Happy almost-Passover to all! Check out my latest video for the inside scoop on this complicated holiday that, at the end of the day, celebrates freedom and encourages us to help the hungry.
The High Holidays provide an annual chance for us to examine and correct our behavior as we enter a new year. And for writers, they provide an annual chance to write about every aspect of the holiday. Since I haven't written in this space for a while, I wanted to share some of the pieces I've written about this season: some of them have borne the test of time better than others, but I find it interesting to revisit them and maybe you will too.
But first, my entry in IKAR's annual writing/reflection challenge - this year, we were charged to think about hope:
As an adult seeking hope, I think about many things. What I can do easily. What's realistic. What's a challenge, but still attainable. What is beyond my reach. I've never been one of those "if you put your mind to it, you can do anything" people, because I cannot win a Nobel for science, compete on American Ninja Warrior, wear white without spilling on myself, fly without fear. And then there are the wild cards that muck about with what’s possible. Fate. God. Destiny. Illness. Murphy’s Law. The Universal Random. Other humans.
Some people suffer and give up, while others cling to the smallest hope. When I suffer, hope usually hides behind a piece of emotional baggage while I track down and recite my mantras: that things will get better, that help is out there. I find some comfort in the Evening Prayer’s natural imagery, of night rolling into day and day into night, darkness to light and light to darkness, that there is a cycle that we can rely on, for better or for worse. This concept is important because we all face the danger of believing that a moment is forever: being in tune with gravity grounds us in a harsh, or sometimes helpful, reality.
I try to put hopeful things out there in the world. Last year, I wrote a piece for the Jewish Journal about empty apologies, noting that, "When words are hollow, they nevertheless contain a space of potential at their center." To this year's me, that sounds impossibly optimistic, but still rings molecularly, idealistically true.
I have three nieces and two nephews. Every once in a while, their eyes fix on me with a look of awe, marvel, appreciation. And when they see it, so do I.
In cultivating hope this year, I think two things may help. The first is to always see ourselves as those who love us see us. And the second is to cultivate a spiritual, and physical practice of hope and kindness. If we can use words to create the muscle memory for behavioral change, then perhaps we can use hope to create the muscle memory for optimism, whatever form that optimism takes: prayer, a hand extended, a heart opened, or letters that become words that can - if we are are lucky - reach the people who need them most.
This year, I also did a video about Rosh Hashanah resolutions.
Other readings (two of which feature the phrase "in the age"):
May you have a meaningful fast and may this year be full of many blessings, including health, love, happiness and abundant hope.
Every Purim, my spiritual community, IKAR, takes the opportunity to laugh at everything that they're so serious about during the rest of the year. IKAR is known for having left-leaning positions on a number of issues and for being committed to social justice and equality issues. Members of the Purim shpiel (let's say that translates to "comedy show") committee pitch ideas at a brainstorm meeting and some of those make it to "broadcast," including this fake commercial I wrote riffing on the concept of "progressive lenses." Enjoy!
I was beyond honored to have been invited to the White House on December 9 to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah (#WHHanukkah) with Jewish movers and shakers from across the country at a party and ceremony hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. (You can read more about the two parties - I was at the later one - here in Jewish Insider, and read my full, napkin-laden report here in the Jewish Journal. And watch this video uploaded by Jason Miller.)
In advance of my departure for DC, I asked my friends: was there anything they wanted to know about the experience? Here are some of those questions and the answers, divided into three categories: Latkes and other food-related questions, POTUS & FLOTUS, and miscellaneous.
Latkes and other food-related questions
How are the latkes? Is the president having apple sauce with his latkes? Sour cream? Sugar? But really, how are the latkes? Does the DC water make it like NY water does for pizza? How many latkes did you think you'd eat and how many did you really eat? I am really curious if there is kosher caviar and good Russian toppings for the latkes.
I'm hearing that some of you are curious about the latkes. The President didn't really eat with us, or open the event to a Q & A , so I don't know his personal preference, but there were latkes. They were small, almost like cocktail latkes, and tasted a little sweeter than expected. I probably ate four of them. Caviar isn't on my radar, so if it was there, I didn't notice it. And because it was a meat meal, there was applesauce, not sour cream. But if it satisfies your Yiddish curiosity, POTUS pronounces "latkes" more like "laat-kissss."
How are the sufganiyot?
Absent. At least I didn't see any. I took what I thought might be a sufganiya, but it turned out to be a mini-baked apple. Very delicious by the way, but not a jelly donut.
I was honored to have been asked by three spiritual communities in Los Angeles to offer some reflections on my experience saying Kaddish for my mother at a community program on the fast day known as Tish'ah B'Av (the 9th of Av). These are the remarks I delivered (slightly edited for publication).
After the death of my mother in May 2011, I said Kaddish every day (more or less) for the full year. And I said Kaddish at three different shuls in Los Angeles, with many of you – it’s my honor to reflect on this ritual with you, with these three communities present. Also, my mother was a big believer in finding laughter whenever it was possible. So in that spirit, if anything I'm about to say strikes you as funny, feel free to laugh.
When I started my year of mourning, I already knew something about Kaddish – that there’s no mention of death in it, that the prayer is an affirmation of belief in God, and that the structure of saying Kaddish is meant to help the grieving to reconnect to community after a serious loss.
Over the course of that year, and revisiting Kaddish annually for Yahrzeit and Yizkor, I’ve expanded my reflection on the ritual, the process of attending daily minyan and the contents of the liturgy.
This is the story of a song that everyone seems to know, whether or not they want to. To describe it to you in a sentence would have been enough. But this song isn't known for its subtlety or its brevity. It's known for its repetition, its words that don't quite fit into the tune, it's barely-there-musical-tune reminiscent of the Pac-Man theme, and, of course, its repetition. So here's the previously untold story behind the music.
One Passover, before all of you were alive, a group of rabbis gathered in Bnei Brak. Rabbis were always gathering in Bnei Brak. In fact, you couldn't stop rabbis from gathering in Bnei Brak It was like their version of Vegas, except whatever happened in Bnei Brak - instead of staying in Bnei Brak - ended up well-documented in the Haggadah.
But this is not the story of things that ended up well-documented in the Haggadah. And it's also not the story of how contemporary Bnei Brak became the home not just to one of Israel's most ultra-Orthodox communities but also the Coca Cola factory. (That's got to be its own story, because, seriously?) It's the story of a plucky rabbi with a song in his heart who - like so many rabbis and non-rabbis before and after him - ignored his wife's plea to stay and help with Passover and instead went road tripping on a path of personal destiny.
Rabbi Dai Kvar was not the most popular rabbi in the village, but he had a way with those around him, always pointing out the obvious in a way that, though sometimes irksome, sometimes actually put things in perspective. It was this slavish adherence to the chain of events that led up to other events that would turn out to be his most annoying - and most enduring - quality.
One morning, Rabbi Dai Kvar awakened with a start. "If God had taken us out of Egypt, that would have been enough!"
"What ARE you talking about, Dai Kvar?" his wife asked, annoyed for what was decidedly not the first time during their marriage.
"I've got an idea, no, it's THE idea. This is the one, Bina, I'm telling you! I've got to take this to the Bnei Brak boys immediately!" And with that, Dai Kvar jumped out of bed, threw a few of his portable Talmud volumes into a bag with some toothpaste, dental floss and two rocks, one to use for deodorant and the other one to use to light a fire.
"Be careful not to mix those two up," Bina shouted at her husband as he ran out the door. "He always leaves right before Passover," she said, shaking her head.
Later, Dai Kvar found himself in the synagogue in Bnei Brak, its major feature was an ark to end all arks - attached to a one-hundred-percent-electricity-free system of pulleys, the ark most resembled a giant slot machine. If you were to pull the lever on the left, it would spit out a Torah rolled up to that week's Torah portion.
The head of the Talmudic Council, Rabbi Dave, spoke first. "I now officially call all the Daves of the Talmudic council to order."
"I thought that was my job," said Second Rabbi Dave.
"Nope, that's me," Rabbi Dave the Third chimed in.
"Dave 3 is right, it's his job," said Just Another Rabbi Dave, which was also his JDate handle. "Here. Take this gavel. I got it from my JD program at Pumpeditha University."
"You went to PumpU?" Rabbi Dave could barely believe his ears. "I went to U of Sura! They're both in the Big Two of State Schools...."
"Small world," said all of the Daves in unison.
"First order of business," said Rabbi Dave (the one who was the head of the Talmudic Council, that is). "Rabbi Dai Kvar brings us a proposal for a new song."
Once he was in front of his boys from Brak, Dai Kvar was more excited than he'd ever been. "Gentlemen, I have a new song that traces our steps from the desert and toward a land that forged our peoplehood. My new song idea is so money that it doesn't even know how money it is."
"That's great, Dai Kvar, but how money is it, exactly? Is it more than two zuzim? Because I've got that number in my brain for some reason," said Reb Dave Gadya.
"Do you have a tune?" asked Just Another Rabbi Dave. "Who knows one?"
"It's got to be epic," said Rabbi Dave 3. "It should be grandiose, melodic and hauntingly beautiful as it helps us recall our years of oppression and subsequent redemption!"
"No," said Second Rabbi Dave. "It should be a still small voice, like God's in the wilderness."
"It should be intricate and unwieldy, but irresistible, maybe featuring lots of animals," said Reb Dave Gadya.
"Always the animals with you, Reb Gadya," Dai Kvar noted.
Reb Gadya shrugged and smiled. "I never had pets," he said. "But I always wanted one. Even just a worm to play with."
"A worm! That's it!" Dai Kvar exclaimed. The Daves stared at him, puzzled. "My friends," Dai Kvar explained, "we all know the story of the shamir, the giant worm that had the power to cut through stone, iron and diamond and which King Solomon is said to have used in the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem? Is there such a thing as a shamir that can live inside the skull, cutting through the noise and annoying someone but not actually harming them in any way?"
"Wait just a minute...are you talking about an ear worm?" one of the Daves asked. Dai Kvar thought about it. That was exactly what he was talking about, and he nodded vigorously.
"With the agreement of the Council, I'd like to create an ear shamir. I have just the chord progression," said one of the Rabbi Daves, but by this point, even Dai Kvar wasn't sure which one.
"Thank you for stepping forward, Rabbi Dave. So how many verses will be enough for this ear worm?" Rabbi Dave (the head of the Council one) asked.
"Well, musically, only one verse is necessary," said Rabbi Dai Kvar. "But one verse is super-boring and only children will get a kick out of learning and performing a long song, so let's compromise and say...14 different lines. And that we'll sing 'da-dai-yenu' after every line to make sure the song lasts as long as possible."
And the Daves took a vote, and it was a unanimous decision, except for Reb Gadya, who suffered from a hanging Chad and subsequently had to move to Florida to vote in the 2000 US Presidential Election.
And so it came to pass.
And that's why when you sing Dayenu, it's not just a song acknowledging the significant milestones that the Jewish people reached on their journey out of Egypt and to the Holy Land, but a summary of how that song makes you feel.
That is why it always feels like one verse would have been enough.
"Come along and sing / the story of a king...Haman's gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate..."
Last night at IKAR's Purim Justice Carnival, as part of #SHPIEL2015, we gave Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" earworm the Purim treatment - a few people have asked me for the lyrics so here they are...!
Download Shake a Grog-final lyrics.pdf (59.6K) - lyrics by Esther Kustanowitz and Michael Silverstein, 2015
(Plus, your scrolling bonus, a 2014 flashback - the famous "IKAR Drug Commercial." Happy Purim!
Heroes & Villains. Saints & Fools. These characters populate literature of all kinds, from contemporary culture extending back to sacred texts and storytelling traditions. On this Sunday, November 16, tune into a special exploration of this subject, in a one-day, round-the-clock, open-to-everyone learning opportunity for everyone, no matter where you are! Don't miss this free chance to engage with Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and more luminaries of learning.
And they'll even have at least one non-luminary-who-may-still-have-something-to-contribute, as is evidenced by the fact that I'm co-teaching a session with Accidental Talmudist and filmmaker Salvador Litvak. We'll be schmoozing about control of the media, shaping the message and how the megillah's characters wielded their power to connect and communicate...open to all!
From the letters condemning the Jews to the letters that saved them, most of the Purim story depends on written messages. It’s no coincidence that the Persian-Medean kings drew much of their power from a precedent-setting communications system – the same system Mordechai and Esther needed to control in order to save the Jewish people.
Join Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak and writer/consultant Esther Kustanowitz for a discussion about cautious speech, responsible media practices and the power of the written word, through the lens of Purim and the Book of Esther.
Eight years ago, I wrote about my first Halloween. Here is that "zombie blog post," back from the "mostly-dead" Idol Chatter blog-that-has-ceased-to-be, freshly revived (I mean, "heavily revised" - with new references to INTERNET! BUFFY! and GOLEMS! ) and ready to eat your brain. Enjoy my Halloween grinchiness!
A Yeshiva Girl's First Halloween
by Esther D. Kustanowitz (revised 2014)
“What did you wear the last time you trick-or-treated?” my college friends asked.
“Umm, I’ve never been trick-or-treating.”
Their silence made me realize I had managed to terrify my friends on Halloween–quite a good first effort at the holiday.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I always knew what Halloween was: the week when television switched to a “Fright Night/Shocktober” format, candy unveiled its fall color palate, and packages of food suddenly sported ghosts, witches, skeletons and corpses (very appetizing). And it was also always the week when my yeshiva (Jewish religious school) sent home a letter to parents informing them that Halloween was a pagan holiday that had become a fulcrum for mischief and destructive pranks–sometimes of an anti-Semitic nature. We had Purim as our designated dressup day. It was highly advised that we not be permitted to participate in any Halloween celebrations.
Halloween's real impact was the constant ringing of our doorbell, as trick-or-treaters made their way down the block. My brothers and I would open the door and distribute candy to costumed kids, occasionally pocketing a piece of candy for ourselves, and never whining to my parents to let us participate. It wasn’t our faith. It wasn’t our holiday.
When I got to college, I realized that I had missed something vital in the secular calendar cycle. As October waned, people started talking about Halloween–instead of door-to-door candy collecting, there were fraternity keg parties and prizes for best costume. Costume strategies for men involved creativity and for women often included cleavage. My friend Mike dressed as a Mother Superior (he came out a few years later). Gary went as "Lampshade Man,” sticking a lampshade on his head, going up to women and saying “Turn me on!” Debbie dressed as a phone–she drew a telephone keypad (remember those?) on a white t-shirt, attached a phone receiver (remember those?) to a headband, and went to a party saying, “Ring, ring, I’m for you! Pick me up!”
My friends vowed to take me trick-or-treating, and for an authentic experience, they made me dress up. I raided my conservative closet and selected a longsleeved black shirt, a pretty modest, nearly-above-the-knee skirt, tights, and boots. (New Jersey in October, you know.) I didn’t look that different from shul-going Upper West Siders, but we added a bright lipstick, and my friends proclaimed the costume “a prostitute.” (Huzzah, college empowerment!)
We left campus and went to the suburbs of East Brunswick. House by house, as people - expecting local children - opened their doors, we yelled “trick or treat” and thrust out our bags waiting for them to deposit the candy goodness. But the homeowners were suspicious. “Aren’t you a little old for this?” So we upped our game, offering a trade: our singing services for their candy. “Halloween carols? Really?” one homeowner queried. “Sure!” we agreed. (I obviously had never been caroling either, so this was a double treat.) We were the singing telegrams no one had asked for - starting with some classics, Frank and Broadway show tunes, and moved to some more contemporary stuff. Debbie Gibson songs may have been involved.
That first time was a little weird, and uncomfortable, and not because of our caroling - it felt like I was pretending not to be Jewish. But most of the friends I was out with that night were also Jewish; they were just used to Halloween - celebrating it for them hearkened back to fond childhood memories. All I had was the inherited fear of something that used to be called "Mischief Night" or "Goosey Night," and the instilled guilt over celebrating something that didn't feel like my holiday.
I appreciate the creativity of a good costume - even more so now, with the internet enabling so much creative costume-sharing. But some of the more graphic costumes seem to have lost their fun. I'm a loyal fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for its mythology, humor and empowerment themes - but bereft of that context, bloody monster masks left me unsettled. After endless CNN footage of 9/11, I found the “bloodied accident victim” genre disturbing. And then there are the "sexy ______" costumes, providing an excuse to wear revealing outfits and drink until they can’t tell the difference between friends and friends-with-benefits. Which may suit everyone else fine, but that kind of obfuscation usually isn’t necessarily my cup of poison. Even on the Jewish holiday of Purim, a yeshiva girl’s approved day of dress-up, I’m always paralyzed when it comes to costume creation. My costumes are typically more clever, based on a turn of phrase ("media queen") or something else that needs to be explained ("the cliches of JDate"), rather than "sexy golem" (which come to think of it, isn't a bad idea.) So when it comes to Halloween, I hope my friends have an amazing time, but I generally opt out.
Of course, you never know. Maybe someday I’ll come around. There is definitely something appealing about a day of fun and freedom from the strictures of contemporary dress and behavior. And, oh, the candy. (Which, hot tip, goes on sale at most stores after Halloween for 50-75% off. You're welcome.) But I probably won't be doing much this Halloween. Unless you happen upon a group of trick-or-treaters singing show tunes, in which case I expect you to text me immediately.
Happy Halloween!! (You know, if that's like, your thing. No judgments.)