Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new Jewish year - it's been a bit of a crazy year for me, as my return to freelancing has landed me with great companies and organizations, like Pictures From the Fringe (follow us on Facebook & Twitter), G-dcast (check out eScapegoat & SinfulGoat) & ELI Talks (check out this talk about God and this one about hacking Judaism), among others. I'm also relaunching EstherK.com with fresh content coming soon, and am starting to put together a newsletter to share helpful social media tips, interesting articles and things I've written, so stay tuned.
This coming year is 5775, which I realized a few weeks back is a palindrome. Since I missed all the fun with 2002 (no one was really allowed to have fun that year) and don't remember why I didn't figure this out in 1991, I decided to pay tribute to this special occasion by playing around on Imgur.com. (This is obviously a tradition that dates back to rabbinic times.)
Below are some of the results of this experiment, with apologies to Girls, The Simpsons, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Frozen. Wishing you and your families a wonderful new year, of health, happiness and humor.
As some of you know, I work part-time at Pictures From the Fringe, a small production company based in Los Angeles - PFTF co-founder Salvador Litvak recently conceptualized and directed a music video for IKAR, an innovative progressive spiritual community in LA, to help celebrate their 10th birthday. Many of us spent the entire day on set downtown, herding people and being herded by other people, having our wardrobes adjusted and our scenes blocked. The result was a joyous video with inspiring music that heralds the arrival of the High Holidays season...
How many familiar faces can YOU spot? (More info on the video after the jump.)
“Hallelujah” is a vibrant and joyous video with music by Judeo, a music project fronted and crafted by "rock cantor" Hillel Tigay. Tigay created mesmerizing tunes that IKAR uses for the High Holidays and year-round; the Judeo sound is an eclectic blend of Tigay’s past influences – the 7 years of music he has been making for IKAR and his past as a pop musician.
Over 100 people are featured in the video, including IKAR members and friends, spanning the age spectrum and reflecting the diversity of the IKAR community as it prepares to celebrate both the arrival of the High Holidays and IKAR’s 10th birthday.
The video was conceptualized and directed by Salvador Litvak – a.k.a. the Accidental Talmudist and writer/director of "When Do We Eat?" and "Saving Lincoln"; the city landscapes are over a 3-4 block radius in colorful downtown LA, for an urban desert feel.
For more information about this video, contact 411 at ikar-la.org.
Three years after losing my mother, I'm beginning to gain some perspective.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still devastated at my mother's absence and irritated by the onslaught of media messaging. And while I appreciate the sentiment, Skype telling me to call my mom on Mother's Day is a bit much - unless they actually can connect us, in which case, a resounding "yes" and "my bad for calling you out."
But halfway through Mother's Day here on the West Coast, I'm encouraged by the variety of posts I'm seeing - primarily on Facebook, but in other media outlets as well (see some interesting links below) - that indicate love for mothers past and present, hopes for future maternal roles, and the acknowledgement that although this holiday is an invented Hallmark one, its presence can be one that inspires some and hurts others.
Especially that last circumstance is something I'm seeing explored more and more, and although I don't envy the hurt that provoked the shift (because I do have my own), the fact that more of us are speaking out about this day as complicated (for some, suddenly so) is a good thing. It creates empathy among us all, increases appreciation and encourages us to reach out to those who make an impact regardless of whether they're biologically mothers or not.
As some of you may know, I have published two Mother's Day pieces - "Dealing with the Mother's Day Motherlode Now That Our Mothers Are Gone" last year, focusing on the media onslaught, and this year's "Marking Mother's Day When Mother is Gone" in the NY Jewish Week, which (if the Facebook Like counter is a reliable measure) has been read hundreds of times since it appeared on Wednesday. I've been blessed with really great feedback on these pieces, and have been very gratified to see this subject covered so well by other people who are putting their lives back together again after loss, and putting words to the process to share publicly. I wanted to use this space to share four pieces - not written by me - that I found moving, helpful and resonant over the last few days.
I seem to do this a lot, ask my friends what they've seen, what they're enjoying, what's making the rounds virally on the web. I delight at being among the first few viewers, and when something is good, I really enjoy sharing it. And so, I launch a new series here. ICYMI, for the uninitiated, means "in case you missed it." And as for "best things on the internet," my only parameters are that it's fairly new (generally in the first ten days since it hit the interwebs), deeply engages me on some level and makes me want to share it. And don't worry about me running out of material. I've tried to hit publish a few times now, and every time I'm about to, something newly awesome arrives. The content, it keeps coming.
For instance, this late-breaking - and I suspect emerging - battle between @LivviesCurls ("I have many different forms. I look best in the shower") and @MelliesHair ("The more you screw me over, the more height I gain"). That's right - Twitter is the space where two Scandal characters' HAIR(s?) are having a throwdown. And since I followed them this afternoon, they're following me back. So just to say that again, so you understand, "Two Scandal characters' HAIR are following me on Twitter."
Star Wars Filibuster (Animated). If you loved Patton Oswalt's Star Wars-themed filibuster on Parks & Recreation, you'll love this animated version, which takes his genius of a plot outline and renders it visually.
Badger's Star Trek episode. Breaking Bad's final season (or really the second part of the previously aired season that AMC was saving until August) launched Sunday night with a great episode - at its center was an incredibly strange, seemingly unrelated monologue by a minor character about his original plot for a Star Trek episode. And by the next morning, Vulture had made it into an animation (probably due to the success of the aforementioned Patton Oswalt filibuster animation). This is the speed of the internet, folks.
Tom Thum at TEDxSydney. Truly amazing beatbox work - tons of sounds and styles all coming out of one person's mouth. Really impressive and delightful to watch.
Mumford & Sons video, "Hopeless Wanderer," featuring top comedic talent instead of the band members.
Life of a Stranger Who Stole my Phone. Hamid stole this woman's phone but forgot to disengage the "auto-upload" feature - so now the victim of the theft has a window into the perp's life that lends itself to snarky and hilarious captions.
Working at a Nonprofit. Yes, it's funny - the tropes, trials and tribulations of working in a nonprofit culture ring true to those of us who've been there (or who are there). But it also seems to present a set of fairly depressing problems, many of which could be addressed, toward the improvement of quality of life for the world's nonprofit workers. So is it comedy or a call to action? I guess we'll see. I may just be writing more about this...
Stephen Colbert & friends dance to "Get Lucky". What started as a Colbchella war against Daft Punk for not showing up on The Colbert Report became this lovely piece of dancing.
And two Jewish-holiday themed clips: since 'tis the season to talk about repentance and acknowledging our misdeeds, IKAR challenges us to think about how we ask for and grant forgiveness. And for a more whimsical view of the guilt admission and repentance process, the e-Scapegoat from G-dcast allows you to confess your sins and send the virtual goat into the wilderness - as the site says, just like they did "in biblical times, only nerdier."
What are you watching? Why does it engage you? And most importantly, is anyone else being followed by television hairstyles?
In June, my last Jerusalem Friday before my return to the US, I went to the Western Wall (the Kotel), to say a prayer for a friend's father who was seriously ill. I jotted down some notes, and returned to the US. A few weeks later, this piece emerged. I'm posting it here, now, because it's the 9th of Av, which commemorates destruction in Jerusalem because of baseless hatred between and among people. This hatred has contemporary echoes, and daily we receive reminders that the world is battered and broken.
And so on the 9th of Av, a day which is designated for the remembrance of tragic events, I offer this, a look at the Kotel plaza and what it represents, on an ordinary day, to the natives and tourists alike, all seeking connection to something bigger.
This is emotional Ground Zero, for ache and despair, for the suffering and the wounded. I made aliyah b'regel (ascending to Jerusalem on foot) here, walking all the way from the edge of Katamon, through the German Colony and past Sultan's Pool, arriving at the zigzag, snaking path up the side of Jerusalem's Old City.
I feel the topography in my feet, as my heels land on not-so-holy-ground and propel my stride forward, pressing my toes into service. My sneakers-clad feet aren't in perfect shape, and I'm sweating in the Mideast heat. But this is how it should be done, if you can; on foot, feeling the incline as you walk.
This is the way our ancestors did it, from locations far removed from Emek Refaim, the street in the German Colony which is as saturated with Anglos as any street in a foreign country could expect to be. Our forefathers (and sometimes our foremothers) treaded these paths in a time far before Marzipan rugelach or wifi cafes were a thing. They did it three times a year, from points north, south, east and west, trudging on foot and on the backs of donkeys, pulling with them offerings to be sacrificed on Temple altars, as well as any items needed in order to create a campsite along the journey. All I had was an empty backpack, my passport, credit cards and a 1.5 liter bottle of water. I was traveling light, and had no excuses. No treadmill in the world replicates aliyah b'regel, ascending to the Old City, on the power of one foot moving forward at a time.
At the stairs, I join a group of schoolchildren and guardians doing the same thing, erev Shabbat, bound for the wall that never talks back. One of the children slips and falls, bursting into tears and dropping his toy on the stone path - I rescue the toy and return it to him. He looks up at me through tears, but doesn't say anything. (Much like a wall would, but more tearfully than a wall, even a "Wailing Wall," that never seems to weep.) I walk away.
On the security line, two secular Russian-Israeli parents and their completely Israeli kids are waiting to go through the metal detector. "It's separate, banim (boys) and banot (girls)," the daughter observes. "Why?" "You know why," her father says crisply before transitioning to Russian and talking to his wife.
On the plaza, I hear one Israeli man in his 50s, part of a tour group of Israelis who may have never been to Jerusalem before. "Higanu laKotel!" (We arrived at the Kotel!) he says excitedly. Then he looks around. "Nu? Az eifo neshot hakotel?" (Nu, so, where are the Women of the Wall?) I chuckled at the indication that he thought the Women of the Wall - a group of women who are fighting for equal access to prayer space and the freedom to worship as they would like instead of according to Orthodox dictum - were so called because they actually lived at the Wall, as if they were a permanent tourist attraction. This confusion is understandable, considering both the name, and that other social protests in Israel happen daily, sometimes all day and all night for months, instead of the one morning a month that the Women of the Wall gathered.
At the plaza, I sit at the back, perched, preparing the note I'd come here to bring. I am here, emissary for a friend who believes or may believe or needs to believe, on behalf of Stephen, Shlomo, son of someone whose Hebrew or English name I don't know. I am opposite the wall that represents hope, healing and perhaps a deity. I have no evidence of any divine link, no real belief in the efficacy of prayers uttered here or perhaps anywhere on behalf of the infirm, and most certainly lack the faith to merit a response.
My brain finds liturgical phrases about healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned, straightening those who are bent or who cannot find their footing, helping those who suffer in agony, in broken bodies or fractured souls. I'm also remembering all the times I uttered these words with emotional specificity, in the years before my mother's death, and even after, during a year of mourning's synagogue-going, and kaddish-saying. Is there a value in the repetition, the clinging to words that don't seem to help in reality? Where is faith if not in the repetitive drone, and yet, as drone and repetition, how does it count as authentic prayer?
While composing the prayer and struggling with my own inadequacies as a faith-challenged messenger, I overhear the brilliant, cacophonous symphony of cultures and languages clashing and interweaving.
Mother’s Day is here again, which is great for most people whose mothers are still alive. But for those of us who have lost our mothers, this holiday presents an onslaught of media messages urging us to reach out to someone who we can no longer touch.
“I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of Mother's Day displays in stores, radio commercials and especially those pull-at-the-heart strings attempts to convince people to buy flowers, cell phones, and clap-on lighting devices,” said Rebecca Soffer, an independent producer and writer in New York whose mother died in a car accident in 2006.
Bex Schwartz, a New York-based creative director who lost her mother "relatively suddenly" in April 2010, spends the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day in what she describes as “a state of fury. That first year, all the omnipresent Mother's Day shit made me sad. But now every time I see an ad or get an email telling me to shower my mother with love (and gifts) I just get angry.”
"When you don't have a mother, suddenly it seems like the entire world does." remembers Soffer. That first year, she joined a friend's family for brunch, but "as lovely as they all were, all I could think of was how uncomfortable, and even angry, I felt among them."
Time makes the pain different in its depth or sharpness, but doesn’t erase it. “I am tired of people telling me that, now that I have a daughter, Mother's Day will no longer be sad for me,” said Shannon Sarna Goldberg, NYC-based food-writer and blogger who gave birth to her daughter Ella last year. “True, this is the first Mother's Day in 15 years where I feel like I have something to do other than be annoyed and sad and generally brooding. But to say that the presence of a child (or any additional relationship) will negate the loss of one's mother shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be motherless, and a lack of recognition of the sanctity about what our moms mean to each us.”
The first few years are predictably rocky, as the shift happens from omnipresent-but-innocuous Hallmark holiday and excuse for family gatherings to a wrenching reminder of what has been lost. “I was in too much pain; it was easier to try to shut down the meaning of Mother's Day because I was an only child and my father was in too much pain to ask me to remember her with him,” Soffer remembers. “I ended up talking a long walk along the Hudson at the end of the day, far away from restaurants, Duane Reade card displays, and, most importantly, families.” But after a few years, she missed acknowledging a day with so many memories attached. “I decided to try out ways to feel connected with my mother instead of expending so much energy ignoring her.”
In trying to cope with Mother's Day, the challenge is to synthesize our losses within the construct of larger society, while this day-with-capital-D goes on around us, punctuating our landscape with signs of celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. So we search out ways to remember.
(Esther's note: This piece is a 2013 version of "Dating the Seder Way," which appeared in the NY Jewish Week, April 22, 2005. Wishing us all a happy and liberated Passover, and that we continue to make strides toward personal and relationship redemption.)
Dating the Seder Way
by Esther D. Kustanowitz
Why is this date different from all other dates? On a first date with someone new, that’s what we’re thinking. As we try to make emotional bricks without straw, a good date is the harbinger of a heartfelt hope that we will live to see relationship redemption. And just like any ritual, the courtship process has its own order.
Kadesh: You set aside a time and place to meet. The first beverage arrives; the alcohol warms you, liberating you from the oppression of routine. Both parties begin to relax.
Urchatz: Before eating a morsel, someone excuses himself (or herself) to the washroom. This provides both parties with a moment of solitude and a chance to assess the initial chemistry. If necessary (“I just got a call and something suddenly came up”), it’s also an opportunity for an early if not particularly graceful exit.
Karpas: During hors d’oeuvres, you realize this is someone you wouldn’t mind spending a few more minutes with. You’re not that hungry, but you “could eat something” – some flat crackers, maybe.
Yachatz: You begin to share anecdotes about your lives. If you’re lucky, this ends up a 50-50 give-and-take, and no one can discern which half of the conversation is bigger.
Magid: Now you’re into the main narrative: the substance of your date. As you tell your stories, you find resonance in the experiences of someone who, moments before, was a stranger at a strange table. You have discovered which of the Four Children you are out with.
The Wise Child attentively asks, “What do you do? Do you like it? How’d you get into that?” The Wicked Child asks, “What redeeming quality is there in that kind of career?” Because he cannot see redemption in your choices, you may smack him about the teeth, for he will not be redeemed. The Simple Child asks, “Why are we here?” and you answer him simply, and perhaps a little sadly that the conversation must remain so superficial. And the fourth child, who doesn’t even know enough to ask, relies completely on you to provide conversation, which you do politely before you open the door for your inevitable exit.
But tonight you’re lucky: you’re out with a Wise Child, whose questions inspire you and engender conversation that flows like the Nile. You bond over past professional servitude and shed the emotional shackles of relationships past. You begin to feel as if you personally experienced your partner’s suffering and feel acutely grateful that you have both been redeemed. You’re so absorbed in your study of each other that you barely notice when the waiter approaches and says, “Rabotai, it’s time to order dinner.” You drink more wine, toasting to tomorrow.
Rahtzah: This time the retreat to the washroom is more functional. In this moment alone, you wonder if your date is checking voice mail, looking for a pillar of smoke or fire to lead him away from you and toward freedom, even if it involves exile in a relationship wilderness.
Motzi Matzah: You return to the table, relieved to find that your date hasn’t made a personal exodus from the restaurant and instead has taken the liberty of ordering dinner.
Maror: There is sadness in your companion’s eyes. As more is revealed about past relationships, you taste the bitterness as if the experience had been your own.
Korech: You temper the bitter tales of loves lost with layers of humor and substance that reduce the bite, you conversation retains its pungency, but as you regain a sense of stability, your eyes water less.
Shulchan Orech: Dinner is served; you point out the pesto in your date’s teeth, while your companion kindly points your napkin in the direction of the tomato sauce you missed around your mouth. The wine flows like conversation, and the conversation flows like wine.
Tzafun: Dessert finds you searching for nuance and meaning in the developing relationship. If only you could find that elusive piece of unleavened feeling, you feel certain that you would win some sort of prize. Sharing the last tastes of the meal together, you smile at each other, your hunger more than sated.
Barech and Hallel: You utter silent benedictions: you are grateful for the food, the wine, the conversation and the company, and you mentally praise the person who orchestrated the setup. Neither of you needs additional intoxication, but since the bottle’s almost empty, you share the last of the wine.
Nirtzah: The order of the evening has concluded much as it began, leaving you to process your thoughts about, and memories of, the preceding hours. Simultaneously relieved and regretful, you try to treasure the moment without considering its potential spiritual impact. You’re aware that following the same script with the same people sometimes yields a different result – still, you wouldn’t mind doing it all again.
With the evening ended, you part ways. But as you kiss the night (and maybe even your date) goodbye, you make a wish for yourself that the emotionally connected experience you had tonight will be one you will merit to repeat, if not this year in New York or Los Angeles, then maybe next year in Jerusalem.
If you happen to be in the queue for a store to open at midnight tonight so that you can partake in Black Friday specials, or if you're asleep right now because you're getting up at 4am to make sure you're up and at the mall by 5, don't look for me. I won't be there. But perhaps I could inspire you to think differently about consumption this holiday.
The last month has seen devastation on the East Coast due to Hurricane Sandy, and the resurgence of violence in the Middle East. There are people who need serious help to rebuild their lives. And there are people who need an iPad Mini. If you're one of the people in the latter category, enjoy the lines at the Apple store. I don't begrudge you your technology, or wanting to get the best price, even if you lose a few hours of sleep (or a toe in the stampede). But maybe this is a chance for us to think about how most of our shopping is for things we want, and not things we need.
Most of us are lucky - our shopping habits operate from a place of privilege, a sign that we have enough to survive, we have shelter and food, and can spend additional cash on ways to improve that life with additional decorative, style or entertainment options.
But there are ways that you can help people who really need their basic shelter and sustenance needs met, and ensure that people feel your concern and your care across the miles. Here are five ways - they're options for you to consider, in thinking about how you can help provide to people in need as you go about your shopping business.
For me, the yearning to “renew our days as they were before” is something that’s quintessentially human and remarkably resonant to the conversation on innovation. (If we insist on calling it that.) While the phrase does appear in a context of a near-obliterated Jerusalem, we only read it in that context once a year; the rest of the time we use it as we seal the Torah back into the Ark after we’ve read that day’s Torah portion. In this context, it is a reminder that although we have read these words before, we re-read them, knowing that, because we change with every reading, our understanding of the words themselves may have also altered, in a way that provides new relevance to and wisdom for our contemporary lives.
When we pray for the renewal of our days “as before,” what we’re praying for is the renewal of our energy, because it takes energy, creativity, and an open mind to re-read something we’re familiar with and see it differently. It takes a receptive heart to be invigorated by an ancient text’s relevance, to look at it differently, and become impassioned about incorporating its lessons into our daily lives.
Torah itself may not be innovation (whatever that means) - literally, as something so ancient, it's probably closer to being the opposite. But what the plea to "renew our days as days of old" presents is the equating of that wizened age with inspired thinking, expressing perhaps a yearning for the enthusiasm we once had before our lives got in the way, the kind of inquisitive interest and fresh perspectives that we had when we were children, or students, or before we were encumbered by life’s responsibilities.
By opening our minds and hearts to innovative readings - of a contemporary situation, a passion project, an ancient text or an encounter with a creative thinker - we have the ability to further amplify the impact of our tradition and generate the necessary energy to recommit to pushing through challenges. By embracing perspectives outside our own, we renew our openness to perceiving and absorbing new meaning every day.
Wishing you a joyous Simchat Torah...