Monthly archives "December 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.