Category Archives: neighborhoods

Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –

     Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season.  From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.  

     But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball.  I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had.  But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing.  It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment.  Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man.  You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.  

     And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove.  You all know what a baseball glove is?  The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding.  Protects the hand against that hard ball.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another?  And how many of you know now where that glove is?  Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.

     The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played.  The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening.  The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs.  When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.

     The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room.  He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played.  There was no baseball glove in sight.  Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.

     Now you have to shift into the present day.  Forty years have gone by since that night.  Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio.  His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida.  The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday.  They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church.  Been doing it for years.

     Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt.  For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi.  Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son.  Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’  She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove.  They both had tears in their eyes.  How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know.  But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions.  Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.

     I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate.  It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah.  I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me.  From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit.  It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again.  That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning. 

     A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it.  I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time.  I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since.  I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord.  Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish.  And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis.  And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.

     And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives.  I know many of you have sacred objects at home.  It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather.  It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck.  Or it might be a baseball glove.  Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.

     Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things.  On the one hand, they remind us of what once was.  Family seders when our grandparents were still there.  A bedroom we slept in as a child.  A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters.  What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game.  Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.

     But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives.  I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis.  Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on.  High school and college.  Had my first real job.  Becky and I were married.  I became a father – three times!  I lost two of my closest friends.  Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi.  Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond.  And this old tallit has seen all of it.

     The holidays are like that too.  Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time.  Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness.  A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years.  But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now.  It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth.  And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.

     So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience.  May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.

May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, memory, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

The Cul-De-Sac

In our neighborhood, just around the corner from our house.  Its blacktop is grey and faded and cracked, the result of close to thirty years of hot summers, cold winters, and wet springs.  No doubt it has seen better days, and will soon need to be replaced or refinished, whatever it is they do to blacktop these days.

It has served its purpose well.  Stoically bearing the weight of cars and trucks, the day to day traffic of a neighborhood, the deliveries and service vehicles, the daily commuters.  Its passive grey face has seen quite a bit over the years.  How many children learned to ride a bike on its surface, taking those first tentative and wobbly yards, and somehow magically discovering the trick of balancing those wheels?  All those skinned knees and bruised elbows and tears of frustration!  Soon the Cul-de-Sac could not hold them, as they whisked confidently around the neighborhood.

Countless dogs have trotted across its surface, occasionally stopping to take note of some interesting smell that found its way onto the blacktop.  For the most part it was merely a conduit for them, a means to an end as they journeyed towards some other place, the yard across the street, the high school down the hill, for a walk and to see what was going on out in the great world.

In the winter storms (when they came) its duty was to serve as a snow repository.  The plows would inevitably pile the snow in the Cul-de-Sac’s wide, circular space.  Those snow piles quickly became the site of snow forts and mini sled paths, children clambering to the top and sliding down, again and again and again.  Some years the snow was piled so high the mounds would last into the early spring until finally the warmer sun, glimmering from the white surface, caused water to trickle downwards, forming puddles, rivulets, tributaries, an entire water system of melting snow and fading winter.

On nice days we gathered in the front yards and spoke about the day’s events, caught up on sports scores, made plans, chatted about our children, commented on how perplexing the world was.  The Cul-de-Sac, with its symbolic circular shape joined us together, forming a kind of connective tissue, a common space that belonged to one and all.  Part of the fabric of the neighborhood, those of us who have lived there for decades know each crack and crevice, each dip and bump.

One day soon I suppose the cracks and bumps will be gone, replaced by a smooth and shiny blackness.  But new cracks will slowly begin to form.  It is the way of things.  New seasons will come and go, new piles of snow will grow in the winter and melt in the spring.  There will be more skinned knees, more bikes that are taken for that very first spin.  New neighbors will move into the houses, carefully tending their green lawns and trimming their bushes.

The cul-de-sac will be there for them, as it was (and is) for us.

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What a Swing Set Measures

For almost twenty years the wooden swing set had been standing in our back yard.  The wood beams and metal jousts gracefully and patiently bore the passage of time, the vagaries of the weather, the hot sun of summer, the cold and snow of the winter months. For many years the swing set was busy.  It would creak with delight when children were swinging on its bright blue swings, laughing and trying to reach the sky above them.  Its crow’s nest was host to various clubs and secret societies. Meetings took place there where important topics were discussed, like the best way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, or what might be the perfect container for a pine cone collection.

In those days the swing set was a hub of activity.  When the locusts swarmed one summer, its crow’s nest provided shelter from their flying, buzzing bodies.  One winter the snow piled so high the swings disappeared, and the children built a snow man to guard the old wooden structure until spring came and the snow melted away.  In the fall, when we built our sukkah, the swing set was just a few yards away, a welcome escape from the confining walls of our temporary harvest tent.  One year, in a high storm, the swing set watched stoically as our entire sukkah was blown over by a strong wind, almost laughing at the sukkah, as if to say ‘Look at me, I’ve been standing here for years, and this wind can’t even move me one inch.’

As the years went by trees grew up around the swing set.  A cherry tree’s branches intruded on the crow’s nest.  A strong maple grew up just behind the swings, so that children might feel they were swinging high up in the branches of a magical tree.  Finally a great willow grew swiftly, its massive branches blanketing the old structure in perpetual shade.

There were fewer and fewer visits to the swing set as the years passed.  Its crow’s nest was mostly silent and empty.  Squirrels scuttled across its top beams, but children rarely visited.  They were grown, too big for the swings, to old for such things as ‘crow’s nests’ and ‘secret clubs.’  The swing set became a kind of artifact.  It told stories.  Of a broken arm from swinging too high and landing too hard.  Of aimless summer days.  Of intricate projects and plans that were made and made again, but never implemented.  Of back yard barbecues and tie dye birthday parties.  Of watching young children grow.

We took the old swing set down this week.  Its time had come and gone, but it was a bitter sweet moment.  All of those memories wrapped up in its grooved and worn boards, its tattered canopy.  As it rested in the front yard, waiting for someone to come haul it away, a young woman drove by with her three young children in tow.  She noticed the aged crow’s nest, still proudly standing strong, bravely awaiting its fate.  ‘Were we getting rid of it?’ she wondered.  ‘And would we mind, if she could find someone to bring it down the street, if she gave that crow’s nest a new home?’

Just yesterday we walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon.  It was an end of summer day, the sun warm and high in a bright blue sky, but the trees already starting to shed their leaves.  There at the bottom of the hill we saw the crow’s nest, tucked neatly away in a new back yard.  It was again surrounded by trees, not the old willow and maple, but evergreens that will guard it from the wind in the cold winter months.  Our neighbor scrubbed at the wood, working to sand it smooth so it would be ready for bare hands and feet.  It won’t be long.  Soon children will be playing there as they once did, and we will hear their laughter, as we walk by wondering where the past has gone, or if it has gone at all.  FullSizeRender 3

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Sunrise

You missed it if you slept late, seduced by the warmth of the covers, waiting for the heat to slowly warm up the house.  There was a ribbon of red in the  eastern sky, the bare tree tops forming an uneven silhouette in the distance, their leafless branches reaching and twisting, waiting for first light, and soon, spring.  There is a pattern there, ancient secrets, chill morning air, fresh wind, light growing softly.

And you would not believe how brightly Jupiter burned in the western darkness!  Cold and beautiful.  It too looked back towards the east, acknowledging the coming of a new day, yet reluctant to leave its post, king of the predawn quietness.

Across the field I saw a light go on in the window of a home.  All over the neighborhood covers were being pushed back, feet were touching cold floors, yawns and stretches and first thoughts were emerging from a deep world of dreams.  Soon coffee would be brewing, sleepy eyes might glance at the headlines of a news paper.  Tousled hair would be combed, clothes chosen, bread toasted, or perhaps a special treat for breakfast on a cold morning – cream of wheat?  Oatmeal?  As the light of day grew stronger, the trees began to look ordinary, with just the faintest hint of their former magic.  Even Jupiter dimmed, turning in for the day.

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Finding the Way to Sesame Street

In many ways I grew up in two neighborhoods at the same time.  On the one hand there was my real neighborhood, my parents’ home sitting at the corner of Leroy and Matthews Streets in Binghamton NY.  That neighborhood was typical for a small town in upstate NY in the 70s.  The homes were filled with white middle class folks, hard working and honest, patriotic, salt of the earth kind of people.  All of the children went to public school, and of course to get to class we walked the half of a mile or so there and back, even from the time we were in first grade.  As far as I remember my family was the only Jewish family on the block.  A diverse group we certainly were not.

But then there was my other neighborhood, a place I visited pretty much once a day, everyday, beginning in 1969, at least up until 1973 or so.  Many of you have also been to that neighborhood, or traveled there with your children or grandchildren.  It is located in a place that was probably intended to be New York City, on a street named Sesame St, and all kinds of colorful characters lived there.  There was Kermit the Frog, the soft spoken and existentially challenged talking frog, often musing philosophically about life’s difficulties.  There was Big Bird, the 8 foot tall bright yellow canary like creature, enthusiastic about life and gregarious in a naive way.  Of course Ernie and Bert,  the Odd Couple-like roommates, one orange and one sort of mustard colored (that was Bert!).  And then you had my favorite muppet, Oscar the Grouch – after all, what could be cooler than living in a garbage can?!

But in a way what was most amazing about Sesame Street was the diversity of the human characters on the show.  You remember kindly Mr. Hooper, Big Bird’s friend, who ran a sort of corner grocery store.  There was a Hispanic family, Maria and Luis, and their daughter Gaby.  There were black characters, white characters, Asian characters and handicapped characters, old and young, every type of person you could meet on a New York street, and in any one skit from the show you might see any or all of them interacting with one of the colorful muppets.

The Sesame Street neighborhood was very different than my actual neighborhood, but I had a sense from watching the show that there was actually a big world out there with all kinds of people in it – I just felt I had not yet had the opportunity to meet them.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up as an adult living in a neighborhood much more like the one I watched on TV growing up than the one I actually lived in.  Becky and I live in a development out in Owings Mills, with probably 40 or 50 homes.  About half of the homes have African American families living in them.  Maybe one quarter of the homes are Jewish.  There are some interfaith families.  There are Indian families and Asian families.  And even plain old Caucasian families.  It is the kind of neighborhood that feels very familiar if you grew up watching Sesame St.

And I’ve been thinking lately about how lucky I feel to live in such a diverse neighborhood.  When you work full time and professionally in the Jewish community you can sometimes loose track of the fact that not every place is like Pikesville.  You spend so much of your time with Jews, so much time thinking about Judaism and Jewish issues, so much emotional energy worrying about the Jewish community and Israel, that you actually need a reminder every once in a while that it truly is a big world out there, that there really are all kinds of folks in the world.  And by the way that God cares just as much about them as God cares about me and my family, or any neighborhood in Pikesville or down the Park Heights corridor.

There is a well known debate recorded in the midrashic literature between two great rabbis, Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.  Their disagreement centers on one question:  what is the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that sums it all up? Were I to ask you that question, my guess would be that many of you would cite what we commonly call the golden rule verse, the principle expressed in Leviticus 19, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  After all, that seems to pretty much capture it, and if you follow that one verse at the end of the day you’ll probably be following many of the other laws in the Torah.  And that in fact is the verse Rabbi Akiva chooses – love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, is the Torah’s most important verse.

But the other rabbi, Ben Azzai, disagrees.  He cites a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse far less familiar than the golden rule verse, and on the surface a seemingly strange verse to choose as the Torah’s greatest.  It is the very first verse in the 5th chapter of Genesis, and reads like this:  זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of the line of Adam.  And what follows is a genealogical list that goes on for 31 verses, one of the classic biblical passages that people often make fun of – this one begat this one who begat that one – I think you get the idea.

At first glance Ben Azzai’s choice seems puzzling.  How could a verse that says ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ trump the great golden rule of the Bible, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’  But if you think about it for a minute or two, Ben Azzai has a point – יש לו על מה לסמוך – he has a leg to stand on.  Because ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ is based on a fundamental principle – all people come from the same place, in fact, according to the Torah, all people come from the very same person, or persons.  And if that is indeed the truth, then there is no one person better than any other.

I doubt very much whether the creators of Sesame Street were familiar with that midrashic discussion between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva, but I have a feeling they would have liked it.  Back in 1969 when Sesame Street came on the air for the very first time ideas like diversity, and ethnic and racial tension, and the struggles of the inner city were just as much a part of the conversation as they are today.  No question that is one of the reasons why the show depicted a neighborhood where there are all kinds of people from all kinds of places and backgrounds, but where everyone treated everyone else with respect, and where everyone was understood as being on the same level as everyone else.

You will probably remember the Sesame St theme song.  I am not going to sing it for you, but the lyrics of the first verse are as follows –

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away – On my way to where the air is sweet – can you tell me how to get – how to get Sesame Street?”

It is a simple lyric, and a song for children, but we all remember it.  Maybe one of the reasons is because the question at its core is this:  how do we get to a place where all people are respected and treated equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, color, or age?  Sesame Street began to ask that question all the way back in 1969, and we haven’t figured out the answer yet.  But we have to keep looking, and we also have to remember that the search for that place continues every single day –

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Transitions of Fall (the Movers)

A tell tale sign appeared, just in the middle of a front lawn in our neighborhood.  White post, sunk about 8 inches into the ground.  Cross post at the top, for-sale sign hanging down and swaying in the breeze.  It had rained in the early morning.  The wet drops clung to the sign, waiting for a sun that was running late.  Neighbors were preparing to move away.  A new place, a new stage.  Downsizing?  Upgrading?  Whatever the reason, they would soon be gone.

The truth is we know people, but not that well.  A wave on the street, a handshake, a ‘how are you today?’, even if sincere, means only so much.  Moving takes planning.  Thought, discussion, realtors.  Something the family must have been processing for a long time, many months at least.  Serious conversations, pros and cons.  And I, living just two doors down, had no idea.  Walls come in many shapes and sizes.  Some intentional, others unintentional, others just there.  And others that suddenly apppear.

There were other signs too.  The sprucing up of the landscaping.  Work on the walkway and a new street light.  I’ve always thought it strange that we’ll live in a home for years and years, and suddenly, just before selling it, we put the work into it to make it nicer than it was before.  Probably many of the things we always thought we should do.  Paint the dining room, clean the carpets (or install new floors!), update the kitchen, redo the bath.  And then we move?!  Why not do the work when we can live in the house and enjoy it, why not make the home more like we would like it to be now?  It seems so strange to make it beautiful and then say goodbye.

But so it goes.  Time and again, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Families come and go.  We share space, a street, a wave, a few years.  The children grow and leave, off to their own lives.  The trees, not so long ago mere saplings, now tower above the homes, spreading their leaves over entire yards in the fall.   A new family comes and the cycle begins again.  New furniture will come, new colors of paint, new appliances and window treatments and posters and paintings.  But the old house remains.  It is frozen in time, a photograph, even a movie, always there to play, in the minds of the people who lived there and shared their lives.

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