High Holidays spirituality Working with the Elderly

Rosh Hashanah is Almost Here: Year in Review

It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a year with a lot of changes and with more to come.

Highlights of the changes a year has wrought:

  • 2015-09-09-selfieI’m now working as rabbi at a Jewish nursing home and assisted living facility. After years of working mainly as a freelance rabbi (with occasional forays into congregational work, academia, etc.), working within a single organization has a lot to recommend it. I’m enjoying creating longer-term relationships in my rabbinate. It is meaningful work that I find fulfilling.
  • Eva and I are in the process of adopting a child. After years of not being ready/not being sure we’d ever want or be ready to raise a child, we’ve taken the plunge and are now in the process of waiting. Which means that day to day life goes on pretty much as normal, with this great big possibility of monumental life change possible at any point from pretty much instantly to more than a year from now.

This leaves me in a somewhat odd frame of mind. For many years now (like five), there haven’t been a huge number of changes from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. It’s nice to have some really big changes (dare I say, even progress). At the same time, I’m very aware of the ways in which I’m still in a waiting position to see what comes next.

Each year is different. Each year brings newness. At the same time, the year is a cycle, ever repeating.

Working with the elderly, it becomes obvious the ways in which each life is unique. People make different choices, and even more, get dealt different cards in the game of life (yes, I know that one isn’t dealt cards in the board game). And, at the same point, certain themes come up over and over again, regardless of the experiences of a life.

Each year is also unique, but the more some things change, the more obvious it becomes that in some ways things remain the same. The details of the challenges change, but sometimes, it feels like the new challenges aren’t as new as I might like.

As we come to the new year–5776–I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope it brings a child to Eva and myself. I hope for continued satisfaction with work. I hope for a year of blessing and tranquility (okay, I recognize the contradiction between hoping for a baby and hoping for tranquility).

May the new year be a good year for all of us.


Ceasing to be Who We Were

As Eva and I proceed along the path to adoption, I’ve begun to notice children at various ages more often. And I’ve noticed how they entertain themselves.

Little children play imagination-based games with legos, cars, airplanes, dolls, dinosaurs or whatever happens to be handy (twig-spaceships are a favorite of mine). We all know that little children do this. We expect them to play this way. But adults? How would we look at an adult who sat at a table playing with toy airplanes, swooshing them around battling each other? We know that adults don’t do imaginary play this way. But why not?

What happens such that adults no longer engage in the story creation process using toys as props the way children do? What has changed such that we do not derive satisfaction from the process?

Similarly, take the case of the teenager. As teenagers, we were capable of spending hours on the phone with friends, delving endlessly into the details of our lives, or talking about nothing. Yet as adults, we tend not to have those long, rambling conversations. Again, I have to ask, what changed? Why did these conversations, that used to fill a central role in our lives cease to be a part of our lives?

I’ve got no answers here, just questions. But I think they’re interesting questions. And I think they may say something about what it means to grow up. And to some degree, I mourn the loss of those abilities.

General spirituality Working with the Elderly WorkPlace Spirituality

Walking the Walk

At my current job, whether at the assisted living facility or the nursing home, my walk distinguishes me. Specifically, the speed at which I walk. If I were to walk at my normal pace, I would have to weave my way between residents like a driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. And admittedly, there are staff that do–especially the nursing staff, for whom the goal

Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)
Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)

is to get to the next patient quickly.

I, however, have learned to consciously slow my walk. To walk at a similar pace to that of the residents. It communicates that I’m available to talk, willing to literally as well as figuratively accompany them on their journeys. And often it does lead to the start of a real conversation as people strike up conversations as I walk besides them.

I contrast this to the instructions I was given when I started my first job as a market researcher. The corporate environment there was one of business-like efficiency. We, as new hires, were instructed to always walk through the offices with purpose and direction–which meant, quickly.

I am struck by the difference: in the beginning I was to walk quickly in order to show clients that there was no time wasted. Now, I walk slowly to communicate to my clients that they aren’t wasting my time if they want to talk with me.

Occasionally, I still catch myself striding along, in a hurry to get to a meeting, or to the next item on my agenda. And I catch myself, and slow down. I remember that my walk communicates something, and that walking quickly means, “I don’t have time for you.”

General Photography spirituality

Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.

Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.

Looking at a photograph is very similar.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).

This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.

When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.


For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.

The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.


I’ve Been Gone a While

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Like a couple years. And I’ve been meaning to write for a bit now, but some technical difficulties intruded: I couldn’t log-in to the site. Now, after some technical support (thank you, Eva), I’m back.

So, what have I been doing since I wrote here? Well, I’m now working as the rabbi at Cedar-Sinai Park, a Jewish assisted living community and nursing home. I find the work deeply fulfilling and varied, everything from leading services to counseling those who are dying to teaching classes. And nothing makes you feel younger than working with a population whose children tend to be in their sixties.

In other updates, I’ve done some traveling, some photography (often together). Hey, want to see a blue footed booby? Look here:

Blue-footed Booby
Blue-footed Booby


I’ve been doing various kinds of work-like things: weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvah, some writing, some teaching.

And, time after time, I’ve thought that’s a great idea for a blog post, and then done nothing about it. So I’m hoping to be blogging more regularly again, putting forward a little bit of this and that. Putting out the ideas that make up my days and my life. A little Judaism, a little spirituality, a little photography, a little humor (as Eva might say, a very little bit of humor).

For now, though, the important thing is that the words are once again going on the (web)page, and being put out for your perusal.


Elections Past and Present

Every four years, at a minimum, I watch election night returns. Some years are permanently inscribed in my memory, others are only vague recollections.

I remember election night 1992: the first presidential election in which I’d voted (via an absentee ballot to Massachusetts because I was in college in Oregon). However, on that Tuesday evening, I was not in Oregon. I, my girlfriend, and two others had driven up from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., for a U2 concert (Achtung Baby). It was during this concert that Bono announced, for any of us in the crowd who happened to be from down south, that Bill Clinton had won the election.

While I don’t recall 1996, 2000 is seared into my personal history as well as the history of the United States. For those who may have forgotten, that was the year when Bush-2 may or may not have defeated Gore. It was also my first wedding anniversary. I recall jubilation as they first called it for Gore. Then despair as they began to call it for Bush, and then confusion for weeks as they didn’t know who to call it for.

2004, is a bit hazier in my recollection, though I recall being not particularly surprised at Kerry’s loss.

Then came 2008: Obama’s landslide victory. I was at CubeSpace. The country had just entered what many of us suspected would be the worst economic slide since the Great Depression. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged. And on that night, the world seemed like a brighter place. Four years later, I read back over my thoughts following that election, and sigh.

Last night, while Obama won again, my feeling was more relief than anything else: it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But all of my hopes that Obama would bring a brighter future, and a different sensibility to Washington DC, those have been crushed by four years of rancorous partisan debate, and an increasing sense that the current two-party system functions only to fuel an increasingly myopic beltway culture.

Feeling disillusioned with an Obama presidency, I wonder if I will ever again be able to bring that sense of hope and expectation to political change, or whether it will take a new generation of voters. Voters who have not had their hopes for progress crushed time after time, as candidates found the political realities far more complex than their campaign slogans made them seem.

And yet, I know, that in another four years, I will again be watching election night returns, awaiting a glimpse of the future direction of our country.


Writing A Novel, Starting Tomorrow

November begins in roughly 10 hours. Which means, roughly 10 more hours of sanity (sanity being a relative term, in my case).

I have decided once again to embark on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which I, along with many others attempt to produce a rough draft of a novel during the month of November. I last undertook this challenge in 2009, and blogged about it some. Unfortunately, while I did finish (or win, in the vocabulary of NaNoWriMo), I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. In fact, I remain dissatisfied with the ending, though I do spend some time, now and again, trying to improve upon it.

This time, however, I am embarking on a completely different type of novel: a young-adult spy novel. As opposed to my first attempt, this genre is much easier to satisfactorily end. That is one advantage of working in a more clearly defined genre. The danger, of course, is that the novel winds up feeling cliche.

But starting out with a rough outline (very, very rough), some character names and backstories, and at least 50,000 words ahead of me, I am filled with optimism. Check back as the month progresses as I discover just how crazy this is.

General Photography

Making a Photo versus Taking a Photo

As I’ve ventured ever further into the world of photography, I begun to conceptualize a distinction in my mind between “making a photo” and “taking a photo.” Taking a photo is what we all do when we snap a picture of friends, or take a quick shot of pretty sight. Then we print it, email it, post it to the web, whatever it is we do with our photos now.

Making a photo is a more intentional process. It begins with seeing something, and saying, “wow, that could be  a cool picture.” Then we “compose” the photo (try to figure out what we want in the frame, and where). Then we take the picture. A case in point:


When I took this photo, I was intrigued by the flow of the rain over the car window. I thought it might make a pretty cool photo, especially Photo before editingwith the green background. I focused on the window itself, rather than what was visible through the window.

Unfortunately, you’ll note it looks kind of boring, washed out even. Frankly, just kind of gray.

So I began working on it with my editing software: I punched up the contrast so you could really see the impact of the water flowing over the grass. I added a bit more saturation and vibrancy to the colors.

Is this cheating? Shouldn’t photography be about faithfully representing what the eye sees?

Edited photo

I don’t think so. The camera cannot faithfully reproduce what we see with the naked eye. Our eye sees a wider range of light than a camera, a greater contrast than camera can capture. For me, one goal of photography is precisely not to replicate nature exactly, but to show something that we might not normally see, whether that be an image of flowing water stopped in time, or an examination of a smaller part of the light spectrum than our eyes would normally focus on.

As I said, there are those who think of this as cheating. But for me, this is the distinction between making a photo and taking a photo.

High Holidays Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Elul: A Time of Preparation

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashahnah, is a time of preparation in the Jewish year. Unlike Passover, for which we prepare by cleaning, and engaging in physical change of our environment, Elul is about spiritual preparation. It is a time of spiritual/life  inventory.

As the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) approach, we take stock of our lives. We look back at where we were at the beginning of this Jewish year, and where we are now, at the end. We take note of the habits that make up our lives, and we judge them, and ourselves.

Much like making resolutions before New Years, Elul is the time when we look forward to who we want to be. It is a time of reflection and potential. Change is hard and frightening, yet having a time for change built into the year forces us to confront ourselves with the need for change. There is the story of Zusya:

Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.

“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”

Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied: “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked his, how shall I respond?”

During Elul, we seek not to become the perfect person, but to be the person we are meant to be.

General spirituality

The Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.