no longer had use for but was not quite ready to part with. The box was becoming my own little time capsule, an archive of my material life.

A year or two into this haphazard practice one of my cleaning and reassessing binges happened to fall on Yom Kippur.

My family never really found our religion in synagogue. I had, at that point, had my Bar Mitzvah and been to services a few times but being in synagogue mostly made me feel alienated from my Judaism, not connected to it. Connection to Judaism came from being with my family, listening to the stories of my grandparents, celebrating Passover or having a Shabbat dinner with my family and our small community of friends, learning Jewish stories through arts and crafts and theater projects, and exploring the legends and wisdom in Judaism that I could make meaningful in my own life.

And so on this particular Yom Kippur, when I had decided I didn’t want to go to synagogue, I found myself sitting in my room trying to find something meaningful to do instead. Yom Kippur is a big deal holiday. It is the day of Atonement, the day you are supposed to atone for all of your sins of the past year – to make up for all of the times in the year that you didn’t act as your best self. It is the day that the Book of Judgment gets closed and your fate is sealed for the entire year. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one day, especially when you’ve decided to forgo the traditional practice of sitting in synagogue to try and do something that you will find more meaningful. So it was probably in the spirit of procrastination that I began to clean my room when I came upon my box. And there it was, a ready made practice that perfectly met the spirit of the day. From that point on, I decided, I would only look in the box on Yom Kippur and I would use the day to reflect on all of the things in my life and determine what had meaning and what I was ready to let go of. That practice lasted a couple of years but by the middle of high school it has lost its momentum and faded away.

A few days before Yom Kippur during my junior year of college a friend invited me to services that she was going to. I was definitely feeling the need to do something to mark the holiday but I also knew that going to services at a synagogue or a campus Hillel would only make me feel more alienated than I already was. Things in my life were going great but I was very much missing home and my community and needed something that would make me feel more connected to them, to myself, to my life. I thought about my box. I had no idea what was in it anymore. It had been at least three years since I last looked inside. It was, I was sure, still collecting dust in my closet at home.

And then I thought about the Book of Judgement. The idea that there is a gigantic book that this god character spends ten days a year writing everyone’s fate in is a little preposterous, I thought. But then I thought more and realized that there was something in the spirit of this idea that I found profoundly interesting, even inspiring. How wonderful to have your life recorded. How poetic to have your fate revisited every year. Somewhere inside all of the melancholy atonement of sin and the fearful pressure of judgement there was a beautiful idea, that there was a time during the year to step back, revisit your actions, reflect on them and determine which of them you felt proud of and which you would like to throw away. The idea that we, as people, can look at ourselves and decide which version of ourselves we want to be and which versions of ourselves we do not want to take with us any longer. It is a hopeful idea, an idea that asks the best parts of us to step up and take control over our lives.

But I was still hung up on the notion of this god character sitting up in the sky and writing in a book. I didn’t want that character judging me so I decided that I would write my own fate. Or I would at least spend the day writing, some good reflective writing always made me feel better and more connected to myself anyway. And that is what I did. I found a nice park by the water and spent my day fasting and writing. I don’t remember what I wrote that year. Years later I searched through my college notebooks to try to find it but I never could. At the time I had no idea I was starting a tradition that would continue throughout my entire adult life.

The next year at Yom Kippur I decided to spend the day writing again. Once again, I found a nice spot outside, by the water, fasted and wrote. This time I began my reflection by comparing where I was at the time to where I had been a year ago. I then traced the path I had taken over the past year to get from where I had been to where I then was. As it was the beginning of my last semester of college, I definitely had the future on my brain so I also added, at the end, a paragraph with my aspirations for what my life would look like in the coming year.

When Yom Kippur came around the following year, there was no question what I was going to do. I went to find a place in nature, I fasted and I wrote a reflection of my year, tracing my movements through time and space, lingering on themes and questions that arose and became a frame to the story of the year. Again before closing, I set out some aspirations for the year to come.

It was the fourth year that this practice became solidified as a tradition. Leading up to Yom Kippur, I bought a new notebook. I spent the morning of the holiday transcribing the two prior year’s posts into this new book, leaving the first few pages empty in case I were to ever find that first year’s writing. In the afternoon I wrote the past year’s reflection and the coming year’s aspirations.

This practice has been my tradition for the past seventeen years. During the days leading up to Yom Kippur, I take my books (there are now multiple books because I filled up the first one) out from their sealed case and begin reading the story of my adult life. Then on Yom Kippur, I go find a beautiful place in nature (always a different place), I fast and I spend the day writing a reflection on my year, tracing my movements through space and time, exploring themes and questions that framed the past year, noticing recurring themes, referencing patterns I recognize from previous years of my life and, finally, setting aspirations for the year to come. I then sign the bottom of the entry, close the book and seal it back in it’s case, not to be opened until the following year.

This tradition has been the single most grounding and stabilizing force of my adult life. By spending a day each year reading the story of my life I have a set time to check back in with myself, make sure that I am not getting too lost, straying too far from my core values, my core vision, my core understanding of who I am and who I want to be in the world. And at the same time, knowing that I will have a time each year to check back in with that core self allows me to stray just far enough, to get just lost enough. It gives me the freedom to dive into something fully without having to fear that I could lose myself completely. By having a book where I am the author of my own life story I have a space to trace the journey of my life, to see who I was, to reflect on who I am, to imagine who I will be and to recognize them all as the same person.

As I write this, we are in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days that the book of Judgement is open, the days that we Jews are meant to be thinking about our actions, about who we are in the world, about who we want to be. In the coming days I will begin the process of reading the story I have been writing to myself about my life. On Tuesday, just before the sun goes down, I will begin my fast. I will spend the evening reading last year’s entry and fall asleep thinking about where I was a year ago. On Wednesday I will wake up and spend the day writing a reflection on this last year of my life. I will trace the path of my journey. I will dwell in meaningful moments, explore the themes and questions that shaped this last year. I will laugh. I will cry. I will confront the moments in which I was not my best self. I will forgive myself for those shortcomings. I will commit to learning from the mistakes I made and the hurt I caused, both to myself and to others. I will then set aspirations for this coming year, sign the entry and return the books to their sealed case where they will remain until next year.


Note: If you think you might want to do some kind of similar practice I strongly encourage it. If Yom Kippur is not in your tradition, I would suggest a birthday as a potentially similar reflective time to engage in this kind of ritual.

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