On this page is the speech that I gave this morning at Kehillath Israel. The synagogue highlighted Words Have Wings and I reviewed the story of this blog which is intertwined with the synagogue and the opportunities that were given to me to write poetry. The speech puts a timeline on this blog and how it began and how it evolved.
It’s national poetry month and maybe that’s why I’m here this morning! My name is Leann Shamash and I have a story to tell; a story of intersections.
A few years ago, in January 2020, my beautiful mom, Irma Gershkowitz, passed away and I was saying the Kaddish prayer for her each morning at wonderful synagogues near our home in Newton. After my mom passed I also made an impulsive decision that I would write a blog on the subject of saying Kaddish. I remembered that when I said the kaddish for my father, I had a lot of thoughts that I hadn’t written down and I wanted to be able to actually put them down on paper and… so I started a blog which is called Words Have Wings.
I didn’t really know what a blog meant and I probably still don’t know what a blog means but blog I did. Soon after I began writing Words Have Wings, the unwanted visitor Covid arrived. I wanted to have a place to continue saying Kaddish from my mother and I thought that Zoom was the coolest thing ever and I began my Zoom travels to find a minyan.
I remember “beaming up” as I like to call it to a congregation in Chicago and New York. I’d Zoom in and then Zoom out and also try to have a little chat with people when I entered that Zoom room. I even made a note on my blog on how interesting it was to see people praying the morning prayers in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. I really thought people were praying in front of the bridge and wrote that down on my blog and it took me a little while to figure out that one can beam themselves anywhere on Zoom.
Rabbi Hamilton was someone whom I was acquainted with over the years because my brother Paul Gershkowitz had been the president of Mishkan Tefila and had done a lot of work with the leadership of KI, so after mom passed,Rabbi Hamilton was kind enough to make a Shiva call. I think the fact that Rabbi Hamilton was at our home reminded me of KI and so one morning after the shut down I visited KI for the first time virtually.
Most of all what I remember from the first time I attended morning minyan is that it was low-key and welcoming . I remember that instructions were clear, the people were kind and it felt haimish. And that is the story! I ended up going back again and again and again, always online and here we are two years later and I’m still beaming in through Zoom in the morning.
That is the beginning of my story but it does continue. ( I love stories!) Being at minyan each morning and saying kaddish together, but I didn’t really know any of the people who were in the room with me and I was insanely curious about them. I knew that I wanted to find out but I wasn’t sure if it would be a polite thing or acceptable to find out a little bit more about them. Each day at the end of the prayer Larry, in his very polite way, would ask us to say the names of the people for whom we were saying the Kaddish. At some point, being that I have a lot of chutzpah when I’m online( I don’t have that same chutzpah in person!) I asked Rabbi Hamilton if we might share a little bit more, maybe in a few words every day, about the people who we were remembering.
And Rabbi Hamilton, in his quiet and wise way thought about it and was willing to give it a try. That’s something that I’ve learned about Rabbi Hamilton over the past couple of years, is that he’s willing to give things a try if there’s the possibility to build community and there is a chance for learning.
And so the minyan changed and every day I tried in 10 words or less to share one small aspect about my mom. That her eyes were green or that she played mah-jongg or that she loved to walk and sometimes other people would share things, too.
It was a very very special group of people and it was a very special time and this gave people an opportunity to open up a little bit. Don’t forget that during this period of time people weren’t able to have a shiva, and so this room started to act as a memory room and people would share. Not everybody shared, but each shared according to their comfort level.
And the Zoom minyan became The Memory Room in my eyes and my heart.
During that time as well two other things happened that were special at least to me. The first was that the morning minyan had a few Motzei Shabbat get togethers on Zoom. This was a way to just try schmoozing on Zoom together as a group. For me and for my husband it was so exciting to spend time with these Zoom minyan people and hear a little bit about their lives. And as it says in Breisheet, “it was very good.”
At the same time I started to think that it would be a good thing to record this Memory Room, this special place where people shared every day. And over the course of that summer and fall I met people and took their photos. I took photographs of Larry and Richard and Janet and Nathan and Judith and Barbara, Rabbi Hamilton, and the other Larry because they were two Larrys, and Ahitza and Ros, Rebecca and Shelley.
Then I started asking people to do something that was a little bit harder, which was to write down in their own handwriting on paper what about the minyan that they thought was special. I took those photos plus some taken through my computer, plus these notes into the project called “The Memory Room,” which I consider to be in some small way a record of something powerful that transpired during a historical time in one small room where we all built a Community/Kehillah.
I’m talking for a very long time but the story goes on just a little bit longer and that is to add that it will be two years in August when Rabbis Hamilton’s dear father, Z”L, was ill and the he was leaving town to be with him. He asked if anyone would like to try a short D’var torah and I said yes as I thought that this would be a good thing for me to do…it would keep me studying and learning.
So I wrote a D’var Torah, delivered it with trepidation and then the second or third time I decided that I would write a poem about the parsha instead. What an idea! Why not? I was still writing it until right before it was time for me to give it. I read the poem because what was there to lose? I felt comfortable because everyone on line was so lovely and accepting. So, I wrote a poem and read a poem for the first time and I’ve been doing it ever since. And the process of writing each week has given unimagined opportunities to dream, to think and to write…as a person who is not a scholar…just a person with a heart and dream.
And so the minyan changed. People come and people go. A number of us who are in that Memory Room during Covid are still coming in the mornings. And some are leading services now….how wonderful! And new people have come as well.
I’d like to believe that we are a small band of people who are there to say good morning to each other every day or to make funny jokes, or wish each other a Buenos Dias or to wait on Wednesday mornings when we know that the Internet connection is going to die in the middle of the service, but not when. And, of course, we pray together, we are grateful together and we remember together.
A number of months ago, Richard Weinstein, who is kind, creative and so thoughtful, approached me and asked me whether I thought that perhaps we could publish these poems at some point. That floored me because that is an unusual thing for a congregation to do for an individual who sits among people much more knowledgeable than myself. I was very humbled when this really did happen…
It was a dream come true and it is because the people of the minyan are kind and thoughtful and present for one another. Now this is the place that I say thank you and inevitably forget someone….but, I will say thank you to Larry, to RAbbi Hamilton and to Richard….and to the rest of this small but mighty minyan group.
The minyan is there every morning. The Siddur is in your hands. The people are there. They will greet you with a smile. You too, can be part of the Minyan. You, too, can Zoom in or be there in person. You can start your day with 45 minutes worth of words of thanks, words of history, words of belonging. Give it a try. I did and I’m happy I did.
Sometimes we stumble upon things in our lives that are very good. I stumbled upon each of the kind people of the morning minyan. If it were not for those people, a village of sorts, who are there for one another on a daily basis, I would not be standing in front of you today. Thank you, dear minyan friends. You know what is in my heart because every Wednesday morning I tell you what is in my heart. If I have forgotten to thank someone or mention someone, it is not intentional and I ask your forgiveness.
I will conclude this story with a short poem that I sometimes recite at the end of a dance class that I lead each week.
The message changes from time to time, but for today it is:
“May your eyes always see the good in people.
May your ears hear good news.
May your voice ring out in song.
May your hands do good things for others
and may your feet always dance.”
Shabbat shalom and thank you very much for this opportunity. May you all go from strength to strength