Take 5 for Cello Music al fresco

It is always a pleasure to take a stroll in Vancouver when we are having weather as lovely as we have this past week has been.

Today I took time out from my task of absorbing and adapting new Balkan and Klezmer tunes on my Oboe and English Horn to get some fresh air.

To my delight, the sidewalks near my home were chalked with happy notes pointing to ‘Cello Music’, some with whimsical musical notes in pretty colours. I knew right away who it would be at the end of the trail: Clara Shandler, Canada’s Sidewalk Cellist!

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara is a treat to watch and listen to with her carbon-fiber cello and fusion of new and classical music.

It is also a treat to perform with her and I have had the pleasure of joining her on Oboe to offer liturgical music, particularly Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’, for the opening minutes before the Kol Nidrei service begins on the evening of Yom Kippur. I can attest to the melding of music and sacred time when we have played this piece together, notes intertwining as they ascend up to the heights, transforming players and listeners for the ascent back to earth. A wonderful opening to this Day of At-one-ment.

Today, Clara played solo in the park, a mix of Debussy, Fauré, live Gypsy and heavy metal riffs, with loops assisted by her electronica.

The important thing Clara does is to explain her music: its history, her history, her selection, and how it is blended. And, expect a quiz—listening for themed passages. The audience becomes fully engaged. It was a pleasure to sit on a blanket with adults and children, everyone engaged with the music, some crayoning her fun posters, and allowing the final chords to fade before applause. How refreshing! How al fresco!

The other thing about Clara’s music is that she shares it locally and abroad. She teaches music in Asia as well as touring Canada coast to coast.

For me, today’s neighbourhood stroll brought an unexpected treat. No one had to dress up or buy an expensive ticket or commute to a theatre. Music as no-big-deal made it a Very Big Deal.

The pleasure today was in the surprise of this found music; under a tree on a blanket; in the neighbourhood, simple and soft, complex and rustic.

That so many were attracted and attentive to this unexpected music-in-the-park reminded me of the Psalms.

You may have noticed a cryptic phrase opening many of these saying, ‘to the conductor of instruments’. This is no accident: the psalmist used their knowledge that music bypasses the complex thoughts that confound our lives. We find ourselves unwinding from those entanglements as music engages our non-verbal inner selves.

The Psalms were meant to have a music and rhythm, and for good reason.



Their words of comfort and healing were meant by the composer to be matched with the non-verbal sounds of sacred music. Need and example? look at the list of instruments in Psalm 150.

Next time you are strolling by a musician, Take 5 and allow the sounds to move your inner thoughts from words to music. And remember how special all of our musicians are at creating that charged elixir, including the Sidewalk Cellist!



Remembering Orlando: Sacred Words and Music

My previous post spoke about crossing the narrow bridges over the narrow places of our lives, without our fears…

The post also referred to Shavuot as the time when Jewish people refresh our collective memory of standing together after seven weeks of wandering and chaos, as one people at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

The tragedy at the Pulse Club in Orlando has created another time of wandering in chaos for so many people: the shooting victims, their families and friends, the United States, LGBTQ people everywhere, and the world.

Today, before beginning to chant the haftarah portion from the book of Habakkuk during our Shavuot services, I read aloud to the congregation from the letter below, sent by Idit Klein, Executive Director of Keshet, the national Jewish LGBTQ organization:

“…It is sickening that the deadliest mass shooting in American history targeted LGBTQ people during Pride month. When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai. So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.

May the memory of all who lost their lives in last night’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace…”

Her message is one of comfort and community. The message in the chapter of Habakkuk also brings comfort.

The prophet says that it was a mistake to criticize God for allowing the weak to suffer while the powerful, such as the Babylonian captor Nebuchadnezzar, flourish. However, soon after Habakkuk observed that the Jews were gaining in strength and resolve; as they reconciled their own fears and weakness they began to engage once again. Their enemies were now succumbing to the wrath of God and Nature and fleeing from before the Jews.



This evening I went to the closing concert for our Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was a night of farewells to a couple of beloved musicians. Amidst the adieus and accolades, Maestro Tovey also spoke the comforting power of music, of music healing sorrows in ways beyond words. He spoke about the composer Samuel Barber whose Violin Concerto was to be played. Samuel Barber was gay. Tovey asked the audience and players to dedicate the second movement to the victims of the Orlando shootings, followed by some time for silence. I have never experienced the Orpheum Theatre so engaged with the music, which was so strongly emotive and fulfilling.

I want to affirm my message to keep moving forward on that narrow bridge. Find the source of your fears.

In the case of the massacre in Orlando, yes an individual committed that tragedy. How are you doing with the fear that may arise in you? Do you feel weakened? Are you believing your fear is caused by others whom you feel a victim to? Or do you feel strengthened in your faith and resolve to keep moving over that narrow bridge, knowing you will find both challenges and rewards?



Can you remember that once the Jewish people began to see themselves as a people united with their resolve and faith, they could face their captors and prevail.

Please recall the victims and your sources of meaning, strength and resolve.

Zichronam l’Vracha  לברכה זכרונם

May the memory of all who lost their lives in Sunday’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace within yourself and toward others





Narrow Bridges and Narrow Places

The 50 days between Passover and Shavuoth mark are a time set aside to mark the Biblical journey of the Hebrew people from Enslavement in Egypt to Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew, meaning ‘narrow place’. This year, the retelling of the journey of my ancestors from out of the Narrow Place of bondage to receiving the Torah (Law), brought to mind a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ‘“The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”



This year has been a turbulent one worldwide. There are refugees streaming away from crises in their homeland, there are reversals of progressive gender equality legislation, there are demands by college students to be provided with a safe environment, terrorism is on the rise, and at least one American Presidential candidate is running on a platform of backlash against any progressive racial, cultural or gender policies. What is driving this? Fear.

Fear from all quarters is headlining the news these days. People are afraid. Some are afraid of losing their familiar way of life, some of losing their long battle for hard-won rights; some are expecting their path to be free of obstacles, others are creating obstacles to draw attention.

It seems they are all walking across narrow bridges, or wandering lost in the desert, while schlepping (carrying) along their old fears.

In the case of the Exodus story, as soon as there was any hardship in the desert, the people demanded to go back to the Narrow Place of Egypt where things were familiar, where they even fantasized they had dined on fish and leeks.



The wandering in the desert was scary; the best thing to do was blame someone, Moses their leader, for their scary predicament. It was much like crossing a narrow bridge: you are in an unrecognizable place, neither here nor there and can only go forward.



Fear of changes such as these arise in part due to a lack of structure or guidebook. The Hebrews escaped the Narrow Place knowing only that 400 years of slavery was enough, and they could not stand being slaves any longer.

They did not know where they were going; and that was scary. The narrow bridge they were crossing was certainly taking them away from a very bad place. If they could endure the chaos that resulted from a new and unfamiliar freedom things would certainly be better. They did not have a structure for this mass exodus; instead they just had to stay the course and keep walking, fear and all.



After many mishaps and building their own source of guidance with the Golden Calf, they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I like this Biblical example of how treacherous it is to cross from places of chaos into those of order. I believe the model can be applied to ease our modern maelstrom of push-and-shove over newfound cultural, racial and gender paradigms and events.




I will share a recent personal experience. I was walking home from synagogue one Shabbat. As I passed the outdoor patio of a coffee house, I overheard a very loud conversation that was overtly using expletives against both Israel and Jews. I thought about what to do about this rather brash conversation and decided to turn the situation into an opportunity to ask what the basis was for the loud and offending remarks. First, I approached the loud group of young people seated at a table and simply identified myself as one of the Jews they were deriding. As I walked away, the young people beckoned me to stay and speak with them. Through these actions, we all set aside fear and embarked upon a walk over that narrow bridge together.

We talked. When asked, they could not provide any facts about Jews and Israel; they only knew their negative views from friends’ opinions and the abundance of left-wing popup news media on the street. They wanted me to give an overview of Judaism and I gave them some dates for important events in the formation of the modern country of Israel. I invited them to Google these and see what else they could learn.

Contrary to what fear might have said about this conversation, they thanked me profusely.



By taking those steps toward them a journey began, away from the enslaving ideas we had on both sides, toward a way of understanding how this chaos of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism came to be.

I also learned that diplomacy happens in direct 1:1 conversations: not through online polemics, international political gestures, grandiose political swaggering, or biased news media.

I have told this story about the coffee house conversation to others. Usually the first response is, with all that pressure to conform to the status quo of the neighbourhood, wasn’t I afraid to approach these young people? My reply has been that my only fear was that because I was peacefully walking home from synagogue when I overheard them, I might be violating Shabbat (the Sabbath) by potentially creating a conflict. However, the wisdom of faith told me that the honest way to create and perpetuate Shabbat peace was to take that walk on that narrow bridge and engage these people, without fear.

We observe the passage of 50 days from Passover to Shavuoth as an opportunity to take steps away from things that we are unsafely bonded to and find an order in our lives that matters.

There are still a few days left before Shavuouth begins, on the evening of June 11th. Find time over these days to leave behind something that holds you back—a habit, an addiction, a prejudice, a hurt—and move ahead with faith rather than fear, that something good lies ahead.



Road Trip Rainbow

A few days ago I set out in my car on a road trip. I had my iPod set on shuffle. As I left the border crossing behind and hit the open highway, The Mighty Clouds of Joy came on, singing ‘He’s My Saviour in the Storm’: and from the bottom right of my view, the most remarkable rainbow arced fully over the highway; it remained in my forward view for a full hour and a half, until the sun set. IMG_0434
How so the passage of time keeps us treading in the same spot while simultaneously providing new frames of reference. In particular, I recall those decades of fantabulous mind-bending alternative reality discoveries most of us we Boomers survived, during the ‘1960’s-’80’s.
Those fantasmagoric new realities included the reflective internal arts of the Far East: meditation, Buddhism, the martial arts, and Taoism.

What I am discovering is that although they are sound and powerful tools to self-knowledge, their applications back in those turbulent days of change in North America were less so. In fact, the fashionable gravitation towards anything novel and unlike what our parents did ultimately led to accepting ersatz versions of the original practices. Despite this we still ingested digested and distilled versions of practices which by their very nature required patient, slow, disciplined commitment and engagement. In other words, we were engaging with these foreign practices and yet remaining just as we were; always looking for a quick fix for ourselves.

The disillusionment is palpable for most Boomers I meet with. We live in a new era of people long disenfranchised from organized religions and faith practices; and worse, have witnessed the unveiled, mundane wizards behind the curtains who manipulated the counterculture’s ‘sacred practices’ for their own commercialized success. Examples include the proliferation of entrepreneurism in yoga wear, their requisite slogans to encourage you to go to class (and look good at the same time), or the exposure of the empty teachings of Transcendental Meditation, and the leadership of the Bikram yoga franchise. The irony of this is our ongoing belief in instant fixes through these practices. Now, every mainstream medical and healthcare clinician is prescribing meditation, yoga, and tai chi as exercises for body and mind, fuelling an open and unregulated market of teachers and gurus.

In each of these settings, nothing new is being gained. The value of these ancient Eastern arts is that they are arts. They are not the equivalent of circuit training, riding an exercise bike, or doing a set of calisthenics with a qualified trainer. The oriental arts are not primarily meant to develop the body; they are meant to develop the mind through engagement with the body. This takes more than a prescription for lessons and not only repeating physical movements, but also understanding them.
Why would a Jewish Chaplain be writing about this? And why now?
I am noticing a trend in both the public media and in my practice that people are really stressed in general, which is nothing new. What is new is that we have lost our way as a society; we have lost or eschewed a reliable source to turn to when the going goes from everyday stressful into crisis.
How does it look when you are navigating a full time salaried day job or being a full time homemaker with all the work and busy-ness these require, and now you have a cancer diagnosis? Or your beloved father dies unexpectedly, or your child. Or your spouse tells you over dinner they are leaving and want a divorce. Now what?

People in general do not live in standby mode, ready and prepared for these things, unless they have some fear-based drives to live that way. In times of trust in faith, we grew up knowing, because everyone believed it so, that going to church or temple would provide a framework for navigating these rough times. Unfortunately, even these places succumbed to the lightness of empty experience. Boomers have created alternative rituals in yoga studios, the gym to be buff, to karate to earn a black belt, or doing drugs with friends and we got lost in Transcendental Meditation. These activities certainly have their value, but will they provide a source to turn to when the ordinary becomes unbearable?
I recall sitting with a friend many years ago. I was always impressed at how she had the wherewithal to be self-sustaining in her own private healthcare clinical practice. Yet, as we talked, she told me about her husband’s long history of drinking and how she no longer came home to find him adorably rummy; he was now impossible to be around. She and her adult children were in a crisis: there was no where to go for answers, for comfort, for directions out of this mess. She thought about closing her practice and just leaving the country altogether on her own. But what she really wanted to tell me was how much she regretted not having been part of a religion and having instead brought up her children without any sort of religious practice; no Sunday school, no weekly worship, no way of sorting out the deep questions and suffering they were all going through. She wanted to talk to me because my family did do those things and had built a spiritual foundation to turn to should we need it. For her and her family, it was a long road to embark upon on top of trying to cope on a daily basis. I encouraged her to invest herself and take the first steps anyway, acknowledging that it was certainly simpler  to just escape.
Other manifestations of the ’60-’80’s indulgences of the Boomers include the continued belief that change can be instantaneous. We still want instant nirvana or enlightenment. And, being proud North Americans, someone will assure us that if we desire it, we can create it. We have moved somewhat beyond Timothy Leary and the promise of instant knowledge of the universe in a single tab of LSD; we now know that won’t happen. In fact what we have gained from that belief is a serious national problem with intravenous drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

Back to that sunset with rainbow and gospel song. Not to parallel my new-found rainbow in the sky with the strawberry-fields-forever of the rock ‘n’ roll era, but to say that there are important and life-altering convergences that go on in our lives all the time.
We are too busy looking for a quick fix to see them. Even the experiencing of these ephemeral convergences has been co-opted. Synchronicities, the unbidden and mundane convergences that are life altering moments, ironically have lost their effect toward change by becoming something we actively seek. What the Eastern arts were originally designed for was to train ourselves through various practices to be able to notice those convergences. These moments of grace are natural occurrences that we observe only in the subtlety of quiet availability, developed over time, the same way that learning to play a piano gracefully and with satisfaction takes time and engagement.
Or in navigating the features of a computer, or learning to speak as an infant, or learning a new language. Do you remember your first steps as an infant? Probably not, but you have likely watched a baby taking first steps, and then the months and years to learn coordination and mastery of physical movements.
It is the same with our spiritual growth. There is no quick fix or quick lesson for that. If anyone tries to sell you that, fire them. And certainly don’t seek it, or you will find yourself with that familiar pastey taste in your mouth, disillusioned and empty after investing in a shortcut lesson in enlightenment.

I once took a meditation class at my local community centre. The instructor talked constantly for over an hour, and even after we finally got 10 minutes to sit quietly to try meditation, she gabbed at us about how marvellous serenity was. Instead of relaxing, all I wanted to do was shout at her, “You need to take a meditation class to learn to be quiet!”
These arts require knowledge as well as practice. On the outside we may look right with the right clothes, cushions, prayer books and garb, gee and slippers, but the deepening of the art comes from understanding what the path or process is and matching that information with how you do it. For example, tai chi is actually tai chi ch’uan, a martial art, and as such is meant as a means of cultivating focus for your inner strength. It may appear to be a lovely free flowing improvisational dance because of the gracefulness of one who is fully engaged in the movements, but each movement is actually the review of a lesson in focusing a neutralizing or deadly defensive move against an attacker.
When you have found your practice, whether it is prayer at a conventional religious community, meditation, martial art, creating music or a garden, you will have developed a sensitivity that invites meaningful moments that seem like nirvana. The moment I heard the gospel song and saw the rainbow appear as I sped onto the highway of a new country, the world shifted. I no longer worried about anything; I let go of everything because suddenly everything made sense. I felt a rush of gratitude for this unbidden moment of grace or deliverance at just the moment the song beckoned the listener to thank God. I was grateful that I had allowed myself the faculties to sensitivity to recognize the moment. I thought of the Beatles’ song, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and felt how glad I was to have been that fool, regularly setting foot in my spiritual practices and studies knowing there is no instant fix.



My Chaplain’s View of ‘Hail Caesar!’


*God is nigh in the new Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Hail Caesar!’.



From the opening moment when the main character, Mannix (Josh Brolin), is seen in the confessional at 4am, until the film’s end when we see him stride confidently in his purpose as head of operations of a large Los Angeles movie studio, we are gifted with the inside scoop on how God works.



What better venue to teach us about faith and God than a 1960’s Hollywood studio? The themes of adultery, kidnapping, extortion, forbidden homosexuality, McCarthyism, Communism, bribery, and graft run freely as we watch the studio in production of a film about the life of Christ.

We are at first amused with the opening scene of a man in the confessional asking forgiveness for having smoked a couple of cigarettes outside of his promise to his wife that he will quit. It seems petty and small. Although he desires absolution from the sin of lying, this montage sets up a notion that he is led by the nose of guilt and sin to confess, and not by any great intellect.




As the film progresses though, we learn more about Mannix. Several films are being  shot simultaneously in various sets and locations. His job is to oversee and trouble shoot them all, and to keep the studio schedules and bottom line on track. He has his hands full: the star of the studio’s blockbuster, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped from the set; the Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) is single and now pregnant; the cow-brained heart throb Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) of their latest Western can’t act unless he is sitting on a horse or twirling a rope; the Gene Kelley-style hoofer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is about to be outed by the gossip journals for having had gay sex with one of the studio’s star directors; and Mannix is being courted by the aerospace industry to sign on with them to head their nuclear weapons program for a guarantee of lifetime income. Meanwhile his wife phones to ask him to negotiate a better spot for their son on the Little League team.

At first it is all goofy and a bit reminiscent of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.



On set, Baird is drugged and then hauled off unconscious to a hideout in Malibu. After awaking in a chaise lounge still dressed in his Roman togs, the maid shows him into a room full of nerds eating cucumber sandwiches—otherwise known as Communists. He becomes intrigued, is swayed by their passion to have the Caesars of the world give all back unto the workers, whilst being photographed by his new comrades with the unspoken purpose of blackmailing the studio for a ransom.

Meanwhile, back at the studio, in desperation, Hobie becomes the fill in for a swishy high society film to replace the Clark Gable type who did not show. He looks the part in his tux, but with his cow pie vocabulary can’t please the director.

In order to make the Christ film sell, Mannix brings in clergy from Christianity and Judaism for their feedback and approval. As they sit politely around the table, the clergy begin with criticism of some technical aspects of the film. Mannix redirects them back toward giving their theological considerations. At first gracious and polite, the men of faith quickly evolve into a theological wrestling match about who is God, who is Jesus, and which of these can star in a movie. We observe that the only one in the room with any faith at all is Mannix; he presses them to attest that the film at least is not offensive.

Back in his office, a troubled Hobie walks in just as Mannix is trying to close the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money for Baird.

Enter God, stage left.

Mannix then begins to perform his real work through inspired decision-making. He sees the gift of natural simplicity in the cowhand and in an act of inspired faith confides with him about the kidnapping and ransom. Hobie’s natural simplicity and goodness allow him to help out just as willingly any good and honest western cowpoke would.



I was fascinated by the Hollywood Communist subplot. Growing up as a child of the 1950’s-‘70’s, I knew that Hollywood blacklisted wonderful talent because of its fear that Communism would take over America through occupying its media, particularly films. Ghastly apparitions of these Communists were made bigger than life: scary, smart, intellectuals and geniuses from the Soviet Union. What we see in this film is a living room in a luxury hideaway filled with ectomorphs and endomorphs eating crust-less cucumber sandwiches, espousing ideas they barely understand, and arguing with each other about them. They call upon their sage Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), a thinly disguised avatar of Herbert Marcuse, who espouses in oblique terms about alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpets its freedom at every moment.

The whole notion of a Communist takeover, dubious as it was during the height of the McCarthy flare up, is now turned on its head and portrayed as nothing more than a living room full of cranks. The final blow to any notion that the ideologies of these living room Communists had any social integrity comes when these intrepid Marxists row a dingy to rendezvous a Russian submarine. They beg Gurney, who leaps Hollywood-style from the dingy to board the sub, to take the ransom money from them, the lowly Workers, and give it to ‘The Cause’. So much for dispersing Wealth amongst the Workers of the World. Gurney takes his pet pooch instead, and the valise of money hurled toward him falls to the bottom of the sea. So much for The Cause.

The Coens have also hurled our beliefs in God, our religious institutions, Clergy, ideologies, and popular heroes down the drink…



But we are not left adrift for long:

The Coens bring us back to Mannix, once again in the confessional, same reason. But now, we understand his need for prayer. He is not a man draped in dogma, far from it. He deals with the fallout from religious dogma all day: protecting his gay director, his unmarried pregnant star; seeking ecclesiastic approval for the blockbuster film.

He is also wrestling what his own purpose is. Does he continue with this pivotal role in protecting Americans from their idols, despite his long overtime hours and mediocre pay? does he take the offer from the aerospace industry and gain monetary security while enabling the birth of the atomic bomb?

We watch him in fervent prayer. He then returns to the confessional to be forgiven about the cigarette lie again. This time though, he has a question for the confessor: what is one’s purpose in life, to do what brings security, or to do what feels right? the answer he is given is of course to do what is right. How will he know when that is?

we can feel when we are doing right, and when we do what feels right to us, we are doing God’s work.

When Mannix returns to work the next morning, he is light as a colt. He strides along the studio as his secretary follows him with the morning list of tasks. Each of the insurmountable problems of the day before is resolved: the pregnant star marries the stooge who was hired to temporarily adopt her child so she could then legitimately adopt it; the cowboy says his lines perfectly, because the director has made the words simpler; Mannix instructs his secretary to tell the aerospace rep No Thank You; the gossip columnist who had threatened to expose the homosexual liaisons of their star is told her witness to the scandal is a known Communist. Everything is in its place.

The penultimate piece is Mannix grabbing a loose-minded Baird by the scruff and telling him that as the star, his only job is to convince everyone in the audience that the actor on the cross is Christ, and nothing less.

We are cut to a marvelous scene: the Roman Clooney at the foot of the cross of the Jewish thief. And with a beatific countenance he expounds to the Roman beside him on the majesty of the teacher before them, and of his teachings about a new way for humanity. The Coens’ cameras are panning the set: handlers, script boys, costumers; all are awash in the glory of Clooney’s words. That is…until he stumbles for the last word of the script. We all fall off Mount Calvary and are back in Hollywood.

What was that last word? His co-star prompts him; “Faith“.

Oh well, in Hollywood there’s always time for one more take.


  • A version of this article is also available in PlainViews March 16, 2016 Volume 13 No. 3, for professional Chaplains.

Tisha B’Av: Raphael’s Voice and Finding the Soul in D*

The reflective steps toward the Jewish New Year traditionally begin with the communal observance of Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning and fasting.

Tisha B’Av begins tonight (7/20/18) and is observed after Shabbat.

The observance of Tisha b’Av, our communal day of mourning, begins this evening.

Why would we have this sort of ‘holiday’? and how does it fit with today’s parasha?



If you think about it carefully, this holiday really doesn’t fit in with the rest of our Jewish yearly celebrations. Most are upbeat, with exciting and enlightening themes, great backstories, loads of ways to decorate or re-enact, and of course, great food. Certainly, they are all well worth the wait for their return each year.

So, why do we have this observance of mourning dropped into our liturgical year? It has none of the festive children’s activities or costumes as on Chanukah or Purim, communal meals as on Pesach (Passover), spirited songs or music such as we have on Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath Welcoming service), or symbolic decorations or ritual items such as the lulav, etrog or sukkah.jewishlakeview.com

Spirit is a light and wonderful thing. It lives in our wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes, in our imagery of rushing to meet God, just as the groom runs to meet the bride, in our imagery of ascending to the heights in the Yishtabach and Kedusha prayers. We call it ruach in Hebrew, the same word as for wind or the breath of life. Ruach is the kiss of breath that God gave to Adam, and again to Moses on the Mountain.



So, why was it that God turns the Israelites back just as they were being directed to ascend to the Promised Land, and Moses, not allowed to cross at all? Hang onto that thought from today’s retelling of the story by Moses in Deuteronomy:


What is the thing you feel when you are ill or have lost a beloved person or relationship? is it fear?

What do you crave at those times? Is it light and happy music, dressing up gaily, being told to cheer up?



We have great models for how to praise, thank and celebrate. But what road map or models do we follow when life’s curveballs come our way?


Growing up, I’d often missed Tisha b’Av, being away at secular summer camp or a family vacation, as did most kids I knew. Summer was not the best time to attract family participation in synagogue life when I was growing up!



Then as an adult I started to choose to come. The whole thing was a rather self-conscious endeavour, as everyone else seemed to know what to do, and I did not. Some synagogues dressed it up with chant-like dirges, personal confessionals or grim poetry. The common denominator though, was sitting on the floor with a candle, some words, and an overall gloomy experience.

I decided to deepen my understanding by learning to chant from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. This year, I also learned first hand the value of going deep rather than high to look for the answers to inner loss, because high spirits were dancing around me, and interfering with my search.



The Talmud tells us in Berakhot 10a that we praise God for our soul, “Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho”: “My soul praises you Adonai, and all of my being praises your holy Name”. The rabbis are telling us that a human artist can draw a figure of a person, but they cannot give that drawing a soul. Only God can do that. We turn to God when we forget we need our soul.

Many people refuse to believe they need one. They smother over pain by keeping a stiff upper lip, numbing with prescription and recreational chemicals, acting out their anger or rage at others. The acting out can be frighteningly overt as we see on the news regularly, or polite and politically correct and covert with the euphemism of ‘non-violent’, but actually passive aggression.

Tisha b’Av says, good news! there is a healthy way to move through great changes that come with loss.

The truth of loss is that you really can’t go back to the way things used to be; and you will only get more angry the more you expect life to continue as it was. Remember that anger, overt or covert.

The truth is, that we only grow when we let go.

As a people we had to move on when the Temple was once again destroyed in 70 CE. We had no choice, we were forced to leave our place of Ascents behind.



We read Psalm 137 this evening as part of the Tisha b’Av service, reminding us that the first thing we did by the rivers of Babylon was to sit and weep as we remembered Zion. The next thing the psalmist tells us we did was to hang up our lyres, musical instruments of the Temple, on the willow branches, in order that our captors could not force us to levity and to sing and entertain them with songs about Jerusalem.

Why was this so important? Because this was a time of looking inward for guidance, and not the time for those spiritually soaring songs.

The past many weeks have been a time of great change for me too, having been quite ill. I believed at first that resting and staying positive would cause the illness to pass and then I’d go back to my former self and routines and work. But Finally,

A wonderful mentor who I hadn’t seen for a year took me aside and said, “You look terrible! What has happened to you?” Indeed, his plainspoken words cut through all the illusions I had been struggling to maintain to keep myself and others happy and feeling in high spirits.

The next weekend I schlepped myself to a choral concert, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’. I just wanted to let my mind wander and go with the music: after all the four guardian angels were there, in the forms of two sopranos, a tenor and a bass soloist.



I want to testify to you that the man who sang the role of Raphael, the bass soloist, saved my life. In Part II of The Creation, as Haydn took us to the lower realms Raphael’s voice took the audience there with him in the most earnest embrace of power and vocal security, down to the basement of the human voice. Or perhaps lower. This note, the lowest D, poured out like a chocolate lava pudding through his willing and open jowls. We listeners also slid, safely and softly, as if a giant’s paw deliberately and lovingly delivered us to the bottom of a long snowy ride.

The sigh in the room was not so much heard as taken in breath together, much as the way a mother and her baby at breast sigh with satiety as one.

Masterfully, he paused.

Mercifully allowing us that moment of silence to take in our found and restored soul, to be able to return to, again and again.

As our tradition says, the artist can create music, but it is that God gives the musician and the listener the soul. ‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol koravai et Shem kodsho’.

I have returned many times since Sunday. That place he brought us to, so far down, below from the high spirits of the grand hallelujahs, to the place of healing. There I was safely able to know that indeed life had changed forever and that it was lovingly going to be okay. Who but Raphael, his Hebrew name meaning God’s Healer, should bring such Refuah Shelaima, a return to wholeness?



Back to Moses and the Israelites: We read in Deuteronomy Ch.1: 20-46 that God saw them hesitate with fear and enlist spies to check out the Promised Land, rather than trusting to go forth with soul and spirit in alignment. He told them, No you won’t be going in, and although just like small children they simpered and begged to be let in, God said No. Their descendants, a generation away from the fear and bondage of Egypt, would be allowed in; and rather than Moses, whose work was to lead them away from bondage, it would be Joshua who would now lead the new generation forth into the Promised Land.

I know more of what Tisha b’Av is about now. Each year I will know more.

Each time I find myself trying to lift up when things really need to go down, I know that Raphael’s soul voice will be there to reassure me that it’s okay to trustfully surrender and let go of what binds me, and to find comfort in the recalibration and growth.

Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho’.

*Re-posted from a 2015 entry on The Compassionate Oboe blog

©Susan J Katz 2015


Try This! Slow Down, Surrender, and Recalibrate

Recently, while remaining in the slow lane of recovery from a long string of illnesses, I was invited to relax into a poetry circle. The work began by reading Richard Siken’s poem, ‘Self-Portrait Against Red Wallpaper’.



Its lyrically rolling themes of surrender and recalibration hooked my tired attention. For the past eight weeks, every time I had come up for breath to recover from one gross infection, another would take hold, spectacularly culminating in a trip to Emergency for an appendectomy. Surrender? I was summoned. My regular hi-speed routine was gone and was still out the window far, far away.

Sheesh. What had gone so wrong that it was eight weeks and counting to recovery? Or, was I doing something wrong? A inner review said I dutifully went to doctor appointments and was proactive every time a new manifestation of infection and illness presented. Surely it was not possible to fabricate a sequence of illnesses like this!

My crew of inner cynics tried to persuade me that I had.



After all, they said, what else have you got to do with your time and imagination besides conjure up illnesses? All day long you just lie in bed dozing and reading, and serially watch TV while babying yourself with chicken soup. Why not find new excuses to bother the doctor? Hey, call an ambulance and vomit violently enough to disgust even the paramedics. Wouldn’t anyone want to try that?

Despite the self-taunting, I am am investing in healthcare to end this series of acute illnesses. As a spiritual health practitioner, I recognize the onset of personal review and accounting for all the losses and breakages caused by this time away from health. Our hi-speed modalities just don’t allow for slackers who take three months off from the fast track. Even as I step gingerly back onto the speedway, rejoining the hi-speed pace as it was, is unattainable. My new inner timepiece tells me that trying to do this is actually undesirable as well.Unknown-2

At first this new engagement was a lonely pit I’d fallen into, but as word got out, well wishes and blessings for a return to health came my way. Recovery took on an unexpected twist; I needed to regain my interpersonal skills after spending these weeks mostly with virtual personalities. My companions to laugh and cry with existed mostly on a TV flat screen. I felt apologetic to those whom I’ve let down while being laid up, by missing crucial meetings and deadlines. I needed to stay slow and recoup. Others have silently voiced their views by moving on to other partnerships and projects.



Success is indeed fragile. A detour away from perceived perfection creates disillusionment and fracture. Well, that has taught me another way of learning to discern whom the keepers are and whom to let go of. Friends remain while in need, indeed.

The call to the poet and the faithful to embrace surrender comes more easily. Not long ago I would only navigate the world on my own terms. I’ve learned now about the sweetness, serenity and magic that comes with letting go when the internal tug-of-war becomes futile. I know now that I am not really in charge: Something much greater than myself is. And that is okay. I get some good insights and answers this way. I talk to God and listen for the casual reply, as John Denver would say. It has been a comforting and a treasured time.

Returning to the world with the expectation of being the same has to be re-evaluated.

As the great myths, folklores, faiths tell us, when taking a great journey afar, one never returns the same. In fact, don’t even expect or try to. Come back draped in Golden Fleece, with Stone Tablets and horns of light, ruby slippers, perhaps bearing a Medusa or Jabberwock’s head. We who went away somewhere faced something, most likely of our inner selves, and cannot go back to whom we had been. Once you know something, an inner sight, you can’t unknown it.



I feel thoughtful and good about coming back to those who are waiting. Those folks who’ve moved on since I became ill? It’s because their memory of me that went away and didn’t come back. I’m a new version of myself, shifted not by all the TV watching, but really mostly by observing what feeds me and what does not, and choosing what makes me fed and strong. As Siken’s poem says, “Don’t try to make a stronger wind/ you’ll wear yourself out. Build a better sail.”

I’m sorry, I have to shift now to catch the wind 
I want to say to all. With grace and faith, many are still with me, taking my cues that a gentle entry is happening. We also collectively acknowledge that a few more beckoning sirens and rocky shoals lay enroute before coming into home harbor.



I’ve shed a great deal of baggage these past months, deleting extraneous, intrusive social media accounts and list-serves, and letting go of pet projects: most importantly I’ve faced that inner cynicism that slowly bleeds my attention and energy. Recalibrating with a refined cargo is part of the journey and takes time.

A friend brought me a recording of Michael Meade to listen to. About Fate and Destiny. I was losing interest in gunning up the energy to re-enter the speed chase, but this gift reminded me of the work I am here to do. In order to do it, I must learn to surrender, feel and let go of what drains me, and surrender to the goodness of the work that pulls me lovingly forward. I had created some fine relationships and laid tracks into the work of my destiny. No need to stop now, I’ve built a better sail.

I understand that the hi-speed tracks are here to stay. Please, though, Surrender from time to time, and don’t forget to Recalibrate and capture the wind in your new sail. It’s a blessed roadside stop on the fulfillment of your destiny.susanjkatz.com

…Susan J Katz© 2015

A Bruckner Farewell to Jude

I just came home from attending a Symphony concert this evening. The program was filled with unfamiliar pieces written by familiar composers, Prokofiev and Bruckner. These selections had much in common, particularly their apparent roaming from theme to theme and modulation of mood and modes.

My mind has been filled with too much information this past week. I’ve been awakening from health problems that have waylaid me for the past few months and prevented me from engaging in the things I love most and do best. Some self-focus and attention to healthcare has brought the restoration of my body’s inner chemistry. It’s also unleashed an avalanche of information in the way of waylaid emotions, misplaced jobs, forgotten rendezvous, sheets of unplayed music, and a dear friend whose memorial service is tomorrow afternoon.



I am writing as a writer about a writer. I had known Jude for 7 years; about the time I started facilitating a writing program for mental health consumers, Write From The Heart©. He was one of my first participants, and continued long afterward to be in the program. At the time, he was already a speaker about mental illness, and yet new to writing. One time I had a guest speaker, a very famous journalist, come to the class to talk about writing: I think Jude’s life changed dramatically having been touched by celebrity, bringing him closer to knowing that being on the margins was only a mindset; and that anyone could come close enough to touch the edges where celebrities could be someone we know on a first name basis. Even ourselves.

This evening though I sat with a friend at the symphony in the lower balcony, surrounded by an audience that despite the announcements not to at the opening of the concert, clapped between movements. They also dog-whistled and jumped to their feet, bringing to mind a Vancouver Canucks hockey game right in the midst of the grand old dame of the Orpheum theatre.

They also started to leave in the middle of the Bruckner symphony, which came after the intermission. I guess there was nothing for them to whistle about, as each of the movements became more and more unresolved and restless. And so did the some of the audience, so they left. Except for the man behind me who kept whispering too loudly to his neighbor and had to be shushed.

The third movement came to an end, and many in the audience tried as usual to applaud; but the conductor leapt adroitly right into the last movement before a hand clapped, thank Goodness. People sank into their seats, obliged it seems that there would be more of the same to come.



My tangled thoughts had become an unresolved jumble too, but of information: too much music to learn on too many instruments with too many performing groups; someone who had just phoned me that evening to minister to their loved one in the hospital and I pondered when to visit; how to squeeze in time to run writing programs, minister to others, and also take care of my own health plans, and how I had not yet had time to be with the loss of Jude.

I felt agitated as the unresolved music spread out further and further in its disresolution. In affinity, my waycrossed needs and thoughts were snagged into the sounds, as if blithely grabbing a handhold on a passing streetcar to an unknown place.



I liked the ride. The wave of loss and tears rolled down my cheeks as swells of a romantic theme swept over the orchestra. I could see the big fiddles, cellos and basses, bowing as if adrift on a sea, pulling together with the waves of sighs and resolves.

The call of horns drew me to the other side of the corps, and some noble truths about Jude emerged. How generous he had always been, down to the core. Gifted in his ability to tell things straight, yet always with the caveats of great humility and graciousness. He was fun and funny, and his serious demeanour made him even more so.



One of my best memories was over this past spring. We ran into each other waiting for the #20 bus downtown–otherwise known as the ‘You Could Die Waiting For the #20 Bus’. This one was the ultimate trip: Hastings Street was blocked off, and it took 1-1/2 hours to get to Clark St, which is actually only a 45-minute walk away. We had a wonderful ride, the bus full of DownTown EastSide characters and community. We slogged through police tape and flashing lights and had lots of time to talk. We talked about his work as a Peer Support Worker, about our plans for our third book*, about how mental health services, and our respective jobs. We were two sides of a coin, him working as a peer support to help people in their daily lives, and myself as a spiritual care support for times of crisis and questioning. He again talked about the writing program, and urged me to find a way to continue it, as it was on a hiatus while until finding more funding. He got off to go to his favourite greasy spoon restaurant and I rode the rest of the way home.


The music shifted at that moment of reverie into a disorganized lull again and there the ironic part of the story cut in. A couple of weeks ago, I received word that funding I had applied for had come through. It was after before Susan T and Margo R and I met to talk about our next book. Jude hadn’t shown up for our meeting. Jude never missed a meeting.

The next day, before I could tell them about the funding, Susan T called me. I was driving. She told me–Jude had died. I pulled over, stunned. Now Bruckner’s symphony music washed over me. Jude was in it, he was being pulled away with the breakers and current. ‘No!’ I thought, not now, not Jude!’ But it was true. Susan told me so. That’s why he didn’t show up at our meeting.



Now the music trickled over me more, little sand dabs of hot tears raining down, foretelling an upswelling wave about to crash. Horns blasted, the tuba bellowed from some deep underground belly, the one my doctor told me to breathe into, to allow myself a good relaxation response. The tuba told me to breathe, ‘way down there, feel the body right down to the basement, right down there where Jude lies’. Right down there where nothing and everything matters.

I was held and comforted by the rolling music, in just the right way of reaching into the hurt and loss. Over and over and out, from seesawing bows in the lower strings to the piping in of upper woodwinds; the Gabriel’s horns and trumpets, and the grandest of tubas. The conductor rocked and nurtured the latent nuances from their hesitations as we all headed home for the last gracing of notes, and Jude was held safe in my heart.

I won’t say how we were instantly alerted back to, for heaven’s sake, VANCOUVER, by the shockwave of a



shout out of ‘BRAVO!!!’ by someone seated right behind the conductor. The last of Bruckner’s notes was not even allowed to finish its breath. I’ll leave the etiquette conundrum for the symphony society to figure out, along with any  treatment for PTSD the conductor or orchestra members may require…

I returned to planet real life intact, but will never be the same. During that last movement of that Bruckner symphony, my world shifted forever. Jude is gone, the great sea of something greater than we are took him. And thanks to Bruckner’s music, our memories of Jude and his stories will live on. Our writers, Susan T, Margo, myself, will live with the intimacy we knew with him, that intimacy amongst writers that is so complete. Indeed, like the titles of our books, evening the frayed edges is a lifelong process. We love you Jude, and thank you for the time you gave us, and your stories that will live on after we too are gone.



* for further information about our books, go to: The Recovery Narrative Project©

Vayeitze: Man-O Manischewitz

I just had a sip of Manischewitz wine, expecting to have a bit of warmth and sweetness before calling it a night. As the sweetness turned into a glow, there came a rush of memory. I was suddenly a little girl again, maybe 4 years old, or even smaller, sitting at a big noisy table where my parents and grandparents and brother were all gathered for a holiday dinner. Those times were always so special to me: all my favourite people together in our home, even though it really was all so busy and hard to really take in everything that was going on. But there was the simplicity of that ritual we always had, whether it was Passover or Thanksgiving: the Manischewitz wine. Grandma DotI think my Grandma Dot had a lot to do with insuring that it was served, it was her ‘very best favour’ as she would say, as she took the first sip and became all smiles and more child than adult. I felt little, and loved and happy. At an older age, when we might have had these gatherings with other families and there was a ‘kids’ table’, we could get as giddy on the sweetened wine as we liked. It didn’t take much more than a few stolen sips to make us giggle and howl with laughter and feel our oats at our own festive table.

This leads me to think about the Torah’s Joseph and his family, the subject of next week’s portion, Vayeitze, found in Genesis 28-32. I wondered, did Joseph and his brothers sit around their festival table and partake of sweet wine, too? Did they also become giddy and silly together like we did? Could all the differences amongst them, the jealousy for Joseph, become blotted out as they took this truce time to indulge in sacred moments of gathering together?christianimagesource.com

I read the story and wonder how hard it is for the family of a visionary like Joseph to let go of their fearfulness for his differences and recognize his unusual ways as gifts, instead. Joseph was different in appearance, both beautiful physically and also to look at, and also in how he engaged with the people and world around him. He did not allow himself the usual social inhibitions in showing what his gifts were, in how he perceived the world through not only his dreams, but also the dreams of others.

Joseph was a tattle-tale. He had the habit of exposing his brothers’ foibles to his father, who seemed to reward him for his forthrightness with a special coat. There is no definitive translation for the Hebrew words given in the Torah for this coat: כתונת פסים can be translated as a coat that extends to the wrists and ankles like a great coat, or it can mean a coat made of many strips of fabric. Most commonly it is translated as a ‘coat of many colours’. All of these nuances tell us something similar about the coat and the status it conferred upon Joseph, especially in his brothers’ eyes—that his father gave him the honour of favoured greatness.churchhousecollection.com


How is it then that the father can see this emergent prescience but not the siblings? The strangeness of Joseph’s ways must have been an annoyance to his brothers who had to endure his tales and dreams and his perceptions of them from a dimension they had bible.canot yet reached. Or perhaps, it was that they had left behind their own natural pre-verbal abilities to perceive information intuitively by choosing to accept instead the structured external social systems of their clan and tribe. It is natural to fear someone who does not conform to the safety of the agreed upon social norms. The boundary between intuitively gifted and mentally ill are often confused, the similarities being the discomfort afforded by others due to the unpredictability or unconventionality of the gifted or ill person.


Other ways this might be expressed are gender differences. Perhaps the story of Joseph’s travails is a torah or teaching about homophobia or gender difference: after all, Joseph is hinted at as being rather effeminate by being beautiful of physique and to look at, not a particularly industrious shepherd, and is given a flowing robe by his father who dotes on him and rejects the advances of Potipher’s beautiful wife. These characteristics stand in contrast to how his brothers were and set him apart from them, creating the purpose for their plot to be rid of him and his outsider way of being.

lgbtqniversity.wordpress.comIt takes many years and much travail before he is settled and enabled to use his intuitive talents without retribution, as Pharaoh’s right hand man. And eventually his siblings, in their time of need, must come to him for aid. In what could have been a moment of ultimate revenge, Joseph instead remains loyal to his gifts and powerful abilities, and takes care of his clan.


I know this story began with a sip of wine a short while ago, but it is a memory that I believe we all carry. When was the last time you could let go into the reverie of childhood bliss, taking in whatever joy was surrounding you? Laughing together in gatherings without care, even if you don’t really know all the backstories in the room? Or listening without fear to your own joyous heartsong?


Joseph wasn’t a complete person as a youth. He needed those years of learning to navigate the reactions of others in order to become effective at being heard. Only then could he express his gifts to their fullest, as chief advisor for a powerful nation. In this story we get the chance to see how sometimes the youthful rawness of beauty and truth may need time to mature and ripen before it can be accepted. This takes patience and time, but eventually an adult can smile and look back at those wonderful moments of sweetness and warmth and give that giddy child a knowing hug and a wink.



Liminal Constructs

Today is the winding down after a two-week shift as the On Call Chaplain for the local hospital. It has been an unusually full two weeks. Yesterday I spent the whole day, from 9am to about 5pm with family members on the phone and then at the hospital. It was the third call in for a person who was now a patient on life-support in the ICU. depositphotos.comIn all three calls, the family was wanting spiritual support to help them transition into the decision to remove their loved one from life support. Their request was for a means of navigating the imminent transition of a known life and spirit, knowing that soon that loved one would be dying.


I know these are medical situations of the most serious kind, and that the Social Worker is specially trained to help with practical decisions for arrangements to transport the loved one’s remains. Somewhere in there is wedged the pathos and every day organic trauma that comes with the death of someone who has been part of our life. Someone we may have taken for granted just the day before, such as was the story of two of these situations. Then, unexplainably, a catastrophic physiological event happens. Our body, which we assume will take care of us, suddenly malfunctions: In some cases, decades earlier than we would have guessed.

People in their prime, who exercised, ate all the right things, and were people who others looked up to for inspiration and vitality.lladro.com


I am always pleasantly surprised when people who may not have any ties to a formal faith, will ask for spiritual care to come. They usually ask the Nurse or Social Worker. They may not have a ritual in mind, but just know that this is a time for prayer to an Unexplainable Source, whose spacious living room they may have just fallen into.

We walk in the constructs of our daily lives, but when natural events suddenly trump our constructed ones, we end up in the liminal space between the two.alizul2.blogspot.com


My training as a Chaplain is a mix of construct and natural instincts. I come to the work because it is my nature, for whatever reason, to dwell in the liminal spaces. Knowing this has drawn me forward into finding the constructs that will allow me to channel this way of being and knowing into a practice that others can draw upon.


Some of those constructs are taking almost 2,000 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, or experiential Chaplaincy training. With the guidance of Supervisors, I’ve learned how to navigate the narrow valley between the liminal spiritual places and the constructs of health care, family, and faith systems.


Although yesterday was formally my Sabbath (Shabbat), I spent it at the hospital working. The ethic is that taking care of a life comes before even the commandment to take a day of rest. Today was my day of rest and it has been good. The sun shone all day as a wonderful autumn treat. I had time to float out my nets and enjoy the evenness in the gentle swells between the liminal and construct states. Tomorrow will be another day.susanjkatz.com