Got My Mojo Back in Cuba

This is Part 1 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all 5 posts in chronological order, Click Here.   

I heard music—guitars and maracas—coming from a baby blue building in Baracoa, a small town at the Eastern tip of Cuba, where Columbus first landed on the island. Looking through the door, I saw a four-piece band on a wooden dance floor, with several couples doing a provocative salsa and others sitting in metal folding chairs.

cu hot danceI sat down, alone, intending just to watch. I’d recently come to the realization that I’m at the age where I’m invisible. When I walk along the street, no one looks at me, especially not men, and if their eyes accidentally do meet mine, they carom away like billiard balls cracking off the table rail.

I’d no sooner settled in my chair, however, than a man wearing an orange shirt and a shark’s tooth necklace asked me to dance. I hesitated; he looked younger than my son and I hadn’t done any Latin dancing in years. But he stared straight in my eyes, smiling, and moved me about the floor with such assurance that I was soon dancing better than I thought I could.

This was Cuba, where, I’d been told, “Men learn to dance in the crib. It’s genetic.”

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White House for Hanukkah?

The email arrived late Friday: “The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of your company at a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Wednesday, December 17, 2014.”

I read it again, and again. It was exciting, but why had I received this?InviteAs It happened, I was about to fly to New York for a week and could easily take the train to Washington.

But what would I wear? The invite said, “business or holiday attire.” In Boulder, where I’ve lived the past 12 years, business attire means a clean shirt and jeans.

Peter Swift, who’s the mayor of Gold Hill, CO, stopped by that night, and I showed him the invite. It asked me to RSVP with the “date of birth, social security number, city and state of residence and country of citizenship of your guest and yourself.”

“It’s a scam,” Peter said. “If you send all that info, they’ll have your accounts cleaned out fast.”

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Ari Shavit Proposes 3rd Way for Israel/Palestine peace

One day after the Jerusalem synagogue attack last week, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, proposed a Plan B—an alternative peace process that is gradual and informal, and offers a “horizon of hope.”
When I spoke with him in Denver on Wednesday, Shavit said that formal talks to attain an all-inclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty have always failed, creating a vacuum that has led to accelerating violence. “It’s on the brink now of spiraling out of control.”

What happened in Jerusalem is perilous, he said, “first because you see the influence of ISIS. To attack people while they pray in such a barbaric manner—using meat cleavers—you can see ISIS penetrating the minds of young people in the region.”

The second cause of alarm is that “it’s becoming a religious war,” Shavit said. Before it was primarily nationalistic, but now, “we have a struggle between religious Jews and religious Muslims over the holy city. And the combination of a religious war with ISIS inspiration is a lethal cocktail.”

Shavit repeated this Wednesday night at a sold-out talk capping the Denver JCC’s festival of arts, authors, movies and music. Since publication of Shavit’s book a year ago, his talks across the country have sold out. The book was an instant phenomenon: a captivating and sometimes startling history of Israel that presents all points of view. It soared onto the best-seller list, was praised and occasionally attacked by people from both the left and right, and won the Natan Book Award and the Jewish Book Award.

I found Shavit to be a great bear of a man with a rich, baritone voice. He’s tough-minded but owns an endearing humor and humility. Describing how he wrote the book as a personal historical narrative, he said, “I like my book, and sometimes I even like myself.”

In our interview, Shavit said it’s not realistic to try for a comprehensive peace agreement now, “although I would love to have one.” There’s too much violence and instability, he said. “There’s no leader for peace, no Martin Luther King or Gandhi in the region, and extremists are getting stronger on both sides. We need an alternative peace concept that will give hope and be an organizing principle for stability in the Middle East.”

The alternative he proposes is: a two-state dynamic that proceeds gradually, and will lead, in the long term, to a two-state solution.
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Iron Mind

My son, Andrew, entered the Ironman race in Boulder a few weeks ago, startling himself and me by completing it—just 20 minutes short of the cut-off time of 17 hours. At the start, he’d given himself a 50-50 chance of finishing: swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then running a full marathon of 26.2 miles, in 90 degree heat, at altitude of 5500 feet. He’d never swum that long, biked that far, or run a marathon, let alone done all three in a row.

Finish!Halfway through the bike course, his face and body overheated, his head hurt, his energy dropped, and his stomach and digestive system stopped functioning, causing him to vomit. For the last three hours, he couldn’t keep down anything— water, nutrients, electrolytes. The doctor who saw him puking up water advised him to drop out.

Yet he kept going, from 6:50 in the morning until shortly before midnight. When he knew he was going to make it, he picked up speed and at the finish line, did a victory dance, jumping like a fiend, punching his fists and wiping tears from his eyes as the crowd chanted, “You – are – an – Ironman!”

“What kept you going?” I asked the next day. “It’s all mental,” he said. “You just keep telling yourself: You can do it. You can do it. Keep going. Don’t stop.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the mind, neuroplasticity, and how Andrew’s triumphant mindset might be applied to other aspects of life, like healing the body. For three months now, I’ve been suffering from extreme vertigo, where I’m dizzy every minute.

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Reb Zalman’s Last Breath

His leaving was as unconventional as his teaching and his life.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wanted no casket, no plain pine box. For his funeral, held on the fourth of July, he wanted to be clothed in his white kittel (prayer robe), enfolded in his father’s tallis (prayer shawl), sprinkled with ashes brought from Auschwitz, then shrouded in white linen and lowered directly into the earth near his home in Boulder, CO.

He wanted the ashes buried with him in honor of his uncle, cousins, and the millions who’d died without receiving “a holy burial.”

It felt wrenching to shovel dirt onto his body. It also felt a privilege.

Carrying his body to the grave site.

Carrying his body to the grave.

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Reb Zalman Dies

I am grieving the loss of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died at his home in Boulder, CO on July 3, 2014.  He’d been sick and hospitalized for many weeks, but was recovering and hopeful he would make it through this year’s High Holidays.  A great celebration of his 90th birthday had been planned for August.  But around 8:40 a.m., his breathing stopped.

I’m grateful for the time we spent together, and that he was able to complete with me what he considered his final teaching.  He’d told me repeatedly that he was at peace with dying, he had his “travelin’ shoes,” and was “ready to go.”  The only thing he still wanted to do was communicate how it feels “when you know you’re approaching the end,” and how to prepare for the mystery.  His wife, Eve, and I take comfort in the fact that he was able to see the book launched, his last thoughts and words published.

His funeral is tomorrow, the 4th of  July, and I’ll be posting afterward.

Reb Zalman at a wedding several years ago. How we will miss him!

Reb Zalman at a wedding several years ago. How we will miss him! (photo courtesy of Donna Zerner)





Sara’s Picks for the Lost Vacation

Has “summer vacation”—two of the loveliest words in our language—gone the way of “free time?” Does anyone take a real vacation anymore, and what, I’m wondering, qualifies as a vacation these days?

A trip with young children is not a vacation.  A family reunion is not necessarily a vacation.   Staying home and “catching up” is not a vacation.

As defined by, vacation is “a period of suspension of work or study,” used for rest or recreation. The Italians call it “il bel far niente,” the beautiful doing nothing.

Good luck.

At a recent dinner with friends, one woman said she had family travel plans this summer but nothing that would give her a breather from stress. So, I asked her and others at the table, “What would allow you to unwind, relax, and recharge?”

Most shook their heads; they hadn’t had that kind of vacation in years, and one man said he’d never taken one. He wouldn’t know how.

Read book hammock For me, vacation has always meant the beach. Perched by the water with a hat or umbrella, feeling the tranquilizing warmth of sun on bare skin, listening to the rising, cresting, foom! of the waves, and—the icing on this cake—reading a book.

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Encounter with the Trickster

No one smiles at you in Mea Shearim—the ultra orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. Signs on the buildings warn: “Jewish women—dress modestly!”  I’d been warned that girls who entered the quarter wearing t-shirts or short skirts had been stoned.

mea stIt was my first visit to Jerusalem at age 35, and I hadn’t been in a synagogue for 15 years. I couldn’t wait to flee the Reform temple in Los Angeles that my family had attended, (but only on high holidays) where services were boring and Sunday school was an ordeal. Yet I was a seeker, and in the Sixties I began exploring Eastern mystical traditions.

In 1975, when I stopped in Jerusalem on my way to take a nature tour of the Sinai desert, I was startled to find a vibrancy in Jewish practice, scholars creating fresh translations of the Torah, and mystics unlocking the Kabbalah—nothing I’d seen in West Los Angeles.  I had yet to encounter a spiritual community in which I felt at home, and wondered if I might find that here.

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Your Crazy Time?

There was a story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi told me that I wasn’t able to include in The December Project. It’s about Maimonides, the venerated rabbi, physician, astronomer and philosopher of the 13th century who’s considered one of the key Torah scholars in Jewish history.



Reb Zalman first learned about Maimonides at 14, when he’d just escaped from the Nazis with his family, stealing over the border to Belgium.  After the horrors he’d witnessed, he thought that the God he’d been taught to believe in at his yeshiva had “finked out.” Zalman could no longer accept that there was a “world to come,” when the Messiah would resurrect the dead, the rivers would flow with wine, and bagels would grow on trees.

He was angry and wanted to fight, and since he couldn’t fight God, he was looking for a stand-in. He visited a Torah class and called out, “Do you really believe that when the Messiah comes, the dead will crawl out from their graves to be resurrected? This is stupid! Opiate of the masses. Rob the people in this world but promise they’ll get something in the next.”

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Too Much to Dream Last Night

Last night I dreamed I was with Jonathan again.*

Aggghh! Why is he appearing in my dream? I haven’t even thought of him in years. We were married in 1968 and divorced in ’73.

The dream dissolved instantly when I woke up, feeling distraught and confused, thrashing in the sheets. I tried to think, why was I so rattled?

Leibniz said that mortals can't see the full picture.

Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher, said that mortals can’t see the full picture.

Then I remembered. The dream. I couldn’t recall what Jonathan and I had been wrangling about, but I remembered that he had two briefcases with him, a fat one and a slim one. The slim one looked like the wine-colored leather attaché case he’d given me, but the initials engraved on it were: “A.D.”  Not mine or my ex husband’s.

What the…?


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