Peter Yarrow

In 1963, walking hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King, Jr, the crowd grew quiet as the three performers stepped up to the podium. Their feet tired from walking along a journey that had just begun, they leaned into the microphone and began to play a song written by their friend Bob Dylan. “How many roads,” began the song, “must a man walk down… before you call him a man?” Though it was the first time they had publicly played the song, Peter, Paul and Mary had managed to capture the hearts and minds of a generation tired of the “status quo” and looking for change. “Blowing in the Wind” became a rallying cry for a movement and the music of Peter, Paul and Mary became the soundtrack for change.

There are moments whose weight can be anticipated- the feeling of nervousness and joy at a meaningful lifecycle event; the thrill of accomplishing a goal after many failed attempts; the excitement just before a dream is realized. And there are moments we expect to be powerful- the “ah-ha” moment of connection in a Shabbat service or the feeling in our hearts when we hear Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkenu at the High Holy Days. This Saturday night, in our Temple Sinai sanctuary, we will gather as a community for another memorable moment. Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, will sit alone on our bima with guitar in hand and lead us in song. The music will be familiar, reminding us of our days at camp or our days marching in the streets; they will be the tunes we sang to our children and, for some of us, the tunes that played the backdrop to our wedding. (Peter Yarrow’s Wedding Song is still a recurring song as brides walk down the aisle.)

Some evenings are not to be missed. We hope to see you here.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Too Beautiful Not To Share

A Young Life Passes, and a Ritual of Birth Begins

Published: January 24, 2011

My hands trembled as I grasped the tiny sleeve of skin with my forceps and separated it from his pale, still penis. He lay weirdly motionless on a utility table, which I had draped with a slate-blue operating-room towel.

A few feet away, his young parents sat quietly wrapped in each other’s arms. Several family members and friends stood silently around the periphery of the small hospital room, whose gray-green walls enveloped us dispassionately.

The pregnancy had been uneventful. A month before the due date I had received a familiar, reluctant, yet eager call about arranging a bris, the ritual Jewish circumcision performed on the eighth day of life. The expectant parents promised to call back after delivery to confirm the date and time so they could order the deli platters.

Like many parents nowadays, this couple preferred a medical circumcision — respectful of religious tradition but performed by a physician, with local anesthesia and sterile technique easing the anxiety associated with an old-fashioned bris on a kitchen counter. This is where I came in.

As a urologic oncologist, I ordinarily focus on those afflicted with cancer, often at life’s end. So 17 years ago, I became a certified mohel, hoping to marry my surgical skills and my knack for calming nerves with the hopeful optimism of growing families. A bris provides an intimate and reinvigorating view of life’s beginning.

The ninth month passed, but the happy call never came. A week after the mother’s due date, I learned, the fetus’s heart rate had slowed alarmingly and he was delivered by emergency Caesarean section. Born limp and gasping, he was resuscitated and whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit.

But three days of 21st-century medical heroism failed to provide even a glimmer of hope. A flat electroencephalogram confirmed the dire prognosis. His brief life was waning.

The mother’s best friend called me with the news.

“They’d still like you to perform a bris but don’t want to put him through any unnecessary pain,” she said. “Can you do it after he dies?”

I could, it seemed. My rabbi assured me that Jewish tradition allows for such circumstances. The ceremony is different, of course — there’s no talk of bar mitzvah or marriage, and the prayer for healing is redirected at the grieving family. A post-mortem circumcision allows a moment of normality before the immense loss must be confronted. The rabbi taught me what to say to make the ceremony kosher: the Hebrew phrase “Ani hu ha’Elohim” (loosely translated as “Above all else, there is God”), repeated seven times.

The hospital staff removed the baby from the ventilator, took out the intravenous lines, swaddled him and handed him to his parents. They were led to the hospital room, where they sat gently cradling their warm newborn son for just an hour as pink faded to gray.

Then, like a candle suddenly extinguished by a gust of wind, life left. A sad emptiness remained, as if the air were pierced by a pungent, thin plume of black smoke, rising and quickly dissipating. He was gone. No future, only a past.

Explaining to those now gathered the meaning of what we were to witness, I began the procedure I had done a thousand times. I took the baby from his father, unwrapped his soft blanket and gently laid him on the utility table. But today there were no squirming legs, no lidocaine injection, no smiling grandparents recalling their own son’s bris a generation ago. Just a drop of purple blood.

I must have fumbled with the instruments a little too long. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, Doc,” the young father called out, breaking the tension that had gripped the room. Cool relief wafted through in quiet chuckles.

Actually it does, I thought — this one has to be extra perfect. This was their only unsullied moment with him, all they might remember. With no life ahead to pin dreams on, he had paused for one intense and ephemeral instant before being wrapped in the ancient tradition of his ancestors.

“Ani hu ha’Elohim…Ani hu ha’Elohim… .” I barely recognized my own voice echoing the incantation, the words punctuated by muffled sobs in the room. As I faltered, I drew strength directly from the young parents. Lost as they must have felt, their faces remained strangely calm. I could feel their approval, their encouragement, their stamina. In turn, I reflected it to support them. I was the instrument, and they allowed no fumble. Amen.

Two years later they called again: “We’re having a boy, and we’d like you to do the bris.” The pregnancy had been uneventful. I melted into my chair, almost overcome with dual emotions. My heart throbbed with the memory of their pain, yet that pain was tempered with their resolution and new enthusiasm. It felt like water of such extreme temperature that it could be either hot or cold.

A month after that, we had a happily pedestrian conversation about date and time. Eight days later, the spring sun radiated through a brilliant blue sky into their home. The smells of brewed coffee, warm bagels and fresh lox overlay the chatter of arriving guests. Suffused with morning light, the living room slowly filled with each of the previous attendees. Wearing giddy smiles and energized with new hopes and dreams, the young parents again handed me their newborn son.

Dr. Mark S. Litwin is a professor of urology and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Published in: on January 25, 2011 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Remembering Debbie Friedman This Shabbat

With deep gratitude for the music, poetry and wisdom she gave us, we mourn the recent and untimely death of our friend, Debbie Friedman.  Debbie died just over a week ago following a brief illness. The Jewish world is grief-stricken, bereft of one of our generation’s rare and most-gifted souls.  She brought an entirely new sound to Jewish liturgy, first in our summer youth camps; eventually her music made its way into synagogue worship.  Over the course of the last four decades, she led a revolution in Jewish music that advanced prayer to a new stage in Reform Jewish life.


During the week in which Debbie died, the Jewish People read Parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion that describes the exodus from Egypt in narrative and in poetry.  In the story, our ancestors walk across the Red Sea on dry land as walls of water are miraculously held back from consuming them.  It is a Shabbat with a special name, “Shabbat Shirah,” the “Sabbath of Song,” named for the freedom song (Mi Chamocha) that Miriam led when the Children of Israel reached the western edge of the Sinai desert.  Some call that song, “Miriam’s Song.”  A number of years ago, Debbie Friedman wrote her own “Miriam’s Song,” (“…and the women, dancing with their timbrels, followed Miriam as she sang her song…”).  It has been a highlight at camps and NFTY events when the song would be played and our young people would sing out at the top of their lungs to this, their favorite among many of Debbie’s melodies.


Many of us have witnessed Debbie Friedman perform, or listen to her music, and pray her Mi Shebeirach for Healing every week at Shabbat services.  Although only one among dozens and dozens of exquisite settings to traditional liturgy that Debbie composed, this particular prayer placed healing at the center of our communal prayer experience, teaching us that when people are burdened with pain, prayer can water their arid souls, even if it is with tears.


Today, our eyes are filled with the tears of our broken hearts. But while she is gone in body, Debbie’s music remains to help us heal.  Her music will animate our prayers and our lives for a very long time.  She was a Divine gift, an angel.  May she be blessed as she goes on her way.


We will pay a memorial tribute to Debbie and her music at a special Shabbat service this Friday night at Temple Sinai.  Please join our voices together in memory, in tribute, in song.


Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

30 Hour Famine… Of Sorts

Last night, while zoning out in front of some mindless television show, my wife picked up the computer to check her email. After a while, she began to chuckle. And then she looked up at me and proclaimed, “I have got to send this to you.”

Uh-oh. What was she going to forward me? A news story about eating healthy? An article about the culinary benefits of scotch? Perhaps a baby center update professing something relatable about raising children.

Nope. This is what she sent: Take a minute to look it over.

Okay, a few observations:

1. How funny is it that my wife discovered this and forwarded it to me when we were supposedly spending family time?

2. How disturbing is it that somebody buys clothing for her iphone?

3. How interesting that, even without the technology, at least one of the families featured continue to behave in isolation of each other, at least in the beginning.

Well, message received. Perhaps I do spend too much time utilizing technology. I have always believed that technology is best when it makes our lives easier, or when it helps us to connect with others. But when it becomes a crutch, when we begin to speak to others only in messages 140 characters or less… something is wrong.

I recently learned that some church youth groups are instituting a 30 Hour Famine. Essentially, these groups raise awareness about an issue and seek sponsorships. They then fast for 30 hours, locked inside the church, learning about and discussing the issue at hand.

It got me wondering: can we declare a 30 Hour Famine… from technology? For Jews, we have a natural and regular opportunity for this: we can observe Shabbat by unplugging from the laptops and televisions and music and spiritually engage, or just plain reconnect, with those around us. We can tune in by turning off.

What do you think? Could you unplug for 30 hours? What would be the thing you would miss the most, and what do you think would be your greatest reward?

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 10:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wrestling with Tragedy

I have been reading with perverse interest the information coming out of Tucson these last few days.  Perhaps it is in part due to being snowed-in here in Atlanta that I have had the time to be so attentive.  Or perhaps it is because the brutality and tragedy of the events have chilled me to the bone that have left me so unsettled.

I had not heard of Rep. Giffords prior to the events of a few days ago, and now, though I know so much, I feel that I actually know so little.  This is a similar feeling to when I meet with a family to discuss a funeral or eulogy of a loved one whom I had not met.  I often feel, by the end of the conversation, that I know so much more about the deceased but that I have so many more questions.  And now, though I know more about Rep. Giffords and her beliefs, her devotion to her synagogue and her community; I know about her personal life and how she was married just 10 years ago, I want to know more.

And not just about her- about each of those involved in the shooting.  Stories of tragedy and heroism, of upset and calm, cool compassion abound about those people, and the most recent is found here:

Pundits and politicians, reporters and other individuals with whom I interact all ask the same questions: what can we learn from this tragedy?  How will we be different?  While I cannot answer for anyone else, I can tell you how I have responded: I have hugged my children tighter.  I have told my wife again how much I love her.  I have tried to restore order to a world that, for many of us, seems upside down.

Please let me know: what have YOU done?

Published in: on January 11, 2011 at 11:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mourning A Hero

I still recall one of my early moments as a rabbi at Temple Sinai. My Senior Rabbi was explaining to me the flow of services and what we can adapt. I enjoyed experimenting with different reading and new melodies, a process with which he was happy to assist. We would select a different Hinei Mah Tov, a campy Barchu, perhaps jazzing up the Shema a bit. Mi Chamocha was an ever changing array of melodies, often written by contemporary artists or adapted from popular songs.

While most of the service was open to adaptation, there was one sacred melody which we simply could not change; it wasn’t a problem, though, because we could’t imagine making a single change to this one. The Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing and hope, and the melody we use, written by Debbie Friedman, was and still is a highlight of the liturgy for many.

The tune is melodic, making it quite easy to pick it up with only a few listens. The words are poetic and evocative. And, it seems, for a community priding itself on rationality and feeling uncomfortable with the spiritual, the moment when the melody was offered could connect us all to something much larger than ourselves. Whether or not we believe that God can act in our world, Debbie Friedman’s Mi Sheberach fills us with hope that, perhaps, God really can take away pain, really can provide healing. And so we sing.

With sadness I came across the news that Debbie Friedman passed away this morning. She had apparently concocted a case of bronchitis and, in a weaker state, deteriorated quickly these last few days. We heard reports of her illness and we turned to our liturgy and her voice to carry us through. And now, humbled by grief, we once again hear her melodies offering us comfort and consolation.

Debbie Friedman was the soundtrack to our prayers. When we spoke with God, for many of us, we did so through the words and melodies created by Debbie. Though she has physically left us, the music continues on.

Thank you, Debbie. We miss you already.

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 4:40 am  Comments (1)