Leonard Felson
Sep 11, 2018

A BROOKLYN-BASED PRAYER LEADER HERALDS A REVOLUTION IN JEWISH MUSIC

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Edited: Sep 11, 2018

Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement

 

 

Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013.(Marta Fodor)

On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”

Weisenberg, 31, is on a mission. A ba’al tefilah, or prayer leader, as well as a musician and teacher, he wants to reinvigorate Jewish life through song. He believes it can be done through what he calls Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshops, like this one in Brooklyn: normal people singing together, imperfectly perhaps, but making beautiful music—at synagogue and at home.

Despite a humble demeanor and a disarming smile, Weisenberg—or Joey, as everyone calls him— has the chutzpah to claim his work is “laying the groundwork for a revolution in American Jewish musical culture.” Many Jewish leaders who work with him believe that, too, and they’ve seen the evidence.

“People desperately want to come out of hibernation,” said Weisenberg, referring to what he sees and hears in so many American shuls. “You feel this deep sleepiness,” he said of those communities.

What’s unique about Weisenberg is that he’s working on so many different levels. He’s weaving back together strands of Jewish music that have grown apart, articulating a vision to foster communal engagement and unity through music, playing his part to transform Jewish culture into one that listens more carefully. Unlike most talented musicians or cantors who want to be at the center without involving amateurs in creating music, Weisenberg takes a democratic approach to his work, inviting people of all skills to contribute, teaching them how to be better and modeling what could be.

The recent niggun workshop in Brooklyn showcased that approach. Singing niggunim isn’t new; Hasidim have been doing it for generations. But Weisenberg brings an aesthetic to the effort rarely heard elsewhere, focusing on the quality of the effort, the rhythm, the possibility of movement and dance, the space, even the chair setup. Every melody, he believes, has the potential to be incredible, a revolutionary approach that shifts the conversation away from the tune and toward how participants bring themselves to the melody, an approach he says he tries to bring to life.

Weisenberg is also striving to use music to bridge divides between Jewish denominations and subcultures. Non-Orthodox Jewish communities, he says, often have a lot of musical experience, but they don’t know Jewish music in particular. Conversely, the Hasidic world knows a lot of traditional Jewish music but lacks musical training, technique, and, to some extent, creativity. “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is break down some of the walls between different disciplines in Jewish life, because you find lots of talented people in the Jewish world, and we need to be able to learn from all different types of people.”

Weisenberg’s ambitions reach far beyond Brooklyn. This spring he recorded a new CD of original Jewish music and created a new national organization to help congregations actualize his philosophy. In short, in terms of potential impact, he may be the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman.

***

To read his biography, you would think Weisenberg was always destined to assume the role he’s playing in the Jewish world. He’s a sixth-generation Milwaukeean, son of two accomplished musicians, whose maternal grandfather’s great-grandfather moved there from Germany in 1856. He adored his maternal grandfather, Milton Ettenheim, a music lover who was a classic Reform German Jew and follower of the Milwaukee Rebbe, Rabbi Michel Twerski, a famous Torah teacher and composer of Hasidic melodies. Weisenberg says his visits to the Twerski shul, experiencing the power of the niggun, had a lasting effect on him: In his 20s, he began tracking down as many old Jewish melodies as he could, notating and memorizing them, from New York to Transylvania. That upbringing also came to define his Judaism, a trans-denominational one, comfortable in vastly different Jewish worlds.

At Columbia University, where he majored in music theory and composition, he started the Columbia Klezmer Band. By the time he graduated he was developing a reputation as a mandolin and guitar virtuoso. He played and recorded with dozens of bands and master musicians, including several klezmer revival groups, relishing the creative energy among young Jewish musicians in downtown New York. But he also noticed that they wanted nothing to do with what he called “the shul world.” Any why would they? To Weisenberg and his fellow musicians, the mainstream religious world was “just re-hashing the same thing over and over again,” he said, not just in the way it prayed, but also in its overall attitude about synagogue life, lacking a creative spirit or curiosity about the ever unfolding moment.

It was around then, in 2005, that the trajectory of Weisenberg’s life changed when he met Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar, a New York institution with a traditional egalitarian yeshiva and a mission to empower Jewish communities nationally. Kaunfer knew that on the side Weisenberg was interested in teaching people how to sing. It was Shavuot, and at Hadar’s annual retreat in upstate New York, where participants stay up all night learning, Kaunfer asked Weisenberg to take the 4 a.m. slot just before a sunrise service.

“I figured we’d sing a bunch of songs, trying to keep our eyes open until sunrise,” Kaunfer recalled. “But Joey said, ‘We’re going to learn just one melody tonight.’ A two- to three-minute melody for an hour meant singing it 20 times,” Kaunfer recalled calculating. “We clapped out the beat. I thought, if he can keep people awake at 4 in the morning, teaching them one niggun, this guy has a lot of talent.” People were enthralled, Kaunfer said: “I think he is the greatest Jewish music educator on the planet.”

Three years later, Weisenberg was a faculty member of Hadar’s yeshiva, teaching. He now teaches at seminaries, too, including Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

He never went to one of the professional seminary cantorial schools; instead he’s learned nusach the old-world way, under the tutelage of another hazzan, in his case Cantor Noah Schall of Queens. In 2007, Weisenberg was hired as music director at Kane Street Synagogue, which in many ways is a typical Conservative synagogue. It dubs itself the oldest Jewish congregation that still serves the Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was founded.

“He’s made a huge impact [at the synagogue],” said Elise Bernhardt, a Kane Street member and president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Soon after he came on board, Weisenberg’s Friday night services were often jammed. His alternative High Holiday services always sell out. Last Yom Kippur’s alternative service, said Bernhardt, was so moving that “the day went by in 20 minutes. I didn’t know I was fasting.” He also produced a book, or songster, of more than 100 melodies he collected from Kane Street members.

His impact could start to ripple across the country. This spring, he and Mechon Hadar created the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music, the vehicle that could propel Weisenberg’s vision forward.

Weisenberg is the center’s founder and creative director. By the end of the year, a new website under construction will feature hundreds of niggunim and the different nusach, or melodies, of hundreds of prayers, which Weisenberg and other cantors or prayer leaders will record. The center also will produce a CD of Weisenberg-original melodies, adding to the lexicon of prayer music. And it will organize weekend workshops across the country, including weeklong intensives in New York and on the West Coast, which Weisenberg and other Hadar fellows trained in his mold will lead.

Even as the center gets up and running, estimated to take two years, Weisenberg continues to spread his gospel. This past week, he taught at Hava Nashira, a massive music workshop that draws 300 song-leaders from the Reform movement each year in Wisconsin. He’ll co-teach a four-day workshop in mid-June in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on creating singing communities. And in July, he’ll lead workshops at the North American Jewish Choral Festival in New York’s Hudson Valley, which draws more than 500 singers yearly.

That itinerary comes on the heels of Weisenberg’s latest recording in May, Joey’s Nigunim Vol. III, Live in the Choir Loft—his third album—featuring his eight-member band, Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble, with original compositions of Jewish spiritual music that includes elements of jazz, Balkan, soul, flamenco, bluegrass, and blues styles. It will be released later this year. The recording session, done in the choir loft of the Kane Street shul, where the band performed Tuesday nights for months, was classic Weisenberg: A crowd of about 30 friends packed into the loft. Three vocalists, including a Hasidic cantor and two women, added harmonies that floated over melodies. A klezmer violin master, a percussionist, and jazz lap-steel virtuoso rounded out the band, as Weisenberg led, sang, and played mandolin or guitar.

What Weisenberg teaches is easily accessible in his how-to book Building Singing Communities, A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer. It covers such issues as the architecture of singing: using small rooms if possible; and leading from the center, not from the front, which breaks down barriers between performer and audience. He says you can create “communal intimacy” by bringing people closer together physically “to create a sense of connection and shared experience.” Employ rhythm, a lost art in the Jewish world, he says, to enhance Jewish singing, using the instruments of the synagogue, like the wood top of the amud or reading table to beat on, or the floor to tap on.

To see what’s possible, and what challenges Weisenberg faces, there’s no better place to observe than at Kane Street. Last year, he got the shul to move its shtender, or lectern, off the bima and onto the floor so the ba’al tefila can be closer to congregants. “It was a big decision,” Bernhardt said.

On a recent Shabbat morning, despite the sanctuary’s cavernous Romanesque interior, the scene could have been anywhere in suburban Jewish America, as family and friends of a bar mitzvah boy filled the pews, though few sang the prayers. As more regulars showed up, Weisenberg took over during musaf, the last section of the morning service, and a noticeable shift in energy filled the room of about 300 people. A small cadre of men and women stood close to him, providing harmonies to his soaring, warm prayer voice. (“He’s like an old soul in a young body,” said Bernhardt.) They tapped out rhythms, too, with their hands, or stomped their feet on the floor in syncopated beats. Afterward at the kiddush over bagels and tuna fish, Weisenberg admitted that it’s still an effort to get people singing, and other members say not everyone is sold on the change he’s bringing. He admits that when he leads workshops elsewhere, as an outsider, he doesn’t have to worry about shul politics and stepping on toes.

Last summer at Shir Tikvah , a Reform congregation in Minneapolis, for example, Weisenberg flatly told members that just as many Americans, raised on TV, use musical cues from shows to tell them how to feel, too many Jews use decorum to trump their emotions, the temple’s music director Wendy Goldberg said. Since his workshop, she said, more members are standing to dance or clap when prayers move them.

Change has also come to Congregation Beth El, an 1,100-member Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., where once a month Friday night services are done in the round and every second Shabbat morning is led from the middle, all since Weisenberg spent a weekend there last fall. Beth El’s Hazzan, Matt Klein, who invited him, said about the Shabbaton: “I was dancing on this wave of kavanah and davening energy—the most I had ever experienced in my two years here.”

On any given week, Weisenberg tries to re-create similar waves during a varied and busy schedule. One week in April, for example, he taught cantorial students at JTS, the Conservative seminary. He led his band on Tuesday night in a performance, preparing for the May recording. He taught rabbinical and cantorial students at HUC, the Reform seminary, on Wednesday, then led a children’s choir. On Thursday, he did a recording session with Noah Aronson, a rising star of Reform liturgical music. He led Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday morning at Kane Street and finished the week at a Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

His mentor, Kaunfer, said about his student’s work: “It actually could make a significant change in the way that American Jews experience davening.”

Weisenberg said that much of what he’s teaching he’s learned as a musician playing in bands: “You got to be right next to each other to feel their notes, feel their energy. And that’s what we need in shuls across America.”

“Music teaches us how to listen,” he added. “It awakens us to the connections that we can foster in every moment. As we say on Rosh Hashana, ‘The great shofar is sounded, and the still small voice is heard.’ Let music teach us to be more sensitive to each other and to the world around us.”

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  • Leonard Felson
    Sep 11, 2018

    A Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar offers hope and inner peace for women in an unlikely place: prison Brenda Clubine suffered repeated beatings from her husband until one day, threatened in a locked hotel room, she smashed him over the head with a wine bottle and killed him. She served 26 years in prison for second-degree murder. Annette Imboden started drinking bourbon daily at age 12, adding heroin and cocaine to a lifelong addiction, eventually stealing credit cards and forging checks to fund her habit. She served 18 years before being paroled last year. Clubine met Imboden while they were doing time at the California Institution of Women in Corona, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. There, the two women, both Jews, met another woman who would change their lives: Shayna Lester, a volunteer Jewish prison chaplain, who began visiting, influencing them in ways they never could have imagined. Lester offered classes on Torah, explored the Ten Commandments from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and counseled them. But the most unorthodox tool she brought to the prison was Mussar , a spiritual practice that focuses on character traits like truthfulness, generosity, patience, and humility in an effort to help people overcome inner obstacles. Based on Jewish practices dating back more than a thousand years, it grew in popularity in 19th-century Lithuania under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Mussar movement. Today, though, despite a nascent revival among Jews of all stripes , Mussar is barely known outside the Orthodox yeshiva world. Yet Mussar has proven to be a powerful tool for a group of female prisoners, allowing them to see where, when, or how they stumble in everyday life, even in prison. That awareness can alter their behavior, helping to bring them peace, or at least greater vigilance about the choices they make. *** After decades as a psychotherapist, Lester started searching for meaningful volunteer work about 20 years ago, praying to find “the right fit.” She became a Jewish spiritual director, a kind of counselor to help people experience the divine in their lives. She was an ordained interfaith minister and received ordination as a “reverend gabbai” from Jewish Renewal leader Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi . When Lester heard that the prison in Corona had hired her friend Rabbi Moshe Halfon of Long Beach as Jewish chaplain, she knew God had answered her prayers. She made her first trip to the prison—her first trip to any prison, in fact—six years ago, trembling with fear. Working with Halfon, she eventually became the prison’s lead volunteer chaplain, serving the spiritual needs of about 30 to 50 Jewish women and “Jewish wannabes,” as Halfon put it, at any given time. These days, she drives to Corona, 120 miles round trip from her home in Santa Monica, every week. The seventy-something Lester (she demurred when asked her exact age) sees women who have committed “every type of crime imaginable,” she said, from fraud to theft to murder. Some newcomers are as young as their twenties, while others have served more than 30 years behind bars with little chance of parole. It wasn’t long after talking with them about the Commandments that Lester turned to Mussar, believing it would give the women an opportunity to examine their character traits from a spiritual perspective. Many had been in group therapy for years, and she thought Mussar might offer a different approach to healing—one that had long been seen as appropriate for women; in the 19th century, Mussar rabbis taught that it was incumbent on both genders to study Mussar daily. The Jewish women Lester saw had never heard of Mussar—which is why Lester calls the class by a more general name, Jewish Ethics—but where better to practice it, she thought. At its core, Mussar is about working on obstacles in one’s life. Yet, it’s more than self-help, she told them. They listened in the prison chapel, the size of a portable classroom; a cross hung on one wall, a Star of David on another. Mussar, she explained, is about fulfilling the Torah’s injunction “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:1). In a nutshell, Lester’s Mussar is like exercise for the soul. Its goal: to use the challenges of everyday life as a spiritual curriculum in order to strengthen the muscles of your character and help you improve your weak points. “Mussar is a Jewish tradition of personal cultivation and development,” explained Alan Morinis, a leading proponent of a new movement to spread it across North American Jewish communities. “It is not mystical, not ascetic, and not necessarily even religious. There is within each of us a human spirit that is a gift and a challenge, a tool and a potential. Mussar shows us how to engage with life in order to grow and open to evolve into a person who is the living embodiment of our highest individual and personal potential.” Most of what Lester had learned about Mussar came from books and talks by Morinis , who has spawned a small, though growing, 21st-century movement with programs and classes and other resources through the nonprofit Mussar Institute , which reaches Jews of all denominations across North America. Mussar tools include introspection, text study (modern and ancient), and journaling on character traits, all devoted not so much to work on yourself for the sake of your self, but for a higher purpose, for the sake of holiness or wholeness, Morinis explained. That’s what distinguishes it from psychology or self-help, since Mussar, sometimes translated from Hebrew as “discipline,” posits that because we are made in the image of God, we are all holy souls. Bringing Mussar into prison is not mainstream, says Rabbi Yaacov Haber , an Orthodox rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, and a Mussar teacher. He cites the work of the late Rabbi Aryeh Levine of Jerusalem, known as Reb Aryeh, the official Jewish prison chaplain during the British Mandate, who had the practice of visiting Jewish prisoners. He created an entire Mussar course for prisoners. And, Haber said, “there are those who follow Reb Aryeh’s example,” including Rabbi Joel Dinnerstien , a certified addiction counselor, now retired in Florida. He spent 12 years working with prisoners in New York’s penal system, mainly in the Hudson Valley, teaching Kabbalah and telling Hasidic stories. Still, “coming in to teach Mussar—it’s rare,” said Dinnerstien, who notes a number of personal-growth prison programs, but none directed at Jews. Neither he nor anyone else interviewed for this article is aware of any other prisons with a Mussar program. But it’s clearly having a positive effect. When Lester explained that concept to her group, she recalled, the women seemed surprised, given the obviousness of how their circumstances or bad choices had imprisoned them. They wanted to hear more. Lester explained that real life had the potential to block holy light from shining into one’s life and, by extension, into the world. By practicing Mussar, one sees where and when obstructions show up in one’s character. With that information, you can focus on your inner character or soul traits, middot in Hebrew, and find the right balance for countless traits. Mussar caught on with the women in Corona. Each week, as Lester facilitates, they sit in a circle in the chapel, taking turns reading aloud short sections from Morinis’ book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar , or Every Day, Holy Day . Class size is 15 or so, fluctuating during the sessions, depending on the prisoners’ work duties; some show up during their lunch hour for 10 minutes, while others—including five regulars—stay for the full two hours. Discussions follow, often deep and intimate, said Lester, who estimates that she’s spoken about Mussar to more than 200 women over the years. But Mussar is about more than class discussions. It’s a guidance system involving direction and insight into human life collected into texts over generations. Through various methods, including study, contemplation, and daily journaling, practice can turn into discipline, which can be transformative, even if it takes a lifetime. Over the last decade, thanks to the web and new books in English written with the less observant in mind, Mussar has gained popularity among non-Orthodox Jews, including individuals and synagogue groups across North America. In part, that’s because at its core, Mussar focuses on real life and doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of ritual or Hebrew language. Recently, the Union for Reform Judaism approached the Mussar Institute to plan joint programming. At one class, Lester and the women talked about the sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not murder. A discussion followed on how people murder each other’s spirit by words and actions. That was followed by reading Everyday Holiness , exploring the trait of silence. And that brought the women to talking about lashon ha’ra , or gossip—toxic in prison—including some 30 weeks on the rules of lashon ha’ra . One woman suggested an art project making pins, which the women called “the Mouth Project,” and which authorities approved. It featured the famous Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album logo of a mouth and tongue with six words printed underneath: “No Loshon Hora” (using the Yiddish spelling) and “Guard Your Tongue.” Soon, half of Corona’s prisoners, about 900 women, were wearing them, Jewish and non-Jewish. The warden asked for one, as did several guards. “The women tell me they can’t imagine what their lives would be like without the class,” Lester said, adding that the discussions often run deep. At her first visit on Tisha B’Av , as they read Lamentations, the women sobbed. Lester, moved to tears, looked around, and saw women with tattoos, faces that looked sad, hard, and hopeless. One of them was Clubine , the battered woman who had killed her husband. By Halfon and Lester’s account, Clubine was “successful” in prison, starting a support group two decades ago called Convicted Women Against Abuse . Paroled four years ago, Clubine, 51, of San Jacinto, speaks across the nation and heads a nonprofit group called Every 9 Seconds committed to preventing domestic violence. But Lester’s visits and the Mussar class helped re-kindle what Clubine says was her “burnt-out” faith and hope. “I wouldn’t have survived without it. I know, I wouldn’t have,” Clubine said. “I couldn’t understand how there could be a God and let this happen to me. Nobody wanted to know the truth.” In addition to the classes, Lester sat with Clubine, prayed with her, soul-searched with her, and cultivated the trait of silence so Clubine could hear that still, small voice: “We talked about what I should do when I got out,” said Clubine, “and how I could fight for other victims so they don’t have to live the nightmares I lived.” Lester also touched Imboden, 53, of Sunnyvale, who was paroled last February. She stole credit cards and forged checks to fund her drug and alcohol addiction, breaking into clients’ houses she cleaned, unlocking their front doors, turning off and on their security systems before and after she stole from them. With Lester, she worked on the trait of trust, but other inner traits, too—including silence, after a falling out with prison friends triggered by gossip. “Instead of feeling better by gossiping, it backfired and I felt so hurt and betrayed I just stayed in my cell all the time except for work assignments for nearly a year,” Imboden said. With Lester’s help, Imboden saw how her emotions ruled her life. Working on humility and courage, Imboden says she faced her fears and asked for help “from God and Shayna.” “I didn’t want to live that way anymore, so miserable and unhappy,” said Imboden. “I realized I wasn’t there for [the other inmates]. I was there for God and myself.” Today, a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and at synagogue services in Palo Alto, she’s working on honor, too, as caregiver for her ailing father, someone she says she dishonored growing up. A 56-year-old woman who simply called herself Suzanne (she doesn’t want to give her real name, embarrassed to expose her past to co-workers) was jailed for a year for fraud, stealing co-workers’ Social Security numbers from their time cards and then taking out false loans from an online company to pay for her prescription-drug habit. She went to Lester’s classes, “and it just blew me away, like being in a room with a three-watt light bulb that gets brighter and brighter,” she said from her Los Angeles home. Her big take-away was “staring truth in the face,” she said, when she realized that her addiction coupled with stealing meant she was constantly lying to her best friend, her sister, and her brother. “I’m like a new person,” she said of her clarity now that she’s free of medication, though to get there she “went through terrible, terrible withdrawals.” In April, Suzanne will be off probation, free from the criminal justice system for the first time in eight years, a change that she says fills her with gratitude, another trait she’s cultivating. Attempts to reach some of the women still behind bars were unsuccessful. Morinis, who spoke to Lester’s prison class four years ago, recalls being anxious about meeting the prisoners. As he connected to their eager eyes, he says, he realized the women were no different from any other group he addresses. “Maybe [they were] people who had made a mistake or had extraordinary tough lives or had been misled by the company they kept or their pain or their yetzer ha’ra ,” their evil inclination. But, he says, none of it was outside the realm of life and what the Mussar masters taught about life: “It wasn’t much of a stretch to look out and imagine that this was a Sisterhood group from any temple in any city in North America.”
  • Leonard Felson
    Sep 11, 2018

    When I caught a foul ball at a baseball game, I felt the divine presence—and it changed my whole life The night I caught a soaring foul ball at Yankee Stadium was the night I heard God speak to me. The magic of the moment was so exhilarating I lost sight of its spiritual power at the time, as fans nearby cheered and I basked in the joy of my feat. About 48 foul balls are hit on the ground and in the air during an average game, according to statisticians, but television or radio announcers rarely capture the personal feelings associated with a catch, and you never read about what a foul-ball catch meant to a fan in the next day’s Sports section. Maybe that’s because what it means isn’t apparent right away. Much as the biblical Jacob realized only after a dream-filled night in the desert that God was in “this place,” a moment in Genesis where the Torah suggests that the divine is everywhere, I came to accept a similar insight about my night at the ballpark only after the fact. Like Jacob, I saw in hindsight the sacredness of my experience. That mystical catch, that one amazing second, would empower me to settle longstanding issues with my father and move forward in my career. Over the decades since I caught that ball, I’ve come back to that moment during times of self-doubt, or when I’ve felt stuck, remembering how it felt to be so close to God. *** Family and business always went together for my father. When I was little—first in Seattle, where I was born, and later in San Francisco, where we moved when I was 6—he’d recount stories about working before the war with his father in Glubokoe , Poland (now Belarus), in a small shop where they sold wheat flour and other ground grains. After the war, my father and his brother, the only relatives to survive the Holocaust, came to the United States, where an uncle who’d immigrated decades earlier got them started in the residential construction business. Through the booming 1960s and ’70s, they grew comfortably prosperous running separate property-management companies. But my father’s traumatic past led to frequent bouts of depression, and when my brothers and I were kids our mother warned us constantly not to do anything that would “upset Daddy.” We learned early on to tread carefully around him. As the eldest son, I was recruited now and then to sit shotgun in Dad’s Dodge station wagon as he made his rounds. We’d buy 5-gallon buckets of paint and visit apartment managers or check with carpenters who were building 2-bedroom duplexes in the East Bay. During high-school vacations, when I came home sweaty from an honest day’s work, Dad beamed. But I found the work boring: painting interiors of rental units, pulling weeds out of cracks in driveways, or carrying loads of two-by-fours to carpenters. Even though Dad wanted me to go into the family business, I had other plans; at 24, I got my first job as a reporter at a small California newspaper . A few years later I accepted an East Coast newspaper job and moved across the country to Hartford. But Dad never lost hope I’d return. He tried to lure me with more money, my home state’s idyllic weather, and Jewish guilt. “Jeff and I could really use your help,” he’d say, referring to my brother, the only one of Dad’s three sons who joined the firm. I always hedged, fearful I would upset him if I flatly rejected his offers. “I don’t know, maybe someday,” I’d say, confident my wishy-washy reply would buy me a few years before facing his nagging questions again. Deep down, I feared too that a move home would feel like traveling back in time, returning to a relationship where Dad once again treated me like a little kid, even if he wanted me to be his partner in business. My friend Irwin had joined the same East Coast paper a few months after me. But while he eventually landed a magazine job in Manhattan a few years later, I was moving slowly up the journalistic ladder, unable to make the same kind of breakthrough career move. Therapists suggested I was unconsciously self-sabotaging my career, allowing guilty feelings to punish me for not helping my father in the business. In the meantime, I married my girlfriend Julia, who’d moved across the country with me, and two years later we had a baby. I felt frustrated with my job, but quitting wasn’t an option—Julia had started graduate school, and I had a child to support. Adult life suddenly felt overrated. Now in my 30s, I still felt guilty about leaving my father and his business on the West Coast, but I also felt trapped and stymied in my career on the East Coast. *** A few months after Irwin moved to Manhattan, I went to visit. We met at his Park Avenue magazine office, and I was dumbstruck with admiration and envy during the quick tour. His office had an expansive view of Midtown, and he casually referenced his fabulous expense account. (It was the 1980s, when fabulous expense accounts were not uncommon in publishing.) From there, we went to the ball game and settled into our seats on the second deck above right field, just beyond first base. I felt giddy being at Yankee Stadium for a night game, the May air electric with the buzz of fans all around. As we sipped beers and cracked peanuts, dropping shells near our feet, we talked about life, work, and our dreams, while the Yankees battled the Seattle Mariners . Indelible memories from my early childhood in Seattle ran through my mind: hydroplanes landing on Lake Washington, holding Dad’s hand as we walked by docked ferries on Puget Sound, smelling sea water and fish and chips. So, while I watched the Mariners, I thought about my father. He’s the one who took me to my first baseball game, when I was 11, after we moved: The San Francisco Giants played the then-Houston Colt 45s —although to be accurate, I felt like I took my dad since, as an immigrant, he had no understanding of the game. That night at Yankee Stadium with Irwin, a left-handed batter for Seattle kept fouling pitches. One flew toward us. Everyone rose. I stretched my arms into the night sky, almost as in deep prayer. But God wasn’t in my thoughts; it was the baseball I focused on, spinning like a meteor. It inched closer. I locked onto it as I’d been taught since Little League. My hands came together like I was cupping a drink of water, and that’s when the ball landed inside them, softly, without hurting, a clean catch. “You caught the ball,” Irwin yelled, his face shining. I smiled wide, laughing with pure joy. “I caught the ball!” I yelled back. “I caught the ball!” The whole stadium, if not all of New York, seemed to turn and cheer. I raised my arms high in victory, clutching the ball like a precious egg I couldn’t drop. Yankee Stadium. The connection to my birthplace, Seattle. This was more than a ball, more than luck. I didn’t think about it during the catch, but over time I came to believe that in that moment God was present, like he had been with Jacob, delivering a message about my past, my present, and my future; about where I came from, who I wanted to become. That catch, high above right field, taught me that anything is possible; we all have the capacity to leave our own Mitzrayim or metaphorical Egypts, just as we have our own ways of enslaving ourselves or others around us. I used that insight on a trip back to California to finally tell my dad once and for all that I wasn’t going into the family business. It wasn’t easy. I felt sweat dripping from my armpits, but I summoned the courage. “Here’s the thing,” I told him. “I’m not a businessman. I’m a writer. Why would you want to hire someone with no experience to help run your business?” He laughed. I rattled on, but I’d done it. To my relief, he didn’t yell or look crushed, as if I’d just destroyed what remained of his dreams for his family. He just nodded, as if he’d known all along. After telling him the hardest thing I’ve ever had to tell anyone, I felt buoyant. I swear I heard thunderous cheers, as if I’d hit a walk-off home run. I wish I could say my writing career turned brilliant from then on, like my life was a feel-good movie. It didn’t. Old habits die hard. On the other hand, I started taking more risks, working harder at being the writer I always envisioned. That voice from Dad, which implied my chosen career was impractical, grew fainter. *** I still have that foul ball I caught nearly 30 years ago, tucked in a shoebox in my bedroom closet. I suspect I’m not alone among those who have totems like these hidden away, totems we can’t fully explain, though we try. These days, I’m better at catching the saboteur who trips me up, my yetzer harah . As with catching a baseball, practice helps. And my father, to my surprise, has actually said he admires me, and he treats me less like his little boy, even though sometimes, despite everything, he can’t help himself and suggests that it’s not too late to join the family business. When I think about catching that foul ball, I still feel in my heart that it wasn’t dumb luck; it was bashert , fate, that I caught it. I seldom pull it out anymore, this future heirloom no one but me really wants, but when I hold it in my palm, I do hear God’s still, small voice. It reminds me of that night and the lessons I’ve learned, ones I try to follow and ones I’ve tried to teach my three adult children: To stand up for what you believe. To look to the heavens now and again when you need help or courage. To claim what you dearly want in life. Even if sometimes, it’s just a soaring white ball.
  • Leonard Felson
    Sep 11, 2018

    I found a memento from my bar mitzvah in my parents’ house. Was it finally time to let go of the past, or was it worth keeping? The bar mitzvah cake at the bar mitzvah, 1965. (Courtesy of the author) I was cleaning out my parents’ house for the last time: the two-story stucco structure my father built in Northern California in the early 1960s, where I’d grown up, where my mother had died four years ago, and where my father finally left 18 months later when he moved into a retirement community. Dad had taken some furniture, books, kitchenware, and framed photographs to Baywood Court —“retirement redefined,” said the sign welcoming visitors to the semi-independent-living complex—but he’d left plenty behind: beds, carpets, desks, an out-of-tune upright piano. Now that we’d decided to sell the house, my father and my two younger brothers and I were going through what remained, deciding what was worth keeping, and what was junk. But sometimes such a distinction isn’t so clear. In the otherwise empty refrigerator, I found an odd heirloom: the three-inch-by-four-inch confectionery replica of the Ten Commandments that adorned my bar mitzvah cake 48 years ago. My mother had hoarded it in the butter compartment, and even after her death, it lived on. My brother Howard stuck a Post-it note on the fridge door: “Len’s bar mitzvah cake decoration in refrigerator (since 1965)! Do not disconnect without moving it to another refrigerator, please!” On the last day in the house, as I stood alone looking into the fridge, I faced a dilemma. Those Ten Commandments had meant something to my mother, and I felt tugged to honor her; I could transfer them to my dad’s new kitchen, or I could schlep them on the plane back to the East Coast and keep them in my own fridge. Or I could do what no one in my family ever considered: throw them out. *** Cleaning out the house was like rewinding chapters in my family’s history. I was the eldest of three sons. My father is a Holocaust survivor who fought with the partisans in Poland; my mother was a first-generation North American who grew up in an old Jewish neighborhood in Toronto . My brothers and I rummaged through all the possessions, but what touched us most was the family memorabilia, especially sepia photographs of ancestors from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. My mother threw out nothing, including cookie tins crammed with matchbooks from family vacation stops (OK, those were mine), letters, postcards, National Geographic magazines. And, of course, the sugary Ten Commandments from my bar mitzvah cake. I also discovered a box of looseleaf papers with my mother’s handwriting. It included her assigned-seating arrangements at my bar mitzvah luncheon held at Goodman’s restaurant on Jack London Square in Oakland. My first-cousins and buddies sat at the head table. My parents, aunts, and uncles, nearly all of whom are now deceased, sat at “the parents’ table.” A luncheon invoice counts 97 people attending at $3 a piece. Twenty-four bottles of Chablis were ordered at $2.50 each; fruit punch for the kids. Guests started with a half-grapefruit, followed by baked fillet of chicken, mushroom sauce, rice pilaf, garden peas, luncheon rolls, and apple cobbler. A note to the restaurant staff warns: “no butter,” a nod to our kosher-style level of observance. Total cost: $365.04. As a 13-year-old, I knew none of those details. What I remembered was the Shabbat morning service, in which I chanted the Haftorah and delivered a speech our rabbi wrote. He wrote every kid’s speech in those days—we just had to perfect the delivery. It had been a busy week for my mom, the first major lifecycle event she had planned, not counting her wedding, held in her aunt’s Vancouver livingroom, and three brises, none of which she was involved in orchestrating. She was so excited as the days approached. Her aunt and uncle and cousins from Toronto arrived. I remember the phone ringing from the rabbi’s secretary with last-minute questions, probably about flowers or other details. After the service, everyone drove from our Conservative temple in the suburban East Bay to Goodman’s, a 20-minute ride on the Nimitz Freeway . I jumped into Mom’s blue ’63 Plymouth Valiant , along with “Baba,” my maternal grandmother; my cousin Dana; and my youngest brother, Jeff. A couple miles from our exit, the car slowed ominously. “Uh-oh,” my mom said, realizing she had run out of gas. She had meant to fill up the tank that week, but with the hubbub, she never got to it. We sat in the far right lane, on a narrow freeway shoulder. I don’t think our car had emergency lights either. If ever we needed to pray, it was now, perhaps more fervently than during that morning in the sanctuary. Cars sped by. We waited and waited until I heard a screech, though I may have imagined that. What I remember for sure is that on my way to my bar mitzvah reception, another car crashed into our car, rear-ending us. No one was injured. Minutes later, the California Highway Patrol was on the scene, followed by a tow truck. At least an hour after all the guests had arrived, as they all stood wondering where the bar mitzvah boy and his entourage could be, we pulled up in tow. The luncheon continued, as if released from pause, but that day has gone down in family history as quintessentially my mother—in the way she could put things off and the consequences that might ensue. Over the years—after going off to college, moving to the other side of the country, starting my own family—whenever I visited home and opened the fridge, there sat the Ten Commandments wrapped in cellophane. I never asked my mom why she kept it for so long. Looking at it, I felt proud and honored, but whenever I’d tell friends about it, they’d look at me incredulously, as if there was something odd about it. *** I made one last trip from the East Coast for a final broom-clean last spring before our real-estate agent listed and showed the house. I hired a company to remove everything that was left. The day after the workers cleaned everything out, I walked from empty room to empty room, surprised that I felt neither sad nor nostalgic. It was as if its soul had long ago soared away. The refrigerator was still plugged in, and I laughed and shook my head when I noticed still snug in the butter compartment those Ten Commandments. But that light-as-a-feather fluff also felt like a heavy burden, like carrying around a weighty kettleball, as I thought about holding on to it. Standing in front of the fridge, I felt tested. As precious as the memento was to my mom, I decided that it could go. Throwing it out felt like breaking a family pattern of holding on to stuff just because we could; I wondered if that practice had enslaved us in some way. But because I believe in ritual, I felt the Ten Commandments deserved more than a trip down the garbage disposal. I unplugged the fridge, pulling the sugary ornament from its home. I placed it, like a beating heart, on the passenger seat of my rental car and drove onto the Nimitz Freeway back to Jack London Square, to the scene of my bar mitzvah reception, to where the cake had been cut. This time, I noted, the car had a full tank of gas. I thought of walking to the exact site where Goodman’s once stood, but I wanted to avoid tourists and crowds. Besides just as the waterfront area had changed, so had I. Instead I walked along a little trafficked trail past moored boats and a group of men playing cricket on an open field. As I stepped down near the Bay Shore, I unwrapped the confection, surprised to uncover a layer of waxed paper neatly folded under the cellophane, folded neatly just like my mom had wrapped our school lunches once upon a time. I rubbed my thumb along the white sugary parts, noticing a pink rose design in each of the four corners. I tore one corner off and slung it into the quiet water as if it were a pebble. I was always good at skimming rocks on lakes. I thought about breaking it up and throwing pieces into the bay one at a time, but I thought that might reduce the impact. So, I looked over my shoulder for park police and then, with abandon, hurled the rest into the water side arm. It plunked, barely splashing, and appeared to rise to the surface, but with the sun’s glare it was hard to tell. A plastic coke bottle floated nearby and two seagulls flew overhead. And then it was gone. I felt relief and emboldened. I’d taken this piece of family legacy into my own hands. I hadn’t even listened to my cousins who I forever look up to, when hearing a day earlier about the Ten Commandments still in the fridge, urged me to preserve them for posterity. “Maybe you could frame them,” one said. On my flight back east later that week, I thought about what felt like a rebellious act. My default position in the family was usually to go along, rarely speaking out or doing what I thought was right if I feared it might roil others. But on that day, after more than four decades of inaction, I performed an act of liberation. For those Ten Commandments and for my soul.

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