Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Elul 5779

Things I Learned from Reading Books That Are Now on my New Year's "Resolution" List:
  • There's more to almost everything than meets the eye (the Art of Revelation)
  • Look for Joy and Open Your Eyes to Life's Possibilities (Julie and Julia)
  • Your job is to be as you as you can be (You Are a Badass)
  • Character development is a life-long process (Everyday Holiness)
Art of Revelation: A Visual Encounter with the Jewish Bible by Yoram Raanan (paintings) and Meira Raanan (commentary and explorations) (Raanan Art Ltd., 2018). When you pick up this book, and it will require some effort because it is quite hefty, you will be stuck by the beautiful artwork and how it relates to each weekly Torah reading through images, texture and color. Then you read the commentary and explorations and realize there is even more in these paintings once it is pointed out. You would think that pretty much covers "there's more to this than meets the eye." But Yoram's story and the back story of this book are also incredible. In November of 2016, a fire caused by an arson attack destroyed Yoram's studio and over 40 years of artwork, included 160 parshah-related paintings. Many of the photographs in the book were "casually captured by a hand-held camera," but the vibrancy comes through. 


"Lech Lecha" from The Art of Revelation by Yoram Raanan. Used with permission.



As Yoram tells it, "After the fire, in some ways, I'm back to where I started. I've begun painting again, but with new colors, as if it's forced me to begin from somewhere new and unfamiliar, as if I have to rediscover not only my paintings but my very sense of place. It isn't easy beginning again, but the new beginning has opened up new pathways for me, and the greatness of my loss has instilled in me a new sense of urgency. I feel like my new work is more authentic, that I am taking greater chances. I want it to be more meaningful now."

So besides learning about the parsha, and art, I see that through devastating loss we can grow and use the experience to become better at what we do and who we are.



Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell (Little Brown and Company, 2005) chronicles a year of cooking everything in Julia Child's classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume I). Julie Powell is turning thirty, has a secretarial job at a government agency, and lives in "an outer borough" of New York City. She takes on this project, and it changes her life in many ways, besides gaining weight from all the butter and lard she is using in the cooking. Powell has a great sense of humor. I thought of my mother, a"h, when Powell started making aspics. Apparently they were all the rage in the 1960's, as my mother had her famous Tomato Aspic, the sight of which nauseated me. So I commend Powell for not only cooking these complicated and sometimes dated recipes, but also eating things like eggs in aspic and lots of organ meats.

So what is the message for Elul? Well, she stuck to something for a year, which enabled her to quit her day job, improved her confidence, and helped prove to herself her capabilities.  More than that, as she concludes, "Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world. It's not what I thought it was. I thought it was all about -- I don't know, confidence or will or luck. Those are all some good things to have, no questions. But there's something else, something that these things grow out of. It's joy."

Julie "thought she was using the cookbook to learn to cook French food, but really she was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility."


I love reading a book, then watching the movie, and seeing how they differ. The movie is very different than the book because it also tells Julia Child's story, and, as Julie Powell said in an interview, "there are no maggots" (You will have to read the book to appreciate that one). But it was very sweet and full of love (and much less cursing), so I enjoyed it very much.

If Jen Sincero cannot convince you that You Are a Badass (Running Press, 2013), no one can. She is funny, insightful and practical. Some may love the title; others may be off put by it, but if it offends your delicate sensitivities, wrap it in brown paper so you can focus on the contents. There are interesting stories and lists to get you motivated. I am sometimes ambivalent about "life coaching" because many practitioners use a lot of acronyms and affirmations, and it can sometimes feel like you're listening to someone who did not make the cheerleading squad and is now the person you pay to "rah-rah" for you (my mini-rant is over). That said, Jen's approach is straightforward, and although she does suggest using affirmation, she is quick to caution that you must find ones that you can say to yourself in the mirror with a straight face and believe. It is also important that you want whatever you want passionately and are willing to work hard to get it. Making friends with money is another big part of Jen's approach, as is being willing to fail. But you're never really failing if you are being your authentic self -- just gathering information on the road to success.

Mussar has been defined as an "ethical, educational, and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Lithuania" (Wikipedia); and as a "spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life" (My Jewish Learning). Alan Morinis looks at eighteen soul traits in Everyday Holiness (Trumpeter, 2007).  Through focus and intention, one can master these traits. Drawing from many Jewish sources and personal experience, Morinis encourages the reader to embark on this spiritual journey by looking at positive characteristics. For example, if someone tends to be messy, he should not berate himself for being inadequate, but look for ways to create order, and reward himself when he does. Morinis quotes all the Mussar luminaries (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and more), and his organized and clear presentation highlights their teachings. He also offers a schedule for working on these traits: four 13-week cycles, which takes a year to complete. 

As for the Real Cats of Israel, they are enjoying the beautiful September weather:


Happy Reading, and may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

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