Saturday, May 31, 2014

Coming Soon: Tweet #Torah to the Top

Last night during Shabbat services, we counted the 45th day of the Omer, which means that Shavuot is only five days away.  Along with cheesecake, Tikkun Leil Shavuot study sessions, and Confirmation, Shavuot brings us "Tweet #Torah to the Top," an effort to get #Torah to "trend" on Twitter.  (Here's what I wrote about it last year.)

With that in mind, do not be alarmed when, this coming Tuesday, my Twitter and Facebook posts are early, often, and filled with #Torah.  Although those of us who participated in recent years have not been successful in getting #Torah to trend, perhaps it will happen this year.

Stay tuned...and plan to join us!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Brought to You by the Letter "B"

For a long time, I've known that my Aunt Claire and her first cousin, Phyllis, both have middle names that begin with "B" -- Claire Bertha and Phyllis Beverly -- and that they were named in memory of the same person.  Except that the person's name began with "B," I knew nothing more.

So I asked my Aunt Claire, who told me that it was my grandfather's mother, Brana.

Looking the name up in my copy of the Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names, I could not find it as Aunt Claire spelled it:  B-r-a-n-a.

However, the last entry on the bottom of page 294 is "Brina." In addition to noting a Hebrew spelling of bet-resh-yud-yud-nun-aleph, the entry says, "From the Yiddish, meaning 'brown.'  Also, from the Slavic, meaning 'protector.'"

The first entry on the top of page 295 is "Brine."  Like the English spelling, which is nearly identical to Brina except for the last letter, so too does the Hebrew spelling have a different letter at the end:  bet-resh-yud-yud-nun-ayin.  The description of the name, however, is identical:  "From the Yiddish, meaning 'brown.'  Akin to Brune."

Here's what Kolatch has to say about Brune:  "From the Yiddish, meaning 'brown,' or from the German name Brunhild, meaning 'fighter in armor.' See also Brina and Brine."  Like the English, the Hebrew spelling is slightly different than the two previous names:  bet-resh-vav-nun-ayin.

Satisfied that one of these variants was my great-grandmother's name, I asked Aunt Claire what she knew about her.  She said she didn't know much except that she'd died young, and that nobody talked much about her.  Her husband, Jacob, for whom I am named, remarried and lived into his 90s.

I have to admit that Aunt Claire's descriptions of her paternal grandparents make me wonder if it was Brina who carried the BRCA gene mutation that appears to have been passed along to my grandfather (he died from prostate cancer), and definitely came down to my mom, to my aunt, and to me.

Although we'll never know the answer, of course, it seems plausible to me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hey, That's Not Our Scroll!

Yesterday at the minyan, we worshipers were thrown for a bit of a loop when Rabbi Strom (this one, not this one) took this scroll from the ark at the beginning of the Torah service:

We, of course, were expecting this one, which we see and use each week:

As it turns out, Temple Shaaray Tefila was lucky to be hosting--for about 48 hours--the "guest scroll," which is in the midst of making its rounds throughout North America on its way to Israel.  Its journey began in San Diego, thanks to the generosity of Congregation Beth Israel and Rabbi Michael Berk.  Once in Israel, ARZA will present it to Women of the Wall to use at its monthly Rosh Chodesh service.  Here's more about the scroll, including a travelogue, if you will, of its journey.

So, although technically speaking the scroll doesn't belong to our congregation, it does, in fact, belong to all of us whose story is detailed in the carefully lettered words on its parchment.  Indeed, our guest scroll belongs to all of us just as does the Western Wall--into whose dry cracks and crevices we have been tucking our memories, stories and prayers, rolled thin like chiffonade, for much (but not all) of the last few millennia.  

As they gather to welcome Rosh Chodesh Tammuz by singing, celebrating, and retelling a piece of our people's story, may the women (and men) of Women of the Wall find that this scroll--our scroll--brings new meaning, energy, and the spirit of each of us (and our individual and collective stories) to their celebrations and their work.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Two Rabbis, a Book, and Lots of Names

During yesterday's "hallway kiddish" following Shabbat services, Marlene, a longtime member and regular at the minyan, handed me this article that she'd clipped from The Jewish Week after reading my recent Ten Minutes of Torah essay.  I had not seen Rabbi Wolpe's short piece, and appreciated that she had saved it for me.

Later, toward the end of Torah study, Rabbi Stein told the group that he's in the process of giving away the books in his library--he'll be retiring at the end of June--and that we were welcome to stop in to see what might be of interest.  Needless to say, many of us followed him down to his office, which is overflowing with shelves of neatly arranged and well organized volumes.

After a few minutes of browsing, I asked the rabbi about a book I've seen referenced many times that always sounds interesting, although I didn't know its exact title.

"It's about names," I said, which was enough of a clue for him to pull this well-worn red volume from the shelf:  Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names by Alfred J. Kolatch.

"I've been using it for 40 years," he told me.

Indeed, the binding is broken in a few spots, and a whole section of pages containing feminine names from Billie, a feminine pet form of William, to Elya, from the Syriac and Hebrew, meaning "dirge, elegy" is full detached from the rest of the book.

Nonetheless, after just a few minutes of flipping through the book's 400-plus pages (and a second, more scholarly work, also about names), I told him I'd take the former and thanked him for this unexpected gift.  I'm grateful not only to add this particular volume to my own collection, but glad to have it as a keepsake from a rabbi who has been exceedingly kind and caring to me, and from whom I have learned much during the last four years.

Only after I left the synagogue did I read Rabbi Wolpe's column as I waited for the bus.  Entitled "A Name, A Soul," it begins with this sentence:
The Book of Exodus, in Hebrew, is called "Sh'mot," or names.
Rabbi Wolpe goes on to talk about the value and importance of names, before closing with this paragraph:
The crown of a good name, teaches Pirke Avot, is the greatest of all crowns.  In a graveyard, whatever other inscription a stone bears, it invariably records the deceased's name.  Tyranny seeks to erase names.  Memory and love restore and preserve them.
I am honored to be the keeper of Rabbi Stein's copy of "Kolatch," into whose worn red cover I have slipped the clipping of Rabbi Wolpe's short essay.  I believe it's the perfect spot in which to keep it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

I Got All My Sisters With Me

Kara DiGuardio, my BRCA sister
A generation ago at this season, I attended a number of sorority semi-formals at my alma mater.  At the time, the school was heavily Greek, with nearly 20 fraternities and five sororities. Invariably, each of these spring events--no matter the sorority--closed with the DJ "spinning" Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" as all the young women, in various states of intoxication, gathered on the dance floor, linking arms and singing along as a gaggle of young men watched from the sidelines.

I was reminded of this scene last Wednesday evening at FORCE's NYC Spring Celebration 2014: Live Life Empowered at Hudson Terrace.  The organization's inaugural benefit event, which was sponsored by Quest Diagnostics, featured two of my BRCA sisters, Stacey Sager and Kara DiGuardio, in a joyful celebration of the organization that is the unequivocal voice of the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) community.  In addition to providing resources, education, and support to individuals and families at risk for hereditary cancer, FORCE, comprising a staff of 11 and a tremendous corps of dedicated volunteers throughout the country, advocates on our behalf within the medical, pharmaceutical, and policy arenas, helping to ensure that we don't encounter discrimination, insurance snafus, or other obstacles as we--individually and collectively--deal with the inevitable roller coaster ride that comes along with our attempts to ensure, to the extent possible, that our genetics don't dictate our destiny.

Throughout the evening, we cheered Sue Friedman, FORCE's founder, celebrated Stacey's survival of both breast and ovarian cancer, and marveled at the serendipity that propelled Kara, who shared her songs and her story, to get tested.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am one of thousands of FORCE members who will be ever grateful to the organization for its strong, supportive, knowledgeable, powerful, and empowering voice.  Most of all, I appreciate my countless FORCE sisters (and one brother, who sports a New Jersey license plate that reads "BRCA1") who are ever ready and willing--as am I--to answer questions, share experiences, recommend doctors, dry tears, commiserate, or just listen.  Help from our BRCA sisters empowers so many of us to make tough decisions, undergo surveillance and surgeries, deal with both expected and unexpected consequences, and move on in our forever-changed lives, all in the hopes that cancer won't steal us the way it already has stolen far too many of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins.

Indeed, Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" is the perfect soundtrack for my BRCA family.  Had a DJ and a dance floor been in the room on Wednesday night, I am quite sure that as our partners, spouses, friends, and supporters stood on the sidelines and watched, we all would have been out there, linking arms and singing along with Sister Sledge:

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev'rybody and sing

Ev'ryone can see we're together
As we walk on by
(FLY!) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won't tell no lie
(ALL!) all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close
Just let me state for the record
We're giving love in a family dose

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev'rybody and sing

Living life is fun and we've just begun
To get our share of the world's delights
(HIGH!) high hopes we have for the future
And our goal isnt in sight
(WE!) no we don't get depressed
Here's what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won't go wrong
This is our family Jewel

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev'rybody and sing