thinking and praying

by Leah Bieler

Dear Republican politicians -



Thoughts and prayers. Thinking and praying. A whole lot of Jews in America, and around the world, spent many hours in the past week and a half doing just that. Thinking and praying.


In order to ensure our complete focus, we fast. Traditionally, we fast not once, but twice in one seven day period. And we apologize. For all of our bad behavior, big or small. We look people in the eye, and make promises to do better.


Swathed in our cloaks of ascetic righteousness, we literally beat our breasts as we confess our communal sins. It’s all very dramatic, made even more so by our dry mouths and rumbling bellies. Usually someone faints, and an ambulance is quietly summoned. It can all make a person feel quite virtuous, really, this thinking and praying.


The rabbis knew this. That there would be danger in our self-satisfaction. So they chose a reading from the prophets - not about repentance, or forgiveness - but about the false picture we paint of ourselves on Yom Kippur. The prophet castigates, quoting God:


Is such the fast I desire? A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?...No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58, 5-7)


Thoughts and prayers that don’t spur us to act are an insult. Prayer is a powerful tool for introspection, for building community, for developing a relationship with the divine. But when other people are hurting - they can’t eat our prayers. They can’t be comforted by our thoughts. Prayer is an essentially selfish act. It only stops being selfish if it changes your perspective, if it helps remind you what your responsibilities are to others.


I remember watching my children after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. We lived only a half hour drive away from the scene, and their own school did repeated lockdown drills in the aftermath. But my kids weren’t stupid. Their spread-out leafy New England prep school campus had been a selling point. But now, they became anxious. How can anyone protect all these buildings? What if someone with a gun appears as we’re walking along the paths? Unless the school had been willing to have the children constantly accompanied from one class to another with groups of well trained armed guards - I really had nothing to tell them.


Americans are not just naturally more violent, more callous, more murderous than people from other countries around the world. There is nothing in our DNA that causes the proliferation of gun violence. But none of those countries has an NRA, a gun manufacturer’s lobby that pays too small a price for your silence. The right to bear arms does not trump literally every other right. The right not to live in fear. The right to walk to class without armed guards. The right to our actual lives.


No more thoughts. No more prayers. Nobody cares what’s in your heart. Enough praying and thinking, thinking and praying. It won’t save a single life. Act, stand up against those craven gun salesmen, or be complicit in every murder, every suicide, every stupid, senseless ‘accident’ that follows.  


a mother's perspective on leading on the high holidays

by Leah Bieler

After a couple of years' hiatus, I'm back to leading high holiday services this year. It's always been complicated, managing this and still having a family holiday. In today's Forward, I describe how leading is different for me than for my teachers.


When I was a little girl, my father always led the shacharit (morning service) on the High Holidays. The tunes permeated our house, beginning whenever he decided the season should. Sometimes he started ‘practicing’ as early as Purim. He knew it all nearly by heart, and even as a young child, I sensed that he didn’t really need the practice, except as a way to begin to focus his mind on the task ahead.

I also remember watching as the cantor would prepare himself in the days and weeks before Rosh Hashanah. He would be careful only to speak when absolutely necessary so as to save his voice. And the morning of that first day, he would don that funny looking crown, and his whole demeanor would change. He would sit, ramrod straight in his oversized clergy throne, and you could feel the gravity of the day radiating from his face.

And then there’s me.

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on hurricanes, memories, and a secret path to Jerusalem

by Leah Bieler

Hurricane Irma has mostly passed, and it seems Florida has been spared from the worst of it. But other places were not so lucky. In the Times of Israel, I mourn for a place that was taken from me, even though it was never mine to claim.


I’m watching hurricane warnings on the news, and it all seems so far away as the crisp hint of fall air hangs over New England evenings. It has been uncharacteristically cool, this last month of summer. Visiting Cape Cod, we explored the tidepools and I didn’t even bother with a bathing suit, certain I would regret swimming the moment I exited the water and got hit by the ocean breeze. The kids ran out, teeth chattering, demanding towels.


Though we live in MA, and spend our summers mostly landlocked in Jerusalem, their primary experience of the ocean is from St Martin. For more than 25 years, my family spent vacations on the beach there. My parents, in a transparent bid to keep their teenagers, and later their grandchildren, spending a chunk of time together, provided the setting. They would rent a house big enough to fit the entire family, and simply wait as the positive responses poured in.


As a teenager, it was so freeing not having to fret about a scene around a hotel pool. The house was so far down the beach that few people passed by. I swam for hours at a time and listened to the waves roll in. If it rained, we played cards, or read, not bothering to change out of our PJ’s till the sun peeked through the clouds.


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remembering them in life

by Leah Bieler

In high school, I took a trip to Poland and Israel, one of the first wave of groups to do so, when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. I know, I’m showing my age. The emotional experience of visiting the camps, the complicated reaction I had when I saw sweet looking little old men and women, and realized that many of them were the perfect age to have been Nazi collaborators, those things I more or less expected. 


But it was the beginning of summer, and the weather was unusually hot and sunny. The skies were stubbornly blue, the rolling hills and blooming fields mocked us with their loveliness. How could it be that a place that had been so full of hate and evil looked so bright, so pastoral? 


Until that point, my images of Poland in the first half of the 20th century were some mixture of black and white Nazi films, Roman Vishniac photos, and the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. So it made perfect sense that it had never occurred to me that Poland could be, well, beautiful. 


A few years later, I visited Ukraine with my family, and saw the town where my grandfather had grown up. My father recalled how he had always heard that the town looked just like Switzerland, and to be honest, I had assumed that was a joke. When I woke up to a brilliantly clear and sunny day, and saw the town surrounding a huge sparkling lake with the ground sloping up in the background, it upturned everything I had envisioned about life in Europe before the war. 


My understanding about the Shoah had been based largely on my day school tragedy-focused education, sprinkled with movies and TV shows, and a smattering of Holocaust novels. The stories I heard from my parents about life before the war seemed like unconnected fairy tales. 


I’m aiming to teach my children a little differently, with the luxury we have of distance. For our parents’ generation, the wounds were so raw, the cuts so deep, the pain so constant, they didn’t always have the energy left to focus on anything else. The tincture of time has allowed me both to take my children to Yad Vashem, to explore literature about the war, and also to try and paint a more colorful picture of what life was like before those years that changed everything. 


So this year, I want to remember all my family members who perished - not for the moment of their deaths, but for the fullness of their lives. They were fathers and mothers, aunts uncles and cousins, siblings with rivalries, couples who fought and made up, and fought again. They were doctors and business owners and factory foreman. They were Talmud scholars and Socialists and Zionists, very religious and...not. They were so much more like us than we imagine. 


So, with their lives in mind, on a sun-filled spring day in New England, buds everywhere I look mustering the courage to open, full of promise and hope, I remember them.


Yekutiel Schmelke Bieler

Betka Bieler Fischer

Israel Fischer

Sabina Bieler Teichholtz

Abysch Teichholtz

Giza Teichholtz 17

Klara Teichholtz 16

Jakob (Kuba) Teichholtz 9

Moshe Bieler

Gusta Spitzer Bieler

Henya Bieler 7

Josef Bieler 5

Sosie Bieler Biloraj

Abraham Biloraj

Two Biloraj children ages 3 and 1.5

Chava Dvojre Bieler

Hersh Bieler

Rakhel Bieler

Herman Bieler

Misia Bieler

Bernhard Bieler

Wilhelm Bieler

..and so many more whose names have been lost to history.