Tag Archives: Shema

A Woman Awash

My Matrilineal Mothers, My great, great grandmother celebrating her 100th birthday

This picture inspires me, every day. I look at the faces of these Eastern European Jewish women, these warrior women, who endured, or whose progeny endured pogroms, violence, poverty, plagues, the Shoah, and who knows what else. They not only endured it, some of them survived to pray and to make family, connections, friendships, partnerships and eventually me and my children. We are the seedlets from their wombs. I love their strong proud faces, their soft smiles and the looks of endurance, the crags carved into their faces. And, and…none of them are a size four! All of the women pictured here are zaftig, even the birthday girl/woman/crone. These were women of girth and ground. Women who stood their ground and who worked and lived hard. This is my lineage.

Perla Barchilon, age 19 perhaps, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé at the age of 16. He was 20. She had five sons, who lived, and was a painter in Morocco. She’s in my blood as well as my children’s.

I have this Sephardic lineage running through me from the line of my father and his family. That lineage is more exalted and wealthy, and this line comes with art and rich stories. I know more about the men in this lineage. But I knew my grandmother Perla bat Doña Aicha Bendavid v’ Don José Barchilon, zichrona l’vracha, and her artwork is all over my home. My grandfather Chaim or Jaimé Cohen ben Don Aaron Cohen v’ Dona Sol de Ohana, z”l was the patriarch of my life and in their Moroccan home I learned to cook, to appreciate rich colors, smells and the life of warmth and passion that Morocco is. That lineage flows through my blood and I consider myself more Moroccan than any other nationality. My father’s grandfather was the head Rabbi of Tangier.

The Eastern corner/wall of my sanctuary/cave/meditation room, with a painting by Perla bat Aicha, z’l, of a Morrocan street.

Somehow, I’m here/Hi Ney Ni. I hope I make it to 100 and have grandchildren or great grandchildren standing behind me and a giant cake full of candles, like the matriarch above. I’ll be very ready to go at that point, but my death date or pull date, as I like to call it, is in the hands of the Divine. While I’m here on this earth, there’s lots and lots to do. There is also so much information, data, waves of images and messages, emails, texts and Instagram posts, tweets, alerts, podcasts, zoom chats, protests to attend, meals to cook, medicines to make and folks to help die and folks to help heal and…..it goes on.

As Rabbi Tarfon z”l who lived and died in the first century CE says:

You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future.

from Pirkei Avot a text written down based on oral teachings in the first century B.C.E.

So, I’m not obligated to finish this work, but I am not free to desist from it either. This is not just my mantra, it is the mantra of most of the hardworking, justice seeking, world healing folks I love and connect with. The English translation here is not reflective of the feeling that the Hebrew has or the poetry of the teaching.

The future quoted here is Olam Ha Ba in Hebrew. This translates more closely as The World to Come, which could be tomorrow or in a thousand years. It’s in the hands of the Creator or you, what the World to Come is, it’s a verb form, a world that is coming, it’s not yet here, but it’s on the way. If you are able you can feel it, or sense it. The veil between this world/Olam Ha Zeh and Olam Ha Ba is very thin for some of us.

I long for Olam Ha Ba, sometimes with such an ache in my being that the tears and sobs flow out of me for hours. There’s just too much damn suffering, ugliness, meanness and stupidity down here on this planet for me to bear sometimes. And yet, bear it I must. I cannot bear it though, if I watch the news or listen to the news or imbibe the news in any form currently available.

I’m afraid I’m going to be burned at the stake for admitting that I do not participate in the news cycle. I don’t own a television, I don’t stream CNN live or watch the Trevor Noah Show or listen to NPR or Rachel Maddow or NBC, CBS, BBC, etc… you get my point. I get plenty of news from all of the people in my life who share tidbits with me. I generally know about something big within hours of it happening. Sometimes a day will go by before whatever “news” crisis, on the planet folks are spinning about, circles around and reaches me. I do not let the currents of world events, as reported on by others, who often wish for me to be hooked by their versions of the story, dictate my direction or life.

That being said, there is a trusted source of information that I am completely involved in. That makom/source is my cellular core knowing. This knowing will literally take me down to the ground when there are mass deaths or huge traumas on the planet. I have an internal weather vane that is tuned to certain frequencies. In the last two years, I’ve gone to ground in a huge way, before the news informed the world of these horrors. When Covid hit this world in a big way, I was already in a cave of my own making. I curled up in a ball, like a fox or a bear and I hibernated. I do this when I need to replenish or when the waves of the world hit me like a tsunami.

I could barely get out of bed for months, not because I was physically sick, but because the pain of the thousands of people dying in fear and alone was a tidal wave for me. I’m very sensitive, not really the right word, to death, my internal channel is tuned to the other side. When there are mass events of death, I feel it, not because I’m watching the news coverage about it, because I don’t do that, but because I’m just wired that way. I was bone deep tired and unable to rise up. I was sheltering in place before that was actually called for.

So, I went to ground, curled up in my cave/bedroom. I emerged very infrequently to eat an apple or take a bath. My husband had to fend for himself mostly. He’s used to my weird and wild ways. He would lie down next to me and tell me he loved me and ask what he could do, if anything. Mostly, he just accepted me and loved me. He is an Agnostic and doesn’t believe in a Divine Creator and cannot comprehend 98% of what I tell him I am experiencing. Miraculously, he doesn’t need to understand me, or take me apart and make sense of me, to love me. He’s just wired that way, wired to love me and I’m wired to love him and it works, amazingly well.

My mensch and I, photo taken by my Beau-Pere Kenny’s very talented sister Ellen Weissberg Whyte.

When I touch my man or am held by him, all my cells align and take a kind of deep breath. It’s a truly profound experience for me and it still happens to this day, 33 years since we first kissed, I feel the current of wholeness course through my body. It makes my toes curl, my heart race. I am giddy and soothed all at the same time.

There’s nothing subtle or mild about me or how I feel, love, pray, and live. I’m a lot to handle and as the husband of a dear friend of mine once said about me. “Jeez, could you have some f—–g enthusiasm already!” Which I translated as the usual, you’re just TOO MUCH!

And, I am too much, for a lot of folks, which isn’t really important, because I’m used to that now and I’m in really good company…but back to my cave. I didn’t share the depth of what was going on for me with anyone besides my husband. A few folks were worried about me since they weren’t seeing my posts and I was generally absent from so many activities online and elsewhere. Even when I’m in my cave, I still take care of what has to be taken care of, what is mine to take care of, like my parents and my children. Or when someone’s son in my community was murdered and they needed support to get their son’s body washed and prepared for burial, according to Jewish tradition. They needed to witness and lovingly wrap their beloved in a shroud with prayers during Covid. Everybody worries about you and thinks you’re crazy for extending yourself and endangering yourself to make that happen. But, this is exactly the kind of thing that pulls me, like a magnet from underneath the covers or the depths of my sanctuary cave. The call to serve and to do what is mine, not someone else’s to do.

The other call that came in, when I was deep in the depths of the pain of the world, was when George Floyd, z”l, was murdered. It was like an electric shock to my system and I just jumped out of my bed and started cooking and making medicines and cleaning and doing everything I could, in what I like to call Full-On-Nicole fashion. Even though the pain was searing, the call to make kindness alive and to help folks feel heard and seen and loved during this time of trauma and exposition of the true nature of our society, was stronger than the need to be curled up feeling the anguish. For me, the call came in and it came in loud and strong and clear.

George Floyd , zichrono l’vracha, by Marjorie Feldman, framed by Howard Feldman

I didn’t see the death of this man on the news. I felt it in my bones. I am a woman awash with the world’s doings. Life on this planet, the life of this planet is not something I am separated from, none of us are. When there is harm or grace, we all feel it. Whether it is a slight blip in our heart-beat or it takes us down to the ground, or out to our studios, or into the streets, we are all part of the same story.

In my tradition we say a prayer called the Shema, we say it three times a day. It cannot be completely translated. It’s a call to being and a chant and a reminder. The prayer itself is just a few words, but it is followed by a few paragraphs of prayers reminding us that if we adhere to this teaching the rain will fall in its season and the cattle will be happy and all will align, but if we fail to head this call and we worship idols (like the television, entertainment industry, sports games, the stock market or the Kardashians) the rain won’t fall in its season and there will be famine, plague and basically consequences to our NOT taking care of each other and the planet. This is not the Holy One cursing us, this is us cursing ourselves, causing the damage by not heeding the call of the Shema.

Listen, Hear, All you tribe of Israel, all you who wrestle with the Divine, the idea of the Divine, Hear this, all of you who struggle to make the world a place of decency and kindness, who stumble and fall down, who make mistakes, but get back up again, and again, listen you tribe of humans of all colors and religions and creeds and genders,

WE ARE ALL ONE!

We are all One, the Divinity is All One, is all encompassing, is everywhere at all times, holding us, watching us, shepherding us, rooting for us, wailing for us and with us as we stumble and fumble about. The Creator is with us and is through us and is us.

This call to Listen, to Hear, which implies you are directing yourself towards something perhaps not always loud or obvious, something that requires your active attention; this is something that I cannot ignore. I’ve always been a being who feels the blood trickle down my leg when the person next to me falls down and the skin on their leg cracks open, I get this in my body, it’s not an idea in my head, it literally fills my head and body like a gong sounding through my whole being.

I am awash in the feelings of this world and often of the next world as well. Sometimes folks who’ve crossed over are looking for support or help, especially if they died suddenly or violently, or they just have something they need to communicate before they move on to their next bathing of light, where they can be awash in the Creator’s love for them. Sometimes folks here on this earth are in so much pain it leaps out of their bodies and finds its way to me.

So, crazy as this makes me look and sound to those of you in the world who cannot see the dead moving through the room, like a waft of steam rising from a tea cup, or who don’t recognize the connections between things as being all part of some giant and unwinding narrative we are players in, I am very much affirming, again and again, that I am a woman awash in all of this.

Why do I need to assert this? There are many reasons, but the strongest call right now has to do with wanting to witness for folks that you can be fully awake, aware, and open, and also closed, quiet and taking care of yourself. There is no one way to serve. Maybe you need to go to ground, take a sabbatical or a break or just crawl under the covers for a week or months. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or mentally ill. It might just mean you are a human feeling the throbbing heart of our times and needing to be with all of what that is. Or maybe you do better going to a rally or a protest or writing hundreds of postcards or keeping track of all the lies and stories on the screens so that you can be a witness to what is actually being said. As long as it doesn’t poison you and make you forget how to enjoy the buds on the trees or the way the Holy One paints the sky each night, or the smile of your beloved, or just that we’re all in this together, imbibe away.

We’re most of us in good, good, really good company. We all have work to do that is uniquely ours. I hope you find your way through and into the places you need to be in and that you notice when your engagement with the “news” takes you away from loving, living and giving.

The real news is this, we are here on this earth for an eye-blink, even if we live to be a hundred years old, and while we are here, we have a task to continue working on, the work of making the world a better reflection of the love, kindness, intelligence, justice, harmony and Oneness it was meant to be and it is becoming, even if we cannot see its emergence yet.

My Mother’s mother Isabelle, bat Minnie, zichronah livracha, May her Memory be for a Blessing, my mother Helen Redman and little baby me. The mothers’ blessings passing through me back to the original Mother of us All, a long line and an amazing legacy of women successfully giving birth and surviving to make it to this moment and this time. I’m so grateful to all those who have come before me. May I live up to my lineage.

We are One….Shema

Chanting the Shema at my Bat Mitzvah, eyes covered, in September of 2001
Chanting the Shema at my Bat Mitzvah, eyes covered, in September of 2001, photo by Amanda Devons

I don’t want to preach to the choir, especially since I’m Jewish. I want desperately to make contact with folks who don’t think the same way I do. I’m not expecting more than some initial points of connection. A spot where something might adhere, attach itself and grow. No, I’m not a virus hoping to infect unsuspecting and vulnerable adult minds. Piercing the skin or the boundaries we construct around our beliefs is an important exercise though.

 

There’s a slogan that we “left of center” folks live by: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” This idea emerged when the first pictures of the planet earth from outer space started to appear in the media and in our consciousness. Previously, the idea of the world as a globe was conceptual and rendered by artists. Now, we (all of us), are used to looking at the photographic image of our floating blue/green marble in an ocean of black space. This vision of our planet was revolutionary because it was an image void of country, state, county, city or neighborhood property lines or boundaries. From outer space it’s just green and brown for earth, blue for ocean and white for clouds.

 

In fact, to the rest of the universe and from the Holy One’s perspective, that is what we are, plain old inhabitants of the planet earth. We share the planet with billions of other life forms from bacteria and floras and faunas to animals and lava flows. I don’t spend a lot of time relating to my volcanic neighbors, since it can be quite dangerous and I live in the rain zone, but volcanic flows and eruptions impact my life even here. The temperature of our planet is affected by myriad interactions, few of which I can see. I can see the exhaust spewing from the tail pipe of an old beat up pick-up, or the steam coming from the pulp mill towers. I can’t see the continent-size hole in our ozone layer. I don’t have those kinds of eyes. Just because I can’t see this huge behemoth of a wound in our atmosphere doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

 

What I see with my heart and with my eyes closed is very different than what I see with my eyes open.

 

In my tradition there’s a prayer we are advised to say three times a day, there’s lots of those, but I’m going to focus on one of them for the sake of brevity. This prayer is called the Shema, which is a transliteration of the first Hebrew word in the prayer: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Eh-had. All translations mangle the original, but this prayer means something like: Listen all you, who question, struggle, wrestle, or wonder, Holiness is everywhere, is ONE, the Divine is One.

 

This radical monotheistic mantra means the Divine is everywhere and ALL CONNECTED! On top of saying this three times a day, we’re supposed to cover our eyes when we say it. I first learned about covering my eyes when saying this prayer from Rabbi Arieh Hirschfield, of blessed memory. He talked about how with our eyes open, we see distinctions: green grass, brown chair, person wearing blue shirt and green skirt, other person who is older with glasses in black suit, carpet, window, etc…. When we close our eyes, distinctions evaporate and all is black/blank. If we additionally cover our eyes with our hands, there is no sensation of different levels of light, it’s truly dark and all is blurred into one color (black isn’t even a color, it’s the absence of color). This is the place the sages wanted us to be in, the physical sense of being without distinction or boundaries. Our physical act of actively covering our eyes is designed to help us enter the prayer and “get it” that All is One.

 

Every time I used to fill up my 15-year-old Volvo’s gas tank, whether I did it at the Union 76 near the plaza, the Shell Station in Northtown or Cash Oil on Samoa Boulevard, I was contributing to the damaging of my environment. There is blood on my hands, no matter where I purchase my gasoline from. I do not have to pick up a gun or a knife for this to be true. I have to live with this and work for justice and change, but I cannot pretend I am innocent.

 

I’m trying to buy from my local Arcata vendors more often than not. I’m able to do my errands, run our small business, and live my life with greater ease. I don’t ride my bike everyday to and from Bayside, I should, I should, but I don’t. I drive my car (at this point I drive a 2008 Toyota Prius) for lots of reasons, mainly so I can get all the things done I need to do in a day. I try to drive less or to combine all my errands into one outing, so I contribute less to the problems I believe are connected to our fossil fuel addiction.

 

That relationship with fossil fuels is part of the picture in Iraq, and Iran, and all over the globe where there is violence. I’m not willing to say it is all that is going on, but it’s one of the reasons we are often in Iraq but not in Dar-fur. If we don’t have a financial connection or reason to engage with a country whose policies we dislike, we won’t often bother. When Peace becomes profitable, it will be the norm, not the exception. I hope we move towards it regardless, but I cannot control others, only myself.

 

I shop where I live because this is where I’ve chosen to live and my need for relationship and connection to other small business owners supersedes my need to be comfortable or always at peace with their beliefs or the beliefs of those I disagree with who live here as well. I might be buying something from someone who I argued vehemently with at a city council meeting, but I will still greet that person with kindness when I see them the following day. We are living here together. This is actually something that can be multiplied out and apply to all of us on the planet. We are all living on this planet and we have to find ways to see ourselves as connected.

 

I recognize that if it costs me a tiny bit more to buy a book at my local bookstore, Northtown Books than it does from Amazon.com. I’m contributing to my community directly when I purchase things locally and that has more value for me. Local vendors give away thousands of dollars every year for every raffle, benefit or event that school children or non-profits come up with. You will find their names on the list of benefactors always. Even when I can’t see the connections, I recognize that they are there. When I think globally and act locally I believe I am making a small difference in the cycle of destruction so many are engaged in.

 

I treasure those who join me in this. I want to understand and reach towards those who cannot find these connection points. I don’t know that I’ve been successful in my efforts to not preach to the choir. I am verbose, overly intense at times and irrepressible (even my beloved husband says so). I hope some of this makes sense and I’m a work in progress, as is my writing. I ask for your understanding as I learn to express what is true and meaningful for me in service to the idea of being in deeper relationship with all of you.

 

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to close our eyes and listen. We’re all sharing this space together and the more compassionate, caring and tender we are with one another, the more likely we are to live harmoniously. I’m hopeful because I choose to stop, several times a day, and remember that we are all connected and sharing this space together. This gives me hope because I know how magnificent, intelligent and lovely most of the people I come in contact with are and because even without my prayers, thanks or noticing, the sun rises and the planet spins on its axis and there is rain for my garden.

 

May you find what binds you to your community and continue to struggle, dance and wrestle with those you may not always see eye to eye with. I promise you, it’s worth the effort and if we think before we speak and take a moment to close our eyes and listen, our engagements will be less fraught and more likely to bring about resolution and a sense of how we are all ONE.

 

Nicole lives in Bayside, shops in Arcata, and prays all the time, everywhere.

 

©Nicole Barchilon Frank

This piece is adapted from a Just Being Frank Article in the Arcata Eye, May of 2005