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5781: The Year in Review

It started simply enough. One Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Katie included in her evening sermon a few sentences about the events of the past year. I liked that: it felt true, important. I suggested we do it again the following year, but more fully. What if it became a separate thing, not part of the sermon? Katie agreed and, being a good leader, delegated it to me. I’ve done the Year in Review for Or Shalom every Erev Rosh Hashanah since 2010.

I’ve been standing in front of audiences for over 40 years, but the response I get to the Year in Review is different from anything else I’ve experienced. People heartily thank me (but I’ve been thanked before). Some ask me to email them a copy (but I’ve been asked for scripts before). So what’s the difference? My hunch is that the Year in Review meets a need. A need that we may not have even known we had, for communal orientation. The Year in Review is a collective marking of time, an acknowledgment of what we have lived through, are living through.

Here's The Year in Review for Rosh Hashanah 5782 (September 2021). Because of the Pandemic, I delivered it to a nearly empty room - though the service was streamed online. You can read it below or view it here.

Remembering 5781

For Or Shalom Rosh Hashanah services, Sept. 6, 2021

Charlie Varon & Myra Levy,
with help from Janet Varon & Eddie Muñoz

We gather this evening as a community, some of us in person, and some of us virtually... to witness the passing of another year. We remember, we reflect, we take stock.
Since we gathered a year ago, the Earth has completed another orbit around the sun.

The Earth is still spinning. And so are we.

At this time a year ago, we did not know that Joe Biden would win the Presidential election.

We did not know that Georgia would elect two Democratic Senators, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Rafael Warnock, and that would make the difference in the control of the Senate.

And we did not know that on January 6, an armed mob would attack the US Capitol, in an attempt to overturn the election.



Let’s all take a breath, and stop to think about what we’ve lived through... and what we’re living through right now.

Pandemic, vaccines, Delta variant, mask mandates, schools re-opening.

Climate change: Heatwaves, wildfires, drought, flooding, hurricanes.
The Taliban taking power in Afghanistan.

Haiti reeling from a major earthquake and a Presidential assassination.

Ongoing threats to our democracy in the US—including an increase in voter suppression laws.

An attempt to recall Governor Gavin Newsom.

Violence directed at Asian Americans.

Backlash against the movement for Black lives.

In Texas, a ban on nearly all abortions.

And in the Senate, the filibuster remains in place.

And, at the same time, activism – grassroots groups engaging, persisting, not giving up on humanity or the planet.

In the last year…
A new Presidential administration took over, one that embraced decency and rational discourse.


A moratorium on evictions temporarily protected many renters.

Congress passed nearly 2 trillion dollars in COVID relief, and the expanded child tax credit has already kept three million children out of poverty in just the first round of payments.

In the last year…
The world surpassed 4 Billion COVID vaccine doses administered. 
And surpassed 4 million deaths due to COVID-19. 

About 20% of Americans have lost a close friend or family member to COVID. Among Black and Latino Americans, about 30% have lost a friend or family member to COVID.

In the last year…
We all tried to figure out what was and what was not safe.
Most of us – perhaps all of us – have been shaken to the core. We have had to deal with uncertainty and unknowns at every level: in our personal lives, our family lives, our communities, our country and our world. 

To the young people and parents and caregivers and teachers in our community: let’s stop and notice what a hard year this has been, and the great distance between what life has been like and what we would wish.

To healthcare workers, firefighters, first responders, farmworkers, delivery people and other essential workers: We owe our comfort to you and, in many cases, our lives.

In the last year…

Activists organized for justice, for peace, for universal health care, for voting rights, for climate justice and environmental sustainability.

Around the world millions of people worked for universal access to safe food, shelter and clean water.
In the last year…
Without warning or preparation, human beings entered into moments of intense joy.

In the last year…
Some of us were not able to be with those we love.
Some of us couldn’t get enough time away from those we love.
Some of us have lost family members and friends.
Some have struggled with illness, injury, addiction, and unemployment.
Some have been blessed with healing and new beginnings.

Let us reflect on what we have learned this past year:
What we’ve learned about ourselves.
What we’ve learned about loved ones and about our community.
What we’ve learned about the world.
What we’ve learned about our purpose in life.
There are 8 days left before the California governor recall election. Make sure everyone you know turns in their ballot.

"Tevye is not going to save us" and other thoughts I didn't know I was going to think

During the 5-year journey of writing and performing my play Rabbi Sam (2005-2009), my characters never stopped talking to me. They made me laugh. They made me think. They upset comfortable assumptions.

This is why I write plays: My characters can take me places I cannot get to without them.

The thoughts below were by-products of that journey.

1. "Tevye is not going to save us"

I'll start with an op-ed piece I wrote for the J, San Francisco's Jewish weekly paper, in October 2009. The title "Tevye Is Not Going to Save Us," is a line from one of Rabbi Sam's sermons.

... I happened upon an audio cassette of a talk by an American rabbi. He was discussing the teachings of the Sfas Emes, the great 19th century Chassidic rabbi from Poland.

I felt myself being drawn in, not just to the wisdom of the teaching, but drawn into that lost world, picturing myself in the crowd of disciples huddled around the Sfas Emes — people like my own Eastern European ancestors, poor simple folk, dressed plainly, perhaps a little hungry, hanging onto the sage’s every word.

And then I awoke from the daydream and thought the dangerous thoughts of Rabbi Sam.... Beautiful as the teachings may be, they were for poor people, pre-industrial, segregated from the rest of society, politically powerless! You are living in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world, you have a hot-water heater, and your vote affects the fate of the planet!

Until American Judaism squarely faces this existential truth, and builds a spiritual narrative true to our time and place, most American Jews will shrug their shoulders and synagogue attendance will dwindle.

Read full article

2. A Thought Experiment

This short piece grows out of the argument in the board meeting scene in 'Rabbi Sam.' Whose needs are being served in the decisions made at a synagogue?

Imagine that you'be been given a special role to play on the board of directors of a synagogue.  You are to represent all the Jews who haven’t found their way to the synagogue – or have felt that there was nothing there for them. 

It is your job to raise the question, over and over, of what would make your synagogue a place that works for those Jews.

And now someone hands you a note. Your mandate has gotten larger. There are non-Jews in your community – maybe a few, maybe many – who are hungry for what only Judaism can offer. 

Without these non-Jews, who will bring fresh blood and fresh passion, your synagogue will not achieve its spiritual potential. You must be their voice, as well, to make sure a way is opened for them to enter the community.

3. The Texts of Our Times

In February 2008, I was mulling the fact that Judaism is a text-based tradition. We read, we study, we argue. But what happens when the texts are out of date, or don't speak to the existential moment we are living in? I gave vent to my thoughts and disquiet in the essay below and showed it to a few people, including my friend Deborah Frangquist and Or Shalom's rabbi, Katie Mizrahi. The conversations that followed led the three of us to begin the News Minyan.

What are our foreground texts? -- the stories that occupy our minds and hearts?

For most American Jews they are not the received texts of Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Talmud, commentators. That is not where most of us live our inner and outer lives. Here’s a beginning list of our actual foreground texts:

Scientific texts: The Big Bang, cosmology, evolution, genetics, microbiology, new views of the natural world..

Current events texts: Global warming, the Iraq war, oil, water, other resource issues, human rights, globalization, Darfur, Bushism, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, AIDS, other new diseases, cancer epidemic, Islam, fundamentalism, hyper-capitalism, eco-catastrophes (non-warming), Israel/Palestine, economic shifts national and global, labor movements in transition, indigenous people's struggles, poverty, megacities, 6 billion human beings, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, terrorism, species facing extinction, immigration, crisis in education, prison crisis, and the explosion of activism in our time...

Historic texts: American history, including the central stories of the Founding, the Civil War, immigration, labor movement, New Deal, civil rights movements, feminism;  world history and the sweep from early civilization to the present; Marxism and the left; colonialism and the colonial legacy; development...

Cultural texts: This moment in American Judaism, gay and lesbian movements, race, fundamentalisms, multiculturalism, culture wars, consumerism, pervasiveness of media, omnipresent technology & gadgetry  transforming our daily experience, wondrous availability of information, information overload/Internet, the ad blitz, pornography, 500 channels of cable, me-centrism of the above, pop culture and gossip, recovery movements, food awareness, fitness awareness, more old people, how to age perfectly, social science and psychology measuring everything in sight and explaining everything by genes and comparing us endlessly to mice and chimps...

Anthropological and archaeological texts:The expanding array of information about the range of human cultures past and present, and the human journey through time.

Local and community texts: What is happening now in our place?

Family texts: Each family's unfolding drama, joys, anguishes, struggles, breakthroughs, losses, crises, births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, divorces (also gay ones now!), school and career milestones...

Individual texts: The outer and inner journey of each person through life, including but not limited to dreams, hopes, despairs, illness, loss, jobs, promotions, layoffs, quitting, the appetites of the body and the ego, yearning for love, relationship ups and downs...

The existential text: What is it like to live now with the sum of the above texts?

These texts are unfolding before us and inside us – right now -- many with wild uncertainty. Through the many media, our access to the larger unfolding stories of our time is vast and unprecedented. It is dizzying: the quantity of information, the quantity of suffering we are witness to, the fluidity of events, the emotional impact of it all (if we let it in), and the very number of different texts we are simultaneously following! And dizzying too in the question of our response: how do we live given all of this? Practically, ethically, spiritually? For some of the current events texts, our impulse is to consult the Prophets. The prophet's cry is a starting point but inadequate. Understanding events as they unfold and responding to them -- our systems for doing this are in flux, and the looming climate crisis hovers over all of it, all the time, every second, even on Shabbat.

Notice the disconnect, for most Jewish mortals, between all these actual foreground texts and -- for example -- the ancient dermatology of Leviticus. Why do we keep twisting ourselves into midrash-pretzels, trying to make Leviticus speak to our current foreground texts, our lived and felt experience? So much current midrash has the feeling of late-night college term papers, the fulfillment of an assignment, full of forced connections and obligatory references to sages and commentators, the circle to our lived experience never completed.

Add to this the fact that we are as yet ill-able to name what it is like to be living now. Add to this the hesitancy to speak dark thoughts aloud in polite company. Add to this religion's tendency to play it safe, to take refuge in the familiar and the established.

And add to this the matter of privilege, which for many American Jews is a lens through which we view the texts of our time. We who are well off, not hungry, not under fire, not persecuted or excluded because of our Jewishness – we are among the wealthy of the world, living like kings, with the awareness that our way of life is not sustainable. We harbor the guilty suspicion that as our privilege and power have grown, so too should our responsibility to make change.

So how do we read the foreground texts of our lives and our times? How do we meet them as spiritual beings, as Jews, as links in a 3000-year-old chain? What do our ancestors and our descendants want for us and demand of us?

Our tradition -- like all traditions -- is both gift and trap.

What if the assignment were not to connect the dots between this week's Torah portion and something current? What if the starting point were the actual foreground texts of our lives -- or even one of them -- with all the uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety that the unresolved can stir in us? What if then we were to ask -- without knowing the answer in advance -- what in our extraordinary, rich tradition speaks to this text, this truth that we are living in? Think of it as midrash in reverse -- where you can draw on the entire body of Jewish stories, teachings and wisdom to comment on -- no! to dance with the foreground text of our time. I interrupted myself when I said "comment on" because commentary implies an intellectual exercise. And the foreground texts demand more: they demand an existential response, using words not for words’ sake, not to be clever or scholarly or brilliant, but to reach toward a full human response.

The spiritual call I’m suggesting doesn’t have to do with conclusions but with honest existential and spiritual searching, exploring as courageously as we can the truth of our times and our lives – not in a book, not on television, not on the Internet. In a room with other human beings. And the voices of our ancestors.

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