Archive by category "Exploring God's World"

Flowering Plants in a Lunar-like Landscape

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Jardin de Cactus, Lanzarote, Canarias, Spain

Last week I wrote about the immense, cathedral-like environment carved out of a lava tube on Canary Islands’ Lanzarote by inspired nature-artist Cesar Manrique. Among many other projects, he also created a huge, park-like, otherworldly environment, Jardin de Cactus, featuring more than 1,100 species of cacti planted in what was a disused quarry – that is, until Manrique, who is also an architect, decided to accent nature with art and vice-versa there.  He and his talented team created an jaw-dropping garden of carefully landscaped and tended cacti, accented with red rocks, bridges, paved paths and even pools at different levels.

These are not little or even medium-sized cacti, oh no! Everything is grand in scale, plants that have been nurtured in the volcanic soil for many years. They range, according to the Jardin’s information,  “from towering saguaros and spiny over-sized globes to more unusual species that resemble giant white maggots, thrusting asparagus spears, prickly mounds of broccoli, or dark green corals and sea anemones.” All have been planted in close proximity to one another in artistic patterns. The result, which took 20 years to complete, is astoundingly beautiful.

It was springtime when we visited, my daughter and I. And so many of the cacti were in bloom. It took my breath away. The word “awesome” seemed almost inadequate.

For me, visiting the Jardin de Cactus was a Heschel moment.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has long captured my imagination with his concept of “radical amazement,” which thankfully continues to influence every day of my life. As Heschel wrote about in his stellar books, “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism,” and “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” that we should live our lives with a sense of wonder: to be spiritual is to be amazed. We should get up every morning with an appreciation of being alive, he explained, with a sense of awe at the mystery of life, and the desire to celebrate it.

That sense of wonder certainly resonated in me at the Jardin. It was springtime when my daughter and I visited. And so many of the cacti were in bloom in response to the balmy weather. It took my breath away. Although I understood that cacti have many practical uses in the desert, I didn’t know that cacti are actually flowering plants. The word “awesome” seemed almost inadequate.

I did know about the “monocarpic” century plant, so biologically labelled because it is a cactus said to bloom only once in 100 years (although some century plants have been known to bloom much sooner, perhaps in a few decades, depending on the climate, soil, and care they get). Unfortunately, after the century plant (horticulturally categorized as an “Agave americana”) blooms, it usually dies. I took a long look at one of the Jardin’s century plants; it reminded me of male worker bees who, once they mate with the Queen Bee, also die after this moment of glory.

It also reminded me that I still have a way to go before my final bloom. My human generation seems to have an unusual number of centenarians, so it’s comforting to know that at least a few century plants, like most cacti, are repeat bloomers.

Fortunately, most humans have the capacity to be repeat bloomers, as indeed Cesar Manrique’s many projects testify. The Jardin de Cactus was his last project – his final artistic bloom — completed in the 1990s. Two years later, he died in a car crash. His beautiful creations, however, live on in the volcanic soil. Truly awesome!

Awesome too, was the excitement of one of our fellow tourists, a retired surgeon from California, who was almost dancing with joy as he checked out the cacti in the garden. “I have two greenhouses at home, with 400 varieties of cacti growing,” he exulted. “And I can identify so many of the cacti in the Jardin. Of course, my cacti are little. I love to take care of them.”

“Do they bloom yet?” I asked this brilliant man, who had become our friend, who, after so many years of doctoring, still loved to care for living things.

“Not yet,” he replied. “But now I know they will.”

Our tour guide almost had to pull him out of the garden to rejoin the bus. He simply didn’t want to leave the cacti blooming, as if just for us, on a lovely spring day.

Recommended Video

Jardin de Cactus, Lanzarote.
Photograph: Frank Lukasseck/Corbis

Click link for video: Jardin de Cactus


I Found my Synagogue in a Lava Tube

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Cesar Manrique Lava Tube, Lanzarote, Canarias, Spain

I had been inside a lava tube once before, a long time ago. The tube was in the Hawaiian Islands and amazingly cut right through a volcano that was still fitfully alive — the Kilauea volcano on Big Island, near the Hawaii Volcanic National Park. Apprehensive visitors like me might be experiencing some internal quaking of their own before entering the tube, but the attraction was irresistible: a 1,000-year-old, tropical rain forest. Right inside the rocky darkness of the lava tube! Such a beautiful, bountiful, colorful rain forest that its location strained credulity.  

This volcano, one of five in Hawaii and estimated to be between 300,000 and 600,000 years old, was known to be temperamental. From time to time, it erupted, hurling its lava streams down the mountain into the sea. I remembered walking on another area of that same Hawaiian volcano, deemed “safe” for that afternoon by knowledgeable scientists (seismologists I think they are called) who took continual, up-to-the-minute readings of the volcano – and would change the visiting parameters accordingly. Still, my family and I (my husband and I were there with our four teenage children) could actually see red embers glowing here and there beneath the thin cracks in the black lava. Prominent signs warned visitors not to stay for more than a few minutes because of the sulphur fumes.

In more recent years, the Kilauea volcano erupted so forcefully that it destroyed everything in its wake. In fact, the eruption did in so much damage that the Hawaii Volcanic National Park had to be closed for some time.

* * * *

Decades have passed, and I am standing at the entrance to another natural wonder on a different island. This time it is a black lava tube on Lanzarote, in the Canarias (Canary Islands in English). These islands, infamous for dealings with pirates in past centuries, are part of Spain, but they are autonomous. It has taken six days at sea on the Atlantic Ocean to travel here from Barbados, our first stop. I am with my daughter, Janet (who, as it happens, was also with me when we visited the Kilauea lava tube). But this time an immensely talented man has joined forces with nature to create an aesthetic, unexpectedly spiritual, environment carved from the black rocks inside.

His name is Cesar Manirique, and, although I had never before heard of him, he is an internationally known and respected artist. His life’s work – he has since passed away — is built on the premise that art and nature in combination cannot be surpassed. His projects are large scale, and their effect is deeply moving. His major work is intentionally on Lanzarote, and they have brought fame – and tourists, with an accompanying boost to the economy — to an island created from ground-up, rocky soil as well. The landscape is dotted with small settlements of white, adobe-style houses clustered together on the black land, with a little greenery flourishing here and there.

My daughter, who rock climbs as a sport, jokes that I have also become a rock climber in Manirique’s lava tube. She calls it “scrambling.” I would call it something else – OMG — stooping as low to the ground as possible and clutching on to the jagged rocks like a railing as I climb the many steps carved further and further into the black tube. Soon my fears of falling disappear as I am overwhelmed by the aesthetic experience created by a master artist.

Manirique and his team have enlarged a natural opening in the rock in the shape of a perfect oval, so that those who enter the lava tube discover a magnificent view of the ocean and the looming mountains beyond. This exquisite sight from outside is reflected in a large, sky blue pool amid the rocks, bestowing a unity with the outside world on the lava tube’s environment. The water continually flows from the lava tube to the sea, so that the level of the water rises and falls with the tide. As I look at the pool with the eyes of a rabbi who serves as a dayan (a judge in a rabbinic court, a bet din), I realize that, unintentionally, Manrique has created a natural mikveh (body of water for ritual purification).

And when I look at the water and surrounding rocks more closely, I see that there are living things in this pool — tiny, albino spider-crabs, as small as spiders, but they are actually crabs – that keep the water clean.

We look at the pool for a long time. To further enhance its effect, Manirique has outlined the pool’s curving shape with a thick, white plaster substance, an artistic exclamation point, something he has repeated at various points throughout the lava tube experience.

There is even a small, charming restaurant close by, tables and chairs, more openings to the outside.

We climb more stairs, further into the tube. And then we enter a huge space carved out of the rocks, or maybe it is a natural space, a bubble in the lava tube. I gasp. My daughter gasps. The immense ceiling is so high. It is dimly lit. Benches carved from the black rock and accented with white plaster backs descend down a long, sloped aisle to what seems to be — a stage? — at its base. There are benches on the other side of the aisle too. Seating, we learn, for 1200 people. Classical concerts are given here at regular intervals. The acoustics are terrific, and the space has been wired for sound and additional lighting. Amazing.

It is an awesome space; it feels like a cathedral. I imagine that it is a synagogue at Rosh Hashana. On the stage, the bima, my mind projects an altar and there, just behind it, an Ark holding the Torah scrolls. The rabbi – is it me? a few of my colleagues taking turns with me, sharing the service ?– and a cantor are there. A choir? Of course. Are there people sitting on the benches? Throughout my visit to the Canary Islands, I have looked for Jewish history, for any evidence that there is still a synagogue in these islands (there is a small one in Las Palmas, and the Torah scroll that was once in Tenerife was sent there; however, the synagogue’s door is unmarked, and, in the brief time I was in Las Palmas, I could not find it).

Once, even before the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, there was a humble Jewish community on this island, Lanzarote. Later there was a prosperous community of Portuguese Jews who fled their own land and built this island’s economy. Once…

I take a deep breath. At this moment in time, just for this beautiful moment, I have found what could serve as a synagogue deep in the rocks. Complete with mikveh – and catering service. And my daughter is by my side. Outside the sun is shining.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.

Az der Rebbe Geyt: A Rabbi At Sea

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Over the past few years since I entered my 80s, I have been contemplating retirement (I seem to have actually “retired” several times from my several careers, but then, drawn by the attraction of a compelling new interest, I keep on reinventing myself as only “semi-retired”). In the process, I have come to believe that a rabbi never completely retires. Maybe that’s true for many seniors whose passions lie in other fields. In any case, as a non-retired, retired rabbi, I have served as Guest Staff Rabbi for both Passover and the Jewish High Holy Days on a number (seven now) of delightful, lengthy cruises. It has afforded me the luxury of travelling, accompanied by one of my four daughters, to many fascinating, faraway places in the world that I could never have otherwise visited.

As an American, pluralistic rabbi, it has given me the opportunity to explore Jewish communities in other countries, many of them now only a memory recorded in a small museum or a series of plaques, or a “Jew street” where once its inhabitants conducted commerce.  A few communities are small but still vibrant, maintaining customs different from the ones I am used to celebrating at home. Some are still Jewish – despite. I have visited countries like Indonesia where Judaism is not one of their six official religions, and where people with Israeli passports cannot disembark. I have also visited Jewish communities that are still substantial and thriving, such as Australia or Brazil. Or countries like Spain (with a time limit) and, more recently, Portugal (no time limit) which now offer citizenship to Jews who can show ancestry to relatives expelled or persecuted at the time of the Inquisition; or, Morocco, which, in an appealing new spirit of harmony, now welcomes all religions, putting aside the fact that most Moroccan Jews – who had migrated to that country even before the Spanish Inquisition and lived peacefully with the Berbers —  were shamefully persecuted and thus forced to flee when Israel declared itself a state. And I have visited Rhodes in Greece where a tall black memorial records the death in the Holocaust of the 1600 Jews who once lived there. And so on.

So I was taken aback when a more stationary American rabbi asked me a rather startling question the other day: “Do people on cruise ships really want to attend a religious service?” he asked.

“When you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without sight of land — just seemingly endless waves — for a week before reaching a port,” I replied, “it certainly puts you in a receptive state of mind to find some time to have a conversation with God.”

Actually the passengers on board who identify as Jewish (in my experience, anywhere from 24 on a smaller ship to 68 on a larger ship) welcome the chance to celebrate a sacred Jewish ritual together as a “community within a community.” For me, it is a joyful experience to welcome people who come from different countries, speak various languages and practice diverse traditions, but are still delighted to celebrate on an ocean-going voyage with other Jews. This year at Passover, I asked for volunteers to read “The Four Questions” with Yiddish, French, Spanish, Ladino, and English translations at hand, symbols of some of the countries in which Jews dispersed from the Holy Land had lived for centuries if not thousands of years. Then all the “congregants” at the Seder tables read them together in Hebrew (transliteration provided).

And although the meal was kosher (I spend a lot of time working out the menu with the always cooperative Director of Food Services and the talented Executive Chef), and the wine chosen was an excellent kosher Baron de Hirsch brand, I knew someone would pipe up with, “I usually have Manishevitz,” and of course we did have that square bottle of VERY SWEET wine too.

The tables were gorgeously set with “kept only for Passover” dishes, beautiful scrolled menus, flowers, white tablecloths, place cards, a Haggadah at each place setting, and wine glasses, of course, which the waiters made sure to fill four times on cue. Ceremonial platters containing the symbols of Passover were on each table of eight. The ship’s techies had arranged a microphone for me so that everyone could hear the service and my remarks.

For me, one of the most moving moments occurred before the Seder when a non-Jewish couple asked if they could attend. “Our daughter converted and is married to a Jewish man, and our son-in-law invites us to their home every Passover,” they explained. “We’re far away now, but we’d like to feel close to them.” So they came to the Seder – despite the fact that Good Friday coincided with Passover this year, and there was a priest aboard to lead Easter services — and they enjoyed it immensely. As well, we had a Messianic couple (considering conversion to Judaism) also in attendance.

For the second night, I held a discussion group on “Counting the Omer,” and to my surprise, a considerable group attended. Soon we would begin to stop at ports every day, but people still attended the “Yizkor” (Memorial) service on Friday night, which I coupled with Holocaust remembrance. I invited the priest to recite the 23rd Psalm, which he was delighted to do. He had been a missionary in North Africa for many years and was now the Director of his country’s missions in various places.

We did have one controversy aboard as to whether Passover should be seven or eight days. We settled on seven days (which is the modern norm in Israel and also Reform congregations), but if anyone preferred eight days, that was okay too. We still had plenty of matzah at hand.

Lots of good, often very accomplished people. And, oh yes, since we had a passenger aboard who was born in Morocco, we had a Mimouna, something I had never celebrated before. It’s simply a celebration to mark the end of Passover and features lots and lots of delicious pastries, Moroccan style. In Israel, Mimouna (the name honors Maimonides) is marked by a general Open House, and people go from house to house sampling all the desserts.

So the answer to my fellow rabbi’s question, is “Yes, it’s really possible to conduct religious services on a cruise ship, and many people are happy to come – and, indeed, grateful that these services are provided. Of course, not every cruise line provides this service (unless it’s specifically a Jewish-oriented cruise), and in most cases, it’s left up to the passengers to conduct their own services if they wish to do so.

And no, my friends, I don’t get seasick, and I love being at sea with people from many lands.

Real Estate on Mars?

Real Estate on Mars?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In the spring of 2017, I was visiting Guatemala on a cruise stop-over. I stood in the very field – actually a games-playing site: a ball court — that marked the birthplace of the long-lost Mayan civilization. Considerable additional archeological excavation could be done on the adjacent fields if not for the fact that they are now private property. They belong to people who have built their houses and businesses there. No way they want them excavated. However, from the ball court, we could get the general idea of the vast Mayan culture. We could look into the distance and see the ring of fire – the volcanos – presenting a misted but ever-present danger. Add to the recurrent eruptions the earthquakes and other natural disasters that wreak their vengeance from time to time in this area. Add to that, the desperate poverty these disasters inflict. If you live here, you would do well to be God-fearing.

Or, when human-inflicted evils, like the mayhem of drug cartels and vicious gangs, are added to this mix, to flee.

The Mayans are long gone — although some remnants of that ancient people, now melded with Mexican culture, still profess to derive from that civilization. Our 21st century mathematicians still marvel at the complex astronomical knowledge of a proud people who sacrificed individuals to propitiate the fierce deities they invented to explain the volcanic eruptions: At the very same time they were exhibiting advanced mathematical knowledge and building complex structures, not to mention growing abundant crops on the fertile land, the prosperous Mayans were tearing out human hearts on the sacrificial altars of their religious cult.

And then they were gone. Although there are many theories, no one really knows why. Did an especially disastrous earthquake or volcano eruption occur, destroying everything in its wake? Were they carried away into outer space by aliens? Did the crops fail, so that they relocated? Apparently, the upper classes of Mayan culture disappeared, but the lower working classes remained. Similarly, when the ancient Jews were carried off to exile in Babylonia, only the upper echelon of society and the priests were taken; the “people” were left to fend for themselves.

* * * *

As I sat comfortably on a bus on my trip through modern day Guatemala, the poverty of the surrounding countryside was evident until we approached a small city on the way to Antigua. Here huge efforts were being made by the population to upgrade their way of life. We stopped at a new cultural and educational center of which the people were extremely proud. It featured, not unsurprisingly – astronomy being indigenous to their culture — a beautiful planetarium and a theatre. We tourists were also treated to traditional dancing and singing – and some modern compositions too.

The artistic side of Guatemalan life was further enhanced when we visited the Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, which is actually three museums featuring different aspects of Guatemalan culture and combined in an aesthetically-conceived complex presided over by Dominican monks. For me, the most striking exhibit was a large display featuring ancient Mayan sculpture. Each sculpture of antiquity was accompanied by exquisite modern day sculptures (lent to the exhibit from galleries around the world) with the same themes – themes common to every culture in every generation: the elements, nature, motherhood, love, grief.   My daughter and I spent the entire day at this extraordinary Casa, itself surrounded by beautiful gardens. We drank wine, though, at the excellent restaurant because Guatemalan water is advisedly not for tourists who have not yet developed sufficient local microbes in their systems to avert intestinal disaster.

We also felt physically secure inside this complex because, in addition to the violent ramifications of the dangerous drug cartels and gang violence the population feared, Guatemalan borders were being besieged by desperate Venezuelan refugees seeking to flee the multiple disasters of their own corrupt country – including armed conflict at the border.

Over-population on a scale we do not know in the U.S. or Canada is a huge problem in Central America, in Southeast Asia, and in other parts of the world that I have visited. Why? Because these countries do not have the resources to cope with the needs of their own population, let alone the re-settling problems that so many new people bring in their wake. Their governments can’t handle it. Not while gangsters run their countries.

Maybe the Mayans of old knew what they were doing when they studied the planetary universe with astrological knowledge astonishing for their time. We earthlings may need the resources of some of those planets sooner than we think.

Anyone selling real estate on Mars?

Getting the Balance Right

Getting the Balance Right

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

When I was an “Honors English” undergraduate student at McGill University so many years ago, my concentration was mainly on theatre and drama, along, of course, with literature. History, too. I still remember how upset I was to learn about Armand Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. It was indeed a cruel message for a young girl who had entered university at 16 years of age, and who believed that, ideally, the role of the arts was to convey not only life’s beauty – and yes, its vagaries and sorrows — but also to inspire, and, in so doing, to reach for the essence of the divine. I didn’t know when I was a teenager that one day, much later in life, I would become a rabbi.

Who was Armand Artaud?

His thesis, a dramatic one indeed, was that nature is cruel, the ultimate cruelty, and that no matter what human beings build or create, no matter how much they think they have conquered the desert or the jungle, or the sea, no matter what great civilizations they build, nature will persevere in the end. Just as Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) postulates in the Bible, everything is ephemeral (a better English translation of the Hebrew word “hevel” than“vanity.” That is what Artaud’s plays purported to show: Eventually, it is only a matter of time, nature takes it all back. Like sand castles washed away by the tide, as we discover in childhood, to fragmented Torah texts or pottery shards or valuables secreted in tombs, or even whole cities unearthed centuries later, we learn that nature takes back by what is later revealed.

Artaud’s theories have seemed quite credible in the last weeks. Terrifying volcanic eruptions and lava flows that still continue at this writing have been raging in Hawaii. It’s easy to understand why the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands invented a goddess of the mountain named Pele who needed to be propitiated so that she would not erupt.

My children and I walked on those same black lava beds when we visited Big Island some years ago, so the videos and oral reports of Kilauea’s eruption seem almost beyond belief to me today. True, red embers were visible through the fissures even then, and we were permitted to stay only a few minutes because of the sulphur gas constantly emitted. However, the capable rangers and the knowledgeable geologists had it all under control then. Each day they checked their up-to-the-minute scientific information and reconfigured where it was safe for tourists to be. When two of my children strayed too long, their throats were very sore the next day. In recent years, access has been more limited, I am told.

As if in response to Kilauhea’s fury, echoing volcanic disasters have erupted in other areas of the world. In Guatemala, surrounded by “the ring of fire” of its enveloping mountains, volcanic fury has also been raging. I visited there only last year, enthralled by the fact that this land, these mountains cloaked in mist just beneath their summits, represent the birthplace of the almost lost Mayan culture.

Why do people stay? Why do people choose to live near volcanos in various parts of the world – near Pompeii for example, in Santorini?  Perhaps it’s because inspiration couples with the possibility of destruction there. Perhaps it’s because somehow, in the enormity of what happened, what can still happen, it feels close to God.

Even now, as I watch the film clips of natural disaster still raging in Hawaii, I remember sitting in the mystical vortex between two crystal-embedded mountains there and hearing the mountains echo with sound, like giant radios. What were they transmitting? What messages have they still to convey?

And I remember walking (a little apprehensively, I admit)) through the long lava tube that cut right through the Kilauea volcano. Remarkably, nature had made it into a beautiful rain forest, filled with green plants and gorgeous flowers. Right there in the middle of the volcanic mountain, the rain forest had all the natural ingredients it needed to flourish.

In God’s world, creation coexists with destruction. Our task is to get the balance right.