Making Our Days Count

Once again it is time to count the omer, the forty-nine day period between Pesach and Shavuot, the latter of which is named for the seven weeks between the two festivals.  

Many customs are associated with the count and as the practice builds in popularity, new methods and tools are created.  You can use an omer counter with a scroll that turns daily to display the precise combination of days and weeks that have passed.  You can purchase or design an omer calendar (there are almost as many choices as there are hagadot) or find one on the Web.  

Traditional Olive Wood Omer Counter
Traditional Olive Wood Omer Counter

The pages of an omer calendar can include space for notes, artwork (with or without color-it-yourself charts), spiritual teachings, or pithy aphorisms. Some calendars denote the sephirot of the kabbalistic tree which assign a different spiritual quality to each day. Others list a middah  (ethical attribute) that can be developed through mindful attention on ones actions throughout the day.  Some print mishnayot, verses from Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Sages) for reflection. (Traditionally, one of its six chapters is studied on each of the six Shabbatot between the spring holidays.) And true to the times, there are omer counting apps you can download from the web!

The count begins on the second night of Pesach, so I’m sure I recited the omer blessing at the family seders of my youth.  But it wasn’t until an 8-day Pesach meditation retreat I attended in my late twenties that I learned of the practice and discovered its potential for spiritual transformation.  Similar to lighting the Hannukiah whose flames are supposed to be observed and not used for any other purpose, the secret of the omer practice lies in its simplicity. The recitation of the traditional blessing and count are meant to bring us into squarely into the present; no retelling of the past, no prayers for the future.  It’s just a “be here now” moment.

When former JCCSF Executive Director, Rabbi Jason Gaber z’l was battling AIDS, a story about his omer count that year was published in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin (now the j).  Jason, who had been ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi a few months earlier, described it as a daily practice in making each precious day count.

Psalm 90 reads, “Let us number each day that we may gain a heart of wisdom – limnot yameynu keyn hoda v’navi levav chochma.”  Each day we count the omer we pause and simply dwell in full awareness of life’s blessings. The true wisdom, however, comes in making a daily habit of counting of our blessings and not waiting for the omer or until we’re staring face to face with our mortality.

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Rebecca Roberts Cohen: Memories of a 23 Year Friendship

Becca Roberts Cohen 5/11/58-11/18/10 from the family collection
Becca Roberts Cohen 5/11/58-11/18/10 from the family collection

Becca Roberts and I became friends when I moved to Berkeley from Arcata in 1987 to study massage therapy and to find a larger Jewish community with whom to connect.  We were students at Gail Stewart’s Re Source School and we spent the year learning our soon to be new vocation.  We seven students were spoiled by the low student-instructor ratio, with a dedicated team of teachers – Gail, Patrick and Jill and another from whom we learned Anatomy & Physiology at her home in Moraga.  We trained in Gail and Harris’ cozy, fireside living room in the Berkeley Hills, behind the Claremont Resort.  Through Re Source we connected with the Bay Area Body Therapy Guild, a network of professional body workers with whom we both stayed connected as we built our careers.

We finished the 200-hour training and were certified in the summer of 1988 and we wondered how we could find bodywork jobs with no experience.  Becca was the first to be hired – at the Albany Sauna. That helped me also get a foot in the door.  When we started they paid $11 per session, and the owner, a creep, made a fortune on us.  The place was kinda run down and the work demanding.  Among the regulars there were a lot of burly guys.  The tables were makeshift and the ergonomics pretty lousy, so I left after each night sore and exhausted.

Soon Becca got a second job – this time at the Berkeley Sauna which was owned by a woman named Elizabeth and her sister.  I followed Becca and started working there too.  It was a much nicer place and it was closer to my home on Ashby Ave.  They also paid better; around $17 or $18/massage and the tips were also higher.  Lot’s of regulars came in so the therapists shared clients.  I worked on Steve and so did Becca and they were married a few years later.

Not long after, I joined the bodywork team at the Courthouse Athletic Club.  I tried to bring Becca aboard, but she wouldn’t go near the place. The owner, an orthopedist, had misdiagnosed a cyst in Becca’s knee several years before and this had ended her professional cycling career.  I went on to build a practice in Kensington with a small group of women practitioners and Becca continued teaching PE part-time at Berkwood Hedge School.  My godson Lev Hirschhorn and his older sister Talia were two of her students.

Becca and I shared a bond in that both of us had degrees in PE and neither of us were at ll embarrassed by it.  Actually, it amused me because between the two of us, Becca was the jock.  I had started out studying music and recreation at Humboldt State while Becca got her undergraduate degree in Adult Fitness from Sonoma State.  I then returned to study at San Francisco State, supporting myself as a body worker and completing my BA. I  took endless prerequisites for a Masters program in Physical Therapy –  Human Anatomy in the cadaver lab, Exercise Physiology, Kinesiology, Adaptive PE and others.  When Becca decided to get her certificate in Adaptive PE at State, I connected her with Dr. Tina Summerford, who had been one of my advisors.  It felt good to finally give Becca a hand up like the many she had given me.

As a transplant from the East Coast, I loved that Becca was practically a Berkeley native. She had grown up here and her mom, Janet, lived close and knew a zillion people.

Becca was on the Aquatic Master’s Swim team and when I moved to North Berkeley I joined the Hopkins pool and tried to do the same.  But I had been injured in a bike accident and that was exacerbated by my Aikido training so Ihad to give up the intense workouts.  Occasionally Becca and I still swam together at the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area behind the stadium at Cal.

Becca then started rowing crew at Lake Merritt (which was never my thing) but  I was impressed by the discipline and commitment of her teammates – rowing at all sorts of crazy early morning hours!   Once I joined Becca for a killer workout with her trainer at the Berkeley Tennis Club and gave up half way through. When Becca took up Iyengar Yoga I sometimes joined her at the Yoga Room at the Julia Morgan building including some with Rodney Yee.

It’s surprising to realize how many new things Becca introduced to me.  When she took up Macrobiotic cooking, I got seriously interested too.  For a while I cooked Macrobiotic food for our bodywork friend, Joan Marie Passalacqua.  Becca taught me how to make mochi and the last time we pounded rice was at Maryclare’s birthday party a couple of years ago.

Becca knew the guy who started Clif Bars and when she launched her business making Sesame Chews we believed she could be just as successful.  I wholesaled them to the SF State bookstore.  To her increase her business savvy Becca decided to study at WISE, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, in San Francisco.  When I graduated from State and started a practice in on-site (chair) massage I also took the WISE training and I learned tons about how to be a business entrepreneur.

Becca’s parties were low key with a colorful mix of really interesting people. And because she was a foodie you could count on the yummiest and most nutritious food and drink. Back when thirty was still a big deal I attended Becca’s 30th birthday celebration at her mom’s.  I was at her 40th just before I left for Rabbinical School in Philadelphia and also I also came to her and Steve’s wedding reception in Redwood Park.  I am so glad I made it to her 50th birthday in the back yare of their Derby Street a couple of years ago.  Even though Becca was undergoing cancer treatment by then she looked fabulous in a cropped white wig and sexy black spotted dress.

Other than her knowing  she was born Jewish, Becca was not much into organized religion.  One winter she had a Holiday party at her apartment which was around the corner from my flat on North Street in Rockridge.  Janet had given Becca a pit-fired ceramic Hanukkah menorah, made by my good friend and homeless rights activist Susan Felix.  Hanukkah was over by then, but Becca happily displayed her fully lit menorah on the mantle. I had never seen someone simply bypass the traditions associated with its lighting, but Becca was so gleefully displaying it that I just bit my tongue.

During my rabbinic training in Philadelphia I visited and stayed with Becca, Steve and Abby. I’d been in seminary for almost four years and we’d been lousy correspondents, but when we got to talking it was as if I had never left. We hiked up Claremont Canyon as we’d done many times before and Becca commented on my powerful stride and pace.  Becca was half my weight and althout I’d been living asedentary life, on those steep trails I was somehow able to keep up with her.

Becca told me about her cancer diagnosis shortly after I returned to the Bay Area in the summer of 2006 to begin serving as the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco.  Coming back meant we were able to pick up right where we’d left our freindship.

I am so incredibly grateful for the gift of Becca’s friendship and for being able to enjoy her company during the final years of her life.  There was noone else quite like her – humble, strong, courageous, gutsy, kind and caring – and I am still astounded by the many ways she influenced my life.  I will miss her tremendously and savor the memories.

Dedication – Avram Yehudi Leib z’l (my great-grandfather)

When I decided to become a rabbi, I asked my mother what my great grandfather Avram Yehudi Leib would have thought. She said, “Two things. He would have been very very proud. And very confused.”

Avram Yehudi Leib, my great grandfather When I decided to become a rabbi, I asked my mother what my great grandfather Avram Yehudi Leib would have thought. She said, “Two things. He would have been very very proud. And very confused.”