Millennial Mishegas

Steven Chaitman

Steven Chaitman shares what's on his Millennial mind and brings some re-Jew-venating perspective to contemporary issues in our rapidly evolving world.

The Kvetching Intellectual

At Mizzou, did I do enough?

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This past week, thousands of University of Missouri alumni, including myself, and especially those of us who write (and there’s no shortage of us), have been trying to find the words for what has transpired. How do you respond when the nation’s eyes turn to your alma mater -- a place you once called home -- because many of its students don’t feel at home there? 

I had been largely unaware of what was happening at Mizzou this semester. Thanks to outstanding media coverage (I expect nothing less from Mizzou) including an interactive timeline from the student newspaper, The Maneater, I was able to catch up. 

My initial reaction was how powerful to see free speech rally a group of students to put an end to complacency and indifference toward racism. Not an incident of racially-motivated violence, not some heinous act of hate and intimidation, but the Missouri Students Association president writing about a firsthand experience of verbal racism on campus -- and posting it on Facebook. 

I thought Mizzou cannot be the only campus where this is happening, and in a way it made me proud that my campus was giving voice to a larger systemic problem across the country. But it still felt terrible to know that the nation was looking at my school as a place where racism is alive and unchecked and that it needed to come down to the football team boycotting team activities and members of university leadership resigning.

When I read that MU System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned, however, I knew that while necessary, it was not enough. These men are not bigots or racists, and removing them does not change the culture at Mizzou around race. It will not stop people from shouting slurs at black students. MU leadership does need to be more responsive to the needs of all student groups and actively foster an inclusive and respectful environment, but real change is up to the students. 

Thinking back on my four years at Mizzou, my freshman year was actually the first time that any sort of racial diversity existed in my life. My roommate was black, and I was friendly with a number of other black students in my dorm, as well as students of other races and backgrounds. It was also the first (and turns out only) time I was “the Jewish kid.” 

Overall, I felt comfortable and accepted in my dorm and on campus, but I discovered this week that some of the friends I made 10 years ago who are black didn’t feel that way -- their Facebook responses reflected on experiencing racism and racial tension during their time at Mizzou. 

It was sad to read that, and it begged the question: could I have done something to make their experience better, to make my campus more accepting?

After my freshman year I didn’t meet or interact with students of other races. I found a place for myself at Alpha Epsilon Pi, sticking with my Jewish roots, and as part of MU’s disproportionately white Greek system, diversity largely faded from my campus experience. I played in my corner of the sandbox and was content there.

I can think of two exceptions. That’s it. 

During my freshman year, one of my older fraternity brothers invited a few of us to come see the step show. I had no idea what that was. He told us that it was the coolest thing that he’d ever seen at Mizzou and it was free -- we were sold. 

Our main auditorium on campus was packed with black students. Each of the black fraternities came out on stage and did a step routine while people shouted and cheered on their friends in the middle of the dancing. In between performances, music blasted from the house speakers and the whole crowd got up and started dancing in the aisles. I’d never seen anything like it: the talent, the spirit, the energy -- it was electric. I had seen a whole part of black collegiate culture that I otherwise would’ve never known existed.

The second happened a couple years later. Our fraternity organized a highway cleanup with a black fraternity. We didn’t all become best friends because of one community service project, but we recognized the importance of bringing two minority groups on campus together and building that campus community connection.

After all the news this week, I’m more proud of those experiences than ever. I am proud of my fraternity and our effort to bring down barriers -- real or perceived -- between cultures. But two experiences? Two efforts? I wish we had done more.

When 18-year-olds go off to college and learn how to live and behave as independent adults, they bring their experiences with them -- and that includes their biases and their prejudices. It is such a fragile transition and any moment can impact how they will see the world forever. That’s why what’s happening at Mizzou today is such a big deal. Fostering diversity and creating a safe environment on campus is not just a “nice idea,” it’s a necessity. All students on all campuses deserve to feel they belong and all students should learn, at this stage in their lives, how to be open, accepting and respectful to all people and ideas.

So if there’s anything I can add to this national dialogue it’s this: When your school isn’t doing a good enough job, you have more options than to just protest the leadership. You can create something positive. Seek out a new cultural experience for whatever student organizations you belong to. Attend a different religious service. The times when I did these things, or when a friend came to check out something Jewish I was part of, I remember them. I remember them as much as I remember the fun I had going out to the bars, and I treasure them more. Find your place on campus, but then explore other places. 

Colleges and universities need to be places of cultural exploration, where all people can learn from and with one another. That can’t happen if some students don’t feel welcome, or safe. It’s worth protesting over and it’s worth fighting for.  

Who by fire

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“The great shofar is sounded; a still small voice is heard.”

We awoke to the faint smell of smoke, like the smoldering remains of a campfire not fully extinguished. And rain -- a total downpour if the pelting of our bedroom window was any indication. Half asleep, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. I definitely checked the grill before going to bed to make sure the coals had died out. 

At Mollie’s urging, I got out of bed and opened our back door. Our yard – the grill included – was just as I left it only drenched with rainfall. I walked to the front of our apartment and pulled back the curtains. A thick haze filled the air against a backdrop of warm red light. I opened our door and saw more smoke, but no rain. A couple firefighters in full protective gear walked along our street. The rain, I realized, was not rain, but water from fire hoses.

“I think there’s a fire somewhere near us,” I told Mollie, who was now out of bed too. I watched as she opened our door and stepped outside. She took a few steps toward the smoke and as she turned her head to the right, she cupped her hands to her face and gasped.

“Oh my God!” she said, panic-stricken. “The bowling alley is on fire.”


“And the angels will be alarmed, and seized by trembling they will say, ‘Behold the Day of Judgment!”

Our building is a walk-up down the street from a bar and bowling alley called Lincoln Square Lanes, and by down the street I mean there’s only one other walk-up and a dumpster alley separating us from the building Mollie just described as being on fire. About 50 feet.

I ran out to see for myself. Heat hit me square in the face as I watched the pillar of flames shooting out from the top story of the building. “We need to get out of here,” I said. Even if we were safe, staying as a fire raged next door was not an option.

We hurried inside and changed out of our pajamas as we discussed where we could go for the night. We called our friends who lived a 10-minute walk away. It was 1 a.m. Thankfully they answered. “Good thing we just changed the sheets in our guest bedroom,” they said, half asleep. 

“And You will cause to pass, and You will count, and You will record and You will review the souls of all living.”

When you have any valid concern that your home will burn down, you learn a lot about yourself, namely what you care about and how much of you is tethered to stuff. 

With each other accounted for and more than enough time, we grabbed whatever else we deemed irreplaceable. For me, that was my laptop, some cash I’d yet to deposit and my guitar (replaceable, but extremely important). Mollie grabbed some jewelry. We could replace everything else, we realized, almost refreshingly. We packed some overnight necessities and left, the fire still blazing at our backs as we headed down the street. 

“Who by water and who by fire...”

While exploring the liturgy of the High Holidays as an adult in my 20s, I found myself a little bothered by Un’taneh Tokef. I understood the value of this notion of a Book of Life, but this particular piece seemed to take it too far. It’s one thing to suggest God preordains who will live and die each year; another to take the extra time to describe all the visceral ways in which they will die, unless they repent (tshuvah), pray (tfilah) and give charitably (tzedakah). It is an unsettling piece of our service. The way the poem speaks of divine judgment evokes a heaven-and-hell imagery that feels almost antithetical to Judaism, at least my understanding of it.

My confrontation with this fire was seemingly un-divine. I returned the next day to find barely a hint of smoke in our apartment. The siding on the top floor of our building was warped and gnarled from heat, but the man next door said that our upstairs neighbors made it out safely with their newborn. So I went in to work. I was a couple hours late and exhausted, but fine. That night, a couple friends came over for our fantasy football draft. Life went on as scheduled, and in time, for the owners of that building and its businesses, it will too. 

This was not a death by fire, but how close had I come? It was certainly a wakeup call, as with any close brush with tragedy. For much of that week I remained a bit shaken. Not traumatized, but ruffled from complacency.

“But repentance, prayer and charity avert judgment’s harsh decree.”

Each day since the fire has been a little bit different on my street. It’s been fascinating to see the fire fighters, police officers, sanitation workers and more come in and do their part to restore the status quo. I expect it will be this way for weeks if not months. It will be a long and gradual process, but it will heal. The process of tshuvah is much the same. With a lot of hard work, we can repair with ourselves, with others and with God and return to who we are.

fire after

And as for Un’taneh Tokef, I realize now that it’s meant to be uncharacteristically unsettling. These vivid deaths may not actually be prescribed to us, but they can certainly happen. Sadly, they do happen. These words we hear, much as this fire was for me, are a reminder of life’s fragility. Tshuvah, tfilah and tzedakah don’t reverse our fate; they are principles we should always live by because truth is we don’t know what fate has in store for us. It’s like tricking a child to eat vegetables – sometimes you have to exaggerate a little to ensure ideal behaviors. 

The threat of the fire as I grabbed my belongings that night reminded me of what was important. It began my process of tshuvah. This Rosh Hashanah, may your mind return to what is important, and may doing so bring you much health, happiness and sweetness in the year to come. 

Our Cups runneth over

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Clark Street after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013.

Two years ago when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, my girlfriend said she’d never seen me so excited. Among the many ways people might describe me, outwardly expressive is not one of them, and I guess it took a sports championship for her to realize I was capable. When probed into my burst of excitement, I explained that you simply never know when you’re going to get a chance to celebrate this again. 

In April, the two of us celebrated our engagement, and last night, we celebrated as the Blackhawks took the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons, finally – finally – on home ice. I won’t risk asking her on which occasion I seemed the most “excited.” 

The truth is that sports championships are a lot like simchas – you have to enjoy and relish them when you can. 

The Stanley Cup is often described as the most sought after and difficult to obtain trophy in all of professional team sports. Look no further than the first person Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews passed the Cup to last night, Kimmo Timonen, a 16-year veteran set to retire at season’s end, winning his first cup at age 40, his best chance since 2010, when as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers he watched the Hawks skate off with it … their first Stanley Cup win in nearly 50 years. Teams in hockey-crazed cities such as Toronto (no Stanley Cups or appearances in the last 45-plus years) and Vancouver (no Stanley Cups period) were once in the Blackhawks’ shoes … skates. Vancouver even demolished parts of their city over losing the Cup to Boston in 2011. 

So to win three times, to even feel comfortable uttering the word “dynasty,” is a sports fan’s greatest privilege. 

I grew up knowing two extremes of sports fandom. I was 4 years old when the Chicago Bulls won their first ever NBA championship and 11 when they won their last. Watching the Bulls win championships was likely a family pastime. That’s just what they did -- I never knew any better until they stopped. 

Contrast that to my life as a Chicago Cubs fan. I inherited a championship drought older than my grandparents, and in 2003 experienced my first chapter of what it means to suffer with your team. My college years were particularly brutal with the Bears losing the Super Bowl in 2006 and the Cubs getting swept two straight years in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. Somewhere in that time, as the Bulls and Blackhawks began crawling out of the depths, I must have vowed to never let a championship go underappreciated. 

So I endured the extreme heat of the Blackhawks’ 2010 parade and got myself to the people-swarm on Clark Street in 2013. This year, seeing as I have yet to see the Cup in person, that’s on top of my summer to-do list. 

Becoming a die-hard sports fan is like voluntarily locking yourself onto a roller coaster. You agree to subject yourself to the ups and downs and highs and lows no matter what. It sounds pointless. Why care so much about sports? Why give yourself hypertension over something that in the grand scheme of things means so little?

Any devoted sports fan understands the thrill of it all makes life more exciting and, frankly, meaningful. Free of any real-world consequences, sports fandom teaches us about what it means to make an unwavering commitment, to persevere when it hurts the most, to savor the victories big and small. All of these things teach us how to live fuller, more meaningful lives.

Lately, a good chunk of the advice I’ve gotten is to “enjoy being engaged.” At first I wasn’t so sure how one enjoys a basic “status change,” but I think the applicable sports fan lesson is not to get ahead of yourself; take it one game/day at a time. So I’m trying to appreciate the moment more – and come our wedding day a little over a year from now (and definitely after next year’s Stanley Cup Final), I’m sure she will never have seen me more excited.

Changing the conversation

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There’s never been a more important time to be an informed Jew.

Anti-Semitism in Europe is the worst it has been since the Holocaust. College students across the U.S. are being marginalized for supporting Israel. American Anti-Semitic incidents increased for the first time in nearly 10 years. Our communities grow more divided over the issues surrounding Israel with each passing week. How we come together and reverse this trend is not merely a question of Jewish vitality but of Jewish survival.

Before I started working at JUF, I relied on others to keep their fingers on the pulse on what was happening in Israel. I looked to rabbis, educators and informed friends for cues on when to wave my Israeli flag, when to be concerned for my fellow Jew and when to pray for peace. It was hard enough to follow American current events that could have a direct impact on me, so I let others keep tabs on Israel.

Growing up, my Israel education consisted of learning to love Israel abidingly. Israel’s culture, people and history were celebrated at every opportunity, its difficult trials all plot points on a narrative of big dreams and survival against all odds. Then I first witnessed it firsthand on Birthright Israel, a trip crafted to reinforce these same notions.    

I am not bitter for having inherited our communal doctrine of total solidarity with Israel. In fact, I believe it’s a necessity to stand firmly by the one dot on our planet that welcomes, normalizes and celebrates Jewish life. I only regret not developing the skills that would have led me to that conclusion on my own.    

Missing from my Israel education was the fostering of my own curiosity about Israel. Not about its culture or its beauty (believe me, since I was a kid I longed to know what floating in the Dead Sea felt like), but its history and its modern day complexity. The whole package is important, but knowing how hummus is made won’t lead me to the knowledge I need to feel confident speaking up when someone accuses Israel of being an apartheid state guilty of countless human and civil rights violations.   

In an attempt to cultivate positive associations and connections between young people and Israel, we created an entire generation of Jewish Americans who know how to love Israel, but not how to discuss it, debate it or stand up for it. Some can – their education, which admittedly is in some cases likely similar to my own, fostered an interest in living in Israel, studying it and staying on top of the news there. But in the face of this fact-skewing PR onslaught against Israel, most of us are sitting quietly. We wish we knew more. We wish that we could speak more confidently from a place of truth about Israel as much as from a place of love.     

And on the front lines, which today are unfortunately our college campuses, we are scrambling to teach these skills to our teens and college students. Organizations across the country, including Hillel and JUF’s Israel Education Center, have done a marvelous job arming students with the knowledge and resources they need to stand up to this thinly veiled anti-Semitism, but it’s a reactive strategy, and we also need a proactive one. Perhaps the framework is already there, but it needs some changes.   

That starts with changing the dialogue. The environment for talking about Israel is prickly. Those who completely support Israel are often afraid to speak up against the criticisms outside our community; those who question Israel though they love it are afraid to speak up inside our community. That leaves only the extremes doing all the talking, and that’s a shouting match, not a dialogue.  

That’s why being informed – as well as open-minded – is so critical. Only those who feel confidently educated about Israel can begin to shape the conversation and help to create an environment where all Jews can love Israel and also be willing to disagree about it.  After all, we, as Americans, know quite well that patriotism and extreme partisanship can coexist meaningfully. Yet we are nervous about allowing for that space to exist in our Jewish communities. Only when it does, however, can we expect our college students and teenagers to feel confident facing the voices that wish to expose their doubts about Israel in order to drown them into silence.  

Like many Jews, I read the headlines and I wonder if history really is doomed to repeat itself. Despite the endless mantra of “Never Again” that echoes this Yom HaShoa and at all the remembrances each year, will we still live in legitimate fear of being exterminated? Will the disparaging irony of Israel being called “Nazis” and “genocidal” remain part of the lexicon that perpetuates modern anti-Semitism? All I know is that if we want change, if we want peace – that starts with us. It always has. 

Snowing kindness

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If there were more blizzards, I think people would be a lot nicer to each other.

Like most Chicagoans, Sunday’s “Super Bowl Blizzard” – the fifth largest Chicago snowstorm on record –left me snowed in Monday. While working from home, I took a shoveling break in the morning to clear a path from my front door, and later in the afternoon embarked to dig out my car parked a block away through an alley. Simply put, it was the best walk through an alley I’ve ever had.

Blizzard photo  

In front of my apartment on Sunday night, Feb. 1; there is a foot-high step up to the front door.

True, anyone would agree that the bar for alley walk quality is pretty low, but this was an enlightening 100-yard trek, as you’re about to discover. Not 20 feet into said alley, a man stood outside his vehicle, and as I approached he began talking to me somewhat quietly about why he had stopped. I had nearly walked past his car when I realized he was stuck. I stopped and offered to dig him out. As I shoveled the snow away from his tires, I felt a rush of that cheesy-to-describe yet undeniable feeling that comes with helping someone in need. In fewer than 10 minutes he was on his way, waving “thank you” as he turned onto the street.

Halfway through the alley, I watched as another stuck car freed itself from traction-less peril with the help of two women. I kept walking and was nearly through to end of the alley when I came across a cellphone planted face down in the snow. I yelled to the women behind me to see if it belonged to them, but no luck. I looked at the owner’s favorites list and messaged the first person mentioned. A call came through from a young man five minutes later; he lived down the street and came quickly to retrieve it.

I’ll admit two Good Samaritan deeds within 20 minutes felt pretty darn good. As I began clearing off my car, however, as much as I wanted to pat myself on the back, I couldn’t. I don’t mean to diminish my own kindness, but I literally walked into these opportunities en route to solving my own problems. All I sacrificed were 15 minutes of time that I most definitely had available. I barely left my apartment. There are greater degrees of g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) that I could be going out of my way to do.

I looked down the street to see others working together to help cars get through. My normally quiet neighborhood was bustling with teamwork, of all things. I read stories on Facebook of similar acts of selflessness and I imagine most everyone who weathered Sunday’s storm experienced or witnessed some form of blue-collar altruism as well. Even Wednesday morning, Mollie drove the car to work for the first time since the blizzard, and despite all the room I cleared, she still couldn’t pull out into the street. Two men nearby helped push her out.

This is what storms do. When we all fall victim to the same misfortune, it tests our capacity for empathy and our willingness to help one another. Some people dig others out before themselves; others dig themselves out and put chairs in their spot to keep others out.

It’s refreshing this year to see more of the former, but either way, in a world in which mutual cooperation has become less and less essential for survival, it’s unfortunate that the only thing that physically brings strangers together in this way – or even people who live on the same street – is hardship and tragedy.

Yet ironically, there is hardship and tragedy in our own backyard happening every day, but if it’s not buried in two feet of snow, we don’t realize – or we often forget – that it’s there. Something impacts another neighborhood, another class, another religion, race or ethnicity, so we turn a blind eye.

The silver lining of a storm is that it humbles us. It reminds us of what we can control and what we can’t. A storm can’t be prejudice toward any group of people except based on the climate in which they live. And because it impacts people within proximity of each other, it reminds us that we can in fact make a difference as close by as down the street.

When I think about the tragedies in Paris last month and the tragedies we either overlook or never hear happening daily, I think about how powerless they make us feel. We want to help and feel connected, but there’s not much we can do, or there’s too many fights to fight, to the point that in many cases we just move on with our lives. One of the problems with our interconnected online and social media world is that it’s so much easier to find out about the things we can’t change, which makes it too easy to forget about the things around us that we can affect with even the smallest bit of kindness. Homelessness or hunger, for example, will never be “trending” news items, but they’re problems people in every community can help to alleviate.

My Super Bowl Blizzard mitzvot were convenient ways to spread some kindness and make life a little easier for others, but more importantly they showed me what I could be capable of with a more concerted effort. I believe that we all need reminders of our own strength and potential to do good for others, and that the opportunities to realize it do not lie far beyond the narrow alley of our existence.

Our lives in review

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I'm going to do something that makes me want to throw up a little, though it would've been totally cool and perceptive when I was 17 - start my writing with a lyric from the musical Rent.

"How do you measure, a year in the life?"

If you're on Facebook, you are by now familiar with the "Year in Review" it created for all of its users last week: a slide show featuring month-by-month "highlights" from 2014. Using an algorithm that took into account each user's most viewed, "liked" and commented on pictures and statuses, Facebook assembled the slideshow into a neat recap for users to view and share with friends.

Sounds like a pretty nice feature, unless you had a crappy 2014.

Some Facebook users were startled by photos of loved ones who died this past year, or of people they split from or divorced, or other things associated with bad news. As one would (hopefully) understand, algorithms can't account for good or bad, just what is "popular."

Consequently, Facebook has drawn plenty of public criticism and a fair share of complaints, most notably from a web consultant named Eric Meyer, who stirred up a frenzy of Internet spite toward Facebook when he blogged about his reaction to seeing, "Here's what your year looked like!" on his News Feed above a picture of his 6-year-old daughter who this year died of brain cancer.

This was not a unique problem. I read similar complaints on Facebook, as I'm sure most users did, from at least a couple of friends. Undoubtedly, no one deserves to be needlessly reminded of tragedy, especially not by a website, but is Facebook the real problem here? 

After his blog went viral, Meyer wrote another post apologizing for the out-of-context and prejudiced vitriol it brought upon the company.

"Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they're hardly alone," he wrote. "… Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook's Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue."

To Meyer, that much wider issue is web application and program design. Clearly most people like the "Year in Review" and sharing it with friends (they certainly flooded my personal News Feed), but how can we better accommodate for these instances of failure?

But that's not my wider issue. My concern is, why care about this at all? 

At this point, I should disclose that as much as I enjoy using Facebook, I'm a total cynic when it comes to personal sharing. I usually apply a "why should anyone care?" and "is this anyone else's business?" test to anything I feel inclined to post. Sharing personal opinions, feelings or details of my life do not usually pass this test; sharing my "Year in Review" totally fails it. I see it as rather presumptuous to think that most of my Facebook friends are interested in viewing a slideshow of my "year," especially if they had a particularly awful one.

The folks at Facebook, however, know that I do not hold the majority view, and they continue to assert themselves into a self-anointed role as the digital chronicle of people's lives. Ever since Facebook began shifting to a timeline layout, they have made it very clear that they want users to see the value of their application as a vibrant, social documentation of their existence. You can now, for example, post "life events" to mark and share personal milestones. Facebook knows that if you believe they're providing not just social media, but a service that helps you to record and share the important moments of your life, that you'll never stop using it. 

What they've forgotten, however, is that a lot of the important moments of our lives, well, suck. The "Year in Review" is just the first big sign that if Facebook wants to be the way you socially document your life, it needs to help you chronicle and share those challenging, painful moments in an appropriate way.

But I, for one, don't know that I want to see the day they do. I don't know that I want my children and grandchildren to learn about who I was by exploring my Facebook photos and random statuses about my feelings or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. That sounds weird, I know, but that's where we're heading. I want them to ask me, to hear me tell my story. I can imagine a scenario in which they see something on my timeline and ask me about it, but that's as far as I want it to go. 

I refuse to let Facebook, or any social media platform, tell my story for me. Whether it's my entire life, the year 2014, or what I do for New Year's, what happened to me as Facebook's algorithms define it, is not what really happened. Even if I poured everything into Facebook, like, tried a Morgan Spurlock-esque experiment in which I used Facebook to document every moment of my waking life, I can't believe that even that would accurately reflect my truth.

So, how do you measure a year in the life?

If I asked you this question out of context, I don't think your answer would be "likes," comments or photos you were tagged in. And it wouldn't be the Tweets you wrote, the pictures you Instagram-ed or the video you sent via Snapchat that in less than 10 seconds vanished into digital dust. Hopefully you'd say it was the relationships you built, the simchas you celebrated, the hardships you overcame - or, as Rent, so poignantly suggests - love.

Grateful for gratitude

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Three years ago this month, I lost my first grandparent, and the timing couldn't have been much worse. After weeks of trying to recover from traumatic surgery, he died just days before my cousin - his youngest grandchild - became a bar mitzvah. So these things always seem to go; even just last week, the observance of my papa's yahrtzeit, I attended a wedding in which the groom had lost his grandfather days before.

As humans do, we look for explanations, reasons and ways to make sense of tragedy and grief. We often refuse to believe these are not random occurrences, but meaningful coincidences. I'm not sure to what extent our loved ones invite or control death until they are ready, but I do believe that in any seemingly unlikely or unbelievable situation, there is meaning to be found.

I found my meaning lying awake in my old bed at my parents' house a few days after his death. As our minds so often do while trying to fall asleep, I started to process my experiences and feelings. Given that I had spent the last couple days distracted by my cousin's bar mitzvah celebrations, I had avoided any lingering sadness, and now it started to creep back in. I began to think about everything that had disappeared from my life now that my papa was gone: how he looked, how he felt, his personality - all things that for my entire life had been realities, suddenly were now memories. I wouldn't get to experience them again. I believe that realization, specifically, is at the core of grief, and the mourning process is about transitioning from lamenting and wrestling with the loss of a loved one to learning to treasure their memory instead.

So, as I tossed and turned, I wanted desperately to change my perspective. How could I begin to overcome my sadness and feel at peace with the loss of someone who at every stage of my life had been there to support me and celebrate all of my accomplishments?

I tried the obvious trick at first. At least I had all four of my grandparents for the first 24 years of my life, I thought. I'm only so sad because I've been so lucky... I am really, really lucky. Eventually, rather than feeling lucky, I began to feel grateful. I was grateful for the time we spent together. I was grateful for all he taught me. I was so grateful that I could remember what he looked like, what it felt like when he put one of his enormous hands on my back. With gratitude - to my family, to God, to the randomness of life, it did not matter - I began to feel better.

Gratitude, it became clear to me, was one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

Being grateful is a popular topic this time of year. My colleague Cindy, for example, just wrote a great piece on how essentially Jewish gratitude is, how it makes our lives better, and how we could all be more mindful in order to see everything for which there is to be thankful. Thanksgiving provides us a solid annual reminder of what we're thankful for in our lives, but anyone who understands not only the yearlong but also the lifelong importance of giving thanks knows that sitting around a table sharing one thing we're grateful for between gluttonous forkfuls doesn't cut it.

A couple years back, my friend Rabbi Lisa Bellows shared a Shabbat sermon on gratitude that I completely forgot except for one detail: Before going to sleep each night, her children would say their "gratefuls" - whatever they were thankful for that day. I thought what an impressive practice that was. For a child, this could be just as a soothing as a lullaby or bedtime story and provides something more tangible than simply offering up private, hopeful prayers. In fact, vocalizing gratitude is its own kind of prayer (aren't all the prayers just different ways of saying "thank you, God"?)  and doing so at the most reflective moment of our day instills the notion that a day is not complete until we've been mindful and appreciative of the good that came from it.

So, with no shame, I began this practice in my own life. A year or so ago, I shared with my girlfriend my feelings and "theory" about the power of gratitude after she'd had a rough day, and we decided to each say three things we were feeling grateful for that day. The practice has since endured, not every night, but many, usually because she reminds me. Coming up with three is not always easy, especially after a hard day, but there are always at least three to be found. And, in addition to being therapeutic, they offer us tremendous insight into what the other person is thinking about, feeling and processing.

To revert to the mainstream annual tradition of giving thanks at the end of November, I am grateful that over the last few years I've discovered the power of practicing gratitude. Since my papa died, every time life has thrown me a challenge, gratitude helps me keep a healthy perspective, to be mindful of all the blessings life brings even in a world where evil and tragedy persist. I realized that we cannot live our lives the way we owe it to ourselves to live if we spend too much time ruminating over pain, hardship and the troubles of our world and don't stop to appreciate the good that endures. And turning something painful into something good - that I can now look back at that difficult time as not just the death of a loved one, but as the beginning of my life as a more grateful, better, human being - that's something for which I could never be grateful enough.


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