You know how you calm down a room of 100 screaming, singing, Shabbos celebrating Tots, turing every which way in grape-juice and challah ecstasy? Offer to read them Where the Wild Things Are, the late Maurice Sendak's masterpiece of mischief, imagination, and redemption.
Like a magic trick on Friday evening, a kind of surreptitious Kaddish, pulled off with traumatizing the little bugs with an understandable fear of death, I read to them from the book at the end of our Tot Shabbat service, which we host for the community on the first Friday of each month. Just two days removed from Sendak's death, we know his loss hung heavy over the parents present--for so many, losing Maurice Sendak felt like loving a distant but beloved uncle. Something needed to be done.
So as soon as the book was unsheathed, a secret weapon of quiescence in my quiver of tricks, the children were pacified and sat, enraptured while the first words were said. Still, of course, until Max's rumpus began and then they joined in as well, the most tumultuous and blessed of Kaddishes I've ever witnessed.
In my Saturday morning study group, currently digging deeply into the narrative structures of the Biblical book of Samuel, the class is turning over in their minds the transitional dimensions of Jewish history, ever-evolving, from patriarchal to prophetic to priestly to prophetic to monarchical to rabbinic, the latter stage the most long-lasting in our civilization's existence. Grasping the scope of Hebrew language, territorial claim, historical reality, archaeological evidence and layered, literary redacting is much, much more fun than most people give it credit for and besides, I brew Alterra coffee from my favorite roasters in Milwaukee so do you really have something better do on Saturday morning at 8:15 am?
Saturday morning's Bar Mitzvah student was a clear and bright manifestation of the Sages mandate that one should hasten to fulfill a positive commandment. This was evident when he rose with his father to put on his tallis just as the service began. Ordinarily a moderately awkward but exceedingly warm moment in our service, the young man grabbed hold of the tallis like a clean-up hitter grabs his bat, took three confident cuts of the timber, and knocked the first pitch heavenward, beyond the fences of containment. Never have a heard a blessing uttered with such confidence by a voice so young. Throughout the day I found myself laughing just thinking of it. I mean: pure joy.
Blessings for a new child in the community; blessings for a beloved teacher who will move beyond our synagogue community and try her hand at teaching broadly in Brooklyn next year; guests of the Bar Mitzvah ascending the Bimah to see Torah for the first time, always honored to come close, to see the brilliant, black letters, the crowns atop them, to look back to a mysterious past made present; and finally, words of comfort and strength at the end of the service for synagogue members who came to say Kaddish themselves for parents who died in the past week. The words on the Jacob's Ladder window: "God is in this place."
By six o'clock last night, our entire Temple House, built in 1929, was filled with a new generation of Park Slope parents, those whose children attend PS 321. Each year we host the annual fundraiser for the school, which raises the critically important funds necessary to educate children from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all races, all beliefs--under the care of its extraordinary principal Liz Phillips and her truly remarkable teaching staff. CBE has nearly 70% of its educable children in the New York City public education system, a fact of life for Jews across the country, who live lives of particular Jewish uniqueness alongside their proud and abiding attachment to the open pluralism and vibrant democracy of American civic life. Our After School program works with three public schools, in fact, a hub of the community that is invaluable piece of the fabric making this city great.
While sitting at the dinner last night, it occurred to me how incredibly deep and rich this story is. A child can be born into the community, named at CBE, brought to our Drop-In Center, while his sibling is down the street at 321; enroll in the Early Childhood Center; attend Tot Shabbat with countless others; hang out with friends at Shir l'Shabbat in the morning on Saturdays, and continue to grow throughout his life, always using the synagogue as his touchstone. For After-School, for Summer Camp, for Yachad and Bar Mitzvah training, for community events like birthday parties and pool parties, adoption support groups, AA meetings, volunteer efforts with schools, homeless shelters, the New York State prison, political advocacy, Sendak Rumpuses, and as our week ended, sublime readings by the Poet Laureate of the United States. At the end of the day, a raucous, sold-out celebration by 400 people for the sake of public education in New York City. For the record, I didn't try the smoking blue drink.
No wonder we drive our neighbors nuts. Oh well.
At the earlier end of this spectrum, I imagined I'd be alot of things when I grew up. But I never quite imagined this. As I count the years, looking back and imagining how many more may be reckoned to me looking forward, the idea of revitalizing and restoring becomes even more urgent. Honoring with gratitude what has been given to us; and, like the kid with the tallis in yesterday's service, grabbing ahold of it and with a few swings, fearlessly knocking out of the park whatever comes our way.
"Make haste in fulfilling a positive commandment."
In other words, run home.