Gifts from beyond the Amtrak Quiet Car.

Brothers and Sisters, Let us take a moment to grieve this first Hanukkah without the offerings of The Latke King. Never was there a Goy so skilled in the frying of these, the most important potatoes of the year. He raised the Latke to such an art form, that I doubt I’ll attempt them for a long time to come. His latkes were so beautiful, so crispy, so evenly wrought! They were that good, you forgot to put applesauce and sour cream on them!

How did he do it? It was truly a miracle. One year I asked him, incredulously, “Are you sure you’re not Jewish??”. I imagined the spirits of my grandmothers must have surrounded him as he cooked, with their hands held up in praise and salutation, humming with the ecstasy of generations of ancestral latke makers. “These are beyond,” they would say, in unison.

And they didn’t care one whit that his were way better than theirs.

The man who peered down at me in my window seat, from the aisle of the Amtrak Quiet car, was from about six rows up. He said as quietly as he could, “You realize that you chose to sit here? You know where you are, right?”

I was flummoxed. Huh? He was clearly unhappy about having to get up and walk back to my row to shush me. But why? My charming seat companions (read: new friends) and I were talking quietly, almost whispering really, so what had I done? And how on earth had he even heard me?

Well, he heard me because the Quiet car is actually the REALLY QUIET CAR. You’re not supposed to talk AT ALL, and being the sort that can’t even imagine a concept like that AT ALL, I had thought I was complying very nicely, thank you very much. And when you’re the only one operating under this misapprehension, guess what? Every single person in the entire car can hear you.

I don’t know what he made of my astonished response, “You could hear me all the way back here??”, but he nodded and went back to his seat. I, literally stunned into the requisite silence, sat back in my seat and as the penny dropped, tried to keep from bursting out laughing at myself. I must have sounded like Vinny Gambini from “My Cousin Vinny” when the judge asks him to wear a suit to court, and he shows up the next day in something that looks like loud polyester wallpaper. The judge chastises him for it and Vinny, confused, says, “You were serious about dat?”

An hour or so later as we entered the Boston metro area, and folks started disembarking at the local stops, I noticed right away that there was an unspoken relaxing of the rules governing…..vocal personal expression. People starting talking in the Quiet Car (albeit softly)! *whispers* Scandalous!

And that is how I became aware of a scintillating conversation going on just across the aisle from me, volume police be damned.

Now, I am not an eavesdropper by nature. There is only one conversation in my entire life that I remember trying to listen to, about fifteen years ago, which occurred at an outdoor cafe. I remember shushing my husband from behind my menu held up like a shield, so I could listen to the couple seated next to us. I know you will understand completely why my ears perked up, why I was absolutely compelled to lean in, why I had to actively resist the urge to oh-so-nonchalantly scooch my chair in their general direction. Because the first snippet I caught on the breeze was the much older gentleman saying to his twenty-something companion, “She just doesn’t understand me.”

It was like someone had whispered, “Pssst. Free chocolate over here, Girl. The good kind”.

And Friends, the rest of that conversation did not disappoint. Our heroine held out for a good twenty minutes, explaining to him that she was so over him, she didn’t even understand why she’d agreed to meet him and besides, she had moved on with a really great guy….and her protests got more and more hollow, taken over by his litany of marital misery, until finally, she took out her phone and cancelled that evening’s plans with the new fella. The poor, poor new fella, who, I gathered from the way he was constantly interrupting her, was upset, again, at her flakiness. He wasn’t buying her clipped-but-casual explanation that she wasn’t feeling well. She remained composed, only showing the slightest impatience with his adoring and long protestations.

I stopped listening after that. One, because my husband was starting to get a look on his face like he was wondering who the hell he had married, and also, because I was starting to feel really sad, which was the opposite of how I’d originally alighted upon this real-life soap opera unfolding right next to me.

I never eavesdropped intentionally again.

So when the Iron Curtain of Conversation lifted, and the two gentlemen across the aisle from me on the decelerating Acela began a friendly exchange, I instinctively reached for my ear buds. Which I could not find. And rather than take my entire bag apart minutes before I would need to gather everything together again, I just went back to my iPad.

But then, like the beloved recipient of a heavenly poke in the ribs, I overheard the gentleman who looked like an organic dairy farmer from Vermont (gentle countenance, long white ZZ Top beard, balding but with a long ponytail, John Lennon specs, Carhartt henley and pants, well-worn boots), say to the other gentleman, perhaps a student (badass laptop, glasses, worn baseball cap, army-green anorak), “I’m a rabbi”.

Hello? You’re a what the what? A rabbi??

Keeping in mind that I technically didn’t hear every single word, I give you The Highlights:

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: …….upper Hudson Valley…synagogue……teach Jewish Mindfulness….

Other Guy: Oh? What’s that?

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: (Wait! Please please please please let me answer that one for him. Jewish Mindfulness??? I’m sure the rabbi knows that most of the people who brought Buddhist practice into a more popular understanding of it in this country in the ‘70’s were Jewish. And that many, many American Jews since then, including little old me, have found Buddhism a very resonant counterpart to our cultural and spiritual practices. Makes perfect sense, because um, we do tend to worry a weensy little bit? Out loud? It’s called kvetching? You know, like, what Jewish Eeyore does? Jewish neurosis, in particular, lends itself towards the absolute opposite of peaceful union with the moment. Our carried cultural history of being scapegoated, expelled, and murdered can make one a little bit….edgy at the margins. And yelly. And dark. So I’m not sure I would have ever put “Jewish” and “mindful” in the same sentence unless it’s in the spirit of “we teach most what we need to learn”. But carry on. You may continue, Rabbi:)

…bring a more Jewish sensibility to mindfulness practices…discussion group…synagogue….what those would be….

(Oh my God this was fantastic!! “Just focus on your breathing…and the fact that you might really have a heart murmur.” “Breath in and out, and be one with the stove, which you probably left on when you left the house this morning…” or, “Don’t mind me. I’m just your consciousness, trying to get your attention. I’ll just sit here in the dark until you feel like paying attention to me. Which, like your son who met his hotsie-totsie shiksa girlfriend, isn’t likely to happen anytime soon…remind me to make him promise he’s using condoms”. May God forgive me, I was beside myself.)

Other Guy: Sounds interesting…(in a tone that sounds like he might have gone to the same place I went to)…..

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: And what about you, what do you do?

Other Guy: I am (art school? grad degree? mumbled, not sure which one) in film.

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: Oh? What kind of films do you make?

Filmmaker: (awkward pause, like it’s hard to explain) I make experimental documentaries……

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: Oh yeah? What’s that?

Filmmaker: (train announcer loudly comes on to announce our arrival in North Station, making it impossible to hear them. I felt like standing up and screaming at the top of my lungs, “SHUT UP AMTRAK PLEASE SHUT UP RIGHT NOW, DID YOU NOT JUST HEAR A HUMAN BEING SAY HE WAS AN EXPERIMENTAL DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER?)”…..just returned from Iceland…..(more Amtrak)……working on it here…..(ICELAND?? I don’t know how long it took before I started writhing in agony. This was…..magnificent. It was a kind of holy alchemy: the set-up for the best joke you’d ever hear combined with the raw material for sketch comedy, or at the very least the inspiration for a dozen one-liners.

And there was only one person in the world who needed to hear what was happening next to me, and he was dead. I had grabbed my phone to text him before I even realized I couldn’t. He would have so reliably delivered. He would have come up with something that poked fun at everyone, including himself, in the driest, most inappropriate way possible, and instead it was me sitting there, alone, and I had….bupkes.)

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: (says something like, and more subtly, but essentially): And this is something you can make a living at? (Atta Boy! Welcome home, Bubbela! Alex, I’ll take Jewish Mindfulness for $400!).

Filmmaker: … I received a Pew grant, that will help keep me going for a while… to give a talk on…..

Old MacDonald The Rabbi: ….sounds interesting….(in a tone that suggests that he really did.)


David Scott Kessler, Pew Fellow and Brilliant Filmmaker (turns to the camera and says): “The joke’s on you, Susan”.

Well, no, he didn’t say that, but yes, the punchline is something very unlike what I thought it would be. I’d heard enough to, via Google, put two and two together later, and it turns out that David Scott Kessler, who is also a painter, is the kind of genius filmmaker whose work is completely transporting, and who dares to actually be an artist at a time when we truly need artists with as compassionate an eye as he has. He has made some amazing films. Amazing.

And his recent project in Iceland, LopapeysaThe trailer is so beautiful! It hints at a film that asks if perhaps our lives are not only a journey through time, but also through affecting places, that have their own identities. How are we shaped by both kinds of journeys? And how does that shape the world in return? He is setting some big questions into motion, about the ways we experience ourselves in our world, as humans. And why.

As is the Rabbi, if you think about it. Couldn’t Jewish Mindfulness be the edge between two traditions that push up against each other much like the way two walls in a room come together at a right angle? A purposeful angle in fact, when combined with others, to provide structure and shelter. A room? A home?

Lopapeysa also features divination as a theme, remarkably. Which, um, I know a little bit about. That whole being-a-conduit-between-worlds thing.

Is there a meaningful take-away from my experience on the train? At first, I thought I was writing about how much I had relied on my husband’s brilliant sense of humor and how deeply I grieved it, now that he’s gone. But since I’m a medium, I thought, well, maybe it was a reminder to listen for him more consistently. He was never one to sidestep any form of wise-assery, so perhaps I should listen for it more abundantly from his spirit. However, this particular time he was woefully, uncharacteristically withholding of any great punchlines from the beyond. So then I thought, well, maybe he was handing it off to me, sort of a Hannukah gift of confidence. A “You’ve got this now,” kind of thing. Or remembrance. “Be funny in my memory, on my behalf”.

Maybe it was all of that.

But there is something in the trailer for Lopapeysa that I can’t get out of my heart, that has really stuck with me. It has the resonance of discovery, a sort of “LOOK, LISTEN” significant radiance. It’s the narrative, of a tarot reader’s voice, layered over images that show a traveler on a journey into something completely new. She’s exhorting, “I think that maybe you had thought that it would be something different…it’s like you don’t know what you want. You have to take a little bit of a risk. You have to go deeper. Go deeper.”

That has to be one of the most elegantly universal characterizations of almost every person’s journey that I’ve had the privilege to witness and read for. It’s certainly true of my life. And my husband’s. And it is also a great description of why we come to mindfulness meditation as well, and why we must leave behind our ideas of what we thought our lives should look like in order to live truly well and meaningfully in the world. Isn’t it true that our expectations can truly imprison us? And then, when we see them for the illusions they are and release them, it’s scary, like taking a deep dive into the void. We are so afraid we’ll find ugliness in the depths of our hearts, but actually, it’s therein we find our hearts yield…infinity.

What an appropriate Hannukah gift. After all, Hanukkah is a celebration of light out of darkness. For eight days, we light candles that affirm the miracles of plenty, strength, and joy, appearing in our lives wherever we began with lack, weakness, or sorrow.

Unless of course, in your particular case you’re celebrating the miracle of Viagra, then after that long I think you’re just supposed to call your doctor.

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A rabbi, a filmmaker, and an intuitive are on a train…..

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