Monthly Archives: July 2011

Meditation and Organic Torah: The Missing Link

by Natan Margalit (Newton, MA)

“Narcissistic navel gazing” was an accusation thrown around a lot when meditation and other forms of spiritual practice started making inroads into Jewish communities a couple of decades ago. Now, a lot of us meditate, and far from taking Jews away from the traditional Jewish emphasis on community, tzedakkah, and social justice, Jewish meditation has greatly enriched our lives.

And yet, anyone who meditates knows that it often is a struggle to connect our spiritual practice with the rest of our lives. I try to meditate in the morning. Actually, I do my own combination of davenning (Jewish prayer) and meditation. It usually isn’t a transcendent experience, but it can get me to slow down, feel my body, breathe, accept myself for a few moments before I start rushing around trying to solve my problems — or the world’s. On a good day, I get a feeling of something that, on reflection, I might call presence, or even Presence. But all that quickly gets swept away once I come downstairs and face the music: The kids need to get to school on time but Nadav won’t put on his clothes and Eiden wants to play baby dinosaur. I’d love to play with them but instead I’m aggravated because I need to rush them off to school and myself off to work. Maybe it’s just the dynamic rhythm of life: a time to meditate, a time to dress the kids, a time to make a living — to everything there is a season.

But I think that’s not the whole story.

We live in a society and economy that kills Presence more than it needs to. Let me go on with more tales of my mornings: some mornings after I come downstairs I can escape the chaos in the house for a moment by doing one of my favorite chores: taking out the compost. Putting the compost on the pile and covering it up with dry grass clippings, I take note of how it’s doing. It’s like cooking — is there too much liquid, or is it too dry? How does it smell? Like rich, plant-nourishing compost or still yucky? I’m checking its progress from last week’s rotting food scraps to fertilizer for our garden, and in a couple months, more veggies for our table. It’s a mundane but also magical cycle that always amazes me. And it reminds me of what most people say when they are asked where they feel spiritually connected: “in nature.” And it’s true. There is something about the patterns of nature that inexplicably affects our consciousness. Perhaps it’s that everything is connected and nothing is wasted. Nature is a set of cycles and patterns that bring us back to Presence and the Oneness beneath all existence. So composting can feel like a continuation of my meditation.

But, most people don’t compost. The default in our society is tossing it. Out of sight and out of mind. And it does something to our spirit as well as the world when we cut off our minds from the natural cycles. Go to YouTube (or the sidebar of the Organic Torah blog) and check out the short video The Story of Stuff. It powerfully illustrates how our economy is all about a linear fantasy that we can take all the resources we want from somewhere, use them up and dump the waste into an infinite somewhere else. This is the Industrial Age worldview that gets us to rush around in work schedules more suited to machines than to people. Family and community take a back seat to production and GDP.

When I compost valuable organic matter (last night’s dinner scraps) instead of tossing “waste” I’m also keeping a bit of Presence in my life. It not only helps reduce the size of the landfill, but it also expands the breath of my soul. OK, but beyond composting, how can we connect more to Presence in our work and daily lives? Where can we start shifting the structure of our lives to include more natural patterns?

I get at least part of the answer when I do my combination davenning/meditation in the morning. When I think of patterns in daily community life, I think of a little quote from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 127a) that comes right near the beginning of the daily morning blessings. “These are the things of which a person eats their fruit (the yield, or reward) in this world, and the principle (Hebrew: keren, horn) remains for him/her into eternity: honoring father and mother, acts of loving kindness, arriving early to the study house in the morning and evening, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, supporting (a poor) bride, attending to the dead, concentration in prayer, making peace between people. And the study of torah is equal to them all.”

The daily rhythm of saying these words (and the Hebrew does have a beautiful, poetic rhythm to it) reinforces actions that we as individuals can do to strengthen the natural rhythms and patterns of community. The seemingly mundane actions mentioned in the Talmud — honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping out at a wedding, or welcoming guests — recognize the patterns of communal life. These actions, and actions like composting, strengthen those patterns at their most vulnerable and fragile points: the relationship between generations, the cycles of birth and death, and the easily frayed fabric of community. Underlying and emerging from all these actions is the torah. It is “equal to them all” because it enables us to reflect on them together as one interlocking whole. The Sages said about the torah: “turn it and turn it, for all is in it,” because the torah is but another level of the weave of life in which nothing is wasted.

We can do a better job of connecting our meditation and spiritual practice to our daily lives, but we have to realize that the cards are stacked against us. The dominant culture and economy are still operating on a mechanical model that keeps us running away from Presence, away from the patterns that lead us to the One. In order to spread that sense of Presence beyond the sitting cushion and throughout our lives we need a more organic model of daily life. For that, the (organic) torah is a good place to start.

Natan Margalit was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, studied Anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, made aliya, and studied for many years in Israeli yeshivot. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D.  in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001.  He has held teaching positions at Bard College , the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston.
Natan is Director of Oraita, a program of continuing education for rabbis of Hebrew College , as well as spiritual leader of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Western Connecticut .  He is President of Organic Torah, inc. a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society. He has written and taught for many years on Judaism and the environment, innovative approaches to Jewish texts, Jewish mysticism and spirituality, and gender and Judaism. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife Ilana and sons, Nadav and Eiden.
This piece first appeared on Organic Torah’s website ( and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Reclaiming My German Citizenship

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

It was last June that my husband Brian and I completed our applications for German citizenship before moving from Bozeman, Montana to Berlin, Germany.  By reclaiming our German citizenship we hoped to come “full circle” as the descendants of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.  We are still waiting for the magical moment when we learn that our citizenship has been restored, but we both believe it will be worth the wait.

It was not a magical moment when we told my mother that we were moving to Germany.  The opportunity to connect with my past, become fluent in a language I fell in love with as a child, and to once again be Jewish in Germany meant nothing to her.  How could we bring her grandchildren to the place of horror and persecution from which she and my father had fled?  No answer would suffice.  She did not speak to us for six weeks.

I don’t know what it felt like for my parents and grandparents to be stripped of their German citizenship, to be stateless from 1938 until 1944, and to finally become American citizens.  My maternal grandmother seemed to remain stateless, eventually leaving America for Israel, then Switzerland, and finally going back to her beloved  Germany.  My paternal grandparents were more typical immigrants, creating their own oasis of German culture in the middle of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood (complete with apfel strudel, kartoffel salat, and lots of wurstchen).

No form of Holocaust reparation is enough, but reclaimed citizenship has more significance for me than any financial restitution our family may receive.  My children and their descendants will have opportunities that my grandparents could never have imagined.  We will have access to Germany’s universal health care system and free system of higher education.  We will automatically become citizens of the European Union which means we can live, work, and study at a university in any EU country under the same conditions as nationals.  We will not have to give up our American citizenship, nor do we want to.

I will take full ownership of my identity when I regain the citizenship that was stripped from both my parents’ families.  As a German American Jew I can embrace each of these three elements of my identity to whatever degree I wish.  Just as I have always struggled with what it means to be Jewish, I will always struggle with what it means to be German.  But I am entitled to my German citizenship, and I may soon have it.

After months of fruitless attempts to track down my citizenship application, I learned in March that the all-efficient German bureaucracy had lost it.  The application contained many documents that I had painstakingly put together to establish my German Jewish identity.  These were my personal historical building blocks that had suddenly vanished.  The official who delivered this disturbing news politely apologized and suggested I file a new application and begin the process all over again.  His cold words hit me like a stamp that says “no one cares.”

Now it is June again, our first school year in Germany is coming to an end, and my oldest son is preparing for his bar mitzvah in Berlin this fall.  Avery’s bar mitzvah will take place on the anniversary of my father’s bar mitzvah in New York City in 1942.  My son and my father will have both taken this step as immigrants, and as German American Jews who belong to a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

I also have high hopes that the stress and frustration of trying to move my  citizenship application forward are finally behind me.  My application was eventually found and is being processed in Rathaus Schoeneberg, the place where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  Kennedy not only said that he was a Berliner, but that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” As we embark on our second year of living in Germany, I feel optimistic that Kennedy’s vision will become a reality for me.

Donna Swarthout came to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle:

And you can hear her reading a version of this story on NPR’s Berlin Stories:

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Wednesday the Rabbi Said Kaddish

by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

Growing up, all I knew about the Kaddish was that it was recited by children whose parents were dead, thus I was absolutely forbidden from saying it.  An important tenet of folk religion –otherwise known as superstition– is that a child who recites Kaddish tempts the Angel of Death to take his or her parents from this earth.  Traveling the country and teaching, I have found this tradition to be universally known and observed by Jews.

During my second year in rabbinical school I studied the history of the Kaddish and its role in Jewish liturgy.  I was already aware that the words of the prayer had nothing to do with death, and that the person leading the recitation was in fact heaping praise upon God.  But I was surprised to learn that the origin of the Kaddish was not as a mourner’s prayer at all.  In its ancient formulation, as the Rabbi’s Kaddish or Kaddish d’Rabbanan, it was recited upon the conclusion of Torah study. The custom of mourners saying Kaddish arose centuries later.

It was in Rabbi Joel Roth’s classroom that I abandoned my attachment to superstitions about not saying the Kaddish and allowed the prayer to assert its primacy in my daily life. Like his colleagues in the Talmud & Rabbinics department, Rabbi Roth followed a pedagogic approach to the text that included calling upon the students to read, translate and explain passages without warning. This somewhat intimidating practice ensured that no student would attend class unprepared.  Every class period was effectively a pop quiz, at least for the students called upon to read that day.  It was also an opportunity for individual students to demonstrate their progress, which Rabbi Roth both encouraged and rewarded.

Toward the end of every 90-minute class, before we closed our volumes of Talmud, Rabbi Roth would take a laminated sheet from his desk and hand it to the student who “stood out” that day from among the group.  Then we all stood together to recite the Rabbi’s Kaddish. When this privilege, an invitation to lead the prayer, was bestowed upon me for the first time that semester, my heart rejoiced.  I felt my praises of God’s name rise up to join the chorus of angels in heaven.  I still remember how I felt that morning, nearly half a lifetime ago.

These days, I attend a weekly Torah study at my doctor’s office. It is comprised of adult learners who are professionals in other fields. As a rabbi and the assigned facilitator, I am often the only one present who has prepared the text prior to class.  Usually other members of the group volunteer to read aloud from the text, ask questions about the translations and commentaries, and readily offer their own interpretations of the material.  At a well-attended session, six to eight friends sit around a conference table, enjoying coffee and snacks with Torah study and conversation.  This past Wednesday, however, our host spent half the class moving chairs from every exam room into the break room.  At the end of the hour I realized that we had a minyan – the quorum needed to say the Rabbi’s Kaddish.  We quickly ascertained which direction was east, and I scrolled through the prayer book on my iPhone to find the words, fondly recalling Rabbi Roth’s laminated sheet.  My heart sang as the chorus of students stood with me to praise God’s name.

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.

You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (, where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.

And for more information about Gottfried, visit her website:

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Sweet Dreams

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Sometimes I dream I’m the one who kills Hitler.
It’s simple. I walk up to him,
shoot him in the face, and watch his head
explode into a million
glass pieces that clink on the floor
like a Saturday morning cartoon character’s.
Except he doesn’t get back up.

And sometimes I am Yael.
I invite Hitler into my tent as he flees from his enemies.
He tells me he is thirsty, and I
give him milk, and he falls fast asleep.
I pick up a tent pin and hammer. I drive the pin
through his temple until it reaches the ground.

Other times I’m part of the plot to assassinate him
aboard his plane. This time I make sure
the bomb explodes. He falls faster and faster, crashing
with such force the earth swallows him up, as if he never

existed, and I’m sitting on the back porch, the sun is shining,
and all my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles
are laughing and telling stories.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007), a collection of poems about her family and the Shoah. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals such as the Connecticut Review and Limestone, as well as on Beliefnet. She is a teaching fellow at Clal.

This poem has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

For more about Kirchheimer’s work, visit:

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, poetry