We humans, regardless of our theology or beliefs, need sacred space and sacred times. Times and places where we can renew. I love the way Judaism finds the sacred within the profane. Jewish tradition has myriads of blessings of one or a few sentences to be said throughout the day. Like mini-meditations, they allow us to pay attention, to be fully present in a moment and at the same time see far beyond that moment. The spiritual is nested in the concrete, physical life. One of my favorites is the blessing for going to the bathroom. That blessing reminds us that the human body is miraculously intricate: “tubes and more tubes, ducts and more ducts” and if any tube that is supposed to be open gets blocked, or any duct that is supposed to stay closed gets open, we could not even stand up. My body, your body, is a miracle of coordination. Take a breath, slow down, remember this miracle, and you are in a sacred space.

Blessings remind us of our human obligations. A blessing for getting dressed in the morning says that God clothes the naked. On one level, I am grateful to have clothes. On a different level, I’m aware that many people don’t have clothes, and I have to be God’s hands to bring them some. It’s my obligation this day or this week to get clothes to people who need them. And on still another level, I am grateful that as I grow older, I’m no longer as vulnerable, self-conscious, naked as I felt when I was younger. All this in one breath, one blessing.

A one-sentence blessing can remind us of the connectedness of all life and all time. The motzi, the blessing over bread, thanks God for bringing forth bread from the earth. Is this literally true? Of course not. Instead, humans gradually learned over centuries and millenia that those hard little grains, if milled and soaked and fermented, could provide edible food. They learned to plant the grains. If they were lucky, there would be rains and they could harvest and winnow the grains. It’s worth taking an extra second to acknowledge the miracle of this chain of human learning, of our ability to find sustenance in the natural world. And while I’m being grateful to be the recipient of all those miracles, perhaps I can even be grateful, not only for the farmer and the baker, but for the driver who brought the loaves I am eating to the supermarket. If I take another breath, I can even ponder the rest of the miracle: that my body knows how to make use of this bread.

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Tuesday,November 3, 2020

I woke up this morning with a feeling I’ve never had before on election day: What was the point of getting up, my body said, since everything could be different by tomorrow? But habit is strong, and I did get up.

The election brought out another political schism I find discouraging, within the Jewish community. Not being able to talk honestly and with mutual respect and understanding with some relatives, some neighbors, and even some friends has been deeply discouraging.

Then an Orthodox neighbor stopped by and asked if we could make a date to talk about some of the things I’ve written. If not for Covid, I would have hugged her right then and there. All reconciliations begin with small steps and honest curiosity. We have to see past current sticking points to realize that there is a future ahead.

Autumn is happening intensely outside, and I’ve been experiencing it with special intensity. There was that wonderful few days when the maples were still leafed in green, but every leaf was tipped in orange flame. I identified with those maples. During the pandemic, with no access to beauty parlors, I’ve grown a silver cap, and I rather like it. I said to myself, that beautiful flame color was hiding in the leaf all along, but it didn’t show itself until a bit of cold weather began to strip the green away. My silver cap is just as beautiful as the orange flames, and it was there all along. It took some years of living and a pandemic to help me see the beauty of this next stage of life.

America, with all its faults, has hidden beauties too. We have survived a civil war and two world wars. We have lots of work to do before we come close to the ideal of our country we imbibed in fourth grade. But our habit of pulling together is our silver cap, and I hope it will shine through. How much more true of my dear Jewish people, who have lived through expulsions and crusades and holocausts and millenia of internal disagreements.

Live, America, learn from your years of living. And live, my Jewish people, learn from your years of crisis and new growth. May you both outlast us mere humans and inspire generations to come.

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It took me seven years to write my first novel about the Hasmonean dynasty. Now after seven more years, I'm publishing another. Why take seven years of my life to write about the Hasmonean dynasty in the first place? Because during this period, the first century BCE, women were almost invisible in the historical record. Even an extraordinary woman, Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion), a Jewish queen who changed the course of the history of the Jews, is barely mentioned. And the main account of her reign was written by Josephus Flavius, a Roman-Jewish historian who didn't approve of women gaining power. I wanted to hear the history from a woman's point of view so I had to imagine it in my novel QUEEN OF THE JEWS.

Then why spend another seven years writing another novel about the Hasmonean dynasty? I realized there was a big hole in my knowledge of Jewish history and therefore a big hole in my understanding of myself as a Jewish woman. In my Hebrew school education, ancient history ended with the Maccabee victory over Antiochus IV, the Macedonian Greek ruler of Syria, when Greek idols were tossed out of the Holy Temple. I didn't know that it was the Jewish High Priest and other priests who had collaborated to bring the idols into the Temple, as well as outlawing circumcision and other Jewish practices. The Maccabee victory was the beginning of a century-long process during which the Jewish people lost faith in the priests and in the efficacy of animal sacrifices as a way to be right with God. Instead, a group of teachers (called Sages by their followers and Pharisees by their enemies) rose in the esteem of the people by re-focusing attention on the teachings of the Bible. That is how we became the People of the Book. As a member of the People of the Book, I continue to probe that book for new meanings. After the Holy Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Judaism has persisted for 2,000 more years because we had a Temple of Words that could not be destroyed.

Power and wealth become temptations for political and religious leaders. The descendants of the Maccabees declared themselves High Priests and Kings and became corrupt. In ancient times as today, Jews had to hold their leaders responsible for living up to the values and teachings we hold dear. In this new novel, I follow the great Sage Shimon ben Shetakh. He led the Pharisee movement and founded the first Jewish schools, but he too was seriously flawed and needed to grow. I describe his actions from the point of view of his ex-wife. For until Jewish women's voices are part of the story, the Book will not be complete.

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I'm Judy Petsonk. I’m the author of Taking Judaism Personally: Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life, and the co-author, with Jim Remsen, of The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians. In my new novel, JUSTICE: MACCABEES AND PHARISEES, I tell you how the fierce rivalry between Alexander Janneus, King of Judea, and Shimon ben Shetakh, the leader of the Pharisees, led to the transformation of Judaism from the animal sacrifice of the Second Temple to the rabbis of today. But I tell the story from the alternating points of view of Shimon's ex-wife and of Shimon's best friend.

In the sequel, QUEEN OF THE JEWS, I introduce you to a real queen — dead, unfortunately — who ruled the independent nation of Judea in the century before Jesus was born. She was a contemporary of three Cleopatras, though not the one you’re thinking of. Though you may never have heard of her, she has had an enormous influence on your life and Western civilization in general. Her chaotic, colorful times may remind you a lot of our own. Like Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion), the heroine of the novel, I am the mother of two young adults, I’ve been married for over 30 years, and I’m ‘a woman of a certain age.’ But my husband and children are truly lovable and bear no resemblance to the family of Shalom-Zion.

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