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Story Archives

Soul Music Story

David Holzel

By David Holzel

Recently, a colleague brought to my attention a rock and roll trivia discovery with an excellent Jewish angle hidden within.

The Guardian extracted the lyrics of each of the Beatles’ 300 or so recorded songs and then ranked the individual words by the number of times the Fab Four sang them.

So here’s the Jewish angle – “Love Me Do,” “All You Need is Love,” “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” – The L Word appears 613 times. That’s the number of mitzvot the Torah is believed to contain. Neat, huh?

What is a new discovery you’ve made, with something you already know well?

David Holzel is Managing Editor of The Washington Jewish Week.

Inside/Outside Story

Adam Pollack

By Adam Pollack

The Outdoors allows me to listen to the world around me. I become a part of it. What’s that sound? Am I safe? Wow, that was beautiful! I realize that I’m a natural being, not invincible nor all that important, like our modern society teaches. My life is put into perspective. When I let my senses and instinct work as designed, I give myself an opportunity to learn, to let new ideas in, and to remember, “for dust you are, and to dust you will return."

How might you incorporate more opportunities into your life where you encounter your primal nature?

Adam Pollack is a social entrepreneur, living in San Francisco with his husband, Nathan, and dog, Stewie.

Atonement Story

Robin Becker

By Robin Becker

 

I’ve expanded like the swollen door in summer

           to fit my own dimension. Your loneliness

 

is a letter I read and put away, a daily reminder

           in the cry of the magpie that I am

 

still capable of inflicting pain

           at this distance.

 

Like a painting, our talk is dense with description,

           half-truths, landscapes, phrases layered

 

with a patina over time. When she came into my life

           I didn’t hesitate.

 

Or is that only how it seems now, looking back?

           Or is that only how you accuse me, looking back?

 

Long ago, this desert was an inland sea. In the mountains

           you can still find shells.

 

It’s these strange divagations I’ve come to love: midday sun

           on pink escarpments; dusk on gray sandstone;

 

toe-and-finger holes along the three hundred and fifty-seven foot

           climb to Acoma Pueblo, where the spirit

 

of the dead hovers about its earthly home

           four days, before the prayer sticks drive it away.

 

Today all good Jews collect their crimes like old clothes

           to be washed and given to the poor.

 

I remember how my father held his father around the shoulders

           as they walked to the old synagogue in Philadelphia.

[“Yom Kippur, Taos, New Mexico” from All-American Girl]

 

What is one thing I can do to nurture my relationships this year?

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sunset tonight, Friday, September 29.

Robin Becker is an American poet, critic, feminist, and professor.

Atonement

Robin Becker

By Robin Becker

 

I’ve expanded like the swollen door in summer

           to fit my own dimension. Your loneliness

 

is a letter I read and put away, a daily reminder

           in the cry of the magpie that I am

 

still capable of inflicting pain

           at this distance.

 

Like a painting, our talk is dense with description,

           half-truths, landscapes, phrases layered

 

with a patina over time. When she came into my life

           I didn’t hesitate.

 

Or is that only how it seems now, looking back?

           Or is that only how you accuse me, looking back?

 

Long ago, this desert was an inland sea. In the mountains

           you can still find shells.

 

It’s these strange divagations I’ve come to love: midday sun

           on pink escarpments; dusk on gray sandstone;

 

toe-and-finger holes along the three hundred and fifty-seven foot

           climb to Acoma Pueblo, where the spirit

 

of the dead hovers about its earthly home

           four days, before the prayer sticks drive it away.

 

Today all good Jews collect their crimes like old clothes

           to be washed and given to the poor.

 

I remember how my father held his father around the shoulders

           as they walked to the old synagogue in Philadelphia.

[“Yom Kippur, Taos, New Mexico” from All-American Girl]

 

What is one thing I can do to nurture my relationships this year?

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sunset tonight, Friday, September 29.

Robin Becker is an American poet, critic, feminist, and professor.

Growing Up Story

Maz Jobrani

By Maz Jobrani

Growing up, my family didn’t have any coming of age traditions. No bar mitzvahs, no crownings, nothing. There was, however, one incident in college when I became a man.

My dad was very generous to us. A self-made millionaire back in Iran, he was able to bring a lot of money with him to the U.S. and spoil us. Like Vito Corleone from The Godfather, he was a larger than life character, always helping people out.

I became used to this until I went to college and felt it was time to stop accepting money and become a man – except for one last time. In my first week, my father gave me a couple hundred dollars. A few weeks later, I paid him back with a check. He was shocked and asked in a thick Persian accent, “Vhat iz dis?”

“I’m paying you back.”

“Ha! You pay me back? I keep in my vallet, but I no cash it. I keep as souvenir!”

Fast forward a few weeks, I went to the ATM and was told that I had “insufficient funds.”

“How is that possible?” I asked myself. And then it hit me. My dad had cashed the check! He lied to me! How dare he! I was broke.

From that day forward I took responsibility for myself and my finances. I also learned that the next time I borrowed money from my dad, I would pay him back in cash.

How can you thank those who’ve helped you? How can you pay it forward?

Maz Jobrani is an Iranian-American comedian and actor.

Overcoming Story

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie

By Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie

On the very first Friday of all Fridays, Adam and Eve were created. But the world’s most famous couple was too overwhelmed by the sensory overload of Eden to notice that the sun had set on their first night. Saturday rolled around, first morning, then afternoon. As the sun sank in the sky, their stomachs sank, too—with a feeling that would one day be called fear. They thought the world has ended, that the looming darkness would mean their deaths.

The couple cowered and groaned with fear. The first “Oy!” in history was uttered. But then an angel came down and gave them fire—God's afterthought—and they were no longer afraid of the dark. Life continued! They waited it out, and when the sun rose again, they realized, this is just how it is.

What gets you through your darkest nights?

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is the founding director of Storahtelling and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul.

Going Wild Story

Josh Lake

By Josh Lake

It was a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario. We found an isolated island, set our camp and watched as the sun sank into a lake that made it seem as if there were two sunsets. When the stars appeared, we swam in their reflection. It was a magical evening.

We ate dinner, built a campfire and were confident that we had inhabited the island. Only then did the wild night ring out: “AAAAAAWWOOOOOO.”

The hair on my neck stood up. “AAAAAWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOO.” I reached for my Swiss Army knife in defense.

It was the first time I had heard a wild wolf howl. I was scared; I knew that those wolves were going to attack; they were telling us to be afraid. Their noise meant to warn us.  “AAAAWWWWOOOOOOOOO.”

There was nothing to do but listen.

As I listened I realized my Swiss Army knife was little defense against the 20+ wolves howling. I put it away and was able to hear more clearly for it. They were not saying, “We are going to eat you, you relatives of little Red Riding Hood.” Instead it was clear that they were welcoming us. “This is wilderness, come and learn,” the wolves seemed to say. “Interesting seeing you here. Leave your preconceptions in the city, you are in our home and we welcome you.”

I returned home, changed by this experience and what it had taught me. I knew I had to help others hear what the wolves, and their wilderness, had to say.

What can you do to hear the call of the wild?

Building Community Story

Nicki Pombier Berger

Nicki Pombier Berger

A friend of mine on Facebook has some extreme political views and an extreme interest in expressing them. We were once friends in real life, more than a decade ago, but now he is just a voice online, a welter of words and opinions. In the wake of every outburst I always wonder: what happened?

He was my first college friend. We met in the dorm elevator, Day One. He lived one floor below me, and we evolved a system of communication. He’d blast a song he knew I liked; I’d feel its bass in the cinderblock walls; I’d send a bucket on a string out the window down to him, with a note requesting another. I don’t know whom I hear in our exchanges these days. Sometimes I think I hear the undoing of our past communication, or its unmasking. I thought it was conversation, but maybe he was only ever down there, in the blare of what he wanted to hear, alone.  

How do you build a community without consensus?

Nicki Pombier Berger is a writer in Brooklyn and the co-founder of the Underwater New York literary salon.

Defining Moments Story

Wayne Koestenbaum

By Wayne Koestenbaum

I’m trying to figure out why — or how — or if — I became intellectual.

One place to begin: the time my mother “pulled a knife” on my father.

The expression “pulled a knife” — is it correct?

I think a kitchen knife.

Certainly a knife from the kitchen drawer.

Probably not a steak knife.

Perhaps a bread knife.

Just a soft-edged, relatively harmless butter knife.

Let’s say she was making a statement.

Her performance had two direct witnesses.

One, my father. He saw her “pull the knife.”

Two, my father’s aunt, Alice.

Seated in a black chair, she was waiting for my father to drive her home.

My father and his Aunt Alice often spoke together in German.

My mother didn’t understand German.

I imagine that she “pulled the knife” as a performance directly aimed at the aunt.

The act — “pulling a knife” — had two other indirect witnesses.

My sister saw it. I saw it. We were standing in the hallway. Later, we talked about the incident.

It has become, for us, a touchstone.

“The time Mom pulled a knife on Dad”: that scene is a card we sometimes play; a trick we pull out of our hat; a piece of evidence.

[From “Heidegger’s Mistress,” Guilt and Pleasure, Issue 2, Spring 2006]

What is a childhood experience that became a touchstone for you?

Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and critic whose works include The Queen's Threat and Jackie Under My Skin.

Being Aware Story

Carl Jung

By Carl Jung

Anybody whose calling it is to guide souls should have his own soul guided first, so that he knows what it means to deal with the human soul. Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people. It would not help you very much to study books only, though it is indispensable, too. But it would help you most to have a personal insight into the secrets of the human soul. Otherwise everything remains a clever intellectual trick, consisting of empty words and leading to empty talk. If you have a close friend, try to look behind his or her screen in order to discover yourself. That would be a good beginning.

Can you help others understand themselves before you understand yourself?

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst and author.

Coincidence Story

Ben Greenman

By Ben Greenman

I dreamed there was a painting called James Brown’s Prison Shoes, and it showed just a bunk and then six pairs beneath it, each pair squared off so perfectly that they were like one thing, and the six things parked like cars in a rich man’s garage, green leather, red leather, brown leather, black leather, black leather, black leather. It was a strange thing to dream about: a painting. In the dream I was just standing in front of it, wondering whether I would be shown other paintings as well. I was not.

A few weeks later I read a poem by Terrance Hayes that also mentioned those same shoes. Were I more rational or less interested in invisible wires making invisible networks, I would have assumed that he had run across a mention of the shoes in a news article, or biography, or television special at roughly the same time that I had, and that the seed had produced two sprouts in two different minds. But I was not particularly rational that day, and so I wondered if he had dreamed the same dream.

Do you think two people can have the same thought at the same time?

Ben Greenman is a New York Times-bestselling author who has written both fiction and nonfiction.