Yearly archives "2018"

The Shape

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

So many gardens live in the memories of my life journey. There was the garden of my youth in Montreal, where my mother painted a vibrant oil of me at 15, relaxing in a striped canvas chair amid the lush summer greenery. Adjacent to our garden was an empty lot where my dentist Dad planted vegetables – still a victory garden now that World War II had ended and he was back from a four-year tour in England (including hospital time for a serious injury). How we reveled in that garden! What can rival the taste of sweet peas snapped fresh from the pod? Or ripe tomatoes off the vine? Or the tallness of corn? What a change from wartime apartment living where our downstairs neighbor pounded on the ceiling with a broom if my sister and I were too noisy!

Then there were the beautiful gardens of my married life. So many of my children’s birthday parties were celebrated there in our first house on rue Capitaine Bernier (and later in the lush garden behind our Georgian-style house fronted by white-pillars in the Town of Mount Royal), complete with lollipops hanging from the willow tree, lots of delicious food, and happy splashings in the large, above-ground pool. So many loving people to share our joy as they lounged around our gardens, savoring the summer sunshine months in Canada, forming large circles the better to share their stories of pleasures past and present.

Years later, there was the lovely garden of my Toronto house. Not only did a fragrant rose garden centered in the middle of that expansive green lawn bloom every year in June and September of the decade I lived in that house with its stained glass windows, but the garden also backed onto a manicured city park dotted with walking pathways. It made my own garden seem vast. Only now my children were scattered in Montreal, Vancouver, and California. But they visited often. “It feels like home,” they would say.

Yet today, when I am asked if I miss Canada, this is what I miss: the close familial circles that marked the youth of my children, both indoors and outdoors, in the happy moments of our lives. I have recounted some of them in my book, Cryo Kid: Drawing A New Map. Many of those I wrote about in those gardens of long ago are gone from this world. My memories, however, still live on. And I am so fortunate that new memories are accumulating to augment – not replace – the remembrance of things past. I will never forget, for example, “The Shape” in my daughter’s spacious garden in Sherwood Forest, Los Angeles, where there is summer almost all year long — even when the California-born residents call it winter.  It is also the home of my grand-daughter, Samantha.

This is where The Shape has formed in the poolside patio under a canopy that shields it from the strong sun. It is composed of a large group of loving people gathered closely for ease of conversation – and just to be together — in a circle of comfortable chairs. It is a shape that has formed because they all love Samantha. The people who make up this Shape are all connected to her through the marvels of modern medicine. They are her biological family. Her natural mother is Janet. Her biological father – who, together with his wife Sara, has his own two children as well – Benjamin and Harrison — is called Jeff.  Samantha adores the young boys. (“They are my half-brothers, you know,” she is proud to tell people.) She has come to love Jeff and Sara too and the rest of the biological family. They are all part of The Shape that has formed in the poolside patio.

There is Ila, Jeff’s mother, and Allen, Jeff’s father, and Holly, his second wife. They are all Samantha’s biological grandparents. Then there is Andy, her biological aunt, and her partner, Larry. There is Bonnie, Sara’s kind mother, also thrilled to be part of The Shape, even though there is no biological connection, and Sara’s dad, Ken. Most important, there is the warmth of acceptance, of the open arms extended, and the belief that there can never be too much family, that there is lots of love to go around. And, of course, there I am too – Samantha’s natural grandmother. (Bert, Samantha’s natural grandfather, passed away two years ago.) Often too, there are Shelley, my daughter and Janet’s sister, and Ira, my son-in-law, with their two children, Joshua and Rachel. There is my daughter, Susan, also Samantha’s aunt and sometimes my daughters, Laura and Ruth, visiting from Vancouver, B.C.  We all have a good time eating and swimming and laughing together. Or just relaxing. In fact, all the people who make up The Shape are very happy to be here beside our pool in one grand circle.

The only being who is not so sure about this presence is our red-headed dog, Penny. She is a wavy Labradoodle, half poodle and half Australian Lab. Normally, with those two halves kicking in, she has enough energy to fuel a rocket ship. Now she is quivering somewhere between suspicion and caution. She has just emerged from the side door that exits our kitchen with the expectation of jumping joyously into the pool. Instead, from the other side of the garden, she spies something unfamiliar. An awesomely large, circular, closely held Shape! Its back is turned to her. She has never seen anything like it before.

What strange thing could be lurking in our garden? She can’t make it out from afar. It’s certainly not a squirrel. Much more ominous. So she surreptitiously creeps forward, step by step, her body gradually lowering closer and closer to the ground. Now she is on her belly, moving forward bit by bit like a soldier in combat. Even though she is really scared now, she will protect her family. Her green-brown eyes narrowed, emitting a low growl, she surveys The Shape.

But to Penny’s surprise, The Shape turns itself around to welcome her into its circle. Oh, these are people, after all, loving people. Penny likes people. She licks hands and faces to welcome them. In return, there are lots of loving pats and hugs. Of course, she is given some treats for being such a good guardian. Everything’s okay. Penny can jump in the pool now and splash around without any worries, and The Shape can come anytime to her sunny garden in Los Angeles. And have they seen the roses (and oranges and lemons) this year?

Wishing you all, friends old and new, much happiness in the gardens of your own lives, and in whatever pathways you choose to follow, and many blessings in the calendar year 2019!

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Put Not Your Trust in Princes

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Almost everything there is to know about human nature can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Amazingly, it’s all there. Centuries change, countries and circumstances change, but the things that animate and motivate people remain the same, even if they seem to be masked over by different cultures, degrees of sophistication, wealth, or learning. Even if they feel close to God. Perhaps Psalm 146 states it best – and succinctly.

Put not your trust in the great (princes),

In mortal man who cannot save.

His breath departs;

He returns to the dust;

On that day his plans come to nothing.

Psalm 146

Way back in 722 BCE, when Assyria, then a strong power in the Middle East, captured the ten tribes of Northern Israel (also known as “Ephraim”), the two kings of a then divided Israel (the region known as “Judah” was in the south) rivalled one another. In particular, the rebellious northern region (itself riven by divisions and idolatry) made alliances the prophets warned against (see Isaiah 20) with Egypt, with Syria, with Edom – alliances that deserted Northern Israel and switched to the other side when the going got tough. Thus, as Psalm 146 explains, don’t put your trust in the great (the princes of old), whose words and actions may be mercurial. Far better to trust in God – and your own wise innate and learned moral actions.

Fast forward to 2018. Currently, both the divisions in the modern State of Israel and in the Diaspora are worrisome. Internally Israel is divided politically, religiously, and in its foreign policies. Left and rightwing parties are continually at loggerheads, and Israel’s present foreign policy — throwing in Israel’s lot with Saudi Arabia (in the hope that it will rally the other Arab countries to force the Palestinians to make peace and for Hezbollah to stand down) and with the U.S. (in the hope that Jerusalem will at last be recognized by the nations of the world as the capital of Israel). Unfortunately, Israel’s moral standing – and support in the Diaspora — is being sacrificed to these aims.

There are spiritual divisions too. Although Judaism traditionally encourages different points of view, the religious right remains too rigid in its interpretation of halakhah (Jewish law). The Israeli rabbinate’s extreme orthodox attitudes toward and authority over marriage, divorce, and conversion, as well as towards women are all sources of controversy. There is little, if any, recognition of the spiritual validity of the various Jewish religious denominations prevalent in the Diaspora, especially America. In resistance, the secular left, both in Israel and the Diaspora is close to throwing away the baby with the bath water. Thus in many area of Jewish life, there is a dissonance in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. That’s why it is so important to remember the circumstances that led to the captivity – and eventual assimilation — of the ten tribes of old by the Assyrians, who dispersed them to other areas, never to let them set foot in Israel again.

While their northern brothers were being taken captive, southern Israel (Judah), ruled by the 8th century BCE “good king” Hezekiah, son of Ahab, was also to suffer, in part from ascribing too much goodness to others. In fact, the prophet Hosea warned the king not to show his very considerable wealth to other Middle Eastern nations like Babylonia lest they war against him to plunder it for themselves (See Isaiah 20). And indeed, at a later date during Hezekiah’s 29-year reign, Babylonia did so. Meanwhile, after the devastation of Northern Israel, Southern Israel became a vassal of Assyria, required to pay vast sums to the Assyrian king.

Nevertheless, in order to preserve southern Israel’s independence from the Assyrians, King Hezekiah implemented a clever strategy. He diverted the waters of the Gihon spring, which were outside the city of Jerusalem’s walls, by means of a tunnel to the pool of Siloam, which was inside the city walls. It still exists in Israel. I walked through that same tunnel, trying not to slip on its cobblestones covered with water to my knees, when I visited Israel (it was my children’s first time) in 1989.

But long ago, when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, King Hezekiah was powerfully backed by the prophet and statesman, Isaiah, and Jerusalem had the water to survive. Although the Assyrian army was soon decimated by the plague and retreated, the kingdom of Judah had to continue paying vassal tribute.

Despite thousands of years of deprivation, dispersion, and persecution, the Jewish people have somehow endured. So many centuries later, in modern Israel, the north and south are physically together again, one country, indivisible (although there are usually aggressive intentions toward Israel from both directions). Better, it seems to me, that Israel should believe in itself for its own protection than in any foreign entities. Especially in the word of foreign potentates in modern guise with their own agendas. Better that those who claim to love Israel, both in the Middle East and in the Diaspora, should continue to believe in the wisdom of a guiding God, Creator of our universe. Even princes. That’s what the Bible tells us.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Other and Me

Other and Me

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In a way, I have always been “Other.” It’s a designation I think of as normal, maybe even special. My “Otherness” started at an early age when my sister and I attended a public school under the aegis of the Protestant School Board in Montreal. There was one school board for Protestants and one for Catholics. Actually the Catholic School Board was divided in two: one for the majority — French-speaking Catholic children — and one for English-speaking Catholics, a minority. But the latter were not “Other.” We Jews were “Other,” because neither French nor English Catholic schools would accept us as students. So our Jewish parents enrolled us in schools run by the Protestant School Board, which had an open enrolment policy. And where the admission forms had checkboxes for Protestant, Catholic, and Other, we marked “Other.” “Other” was good; at least “Other” was accepted in this place.

It is ironic that most Montreal Jewish kids in those days grew up speaking English, rather than French, as their first language because they weren’t admitted to the Catholic schools. We all ended up knowing both languages anyway.

There were, in fact, private Jewish-run schools called “parochial” schools, like Talmud Torah, at that time. Talmud Torah students learned their lessons in English, French (later mandatory), and Hebrew. The Folke Shule and, if my memory serves me correctly, the Peretz schools, went a step further and added Yiddish to the mix. Not every student could master three or four languages at a time, however, and these private schools were expensive. While I excelled at languages, my parents, like those of most of my friends, simply could not afford a private school, especially if there were several children. While most of us attended extra-curricular religious classes at our synagogues once or twice a week, girls did not have to learn Hebrew. And I learned to understand a domestic kind of Yiddish from listening to my mother speak with my grandmother when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying.

In addition, I could recite the New Testament’s Beatitudes and still remember and can at least hum along with all the Christian hymns and the Christmas Carols, at least one of them in Latin. How did that happen? The Protestant School Board’s curriculum required each day to begin with fifteen minutes of New Testament scripture – that is, after we saluted the Union Jack flag (Canada was still a Dominion of England) and sang sequentially, “God Save the King (George VI),” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” “O Canada,” and finally recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

Only then did the Protestant scripture class began. Those of us who were “Other” could attend, but, if our parents sent a note otherwise, we could spend those 15 minutes waiting in the darkish Cloakroom. Most schools have lockers today, but then we had Cloakrooms, small rooms adjacent to the classroom, where, as the name suggests, we hung our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, all laden with melting snow. Our boots languished underneath, and of course, it all smelled very – damp!

Some children waited in the Cloakroom. But my mother, like others, did not send a note. “It’s good to learn about other religions,” she said, “as long as you know what your own is.” It’s a teaching that has remained with me always. As a rabbi today – who knew then that’s what I would become? — I still credit my mother with inculcating in me the value of Interfaith association when I was just a little “Other” in Elementary School.

The Christian teachings came in handy in another way – protectively. Just down the street from the library where I chose new books and returned others once or twice a week was a French-Catholic convent school. Close to Easter time when the Montreal sun was stronger and the snow beginning to melt into puddles, the uniformed schoolgirls congregated after school just outside the wrought iron gates, blocking the way for all passers-by.

“Catholique ou Protestant?” they would aggressively challenge kids from other schools. Or who were going home from the neighborhood library, their arms full of books. I knew all too well that if I admitted that I was Jewish, they would beat me up – and there were a lot of them. I couldn’t say, “Catholic,” or they would ask me to recite the catechism. That’s just the way it went. So I firmly replied, “Protestant.”

“Prove it,” they demanded. That was easy. I declaimed the Beatitudes with the ease of a schoolgirl who recites them everyday at her 15-minute scripture class. So they only splashed my stockings with mud and pulled my hair. That was enough for a Protestant.

Times have changed. The prediction is that in a couple of decades, the population in the U.S. will be more than 50 percent “Other;” that is, it will be diverse, made up of many kinds of people. “Other” will be the majority. Happy Holidays to one and all, wherever you were born, however you pray!

Chag Urim Hanukkah!

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Border Issues – Then and Now

Border Issues – Then and Now

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Menasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb and the Plain – the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will assign it to your offspring” (Deut. 34: 1-4).

Thousands of years before Robert Frost, winner of multiple Pulitzer prizes, wrote his celebrated poem “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in 1914 on the cusp of World War One, the Hebrew leader, Moses, allotted promised land to the Israelites in accordance with specifications divinely articulated in the Torah (Deuteronomy 34). Within this larger boundary, the specific areas where each of the Hebrew tribes would make their home were specified even before the ancient Israelites crossed the Jordan to enter Canaan (Deut. 3: 12-17).

When the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Menasseh elected not to cross the Jordan river’s western bank, but rather stay where they were, east of the Jordan, because they thought this location would be ideal for raising their flocks of cattle (Numbers 32:33), Moses explained that these tribes could live anywhere they liked with two conditions: 1) they would assist the other Israelite tribes in the initial entry into Canaan, and 2) furthermore would come to the defense of their brethren across the Jordan whenever their help was needed urgently. It was a condition that would be loyally kept.

Much of the book of Joshua (1-13) is devoted to a detailed description of the division of the land of Canaan. Not all of the idolatrous Canaanite tribes were fled or were killed, however (and historians now say – by virtue of new methods of carbon-dating pottery shards) that the battles described in the Bible may have taken place a couple of centuries before the Israelites actually arrived there), and so the remaining Canaanite and incoming Israelite tribes eventually learned to co-exist.

Notably, for the Israelites, the issue of borders was balanced with the commandment to welcome the stranger. While obligated to follow Israelite law while within the boundaries of the Promised Land, the stranger was well treated and given the same privileges as the the Israelites. Also, in this long-ago agricultural society, the corners of the fields were always to be left unharvested so that poor people could glean them for themselves and thus gather their own fruit and grain. These rules to help the have-nots were well respected by those who had more.

The fields of plants needed respected borders too. In the Mishnah (commentary on the Torah that became the first part of the Talmud) section “Zeraim” (Seeds),” we learn that, in order to keep plants roots from intermingling (mixed seeds are prohibited) so that they will grow better, it’s good to plant row of onions as separators. Why? Because the onions’ roots grow straight down, and thus the plants won’t intermingle. The onions don’t mind at all. They grow well side by side too. Ancient Israel was — and Modern Israel even more — a very ecologically-minded place.

So maybe, amid the political turmoil we are experiencing today, Robert Frost’s enduring poem should read “Good Fences and Mutual Good Will (and a little bit of empathy and real world knowledge) Make Good Neighbors.”

© Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings.

Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although I was born in Canada and proud to be a Canadian, I grew up with a soft spot in my heart for Americans because my family—and many other Canadians we knew – spent our vacation times mainly in the U.S.  Living in Montreal as we did, the U.S. border was only an hour away, and, after WWII (when travel to the U.S. once again flowed freely), my mother, sister, and I spent several joyous summers on the banks of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y. (unlike in Quebec, kids under 16 could go to the movies there, and a turkey dinner could be had at Woolworth’s for $1.25 each!), with my Dad joining us on the weekends. Later, my college friends and I got to know New England well in bucolic places like Lake Placid and Lake George.

When I married, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in New York City, attending a different Broadway play every night for a week. In Canada, we had a ski chalet in Mount Sutton, close to the Vermont border. My in-laws were part of the Snowbird crowd – my mother-in-law actually got a prescription from her doctor advising her husband that she needed to spend the winter in Florida (still a popular destination for sun-seeking Montrealers) for her “condition.” We were also grateful for our blessings, and we tried to “give back” to society in many ways.

As our four children grew, my husband and I became devotees of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine in the summer and then, venturing a little farther afield, of Cape Cod. How we enjoyed the sandy beach and tranquil waters of West Dennis and sometimes the daunting, cold waves of Nauset Beach! For several years, we explored the Cape’s artistic locations and innovators, its renowned aquatic museum in Wood’s Hole, and its marine cuisine. We loved American holidays like July 4th, when the population would always stand as one and place their hands on their hearts while lustily singing the National Anthem.

“Americans are patriotic,” we would say approvingly. “Americans make a lot of noise. Americans are a lot of fun.” Canadians, by contrast, were more circumspect, we thought, more modest then in their expressions of fealty to their country. Not everyone knew all the words to our own National Anthem, “O Canada,” which, as time went on and the words kept changing, we eventually sang in both English and French, especially in Quebec, where after much controversy, French became the official language.

The British Province of Canada was initially formed in 1841 by the union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Upper Canada’s population consisted largely of former Americans still loyal to Great Britain (that is, English-Canadians living in what is now Ontario), while Lower Canada (today’s Quebec) was mainly populated by French-Canadians, with long memories (je m’en souviens is still on Quebec license plates) of defeat to the English on the Plains of Abraham. Thus the tradition of hyphenated Canadians began. As Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined the initial Confederation to create the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation agreed that there would be two official languages in this new country, Canada, a decision that came back to bite a little more than a century later in the 1970s and 1980s when Separatism reared its controversial head. Suddenly we had a Quebec population divided into Franco-phones, Anglo-phones, and Allo-phones (people of neither French- nor English-origin). Separatist or Federalist labels merged into Quebecois or ROC (the Rest of Canada). And violence for a while.

It seemed then to be forgotten that, since Canada’s boundaries had grown over time to include ten provinces, plus the Northern Territories, the population now included immigrants from many countries of the world. Over the years, the French-/English- hyphen had proliferated to include many places of origin. In other words, while the country’s inhabitants were and are all “Canadians,” at various times in Canadian history, they or their ancestors had migrated from some other land. There were, indeed, many hyphens in Canadian identities. The federal government encouraged Canadians to celebrate the memory of their ethnic or cultural identity as a matter of pride. It added a welcome diversity to society. And eventually, native Canadian “Indians” were dignified at last with the title “First Nations” people.

Canada has long believed that “the cultural mosaic” enriches society. And it certainly has. But it seems to me that, in contemporary times, the mosaic can get in the way of a unified identity. In Quebec, La Patrie still strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of Franco-phones.

By contrast, Americans have traditionally believed in “the melting pot.” In days gone by, it didn’t matter where you came from. Once you became a citizen, you were an American. You enriched American culture with your prior knowledge and/or experience of other countries. You brought your skills, or you learned new ones. For me, this has always been a beautiful philosophy: The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcoming the oppressed, the homeless and hungry, with the opportunity for a better life in freedom and dignity. From sea to shining sea. From one coast to another.

Why break our splendidly diverse population into large or small demographic fragments (according to urban and rural locations and narrow definitions): a broad range of color, geographic, political, and even religious beliefs (evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim) compressed into a maze of charts on a TV screen?

Let us not lose the inspiring ideals that America encompassed. Let us remember that the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, the creation of the progenitor of mankind in “the image of God,” extends to all humanity, along with the core concept of welcoming the stranger.

As Thanksgiving approaches, let us express deep gratitude for the cultural enrichment and initiative immigrants from so many countries have brought and continue to bring over the centuries since America’s inception. It’s self-evident, hopefully along with the Four Freedoms enunciated by an American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1941 shortly before the U.S. entered World War II: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  These freedoms, he hoped, would become universal values. So why do we need the hyphens in 2018? These little word connectors, it seems to me, belong to an unequal past. Let us put the hyphen to rest.

When you travel to so many less fortunate parts of the world – shockingly so — as I have had the occasion to do in recent years, you know how good it is to come home to America.

© Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.