26 Elul 5775
by Denise Stephens
Through the mere fifty seven years I have been on this earth, I was sure I was never really praying to God. I thought since I was not openly asking him for any guidance or solace, nor thanking him for the many blessings we receive every day, I was not praying. That perceived disconnect would often make feel that somehow I was not only less of a person but also less of a Jew.
As the Holy Days approach I now realize that I was not disconnected from God at all! I just find my “connection” in a different way. I pray through music, especially when I sing in High Holiday Choir.
I don’t have the perfect voice, I can carry a tune and blend well with the other beautiful singers around me. But for me that is not the important issue. When I sing and listen to the ancient melodies and words that were written so long ago I feel closer to God then at any other time. As I sing I contemplate the miracles we experience every day and privately thank him for those gifts. The words give me solace and guide me to be a better person. The peaceful music reminds me that God is always with me in my everyday life.
Singing reminds me to just be with God. I am sure he has heard MY song as my life is blessed with stable health, a loving family, wonderful friends and an amazing temple community. So if you think you’re not praying, maybe you’re not praying in the traditional sense either and you just need to find your song!
L’Shana Tova and may you all be inscribed in the book of life!
The Ramblings of a World Traveler
by Alan Shebroe
In June of this year, Joy and I spent 3 weeks traveling throughout China, a trip that began in Beijing, up to Xi’an, traveled over 600 miles down the Yangtze River, and ultimately through Shanghai & Hong Kong with dozens of places in between that most westerners have never heard of, and places where many residents have never seen round eyes either; places rich with ancient cultural histories centuries old, rich with ancient customs many of which are still in place today. A while we have been to many places whose histories go back that far, Central America, Israel, Europe, and other parts of Asia, for some reason, this trip made me feel like a traveler, somewhat lost in time, yet fully aware of the present.
For much of the trip, we heard “this area dates back to the something-or-other dynasty, prevalent throughout this region about 2500 years ago”. Or, “this area dates back to before the major tribes were united by the first emperor, who conquered all other Warring States and united China in 221 BC…” and throughout our trip, we were shown many other “areas” that are not only still in existence, but thrive today much as they did centuries ago, and it made me think, “how many other societies or cultures alive and thriving back then are, and are not, still around today?” The Chinese, The Egyptian & Palestinian cultures, The Romans & Greeks, The Persians & Indian Cultures, The Maya/Aztec/Incas, The English; yet, only the Chinese still – have parts that are not that much different than they were then, in principle, 2500 years ago, have remained a world power, and from the looks of things, will most likely still be in another 2500 years, if humanity lives that long.
The other cultures are either gone or still thrive today throughout the world transcending borders, and have either assimilated into or evolved over time into the modern day world in which we live. However, China is only JUST entering the modern day world, and it is awe inspiring, frightening, and for this traveler, this trip created more than a few moments of reflection, for being part of one of the few ancient cultures still alive today, I found myself asking what it meant, to be, part of a culture that has roots centuries old.
I can tell you it is a different world over there. Much of the population lives their lives in complete ignorance of the rest of the world around them, nor do they seem to care. Depending on their age, some feel a superiority, or pride, in being part of something that old, while others, again, depending on the generation, long for what the big world has to offer, but only sees it as a goal so far out of their reach they can only dream, or live it vicariously through the technology that is used daily throughout the world – technology that they manufacture and bring to the rest of that world. In the meantime, life goes on.
One morning while traveling along the Yangtze, we were docked and I wandered out onto the balcony of our cruise ship. I saw a middle-aged woman bring her small boat to the shore to hammer out her laundry on the rocks, in fact there were a few boats already there, doing the same thing. Her boat had a small canopy on the back and I wondered if she actually lived on that boat. It occurred to me, sitting on my 20th century cruise ship with my modern day camera, that I was watching the dawn of a new day beginning in front of me, much the same way it was, in that same place, when the Aztecs were building their pyramids, or when the Roman, Christians, Jews & Muslims were all fighting over a small patch of desert land for supremacy over that part of the world, or in her world, back then warring armies were fighting thousands of miles away for domination over her land, while her relatives generations back were simply getting ready for their new day, doing the same thing, in the same place, just like her.
Later that day while taking a tour up the river, we noticed shacks along the shore with a few vineyards upon the hills with no apparent way to get to them, while in the background were centuries old Pagodas right next to telecommunication towers upon the hills behind; Genghis Khan & Alexander Graham Bell in imagery. I was taken by how completely different my life was, and was thankful that I did not lead such a simple life, but wondered if these people were any less happy than I? Watching them bathe their children while also playing in the river with their water buffalo along the shore in the backdrop, it did not seem so… and in the meantime, like the river, time marched on.
In one city, one of our group took a tour up to the rice-patty terraces. This was a vast valley surrounded by mountains that rose up 8000 feet, strewn with terraced fields of rice. This way of terraced farming was also practiced by the Inca in South America, but they are gone, and this one farming family, was still farming this way today, and it was all done by hand and ox, one day at a time. It was very impressive, Here, time not only went on but also just seemed to stop.
In Shanghai, one of the country’s newest cities, only about 300 years old, I was struck by how far technology and the modern world had come to a country who for the most part is still living in the primitive world and just coming out into “the light”,. In reality, it has only been about 35 years since they “opened their doors” to the modern world, but it was clear that their government still controls how fast and exactly what and how much that enlightenment is. A concrete maze of business and finance, It is mind boggling to know that China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. used in the entire 20th Century!
A truly cosmopolitan anomaly, Shanghai is beautiful & new, bustling and alive with over 14 million residents. And yet, while driving from place to place, you see high rises – hundreds of stories high – right next to rubble from what used to be a neighborhood something, but has yet to be cleared away because there are more high rise complexes going up all around and it’s just not a priority, and the truth of the matter is, the rubble will most likely stay there until they decide to build, right there. Seeing the city in growth was very exciting and also very sad, for here you could literally see the past making way for the present.
Shanghai is also the only place in China that has much of a Jewish community to speak of. Judaism is the second largest religion in the city, with a following of about 200,000 – out of 14.5 million.
14.5 million. Xi’an, they called “a village of about 8 million”. A village? Of 8 million? The city of Chonqing had over 33 million in it. That’s more than the entire state of California, in one city! And life goes on.
Another thing that struck me was how superstitious the people are. They live their lives by a completely different set of perspectives, and it is all based, much like their religion on nature. NOTHING is done unless there is a purpose for or behind it. They eat this because of what it does for the body. They do that because it is supposed to ward off evil spirits or bring them luck. They believe in the natural world around them, and use it to the fullest. Their medicine is primarily based on herbs & spices (which are also used in daily cooking for what they bring to the health of the mind & body, and place more faith in meridian points of pressure applied to the body for correcting health problems than they do in popping a pill or other medicine they can take orally… and this is truly the way they live their lives and, and in MANY places, their chronological longevity is something of which to take note! One village high in the hills along the river had an average mean age of 88 with many living over 100 years! This way of life is so different from my reality, and yet they seem no worse for it, and in some ways, perhaps, better off. It governs their very existence. And this has been going on for centuries, and still, life continues on.
So what does all this have to do with Elul you might be asking? Elul is a time for reflection, a time to take stock of your life and reflect on your own existence, and perhaps, mortality, The concept of living forever took on a completely new meaning for me when I visited Wangshanqiao: The Exhibition of the Relics from the Chu Tombs in Jingzhou, along the Yangtze. Here was a 2200+ year old farmer, unearthed from his tomb, with skin still attached, teeth still in mouth, eyes still in skull, joints and cartilage still flexible, organs still intact in a separate bag (they had been previously removed before burial as was their custom), and was on display for all to see. They even had a name tag for him dug up from the tomb. I was first amazed that all this was even possible given the technology of embalming over 2 centuries ago, and yet, I was also not surprised; the Mayas performed lobotomies & Caesarian sections 2000 years ago. But I remember thinking, “I am sure this is not what he thought his legacy would be when he was laid to rest – on display as a museum exhibit…” and I wondered if somewhere in time 2000 years from now, whether or not a similar “display” would be visible to citizens of that time and what they would be seeing, and thinking.
Mortality – In Xi’an, were the terracotta soldiers, from about 300 BCE, created by the First Emperor of China to protect him in the afterlife. He created & buried into a tomb, an entire city filled with life-sized terracotta replicas, complete with armies of soldiers to protect his tomb, a tomb said to have rooms filled with artifacts, concubines and ceilings painted with stars and the sky to represent the world in which he lived. Only part of it has thus far been unearthed. (http://www.livescience.com/22454-ancient-chinese-tomb-terracotta-warriors.html?li_source=LI&li_medium=more-from-livescience&li_campaign=related-test) They were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an in a similar fashion to that of the Dead Sea scrolls, merely by accidental chance. This happened only a couple centuries before the time of the dead sea scrolls, but in the scheme of history’s timeline, not so far apart. And while the purpose of both burials were different, they both bear witness to societies and peoples long gone who have left behind for others to find, a piece of what their world was like, and give us cause to take stock of where we are in the timeline of life as a whole; a mere speck on the whole spectrum, and as for me, I wonder what our society will leave behind for others to find, and what will seem familiar, and what will seem odd. And in the meantime, life goes on….
One of many of my reflections from this experience is that I am a Jew, also part of an ancient culture, one that continues to do things the same way they did, centuries ago. But, this trip has amended my perspective of who I am, of whom I am a part of, and of how small and both significant and insignificant my life is in the scheme of things. This trip made me much more aware of the culture of which I am a part, a living legacy of centuries; time – past, present and future – a culture, some of which, at times – I admit – had been taken for granted, many of history’s details merely absorbed with yet another factoid or two to be filed away. I will also say that I have a much deeper appreciation for time as an entity, and can only hope that the time I have spent here, has been, and will continue to be one of meaningful existence filled with love for God, family & friends. What will I leave behind? What will you leave behind? Time will tell, it always does…
L’Shana Tova Tikatevu L’Chaim Tovim– May You Have a Good Year & a Good Life!