The Hand of God at the Cactus Kallah

I just returned from teaching at the Cactus Kallah in Tucson, AZ — not a big kallah, or gathering, like the bi-annual Aleph kallah but rather a small, intimate, first-annual, regional gathering. In every aspect of preparing to go and actually being there, I felt the hand of God gently ushering me in the direction I needed to move. Even the chant that began and ended my drumming class and that still echoes in my ears spoke to this theme: Yad Eloheim b’kol. The hand of God is in everything.

I experienced a lot of trepidation prior to leaving for Tucson. Actually, trepidation is putting it mildly. I felt stress and fear and resistance. The fact that no one had signed up for my class didn’t help, but I knew my emotions, while partially based in some real-life situations on my home front, were something to be pushed through. Like the workshop I taught at the kallah on moving through fear, I knew I needed to walk the narrow bridge no matter how precariously it hung between the peaks of the mountains I had created in my own mind. Illusions, I knew, with what I saw as a huge, wide, deep, dark, cavernous, chasm between them. And just as I decided take that first step, the bridge that seemed so scary and unsafe became more solid and secure. That first plank held my weight. And the distance between the bridge and the ground shrank considerably. I felt the disconnect between illusion and reality, thought and being, dissipate. My vision cleared. Reality settled in. I decided to take the next step. I felt the light move through me, through worlds. God’s hand reached out to me, and I reached out and took it.

I got a call from an old acquaintance, my first kabbalah teacher, Mindy (Shulamit) Ribner, another teacher at the kallah. She wanted to be my roommate. I already felt better. I packed and got on the plane the next day with all my many materials, which I would soon discover I didn’t need at all.

I was greeted only by the tall cacti in the Tucson airport parking lot. At the hotel, I found myself unable to get into my room; Mindy had accidentally locked me out. Gentle knocking brought her sleepy face to the door to greet me, and just as that door opened to me that first night, many others would do the same over the course of the next few days.

In fact, when the first door opened to a meeting room the next morning I was greeted by Eli Shirim Lester. Ah, a face I knew, a man I deeply respected, a hug that felt open and welcoming. Maybe there would be other familiar faces to make me feel I was coming home, like at the Aleph kallah.

A trip to the shuk to deliver my goodies, indeed, found other familiar faces – Karen Wortman and Carole Kestler – Aleph kallah acquaintances. Richard Kestler was there, too. I remember you! I remembered Deborah Mayaan’s mezuzot as well (My daughter’s hermit crabs used to live in cholla wood…), but not her. The door squeaked open as we all began moving towards friendship.

Teacher introductions happened next. Two rabbis first – Jonathan Siedel, whom I’d taught a retreat with just six months before, and Mindy – both long-time teachers and very knowledgeable. My thoughts ran wild. I’m so unqualified…so out of my league! I looked in the other direction. Lots more rabbis and a cantor – Robert Michael Esformes, Itzchak Marmorstein, the Ickovits siblings, and Jim Goodman. A few people I didn’t know, I assumed they knew more than me. Eli spoke next. His first words… “I have no credential…” I felt so much better! And I said so! “I’m so glad you spoke before me. I have no credentials either! I just want to share what little I know.” Guess what! The person next to me, she wasn’t a rabbi or scholar either. Nor was the next person or the next or even the next! After that…well…a few rabbis, the cantor…But I felt better. The door had opened to those of us who were “uncredentialed” to be teachers amongst those with credentials. Later, we’d all learn that we had something to offer – each and every one, receiving what we needed from the other.

There was still no one signed up for my class when I arrived, but just when I thought I’d take a class instead, Rick Kadis asked me to open the door of my class to him. God’s hand at play, I’m sure. I agreed willingly. Better to teach to one than to none. I came to teach. I was nervous – how to teach to one? Did I need to teach like the rabbis with texts? We had a conversation. I taught him what I knew, what I believed. I shared. He shared. He taught me. I threw away my notes and my texts. Why had I bothered to bring them at all? I opened the door to my heart and to the flow of wisdom from within and from above. And we worked through my workbook together in a two day coaching session that was perfect for both of us. I received clarity on my book and my work. I received a new meditation. Rick received…what he needed, I hope, and eventually he’ll create what he wants. We became friends. One student? Gam zu l’tova. (I want that bracelet!)

I relaxed into the afternoon – drumming with Eli, a class I’d always wanted to take (and that my husband and son really should have been taking instead of me; they are the family drummers, not me). The other class I had considered was cancelled; God’s hand again. After hours of drumming and chanting together – and laughing until tears ran down my face (Coombahyah, oy vay!) – and drumming and chanting and singing some more on Friday (magic!) and Saturday, a door not only opened but a heartfelt connection took place in that space between the sound of my drum and Eli’s drum. More than that, a healing occurred for me as the stress and anger melted away with the medicine I took in — the sound of the drums and the melodies and voices mingling together with the huge amount of joy I felt. (Kumah kumah Yah…kumah kumah Yah…Yes, now I can actually sing it without laughing but with fond memories in the place of that world-traveled drum’s beat.) And, of course, we had our class chant: Yad Eloheim b’kol and the favorite L’dor v’dor… We learned to be in synch – that last beat, our hearts and hands like one.

Then there was the smiling face of Karen drumming across from me and across our “shared” drums. We, too, connected in the spaces between the sound of my drumming and hers. Mmmm…makes me warm and fuzzy thinking of how the door opened to friendship. Punched arms, playing “musical drums,” trying not to look at each other so I could drum straight faced during that chant. (I won’t say the words lest I laugh again.) Oh, the aching cheeks and wondering who gets to play that drum this time? (Be careful, it’s so loud.) Wendy’s got “my” drum now… The promise to really stay in touch. I do promise.

I learned Ophanim with Itzchak – just he and I in preparation for Shabbat, his intense renditions of Abraham Isaac Kook’s poetry still ringing in my ears. We discussed kabbalistic “yoga” and the need for conditioner on hair. I’ll always remember filling his cup with green, sweet smelling tonic for his dry hair, showing him how to program his phone with ring tones, being the “first team” on the Shabbat walk, sharing Shabbat dinner (Is it time for salmon yet?), shivering in the cold as we lit candles. But I need a refresher course on Ophanim; I’ve already forgotten the breathing and letters… An unlikely friend, I would have thought, yet sometime during our time at kallah an opening happened, and we walked through a door together into friendship. He said I was good company. So was he.

I was honored to be asked to trade a booklet and workbook for a CD (Shhh…We shouldn’t have!) with Michael (He actually wanted to read what I wrote!), the beautiful voice on the CD I’ve often listened to at home. I shared cactus wisdom with him – shed the prickly outside to get to the soft good stuff inside and to let the soft good stuff get out pa

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the prickly barrier. He liked that message. I wanted to get past his quiet exterior; there wasn’t enough time for us to talk. He gave me the perfect flower, still in bud but in so much pain that it would be easier to burst forth in bloom than to stay a bud. He asked me to teach at the Cactus Café at a time he could hear me…again I felt honored. I brought him home with me in a thin plastic box with his photo on it and a slim disc inside. I can hear his voice and see that beautiful vest that he didn’t bother to bring with him to kallah. I look forward to the door opening a bit wider…a stronger connection made over time.

I traded also with Carole (Shhhh….We won’t do it next year! Promise!), this time for art – a Shechinah to bring home – and in the hope that my booklet would help heal her.

Workshops were open for the taking. I opened to taking – teaching – in every opening. I filled the void. “Shafir, I came to teach.” And the students came, and my notes flew away as if God’s hand had reached down and snatched them up. So, I “winged it” and the words flew from my open mouth and were received by the students who came to hear. And with each teaching, I learned. I opened. I connected with the wonderful people who sat with me and learned and taught and shared. In fact, I grew teaching wings at kallah. God’s hand came down and installed them on my back. You can’t see them, but I can feel them there.

I bought a card in the shuk for my hubby. “Heineini,” it said. He is always there for my family and for me. I wasn’t there for him or for my kids; I was off teaching and playing at kallah again. He always stays behind and handles the kids and work, allowing me to cross my bridges, find my wings, take God’s hand. One day he’ll come to kallah with me. I hope at this time he, too, senses God’s hand in his life and feels it reaching towards him.

Meals, where the food wasn’t always the best but the company was always superb, were a time to be social. There weren’t many of us, but there wasn’t enough time to get to know everyone.

Time in my room provided a chance to connect on a new level with a woman who was once my teacher but was now my friend as well as a fellow teacher, writer, and Constant Contact user. We talked about guys, our books, what to wear, teaching, how to move forward with our careers. She was quiet in the morning; I tried to be quiet at night. We e-mailed when I returned home. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?” “It’s just like being back in Tucson in our room…Lilah tov, Nina.” “Lilah tov, Mindy.”

Shabbat, of course, was a high and awesome time, and God’s hand was in everything. God’s light shone in everyone. Rebbes T’mimah and Jonathan and Shafir and Cantor Michael opened the door for the Shechinah to enter and kept it open to channel Her energy and light for us all to enjoy. Eli lead us Holy Drummers of the Purple Sage in our attempts to help bring the energy to a crescendo. Oh, and the little man on Friday night after services on the keyboard…and the karaoke without words…and Margaret singing regea (“Don’t worry. Be happy!)…and songs started and not finished…and Eli and Jonathan making up verse after verse and Karen and I drumming and drumming until we laughed too hard and had to stop (Oy vay, what a day!)…and wishing we knew more than just “I know you’re gonna leave me.” A repeat performance on Saturday with less energy, but we tried. We wanted the magic back again.

A lovely surprise! Two Aleph kallah friends came to join us for Shabbat. Rhonda Mason and her hubby, David. I got to eat lunch with them. Rhonda and I drummed on the table during birkat and tried to remember the words. She joined me in a workshop, although she’s already a kohenet. Rhonda danced and David drummed with us after Havdallah. So nice to see them more than every two years…

And there was the cabaret and the talent show…wonderful talent all the way around. (Too bad Reb Jim wasn’t there on Saturday night to sing his lovely songs again – gone to take care of his sick dog. No more hallway meetings with a fellow writer.) Attendees and teachers alike, singing, reciting poetry, playing guitar and drums, doing Biblio drama. We were visited by the spirit of Rav Kook and Sarah. And a few of us stayed long into the night, dancing until our bodies were too tired to continue moving, singing until we had no voices left, drumming until our hands hurt, lingering by the door because we did not want to say good night.

Then it was time to leave, to say good bye not just good night. I had opened and opened and opened. I hugged everyone. I collected business cards and e-mail addresses and asked for sign ups for my mailing list. I closed the door to my emotions not wanting to feel the sadness I always have when I leave kallah – Aleph or Cactus, it seems. It’s that sense of leaving behind my spiritual family, my soul friends. There was talk of me coming back to teach…a lovely possibility…a door left open.

Karen offered to take me to the airport and on a short Tucson tour. We envited Eli along. I was happy for once not to be calling a taxi or getting on a shuttle. We “decompressed,” Eli, Karen and I, on that drive around Tucson, and I thought that would make it easier to close the door on the Cactus Kallah, but it only made it harder. Saying goodbye to two friends made it clear that I was once again leaving behind my chevre, going back to the stresses of my life, and that felt sad and lonely and a bit scary.

We only had about an hour and half until I had to be at the airport…too short. I wanted to make it last longer – the kallah, the time in the car, the feeling, the experience, the person that was me at kallah. Karen thought she knew where we were going, but she was lost. I was lost…in thought, in memory, in disconnect already. God’s hand took the steering wheel. We took the perfect route through the mountains to see those big, tree-like, 100-year-old+ Arizona cacti – the one with the crossed arms (or, as Eli suggested, legs…Ha!) – and then we turned around and went back to the airport.

I went through the open doors alone. Truding along with my heavy backpack, dragging my bags and carrying my little drum (Where’s the big one I want? With Shafir and with Wendy in Tucson. Jonathan, you can have this one. I can’t play it, but you can.), I didn’t look back. I might not have gone forward if I had. Kallah seems real when you’re there, but I knew from experience that a different reality waited at home. I felt like I was stepping onto that narrow bridge once again. It looked different this time, and I had much to draw on to give me courage, faith, and hope as I moved along its length. I remembered my students – eyes closed, heal to toe, arms out. I put one foot in front of the other. I walked fast, like Karen during my workshop, and blinked my eyes to see clearly. No illusions. (No Egypt coming…) I searched within for Nachshon’s certainty. Not sure that I had found it, I reached out. God’s hand took mine.

I’m so grateful to have been asked to teach at the Cactus Kallah. And I remember now why I never miss the opportunity to attend the Aleph kallah. In fact, I haven’t missed one since the first one I attended eight years ago. And now that I’ve attended the Cactus Kallah, I’m sure I’ll keep going back to this one as well. It’s hard to believe I ever considered not attending, not teaching. Shafir, thanks for your vision, for making this all this possible (You had to have the first one…), for giving me space and time – and for hearing my pain, for offering to take me shopping next year so I can have some lovely skirts like yours. (I really do have some, too.) The kallah was perfect in every way. Yad Eloheim b’kol.

2 thoughts on “The Hand of God at the Cactus Kallah”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the magic in a miracle. That Cactus Kallah was just that, because you were there.

    L’Shana Tovah from LA. I’ll be with Craig Taubman this HH. May you and your family have a sweet year.

    Eli Shirim Lester

    1. Thanks, Eli…I forgot all about this post! Glad you saw it as it ran back through and reposted. It was a miraculous time, and I have such good memories. I miss you!

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