Monday, December 24, 2012

What Is An Ethical Will?

Lev, my teacher, my guide to my Bat Mitzvah, is big on ethical wills. We talked about them years ago on Thursdays when a group of us met to study Torah, Torah in the broadest sense of Jewish learning. We were supposed to write one. We never did. Teaching a class at the University of New Hampshire, Lev asked his students to write ethical wills. A friend who teaches at the University told me, Lev’s students weren’t thrilled. The assignment seemed odd. Who would ask an eighteen year old to write an ethical will?
So just what is an ethical will? It’s not a living will, a document in which you communicate your wishes to medical personal and to your family when you are alive, but unable to express those wishes yourself. It is not a legal will, the document that distributes your material possessions and is read after your death.
In Jewish culture, ethical wills date back to the Hebrew bible, Jacob gathering his twelve sons (Where was Dina?) around his death bed, so that he can bless each, Moses blessing each of those twelve tribes after God tells him he will not enter the promised land. So ethical wills are blessings and moral pronouncements that began in our oral tradition. Overtime time a written tradition evolved, and ethical wills became known as Teachings of the Fathers. I will call them Teachings of the Mothers and the Fathers.
            In his book, Ethical Wills, K. Baines, lists transitions that might inspire one to write an ethical will: a single woman or man not planning to have children, but wanting to bequeath values to nieces or nephews, an engaged couple articulating values they want to share, parents reflecting after the birth of a child, parents reflecting as they raise children, divorced parents, reaffirming values for themselves and their children, men and women of middle age and beyond, capturing and harvesting values. Ethical wills are about reflection. So when Lev asked his students to write ethical wills, he was teaching them to look at themselves, to consider, to be aware, to go deeper. How cool was that?
            So as part of my journey to a Bat Mitzvah, I will write an ethical will, harvesting my values and gathering family stories. I will write and reflect, hoping that what I pass on will spark my children and my grandchildren to dive down into their own memories, their own reflections, and in this way we will link generations. For me an ethical will is about that linking. A way—not the only way—but a way to give meaning to our lives. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Awareness. Is awareness one of the ten values I will name preparing for my Bat Mitzvah? The word feels strange on my tongue. Aware meaning cognizant, conscious, alert. Ness, a suffix attached to an adjective or a participle to form an abstract noun that denotes a quality or a state. Such as: goodness, kindness, darkness. A synonym of awareness is mindful; an antonym, oblivious.
Last Friday, before the snow that fell over the weekend, I drove home, pulled into the garage, and as I stepped into the kitchen, Dick said, “How do you like your fields?”
He’s like that. No hello. A quick question. After all these years, I still can’t take a breath. I blurt. “What fields?”
“Out by the driveway. Didn’t you notice them?”
I’d asked to have those fields cut down at the end of summer, but neither Paul nor Matt, the two men who run the lawn crew had managed to get the job done. Then, Matt had a stroke, and the fields became unimportant. I figured someone on the crew would cut them down in the spring. But Paul arrived. Probably, he’d listened to the weather report. I hooked the dogs to their leashes and walked outside. Tall stalks of dried grass lay on the ground like pick up sticks, small birds foraging. 
To be aware. To notice. To take in. That’s my job as a writer. So why, when I’m not in my writing space—space being both a state of mind and a place—do I check out? Because awareness is hard. To be present, cognizant, conscious, alert. That is one edge of the knife blade for a writer. The other is a kind of drifting inside that space, what I call space around the space.
But back to my drive along the driveway. What had I been doing inside my car? Listening to a C D of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book I’ve wanted to reread for years, and knew I never would, so I borrowed the tapes from the library. My attention was focused on listening and on watching where I was going. Perhaps, awareness is inward as well as outward, a sifting of stimuli. And what of complete inattention, a moment last summer, sitting on a weathered wooden bench at the edge of the sea, dogs at my feet, the scent of salt, the squawk of gulls, my mind as open as the sky? Perhaps, that, too, is awareness.
Still that word, awareness, chafes. Is sentience my word? An online dictionary defines sentience: feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception or thought. No, that doesn’t work either. Perhaps what I value is sentient awareness, a place where unknowing and knowing intertwine. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This Season of Giving

Now that I am thinking about values, I cherish and wish to pass on, they spill forth, integrity, honesty, compassion and in this season of giving tzedakah, a Hebrew word we often translate as charity.
            Yesterday at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel in Boston, I listened as Suzie, a young cousin, described her tzedakah project, volunteering for an organization that gives birthday parties to homeless children. The project brought her to a homeless shelter in Roxbury. How lovely and poised she was talking about her experiences. How well versed in Hebrew as she read from the Torah, led us prayer. How articulate as she interpreted her Torah portion. Yesterday, standing on the bima, the altar, her grandparents and her parents passed her the Torah, both literally, and figuratively, handing her the scroll, passing on Jewish tradition. Jewish values.
            I never had a Bat Mitzvah. My sons did not have Bar Mitzvahs. No formal Jewish education for any of us. I came back to Judaism too late for that. Sitting in the sanctuary, yesterday, I realized my own journey toward a Bat Mitzvah would be the opposite of Suzie’s. I would not receive the Torah; I would pass it on to my grandchildren in a more formal way than I’d done for my sons. For Torah is more than the scroll, more than Midrash, those years of interpretation of the texts. Torah is a way of life integrally involving mitzvot or good deeds. And tzedakah.
            Before Suzie’s service, I spent time in a small room off a corridor viewing an exhibit where artists had painted, constructed and built tzedakah boxes. A traditional tzedakah box is just that, a box with a slot where you drop in coins or bills, then choose a charity to which you’ll donate. These tzedakah boxes were works of art. Words accompanied the exhibit, and I learned that tzedakah literally means righteousness or justice. This is the concept of Jewish charity I want to pass on. In Jewish tradition, charity is not a favor we give to the poor, but something the poor have a right to, and we as donors have an obligation to provide. And most important is the spirit with which we give, for the value of our gift increases with human kindness. And the most highly valued gift of all is a gift of the self.
            Happy giving to all. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Let's Talk

What makes a value Jewish? How can Judaism claim what many of us value, Jewish or not? I shift in my chair. Face Lev. This is another moment in that Starbuck’s in Winchester when we met. In front of me, a display of red and white mugs, wrapped with red bows. Outside, the white lights of Christmas. Lev gives me a knowing smile. “So, Judaism gives us this, these values and it (Judaism) includes anybody who has these values.”
So because I am Jewish, exploring values such as my love of learning or my commitment caring for others, those less fortunate or those who are sick, in a Jewish context, those values become Jewish. Is that what Lev is saying?
“Yes,” he says.
And here I am—it seems—exploring a constant theme in my life and my work: Jewish identity. When I began my writing life as a fiction writer, none of my characters was Jewish, and many of my stories lacked an authenticity, something intangible that shone through certain characters. I, the writer, was wishy-washy, refusing to declare an essence. Was that character Jewish? I, the character and the reader needed to know. But in real life, I could pass, and I did, sometimes declaring I was Jewish, sometimes not. I hid behind a wreath on my door, a Christmas tree in my living room. The only Jews in our rural New Hampshire town where I was raising my family, I truly believed I could live inside the landscape of a Currier and Ives print. Walking into woods behind our house with my husband and my sons, we would choose a tree, chop it down, drag it home through snow.
Those romantic images of country life have an underside. When I began teaching language arts to fifth through eighth graders in my town, the two most hurled insults on the playground were the N word and Jew. I denounced both, told my class I was Jewish. A sixth grade boy brought me a book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Published in 1902, The Protocols is a anti-Semitic rant, purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It is a forgery. That same sixth grader asked to see my horns. I’d thought such myths associating Jews with the devil had died out with the middle ages, but he year was 1972. I taught tolerance. At home, I told myself, I could do both, turn on the lights of my Christmas tree and light my Hanukkah menorah. My children were wiser. “Mom, it’s too confusing,” Richard my oldest son said. “Can’t we just celebrate Hanukkah.”
            And we did.
            As the years passed, I became more and more visibly Jewish which meant for me, studying Torah, especially the women of the Hebrew Bible. I read and I read, diving down into the wealth of Jewish learning. I brought what was deep inside of me to the surface, memories of cooking with my grandmother as she prepared shabbos dinner, then circled her thick fingers over the candle flames before blessing the shabbos candles. I learned the prayer, moved my own fingers in a circle, and gathering in goodness and light, I blessed the candles inside my grandmother’s brass candlesticks.
So, is Jewish identity a value I can pass on? Although I’d like to do just that, I can’t. Each of us has our own journey toward that philosophic search for self. What I can pass on is a desire to know and to learn. A wealth of Jewish learning trails behind us. Only by knowing where we came from will we learn who we are. 

Judaism is a religion of dialogue. I invite your comments. Let’s talk.