I'm a style-writer, teacher and director of experiential education at a high school in San Francisco.

Turtle Boy – M. Evan Wolkenstein

What a lovely review! Thank you so kindly! 🐢 🐢 🐢💛


Today I am delighted to share with you a really special book on the blog, ‘Turtle Boy,’ by M. Evan Wolkenstein, a wonderful and thoughtful story inspired by the author’s real life experiences. Twelve year old Will thinks his life can’t get any worse. Mocked at school for how he looks and grieving for a father he can barely remember, he retreats into his shell hiding away from the world. But when he’s forced to do community service as part of his Bar Mitzvah preparations, Wilf meets RJ, a boy who spends his life confined to a hospital room. At first they struggle to connect but they soon find out they have something in common, they have hopes and wishes they haven’t shared with anyone else. Slowly they begin to help each other out and together they find a way to face the cards that life has dealt them.


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The Smells of Quarantine Shabbat

In high school, I was very choosy about my music. I loved the Beatles, first and foremost, because of their use of melody and harmony, humor and irony. I loved Simon and Garfunkel because of their lyrics, their poetry.

What I did not love was (what I called, at the time), “Noise music.” Too much screaming, distorted guitars, crashing drums drove me away.l

Then, I discovered the Dead Milkmen. A friend introduced me to a song called, “My Many Smells.” I won’t trouble you with the lyrics — they describe the odoriferous emanations of the singer. As a 15 year old, I found them hilarious. I couldn’t believe an actual song on an actual album would have words like that. My friend and I laughed and laughed and would riff on the words, passing each other in the hallway.

The words to the song describe smells. Their hilarity, of course, is due to the emotional reaction against them. Smells and emotions like disgust and pleasure are closely linked – as are smells and memory. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I can recall the descriptions of the Dead Milkmen’s singer’s odor-profile.

In this weeks parsha, Tzav, we learn about the offerings in the Tabernacle, from ingredient to restriction, from burning to smoke to ash. All the senses are activated: we can hear the crackle of the wood, used to fuel the fire. The sight of the flames, the touch of the animals, slaughtered and butchered for the holy meals — even smell.

Here, it becomes strange. The smoke is described as a “Reiach Nichoach” —  a sweet or pleasing savor. Sometimes, it’s even referred to as a Reiach Nichoach to God. Clearly, God is not eating the sacrifices, as such. How can the smell be “reiach nichoach” to God?

Meforshim (commentators) wrestle with this. Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, a rational thinker from about 800 years ago, wrote that the sacrifices “serve to remove sinful thoughts from our hearts. The effect of the offering upon the man who sacrificed it is pleasant unto the Lord.” Rashi understood “reiach nichoach” as “nachat ruach lif’nai” — “Of pleasing [fragrance] , satisfaction before Me [God],” for I commanded [that this be done], and My will was carried out.” (Sifra per. 6, 8.)

Both Rambam and Rashi transform a smell into an abstract thing: a recognition or a delight at human righteousness. But this loses some of the power of the actual thing – the smell in itself.

I’d like to suggest that the “reiach nichoach” is not abstract — it is a real smell — but the preposition “l’” is not signifying “to” God, but “of” God. The warm smell of toasting bread and grilling meat, the floral aroma of incense — this is, as it were, “God’s smell.”

What does this mean, that God has “a smell?” The smeller, of course, would be not God, but the people. They would derive pleasure from these smells. They would be reminded of prior holidays and pilgrimages, times of community and deep meaning. They would experience Israelite Aromatherapy. And this is much needed – many of the interactions with God up to this point have been tense or fearful: the quaking Mt. Sinai, the punishment after the golden calf, the plagues of Egypt.

Indeed, the genius of the Torah is that, today, without these verbal reminders of the smell in this and other parshiot,  we might imagine or picture the Korbanot (offerings), but we would not emotionally connect to the joyous aromas of feasting, dedication, and celebration. The mere mention of the smell calls to mind warm and pleasurable memories from our own lives. It allows us to connect to the Israelites’ experience.

These days, we are floating in a paradox — on the one hand, tumbling in turmoil through a world altogether strange, foreign, terrifying. And on the other hand, spending an inordinate amount of time at home, surrounded by the familiar: our rooms, offices, dining room tables – the same view out of every window, day after day.

My wife, Gabi, is an amazing chef. But beyond that (and besides being a brilliant writer and problem solver) she is an aromatherapist.

No, she doesn’t dab the bridge of my nose with rose oil to enhance my adaptogenic abilities (though that sounds cool), but she does fill the house with the comforting smells of baking challah, the savory waft of toasting sesame, the tang of sourdough starter. Out there in the world, it feels out of control. But at home, when we’re not looking at the news, it’s tranquil.

Let’s all take the time, this Shabbat, to stop and smell the roses, so to speak: find something delicious, soothing, stimulating, or comforting, reflect on where you are and who you are with. You will experience something of the power of the Korbanot in the Mishkan – and be glad it is a loaf of fresh Challah baking which you smell, and not the lead singer of the Dead Milkmen.

From Recreation to Re-Creation: How I learned to stop worrying and love my birthday

I used to be a nightmare on my Birthday.


2014. I look chill, but I was shitting a brick about turning 40.

I’ve found fault with the finest hotels, I’ve been grouchy about gifts. You could assemble a comprehensive primer on How-not-to-be-a-gracious-receiver by assembling  case studies from my birthdays.

Now, things are different. This morning, partway through my 44th birthday, I feel satisfied. Joyful. Full.

What’s changed?

The pitfall of birthdays in general: too much attention is often not good. Too much focus on desire leads to disappointment. I remember birthday parties from when I was a little kid, four or five years old. Who was most likely to be in tears by party’s end? The birthday kid. All the presents, all the cake, it’s overwhelming because it creates a sense of “what else is there?” and “why am I still hungry?”

me me me

Most of the problem: I worried way too much about what I wanted.

The journey from my 40th birthday to my 44th has been one of increasing responsibility and attachment: from multi-year committed relationship to engaged to married to looking forward to parenthood. And with each step, I feel myself losing some attachment to fanciness and diversion.

These days, I would truly rather spend a night at home, enjoying my family, than go out to any of the myriad restaurants in the neighborhood (granted, being married to an incredible chef makes that a no-brainer). Gabi and I are choosing stay-cations over vacations. And nothing makes me happier than an hour long walk. A nap. A cup of coffee. Some time to write.

Last year, in a prescient moment, I asked Gabi if she’d tolerate, for my birthday, a night in a rented Airstream Trailer about 45 minutes from San Francisco. I admit, it was the bougiest camper I’ve ever stayed in, but what made me happy wasn’t the camper itself, it was sitting at a little table, contemplating my life, smelling the sausages grilling through the vent, and watching the sun set.

Simple things.


Simple things.

This morning, Gabi brought the baby into the living room so I could get 45 extra minutes of sleep, stretched out on my tummy, the bed all for myself.

Simple things.

We called my parents and they got to see Anna on Face time.

Simple things.

I sat with Anna and recorded a hilarious video (which I will definitely show her one day) reviewing the 2 hours of crying that marked the last hour of my 43rd year and the first hour of my 44th year.

Simple things.

Gabi made me vegetarian sausages, savory crepes, and the best damn scrambled eggs I’ve ever had.

Simple things.

Oh…and a super-cool Green-bay Packers Cardigan and hat.

Unexpected, simple things.

I find my need for recreation and diversion has lifted, and my desire for the re-creation that takes place by spending time with my family has greatly increased.

Next to Anna Mari, this satisfaction is the greatest birthday gift I’ve ever received.

Cutting Off the Tags

We all have quirks: the way we hike up our pants, the way we frequently forget the third button, the way we inspect some delicacy we’re eating as if to reveal the true mysteries of yumminess.

I have a few quirks of my own (all of the above and about a thousand more). Here’s another: sometimes, I don’t remove the tags. Case in point, I finally banished a threadbare wool vest to Goodwill and I had to remove the tag before I chucked it in the bin. I’ve had the thing since 1997. Here’s another: I have ties which I wear on the regular, and when I do, I have to tuck away their tags so they don’t peek out.

Why don’t I just cut the damn things off?


Ah, Three-Years-Ago-Me. So young and so foolish.

Three years ago, in the final days before I turned 40, I drew a three part comic-strip, sending off my 30s.  I borrowed imagery from the sequel to Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle In Time, called A Wind in the Door. Like the main character in the book, I was at the epicenter of a battle between two forces: one force pressing backwards, wanting to remain zippy, unrooted, and uncommitted. The other force pressed me onwards to evolve, to put down roots. In Madeline L’Engels’s book, putting down roots is necessary for the organism’s survival. So too with me. None of my backwards-looking had to do with who I was in a marriage-bound relationship with (the best person ever) or whether I was actually happy where I was going (very much so). All of it had to do with my irrational, age-old desire to “keep the tags on.”

Like insecticide and fungicide, the “cide” in “decide” means to kill something. In this case, killing options, killing the past. And for many people, myself included, that’s scary, even when the old options aren’t actually desired. In my case, I was thrilled to be moving forward in my life with Gabi, but hosing down my “carefree 30s” with fungicide presented certain irrational challenges.

No surprise, I’ve been thrilled with how I’ve melted into my 40s. And I love being rooted and married. And yet, with the birth of my daughter, my issue with tags has crept up in some funny ways.

As  Gabi and I prepared for our baby’s day of birth, I was keenly aware of the fact that one of the only truly permanent changes in life was barrelling my way. I would soon be a Dad, and there was no undoing that. Once the baby was born, (a moment Gabi and I described as stepping into a time machine), in an instant, I knew I’d become something I’d always wanted to be. My roots would be forever sunk into the soil of my very much committed future.

I believe that we can not vanquish the ghosts from our pasts, for once and for all. That’s neither a realistic nor a healthy way to grow and evolve. Rather, we find ways to put these ghosts in their places. In my case, I will continue to choose to allow Life to sweep me forward and find adaptive ways to let my quirk express itself. I’m still me. I don’t want to go backwards. But I haven’t stopped craving ways of keeping things unknown, unwritten, unrevealed, and mysterious – even (or especially) as my future comes into focus — as I make better and better friends with permanency.


Two important tags: A) the little plastic clamp that pinched my daughter’s lifeline from the Mother-Ship. B) the tag from the backpack Gabi and I used to bring our gear to the hospital. My mother-in-law made me cut the tag.

The first quirk of post-birth tag-preservation came in the form of my daughter’s umbilical stump. After I cut the cord, moments after my daughter emerged into this world, a tiny plastic clamp pinched her lifeline to her 9 month lifeboat. In a week, my wife and I were told, the stump of tissue would fall off. Which lead me to an obvious and pressing question.

Q: What does one do with the ultimate tag of a human life?

A: We’re not sure. Some day, Gabi and I may bury it, perhaps as part of a ritual of our own design.

The second tag comes in the form of a name. The day after the baby’s birth, I held in my hand an official-looking piece of paper, instructing me to print my new baby’s name in block letters. In an ancient and familiar way, I hesitated to put pen to paper. I procrastinated from hour to hour and day to day. There seemed to be no perfect moment to make a mark that will last forever.

Eventually, I did. One quiet hour, I wrote the baby’s name, and handed the clipboard over to a clerk who brought that little swash of ink into eternity. Eight days later, at a Jewish naming ceremony, my daughter’s name was revealed to all the world.

Her English name was decided upon, declared to all. As for her Hebrew name, there’s a catch. Her Hebrew name, Malka, means “Queen.” And though it’s customary to give babies a hyphenated Hebrew name, Gabi and I decided not to pick her second Hebrew name. One day, Anna will decide, for herself, what she aspires to be the Queen of.

Let the past be the past. Let the future be unknown. And when the time is right, let Anna Mari cut off her own tag.




Putting my toys/ties away

Yesterday, I bundled up 200 ties, some freshly pressed with the drycleaning tag still on, and put them way in the back of the storage closet: behind the still-boxed baby-swing, behind the retired stereo equipment, even behind the Talmud set I haven’t looked at in fifteen years. I’m on family leave from work until August, and with a baby on the way (and with no rational justification to have 200 ties occupying valuable shelf real-estate) it became clear that the ties had to say goodbye.

Doing this felt at once uncanny and yet resonant, the way something feels when you’ve done it before — but rarely. It didn’t take long to place it: I was feeling the bittersweet resolution that always comes with putting away old toys.


No one needs a two foot tall, hundred dollar transforming robot. Unless it can cook good omelettes.

By “old toys,” I mean both actual and figurative. As a kid, I collected things: Pac-Man paraphernalia, video games, even something called Mad Balls. Don’t ask about that one. The magnum-opus of all my collections was my Transformers armada. My Grandpa bought me my first Transformer, in 1984. Five years later, I was still collecting them. The last Transformer I purchased was the largest and most expensive;  $100 of my bar-mitzvah money bagged me Fortress Maximus, two feet tall.  It was almost as if the absurdity of this purchase collided with the reality of my being, now, a high-school student. None of it computed, so, a few months after I bought the biggest and best Transformer of all time, my entire 200+ piece collection went to live in a the crawlspace of a walk-in closet, never again to emerge, except for a few moments of detached nostalgia when Gabi and I visit my parents in Milwaukee.



Maybe not the best use of my allowance.

The banishment of the Transformers from my room was different from other collections relegated to shoe-boxes and shoved into the basement. Old, obsolete video games gave way to newer, better video games with no tears shed: the cartridges had no intrinsic value. And as cool as Madballs were (not very), I simply grew bored of them. I was happy not to have to look at them any longer.



Transformers helped me through my green period.

Transformers were different: they’d been a constant presence throughout my childhood. In fourth grade, they were common gifts at birthday parties. In fifth grade, my best friend Joe and I ignited a new phase of our friendship coinciding with his acquisition of an evil dump-truck Constructicon. In sixth and seventh grades, I was more secretive about my collection, but they distracted me through an extraordinarily challenging two year period. As an eighth-grader, putting Optimus Prime in a box meant becoming something new, and no longer being what I had been, forever: a little kid.



I never outgrew my interest in toys.

Thirty years later, I remain remarkably consistent in my approach to collecting things. I’ve collected Thom Browne/Black Fleece shirts and ties for about as many years as I once collected Transformers. I still tend to fixate and “nerd-out” on whatever I collect: here’s a piece I wrote exploring Thom Browne, Pee-Wee Herman and a kids’ show comedian from the 40’s named Pinky Lee. My ties were carefully arranged in my closet, in a way any collector would find familiar. I have my favorites, those which get a lot of use, and others so favorite I use them sparingly lest some horrible tragedy befall them. I also have a few that I’m not crazy about, but I project some sort of pathos onto them, and I use them periodically so they won’t feel neglected. I was the exact same way with my Transformers. And now, they all live in the back of the storage-closet, behind the Baby Swing box.


It’s not exactly the same situation: my toys went away forever. My ties are going away only temporarily; my sartorial inclinations be relevant to my life, once again, come August and the new school year. By then, however, Gabi and I will have gone through  transformations of our own: from expecting parents to bona fide beginners to bumbling novices. In that sense, there is no real return to the collections we once knew and loved. The ties will come out of deep-freeze, and they will be the same, but I will be transformed, in ways both apparent to all, and I’m certain,  more than meet the eye.


A Letter to My Daughter (On the Occasion of Almost Being Born)

Dear Daughter,

little seater

This is the first letter I have ever written to you. This may also be the first letter you have ever received. One day, you will read this and it will seem weird to both of us that you are only about twenty feet away from me right now, as I sit here in my blue chair, and yet, you exist in a plane of being I cannot comprehend, closer to the stars than to this living room. By the time you read this, you, too, will no longer understand who or what you once were, now, in this particular moment. You and I will have a lot more in common on that day than we do on this day.

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence won’t you come out to play

People keep asking me: are you ready?

I am prepared, but I can’t be ready. Looking back, much of my life seems to have been set in place to prepare me for you, but ultimately, in this moment, I can no more  relate to being your father than you will one day relate to once being an unborn. It seems impossible, on the other side of some shimmering veil, and yet, so very clearly true. For the most important things in our lives, we can prepare — but we should not expect to be ready.

grandma made thi

Your grandmother made this for me when I was tiny. I spent many sunny mornings pondering its mysteries.

Though we are as different as two humans can be, we have some things in common. We’ve both been eating your mother’s excellent cooking: you, for your entire, gossamer life. Me, for my last (and best) 6 years. It is Passover, so I hope you enjoyed the matzo-ball soup last night. I ate it too, and yeah, it was really, really good. I choose to express my pleasure verbally, and you do it by kicking your mother in the bladder, but, same idea. (BTW, tonight, we’re having Shabbat brisket.)

Also, we have both been listening to the Beatles. I’m not sure what Dear Prudence sounds like when it’s piped into your glorious sensory deprivation chamber, but hopefully, George’s cool guitar part and Paul’s bass line came through to you, even if the words may have been garbled in transmission:

Dear Prudence open up your eyes
Dear Prudence see the sunny skies
The wind is low the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence won’t you open up your eyes?

I’ve been told that the relationship between a father and a daughter is a unique and magical one. I’m excited to explore this, but I’m nervous, too. I’ve never been a girl, myself. And as a boy, most of my friends, (and your uncle, too) were boys. I was surrounded by boys  well into my teenage years. I wonder: will I be able to translate your young experiences into my own boy-memories? Will I be able to offer you wisdom and guidance, relevant and helpful for you, from my limited male perspective? Will you sometimes think I am the biggest idiot on the planet?

I suppose the answer to all these questions is: yes.

femaleThis is a noteworthy time to be born a girl in America. Lots of us are angry about the messages that our leaders and our media send out about what a woman is and what a woman isn’t. The reality is that, in the company of other strong women, and in solidarity with men who want the world to be a better place, you will raise your own fist/sign/flag against the system that probably will still be suggesting that you’re the other-gender. You won’t do this alone. At some point, not long from now, your mother will take a picture of you at a march or a protest. You’ll be surrounded by countless others, fighting for the same change. You’ll be sitting on my shoulders.
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence won’t you come out to play

As you grow up, you may discover that you like Kung-Fu or foraging for mushrooms or power-tools or electric guitar. You might decide to study organic chemistry or Czech female film producers of the early 20th century. You might become a Rabbi or a priestess or an agnostic who deep down knows that the Goddess loves her. You might decide that you want to marry a man who reminds you a little of your father, or than you want to marry a woman who is nothing like your father.

No matter what happens, who you become, and who you are, I will make it abundantly clear that one thing you can know for sure: your father loves you.

See you in a few days.



Vulnerable Enough to Care

Once we read this morning’s news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we all had a choice to make:

sukkah.pngGo out into the world.  Or go back to bed.

On the one hand, we would have been more than justified in going back to bed, pulling the blankets over our heads, and saying: “This world is just too much for me.”

But we have people who depend on us. Families. Students. Colleagues. Friends.

And so we put down our iPhones, closed our laptops, and headed out into the world. But there was still another less-obvious choice we had to make. To care or not to care.

Obviously, we care. Obviously, we care that today was the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Obviously, this means something to us.

But do we feel it? Do we care it in the way we would care it if we’d never heard of a mass shooting? If we weren’t exposed to a mass shooting nearly every day of the year? Not to mention terrorism.  Not to mention devastating hurricanes. Not to mention catastrophic earthquakes. 

Do we care about each one? Can we? Can we really feel the loss and the devastation? And if we do, how can we live? How can we enjoy anything when there’s suffering like this in the world?

Today, I found myself between the Scylla of “how can I afford to open my heart to this suffering” …and the Charybdis of  “how can I enjoy anything, ever again?” During lunch, I flipped through the news and read an update about the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It made me deeply sad, and I sat there for a while, spoon paused between bowl and lips, and wondered: is there is ever an acceptable time, amongst all this suffering, to eat a bowl of soup?

We are two days away from the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. It falls mere days after the austere Yom Kippur, and is referred to as zman simchateinu — the time of our joy. How can we be joyful when, as Yom Kippur reminds us, there is but a thin line between life and death? How can we be joyful when the world is so full of suffering?

One central element of sukkot is the sukkah, the hut which Jews traditionally build for sukkot. Its roof must be made of thatched plants – thick enough to provide shade, but sparse enough to let in the starlight and the rain. It is a symbol, he said, of our precarious posture in this world, in which we must maintain a sense of safety and security on the one hand – so necessary to carry on, to find any meaning in life, to venture out of bed each day — and yet, we must experience the reality of the vulnerability of our human existence, never taking it for granted. Indeed, all of life is a sukkah – sturdy and yet precarious. The sun will rise tomorrow, and yet, tomorrow is truly unknown.

So too, the sukkah reminds us that we need to take shelter from the hard realities of the world. We need to protect ourselves from spiraling into the Scylla of paralyzing heartbreak. And yet, we must also guard ourselves against the Charybdis of shutting out the world. For just as the roof of the succah must be open to the elements, a succah is required to have a door. And so we do we. The door to our hearts cannot close.

We must feel. We must give. We must act. We must love.

And we cannot shut down, give up, or close off: from each other. From the world.


How to Shrink a Wool Sweater (Or How to Spend a Labor Day)

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to do with a day off.

I just completed my first five-day week of the school year, and come Friday, I was exhausted. Then, global-warming apocalypse hit the Bay Area and I spent 48 hours sitting in front of a fan, wearing a damp t-shirt.

By the time Labor Day came around, I was in no mood to do the usual labor-day things: drinking beer in the park, hiking under the Redwoods, lounging on the beach.

Way too drained.

I decided to do the one thing that is perfect for a day off: shrinking a sweater, obviously.


It’s hard to see how baggy it is, but trust me – I wouldn’t lie about such things.

nice pattern

Gorgeous color and beautiful quality. Worth trying to make it work.

In spring, I found a great wool/cashmere sweater-vest for just a couple of bucks on eBay, and once it arrived, I found that it fit me like a floppy medium. I prefer a sweater-vest to fit slimly, to layer cleanly under a blazer. I did some research online about whether a sweater can be shrunk, and after reading the received Lifehacker wisdom (and making the mistake of “reading the comments”), consulting a co-worker who insisted I was about to create a “barbie-sweater” and texting with my mother-in-law for advice, I decided to conduct the experiment, even if I might eff-up the sweater in the process.

inside outStep 1: turn it inside out.

Supposedly, this will reduce color bleed.

Step 2: Put it in a pillow case.

To keep the evil elves away.

poor little guy (spot the detergent)

You’ve heard of “Where’s Waldo?” This is “Spot the Bottle of Detergent.” Super fun for all ages.

Step 3. Look frantically around for your detergent. 

I recommend doing the sweater in a load of laundry so as not to waste water on a vanity project. I also recommend carrying the detergent bottle IN the laundry bag to the laundromat so that when you dump the laundry into the machine, you can dump the bottle of detergent INTO the machine with the rest of the laundry, so you can’t find it anywhere. Then, I recommend that you text frantically with your significant other: “IS IT IN THE HALLWAY” and “I TRIED THE HALLWAY ALREADY” and that sort of thing.

Then, find it in the laundry machine.

Step 4:  HOT water and let ‘er rip. 


Godspeed to you, gentle sweater, and good luck.

I felt guilty, at this point, like I was consigning an innocent sweater to certain doom.

Step 5: Stand in line for 45 minutes for a croissant.

Step 6: Nom.

Step 7: Return to Laundromat and put sweater in drying for 25 minutes, checking every six minutes.


Step 8: Rescue and apply sweater to body.

The results: 

While the sweater still doesn’t fit “slim,” it has dropped about a size, and it is definitely not ruined. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but yes – it worked!


Have a sweater that’s too big?

Wait until next Labor Day, and GO FOR IT!

Saying Goodbye: Going all the way through with it

byebye-scooterLast week, I said goodbye to something I loved: my 2001 Aprillia Scarabeo scooter. I bought it about six years and 10,000 miles ago. I have had many adventures on it. It brought me to work and home each day, it took me to Fort Bragg on a somewhat absurd solo adventure, and it survived a couple of vandalism episodes: one, ruining the ignition, one ruining the trunk lock. Year after year, it was my stalwart riding companion.

Until last December. One weekday morning, I came outside to discover it was gone. By the time the police recovered it, four days later, it had cracks in every body panel, the thief had tampered with the wiring, and one turning signal was smashed, dangling from a couple of wires.

An insurance adjuster came to review to damage and he declared it a “total loss.” This means that though it still ran beautifully (and would cheerfully start for anyone who pushed the button on the hotwired motor), insurance wouldn’t pay me anything to repair it. Rather, I was offered a generous check and that afternoon, a truck pulled up to take the scooter away for salvage.


Selfie with scooter.

This was in the middle of a busy day at work. I suppose the rational thing would have been to leave the scooter with the man to load on his truck. I could’ve gone inside, gone about my day, moved on. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the man winch my scooter down with cables, secure the cracked panels with duct tape, and run metal hooks through the spokes of the wheels. Then I stood there as it started to rain, I waited while he climbed in the driver’s seat and made twenty minutes of phone calls. I continued to stand there as he started the diesel engine and drove two long city blocks.

I watched my scooter, green-grey, the color of wasabi, rolling away from me, down the street on the back of a truck — turn the corner, and disappear forever.

Once inside, the school security guards had a field day with me. They’d watched the whole thing on camera. And I’m sure to the outside observer, it looked ridiculous. Standing in the rain for twenty minutes, just to see my scooter go?

We had a good laugh, I didn’t mind – but what they didn’t know is that I have a particular history with this sort of thing.

Maggie was the dog I grew up with, a collie – very gentle, not very smart, barked a lot. The summer after my junior year of college, it was time to put Maggie to sleep. She was having trouble doing basically everything a dog is supposed to do: seeing, walking, eating, none of her basic doggie functions were functioning any longer, and my mother, who loves her pets deeply, loaded Maggie in the back of the mini-van and off we went to the vet.

Once inside, my mother was overcome with grief and I volunteered to bring Maggie behind the closed door to the room she would enter but never leave. My mother got down low, hugged and kissed Maggie goodbye, and I lead the dog away to a room where the vet and I lifted her frail frame onto a stainless steel table.

The vet prepared his syringe, and rather than turn away, I laid my hands on Maggie. I imagined her soul, her little doggie soul, prying loose from her mortal coil, floating up to heaven. It wasn’t a totally smooth process. Her muscles convulsed and she shivered and the vet started telling me in a stern voice not to worry – but I blocked him out. I laid my hands on her. I felt her. I concentrated. I imagined it to be my responsibility to be her boatman, ferrying her across the turbulent river into gentle darkness. A very long ten seconds passed and she was still.


Having a little trouble saying goodbye to my beloved, beat-up sofa.

I have not always been so courageous with my goodbyes. I regret each failed opportunity to be present for transformation.

On the day that 1-800-GOT-JUNK came to haul away my beloved, beat-up sofa, my napping spot since I was a child, gifted to me by my parents and a key fixture in every apartment I’ve lived in my adult life, I made sure I was at work. I came home and it was gone.

On the day my dear friend and roommate loaded his U-Haul to move to New York, I was hiding in a Boston cafe with my laptop. When I came home, he was gone.

And about seven years ago, on the last day of my relationship with a woman I was engaged to, after we called it quits and decided to go separate ways, the day she moved her stuff to a friend’s house down the street, I arranged to be in Tuscon for the weekend. When I came home, she was gone.

I’ll admit, the sofa incident is probably a case of too-much-sentimentality (someday I’ll tell you about how I still own my first-ever laptop, my first pair of Doc Martens, and a red cup from the first college party I ever went to). But the second and third situation I still regret. By skipping town during two necessary but painful moments, I cheated myself, my roommate, and my ex out of much-needed closure. My roommate and I eventually talked about it and I apologized. But when it came to ending things with the woman I’d been with for four years, someone I’d been engaged to and planned for a future with, I was neither literally nor figuratively present for her transition out of the home we shared. I thought it would save me from dealing with the pain of the moment, but in reality, it only made it worse; she was gone, but the pain was waiting for me when I came back.

I never want to make that mistake again. I want to feel my feelings deeply – the good and the bad. I don’t want to be “out of town” when reality is happening, even painful reality, and I’ve taken steps to correct this.

Two years ago, my Uncle David, the oldest member of my family, after a long fight with organ failure was near death. I had the chance to call him and say goodbye. That afternoon, I went into an empty classroom, set up Skype, and called my Uncle David. We talked for about twenty minutes. I rehashed a funny story; I was fourteen years old, helping him sell toys at a rural flea market. Spur-of-the-moment, I bought a black rabbit. I realized after the fact that this was a terrible idea and pretended to be allergic. I begged my uncle to help me return the rabbit for a refund. Now, nearly thirty years later, he remembered, and that formed the core of our last conversation. After the funny story was over, it came time to say goodbye, and we did so in the only words that can do such I thing: he said to have a great life. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we said goodbye and I hung up the phone.

I videotaped the whole call. I wanted to have it. I like to have small pieces of gone-things. I have a 10 inch piece of fabric from a childhood blanket. I have a visitor’s pass from the nature preserve where I got my first kiss. I have 30 seconds of video, just me crying, following my call with Uncle David. I couldn’t be with him in the hospital in Milwaukee, but I was with him on the phone. My sadness, after the call, was part of an experience I needed. I needed it in order to be ready for another phone call, 24 hours later, when I learned that he was dead. (I’ve written about this experience, by the way, in my post: “Grieving in the Age of the Selfie”).

Being present in moments of grief, leaning into the sadness is, I think, a very Jewish idea. In Hebrew, a funeral is called a “Halvayah,” meaning “to accompany.” The family accompanies the closed casket to the grave and participates in burying the loved one, each family member shoveling dirt, an act of kindness to the body, to help it on its way, to rejoin the earth. In Jerusalem, no casket is used: a body is simply wrapped in a shroud and lowered into the earth.

There is no escaping the reality of what is happening.


My parents, helping me into my “kittel,” a kind of ceremonial robe for saying goodbye to your single self. You wear the same kittel on Yom Kippur to say goodbye to your old, flawed self, to make room for renewed commitments. And, indeed, you wear it after you die.

Not every goodbye is so sad. Last summer,  on the happiest day of my life, under the chuppah, I laughed and I cried. I laughed because I couldn’t believe the waterfall of joy pouring into my bride-to-be and me from all around, and cried because of the enormity. I was saying goodbye to “single-me” whom I have known all my life. I really loved single-me, and yet, single-me was ready to go… to go to the place all beloved things go when they go forever. Somewhere far overhead. Somewhere deep inside.

Whether saying goodbye to a scooter, a family member, a dog, or your former self, I think doing it “all in” is important: for the past, for the present and the future. For the past, because it gives honor to history. For the present because that’s the only time when we can make choices. And for the future, because saying goodbye properly allows us to pave a path towards a life where we are okay. Where we can remember fondly. Where we can fall in love again.

Where we can move on.

All this is on my mind because last week, I said goodbye to a machine, a machine I loved. And if a machine could love, I feel like this one did. It was glad that I didn’t send it to scooter heaven without a proper goodbye. And that I took it for a final ride on its last day, cracks and duct-tape and all, around and around and around the school’s parking lot in the rain.

It would be glad that, like I did with Maggie, I laid my own bare hands upon it in our final moments together. I wheeled it up the ramp myself, I held to keep it from falling it as the man winched it down. I didn’t turn my back on it.

I watched it go.


Scootius Maximus: 2001-2017


It’s Not Enough to be Not-Islamophobic

This isn’t a good time to be a Muslim taxi driver in America.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has expressed fears of increased attacks on Muslim drivers. As it is, taxi workers are 20 times more likely to be killed on the job. Now, they fear, Trump’s attempt to ban refugees from Muslim nations will likely incite additional violence against Muslim drivers. This stands to reason, as hate crimes against Muslims have already surged in the past year.  Meanwhile, Trump’s expressed intent to grant priority to Christian refugees sends an untrue message: that Islam is inherently dangerous, and Christianity is inherently safe.

This idea, which has become commonplace, is terribly dangerous: for Muslim citizens and for the future of our country.

I’m reminded of one opinion piece, written after the last year’s bombing in Brussels; I’m less concerned about the piece itself and very concerned about the fact that it was shared almost 63,000 times on Facebook alone. Search for the same article on Twitter, and you’ll find Islamophobes retweeting it to further their Islamophobic agenda–an agenda that hides, like Trump’s executive orders, behind the notion that Christianity is safer or more peaceful than Islam.

In this piece, Nabeel Quereshi states that the Quran played a role in the March 2016 Belgian terrorism attack, and more generally, in the cultivation of fundamentalist terrorism:

“…While ISIL may lure youth through a variety of methods, it radicalizes them primarily by urging them to follow the literal teachings of the Quran…interpreted consistently and in light of the violent trajectory of early Islam. As long as the Islamic world focuses on its foundational texts, we will continue to see violent jihadi movements.” []

Quereshi concludes that the only way to combat the theological seduction that ISIL uses to conscript youth into its terrorist army is to promote Christian theology:

“I suggest that sharing alternative worldviews with Muslims is one of the best methods to address radicalization.  Indeed, this is what happened to me. As I faced the reality of the violent traditions of Islam, I had a Christian friend who suggested that Islam did not have to be my only choice and that there were excellent reasons to accept the [Christian] gospel.”

It is human nature to look for explanations following terrifying events. Many people are happy to offer confused and scared Americans a simple calculation: blame the Book. And often, this works. Because most Americans, even well-meaning Americans, do not have enough exposure to Islam or Muslim people to know how to challenge or contextualize Islamophobic sentiments. Many will read and re-tweet the conclusion, that Christianity is inherently safe and Islam is inherently dangerous, thus perpetuating Islamophobia. And as evidenced by the current state of affairs, Islamophobia translates into oppression and injustices against Muslims, not to mention the furthering of xenophobia in general.

To be clear, the New and Old Testaments–the core books in Christianity and Judaism–are no more inherently peaceful than the Quran. The New Testament could be seen as responsible for inspiring the Crusades, which killed 1-3 million people over two hundred years.  It could be seen as responsible for tens of thousands burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. It could be seen as responsible for the enslavement and cultural genocide of native colonies in the New World. Likewise, consider this line from the Old Testament (AKA the Hebrew Bible): “Thus says the LORD…go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (Samuel 15:3). Pretty bad, right? The Bible contains this verse, and dozens like it, yet, we know better than to suggest that the Bible has inspired inherently violent religions, or ban from our borders those who cherish it.

On the other hand, like the Bible, the Quran also contains messages about peace and tolerance:

  • “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.” (Holy Quran: 2/ 256)
  • “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48)
  • “To you be your religion, and to me be mine.” Quran (109:6)

Sadly, Islamophobes attempt to debate the meaning of these verses, insisting that they are misunderstood and out of context. Exactly my point. If the goal is to prove or disprove the peacefulness of a religion through close text analysis, then no religion comes out ahead. Ultimately, one cannot assess any religion based on close text analysis, devoid of real human contact, and I say this as a scholar of the Torah. This is not a time to scrutinize books and point fingers.

We cannot blame any one text or religion for violence in the modern world, nor religion as a whole; 40 million deaths in Mao era China, and 20 million deaths in Stalin-era  Soviet Union prove that humans will gladly kill each other for non-religious ideologies. Likewise, we cannot blame the Torah, revered by 14.2 million Jews. We cannot blame the New Testament, with 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third of all the people on Earth. And we cannot blame the Quran, with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world as of 2010. I urge that we blame neither books nor religion for man’s inhumanity to man. Instead of worrying about whether the text of the Quran (or the Bible or the Torah) is peaceful or violent, cruel or merciful, we must think of all religion like any major discovery of humankind, from the wheel to the splitting of the atom, or like humanity itself: containing both the potential for good and for bad–providing opportunities and challenges for us to make the world a better place for the next generation.

As a teacher of Torah and Comparative Religion, I see it as my job not to propagate the idea of my own religion’s superiority, but rather, to understand who we are, and just as importantly, to make room for understanding others. I urge my students not to read and consume verses of the Quran out of context, especially when quoted by people with an agenda to sow suspicion, xenophobia, and fear, but rather, to learn from real people, Muslims who love their religion and culture, exactly the way we love ours. A great way for anyone to start is to watch Ameena Jandali’s videos: on everything from What is Islam to Islam and Terrorism.  Take a course at a community college. Find an event that promotes real contact, such as this “We Love Our Muslim Neighbors” event, and show up.

These days, it’s not enough to be “not Islamophobic.”  We must be allies. We must be truly anti-Islamophobic. And in order to be anti-Islamophobic, we cannot be Islam-ignorant.