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DIY-TWO (Do-it-yourself, together-with-others)

It was Ash Wednesday and I was working from home all morning.  Procrastinating, I logged on to Facebook and read a spate of status updates from people who were giving up chocolate, caffeine, and even Facebook for Lent.  Shortly before noon, I arrived at my son’s classroom to volunteer and ran into a friend who was taking her daughters to church during the lunch/recess hour.  When I asked her what she was giving up for Lent, she said that she was not speaking about other people.  

Giving up gossip?!  That struck me as an enormous task to undertake for just one day, let alone an entire season of penitence. It is not that refraining from eating chocolate, drinking coffee and wasting time on Facebook are insignificant sacrifices.  It’s simply that I found my friend’s choice to be on an entirely different spiritual plane.  Her decision to limit her topics of conversation would affect her and anyone with whom she interacts during Lent.  She had already affected me.  In addition, I assume that people sacrificing foods and material pleasures would likely return to their habits of indulgence after Easter.  But my friend’s foregoing of gossip for several weeks had the potential to impact her everyday social interactions well beyond Holy Week.  She would now be poised to find the Divine in others.

Last Wednesday, I heard from another friend who sought a spiritual transformation– in her case by baking her own matzah for Passover.  Realizing that preparing the dough and baking it into loaves within the 18 minute time-limit would require more than one pair of hands, she convinced another friend to join her in the endeavor.  Together they were able to make 14 handmade loaves.  Later that day, as they reflected on their shared experienced with me, both women remarked that they were surprised by how much the matzah preparation of previous generations of Jews depended upon communal cooperation.  By reclaiming the baking of matzah at home, these women deepened their friendship and, I believe, brought God a little closer to home, too. 

In a recent New York Times article about Christians who were performing community service as a form of religious expression during Lent, the Reverend James Martin was quoted as saying that “anything that can help someone experience God in a new way, a surprising way, is very helpful.”  I couldn’t agree more.  These friends have reminded me that a person who seeks spiritual transformation alone is admirable, and a person who seeks to share in the spiritual transformation of her friends is truly righteous. 

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Kol Ishah (The Voice of Woman)

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According to Jewish rabbinic law, the sound of a woman’s voice is enticing to men and can present a terrible distraction from their service to God.  That is why devout Jewish men do not pray in mixed groups, and when they do, women are forbidden from leading the prayers or even singing in full voice.  The prohibition of kol ishah is also how ultra-religious Jewish men in Jerusalem justify their shouting and throwing chairs at a group of women who wish only to pray aloud on the women’s side of the Western Wall.    

But I don’t really believe that it is merely the melody of kol ishah that troubles men.  I am fairly certain that our lyrics, especially those challenging the established hierarchy or suggesting alternatives to male-dominated institutions, get us into trouble.  Or perhaps it is the combination of tone and text that upset the men in charge: men who lead nations and represent us in government; men who lead religious groups and set their standards; men who in the 21st century in this country allow women to earn only 78% on the dollar for the same work that they do; men who command armies and lead our sons into battle. 

Women who raise their voices in protest at this leadership are often silenced.  I understand that it can be difficult to hear unpleasant words– words of criticism– and I recognize the human impulse to squelch that particular noise.  Kol ishah, when permitted to be heard at all, is expected to sing sweetly.

Perhaps that is why I did not find it surprising, though quite distressing, to hear the news that Iranian authorities seized the passport of Simin Behbahani, a prominent poet who has been critical of the Iranian government’s policies, especially those directed at women.  Behbahani has not been charged with any crime, yet her freedom to travel has been curtailed in a way that must seem familiar to her after decades of negotiating her freedom of speech with government censors.  Her poetry sings bravely, if not sweetly, about the ways in which men have ruled her country.  Her voice at 82 is still strong as she reminds us that those who lead  us cannot afford to ignore kol ishah.  

In one week, I will  join Jewish men and women around the world in the celebration of Passover, our holiday of the triumph of freedom over slavery.  At our family’s Seder, men and women will raise their voices, joyfully praising God for our redemption.  And I will pray for a new era of peace, in which kol ishah will be permitted to sing the melody of truth, and men will add the harmony to our song.

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I beg your pardon; I never promised you an herb garden

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Until quite recently I believed that I had a black thumb.  I have killed the hardiest plants, including cacti, which are purported to be indestructible.  When I moved here, only one houseplant had survived my years in a NYC apartment.  I left it behind with the Super’s wife, hoping it would have a better life with her.  But everything changed for me last week, when I noticed that something STRANGE was happening in the pot of my Jerusalem Cherry Tree.  

As an aside, I feel compelled to mention that I received this particular plant as a gift from someone who did not know about my tendency to hasten death in houseplants.  During the last 18 months, this beautiful plant had lost its bright orange berries and more than half of its leaves, but it refused to die.  In fact, it grew steadily until even I realized that it required a transplant to a larger pot.  Within a week of its transfer, the plant began budding and small, white flowers appeared among the leaves.  I took notice, but maintained a strong skepticism about its survival following such a radical procedure at the hands of an incompetent practitioner.  

Last week, my negative self-talk was drowned out once and for all when I walked by the plant and noticed thin green shoots, which looked like tiny blades of grass, sprouting up around the perimeter of the pot.   “What on earth?” I muttered aloud.   Turns out I should have asked “what in earth?” instead.  You see, my children go to an environmentally savvy school, where they can be Junior Master Gardeners and other students’ parents can adopt-a-spot and tend to the flower beds on campus.  Last April, in celebration of Earth Day, they planted seeds in small, decorated pots and brought them home.  Assuming that I would fail to nurture the tiny seeds into actual plant life, I just left the pots in the garage.  Then 9 months later, when I needed additional soil to transplant the Jerusalem Cherry Tree, I saw little point in purchasing a new bag.  I had already calculated the likelihood of this plant’s death at 99.9%.  In an effort to reduce, reuse and recycle, I tossed the soil from the Earth Day pots into the larger pot, watered the plant and placed it near a window where I could ignore it for a while.

Apparently, herb seeds can survive many months of abandonment in a garage.  Now I have an herb garden growing alongside my flowering Jerusalem Cherry Tree in my powder room, and I am beginning to reconsider my capabilities as a cultivator of life.  Spring really is a time of growth — all kinds of growth.

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