My heart, my soul, my money

Starting with a blank sheet of pearly white paper. The kind with that lovely sort of linen texture. Eagerly awaiting those first few drops of dark, rich ink. Absorbing them, becoming one, inseparable. Together becoming so much more than each could become by their lonesome selves.

The tangible beginning, the physical binding. It starts slow, maybe a bit hesitantly, almost fearful. And then it starts coming, quick, almost too quick, as if this newly opened channel of thoughts would close as quickly as it opened. The ideas coursing through your body, down your arm, as your hand scribbles furiously to keep up; you watch amazed, detached, as this ink and paper combination, somehow, magically, become a physical embodiment of your thoughts, your emotions, of you.

And you keep on writing, knowing, even if not understanding, that the physical act of touching your ink to paper, sparked this clarity of thought, allowing you to know yourself in ways you never knew you could.

I can’t say I know Yossi and Tal very well. What I do know, is that I get a wonderful feeling when I think about them. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and impressions about people, and there’s a simplicity and calmness about these two that I really respect.

I don’t know who's the ink and who’s the paper (though the color of their dress seems to give it away). Nor am I sure if the spontaneous analogy has any bearing in reality. What I am sure of is that whatever awesomeness each one has, when it is combined with the other’s, something special will happen.

I expect great things from you two!

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The Courage to be Free

photo-1.jpg Passover just passed. I tried to get it to stay, I really did. We even conveniently forgot to put blood on our doorpost this year so maybe it would stick around for a bit. It didn't.

(For the record, we never put blood on our doorposts, and neither does anyone else.)

The story of the exodus from Egypt is fairly well known (though the details are most often a bit misconstrued): Hebrews go down to Egypt; have many, may kids; Egyptians freak out; Enslave the Hebrews; Moses tells Pharaoh to let the Jews go; Ten plagues; yadadada.

A lesser known aspect of Passover is the fact that only a small portion of the Hebrews left Egypt. Eighty percent didn't want to leave Egypt, and were killed during the plague of darkness.

Which begs the question: HUH?!

Why would anyone want to stay as slaves in a land where you were hated.

In my community here in Long Beach, on the seventh day of Passover we have a little gathering were a bunch of people go up to the podium to share something interesting they learned about Passover.

In addition to learning that Manschewitz's biggest customer is McDonald, I also heard a wonderful explanation of the above question.

Chassidus explains that leaving Egypt isn't something that only happened way back when, but it's a constant process. The Hebrew word for Egypt is "Mitzrayim" which can also be read as "Meitzarim" which mean borders, or boundaries. Leaving Egypt means going beyond ourselves, our habits, addictions, personalities. It begs us, and allows us, to break out of any shackles, be they physical, mental, psychological, emotional, physiological, or spiritual.

There's a saying, something to the like of "You can take a nation out of Egypt, but you can't take Egypt out of a nation". Being a slave is not just a physical bondage, it's a mentality, and when G-d took us out he allowed us to break free from the slave mentality, and he allowed us to be free, to be truly free.

Yet paradoxically, freedom is hard, and takes tremendous self-courage and self-sacrifice. It's easier to remain as one is, with all his habits, vices, and reliances. Yes, I have to work from 14 hours a day making pyramids (I have no clue if the Hebrews made them or not), tombs, and storage cities. I only get some moldy bread and a bit of beer, and I have to sacrifice half my kids. But look on the bright side, I know where my food and drink are coming from, and I get to keep half my family… Is it really so bad? How do you know what will happen if you break free? Who will take care of you? What will you do with all your spare time? Won't you miss your addictions and obsessions? Aren't you scared?

The truth is I'm terrified. I'm scared of what I know I can accomplish if I just leave Egypt. But I'm also excited. Excited to go out there and change things. To dare not just to dream, but to act on those dreams. Even at the expense of lesser dreams.

I've been reading an amazing book titled The Power of Starting Something Stupid written by the inspiring Richie and Natalie Norton. It speaks about chasing your "stupid" dreams and achieving meaningful success. One of the first and most important steps mentioned is humility. Pride in who we are, what we've become, what others think of us, holds us back from changing and going after the life we want.

Humility can come from without and from within, though it's much more sustainable if it's from within. When the Jews left Egypt there was such a huge revelation of G-d ("not through an angle, nor through a Seraf, or a messenger, rather I myself") that any pride was left behind. For who can hold himself great in the presence of absolute truth?

We eat Matzah to commemorate the Jews leaving in such a haste that their bread didn't have a chance to rise. In the (paraphrased) words of the Haggadah (the text we read at the Seder the first two nights of Passover) "This here Matzah we eat for when the Jews Jews left Egypt the bread did not have time to rise until the king of kings of kings revealed himself and redeemed them".

The rising of bread symbolizes pride, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. But when making such a huge leap from bondage (all types) we need absolute humility to leave all our baggage behind. The Matzah has no pride, no taste. Back then, we were so sunk in the ways of Egypt and slavery that we couldn't muster up the humility all by ourselves, so G-d helped us out. But nowadays, once the Egypt was taken out of us, we must chase away our pride on our own. And the physical embodiment of that is making and eating Matzah.

So I'll raise a toast (currently Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Ale, I just keep going back to it) to the courage to be humble and the courage to be free.

***

There's a Rabbi here in Long Beach by the name of Sender Engel who goes around Long Beach and Orange County before each major Holiday with his Model Mitzvah Series. Before Passover he travels to different Hebrew Schools, Synagogues, Libraries with his Model Matzah Factory. He tells the story of Passover (with great props and all), and goes through the whole process of making Matzah. From the planting and growing of the wheat, to the threshing, winnowing, sorting, and grinding. Then the kids get to (quickly) mix the flour and water well, roll and flatten out individual Matzos, make holes, and pop them in the oven all within 18 minutes.

There was a last minute Model Matzah Bakery set up at the school, there was an email that was supposed to go out from a popular organization here, but that never happened. So it was just me, Zevi, Chanalah, and one of the Engel boys. I though he would just call it of, but he went throug the entire shpiel, (awesomely corny) jokes, history and all. I wish I had photos of the kids mixing the dough, and actually baking and eating the Matzah, but I'm a dad first, photographer second.

To be honest the Matzah wasn't too great tasting :), but that's not the point. And a Pizza oven isn't really the best (or the most Kosher) place to bake Matzas.

For a great (hilarious) video on the Matza baking process, check out this video. It's worth it.

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Bat Polaroid Mitzvah

20130219-125045.jpg Mendel: Are my hands dirty? Me: No, you just washed them. Mendel: NO!! They’re filthy! I need to wash them.

And so went the evening. Between the washing of the hands and the drinking from the fountain, his shirt was completely soaked by the end of the night. Which was fine. Because we’re cool like that.

Zusha spent the evening wooing the ladies and begging for food (which he always got), Zevi was running around like a hooligan, playing some sort of six year old game I’ll never understand (he tried explaining it to me, and then tried getting me to play. I tried, I really did, but after 2 minutes and 43 seconds (I’m surprised I lasted that long, the kid has patience) I was fired and promptly replaced by another - more seasoned and competent - six year old). Chanaleh just wanted cucumbers. A lot of cucumbers. Which was fine. Because we’re cool like that.

Estee, I felt bad for Estee. She had (still has, though it’s finally going away) a double ear infection. So she spent the hours alternating between trying to hear what people were saying, and trying to block out the sound of people talking. It’s a tough fence to straddle.

I walked around with my RZ67 and a polaroid back. It’s like a non-pooping version of a dog. A great conversation starter, and unlike dogs it can make photos. Instantly. Well, almost. It’s the peel apart kind, where there is a positive print that you peel away from the negative after allowing it to develop for some time. Officially it’s 15 seconds in 75 degrees, but if you don’t want solarized negatives (where the blackest part is white), then it’s best to wait a bit longer. I tried, but I was letting the kids do it and their version of time seems to be a bit different from mine. But that’s okay. Because I’m cool like that.

These are all polaroid (Polaroid as a company went bankrupt some time back, these are actually “Fuji FP3000b Instant Peel-Apart Film”. “Polaroids” sounds better.) prints or negatives (giving away the actual print is half the fun) from my nieces Bat Mitzvah. At the Bat Mitzvah, not really of the Bat Mitzvah. There was a hired pro for that.

Make life better!

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2012 (and a bit). My familia.

I’ve pushed off posting this for a while, there’s been a tragedy in my community and some scary family issues, and it seemed a bit insensitive to be posting beautiful photos of my beautiful family’s beautiful life. It still does.

In a way though, the timing is perfect. The best reaction to tough news is to resolve to live more fully, more joyously, more intensely. To spend more time with people that matter, doing things that matter.

My family is who matters, spending time with them is what matters. But we sometimes get so caught up in surviving that we forget to live.

There are those ”quote photos” that people post and share on facebook (for some reason posting pictures of words ticks me off to no end. I’m weird like that). None of them are too monumental or mind blowing, but sometimes they do strike a chord. One I saw recently was something to the effect of... Okay there is no way I’m going share the text from a photo of text here. I just can’t. I’ll share something from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden instead.

“...that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

and

“All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.”

So in order to be we choose something to do, and then something to do with, and we become so obsessed with the day-to-day doing and doing with that we forget about the being.

Eg. I’d love to be able to learn, pray, and connect to Hashem a good chunk of the day. I really would. I enjoy those things. But in order to do this I must provide some sort of service which a fellow man is willing to pay for. So we chop wood, cobble, milk cows, and herd sheep. We become businessmen, blacksmiths, candle-makers, internet hacks, healers, and coders.

So we could then live with a sense of comfort, with food, shelter, and clothing. But then we start to shift our focus, instead of spending our free time connecting, praying, learning, walking with our special other, playing with the kids; we think of more ways to make money, and when we talk with friends it isn’t about the things that matter, it’s about cobbling, coding. And even worse, while we are praying, hiking, learning, our minds wander to what? To the exact things we have taken on ourselves to allow ourselves the luxury of praying, hiking, learning. Being.

Therefore, I, Zalmy Berkowitz, he of the large beard, broken glasses, thrift store jackets. Drinker of good beer, watcher of cows; light trapper, memory collector; he of the beautiful wife and delightful children; Confuser of pronouns; resolve to actively concentrate on being, and relegate the doing and doing with to exactly that. Tools with which I can spend more time doing what I really want.

Will this resolution stick. I highly doubt it. But the more one thinks about something, the more the truth sinks in. Sinks past your consciousness, slides through your sub-conscious (not your “unconscious”! Please, you don’t “unconsciously think” or “unconsciously react”), wiggles down your esophagus, until it gets firmly entrenched in your heart. And then what you know becomes what you do, and who you are.

With that I present my family’s year. Not just the best photos, but my favorite ones.

Enjoy the ride. Keep your hands inside the moving vehicle at all times, and for the intellectually challenged, there is even a video (narrated by botox lady. And that whole "no electronics" thing? Complete balderdash.) instructing in the exact process of buckling a seatbelt. Yes, I’m looking at you, Airline companies. Seriously?

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Goodbye Ron

documentary family photography-28.jpg documentary family photography-177.jpg Wednesday was tough.

I woke, for the third time in as many days, in the back of my van, with a headache, a twitchy back, and smelling ever so slightly of cow, to the incessant ringing of a non-consequential phone call.

8:43. After mixing up and drinking my morning cocktail (three heaping teaspoons of good instant coffee; two flat teaspoons of raw, hard honey; gobs of fresh raw milk), I made my way to my office (mine due to squatting laws), put on my tefilin and prayed.

Well that's what I should have done.

The first time I was honored with the "stay at home alone" badge (besides for the time my parents drove the whole family to Westminster, sans Zalmy), I was 7, maybe 8. I finished reading whatever it was that I was reading (probably the Hardy Boys, I've always wondered what Aunt Gertrude's pies really tasted like, and if they were all that), swung off the couch (blue, with the white and yellow polka dots) waved to Oscar (the big ugly fish that lorded over the lesser cichlids), and poured myself some water.

It was quiet. Too quiet. Not one to scare easily, I checked each room for some inhabitants, possibly a mom, maybe a dad, or at least a sibling. No luck. Checked the garage (where we kept our 8 1/2" black and white TV, the glorious provider of such forbidden delights, the likes of Gilligan's Island and Knight Rider), the closets. Then I freaked, my active imagination running through all possible scenarios, none of them calming.

Turns out my parents had been trying to leave the house for a while, and I just wasn't getting off the couch. No amount of threatening or pleading would even merit a glance from me. Annoyed, and out of time, they gave me one last threat of impending departure, and promptly drove off. Of course I was in the wonderful world of Fenton Hardy, his two intrepid sons, and their husky friend Chet, and was unaware of any threatening: pleading; or impending departures.

By the time I actually prayed it was closer to 12 than 11. Unfortunately, this time there were no young sleuths occupying my mind.

12:36. I washed my face, went through the motions of brushing my beard, sprayed on deodorant for the first time all week (don't judge, I don't trust that stuff) and put on the white dress shirt that happened to be crumpled in my backpack. I then carefully placed my overflowing, overused, Starbucks cup of orange juice and water in the far right cupholder, and merged on to the Ramona Expressway, cruise controlling at exactly (Speed Limit x .17) + Speed Limit - (day of the month/9) (my patented equation to the fastest possible non ticketable speed).

2:05. There was no parking, so I followed the crowd (who was obviously following the crowd in front, who had no clue where they were going), found some parking, and started walking, avoiding as much conversation as possible. Sometimes, I just like to be alone with my thoughts.

The funeral had started.

Small hellos, nods, shared sighs of disbelief, many tears. Most of us were standing outside the chapel, crowded tight to hear what none of us wanted to, yet we all needed to, hear.

I don't cry. Last time I shed some tears was by 9/11, before that, appendicitis, possibly a broken jaw. But today was different. Ron was different.

Listening to his family and friends speak about a man I knew fairly well, but not well enough. And my tears felt presumptuous. As if somehow I had a right to be sad. That in the overwhelming, unimaginable grief of family that had their brother, husband, and father ripped away so suddenly and mercilessly; as if somehow my pain was worth something.

Odd is the way of the mind and heart, understanding, yet questioning, demanding.

Ron was possibly the most perfect man I knew. And from all I heard about him in the past week, he deserved that title more than I realized. His spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, family, and professional life were all in one straight line. And he cared. Genuinely. Deeply. About Judaism, G-d, his family, his community, his patients. And that is rare.

There were things I didn't know about him. I didn't know he never lied. Ever. I never knew he played in a band. I never knew he never got angry. Ever. I didn't know that he'd go out of his way to resolve disputes. He would rather pay, and have peace, than win, and have discord.

And I'm mad at myself for not knowing these things. And I'm mad at myself for my selfish madness. I wish I would have known Ron better. I could have. But it takes a lot for me to open up, and I take the easy route of easy banter, friendly conversation, and polite salutations.

I found myself watching the family. Now please understand, I am not a rubbernecker, I most always look away from tragedy, and do not gaze curiously at the emotional. It physically hurts me to.

Yet I found myself looking at Ron's wife and young kids, watching, and in a very small measure sharing their pain. I know it doesn't work that way, but I found myself hoping that, by the sheer force of my will and tears, I could somehow, maybe, just absorb a little of the pain.

I don't think it worked, but later, as I was thinking about it (it's all I've been thinking about), I realized that it's the opposite. That by the sheer force of their will and tears, they shared some of the love, the deep, deep love, that is always there, but comes pouring out, by the end of one's life. For more than all the character traits, achievements, and humorous tendencies, Ron's life was a life of love.

God asked him, "Do you want to go to the world now? I need you to show the people what it means to love, what it means to have compassion, what it means to be a leader, what it means to have a sense of humor, what it means to be a true friend. And most importantly, I need you to teach them about Me and My Torah and how to live a meaningful life. Can you do that?" "Yes God, I can." "I will let you stay there for a specific amount of time, and then I will take you back when everyone least expects it. It will seem unjust, but I have My reasons. Will you still go?" "Yes God, I will go."

We miss you Ron, tell God the world is ready for Moshiach. And then we can all see your smile once again. Estee Berkowitz

I don't think there is any use trying to make sense of senselessness, but there is a use in trying to grow from it. To harness the "Ron'ness" inside of us.

Ron, I didn't know you nearly as well as I should have, and in honor of you I won't let that happen again. I will not limit my correspondence with people to easy banter, friendly conversation, and polite salutations. I'm going to build a bridge of this island, allow myself out, and allow, and even bring others in. I know that from how I write here, I seem open. I'm not. And that is going to change.

I went by the house the other day for a Shiva visit (it's a Jewish custom to visit the mourners for the first seven days, to talk about the deceased, and make the transition a little more bearable) and was amazed by the amount of people that loved and cherished Ron, by the strength, and unwavering faith of his family. If anyone has a right to be proud of what he accomplished down here, it's Ron.

We will miss you Ron. Dearly. Intensely.

The world is a little bit darker without you, but much, so much brighter because of you.

We love you, and always will.

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My 2012 (and a bit). Paid and personal.

My 2012 was 15 months long. I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but it started sometime last October. I sold my Mamiya 645, bought a Contax 645 (read: ridiculously overpriced medium format film camera), and shot my first all film session. I fell harder in love with it and stuck my digital gear in some farflung corner of my beautifully junglistic garage. I still reach for it now and then, for dark receptions, for photos of gear, to test lenses. I kind of feel bad for it's mass produced, machine made feelings. (Of course I know digital cameras don't have feelings, it's residual mental scarring from Disney movies.) November came and I took my oversized backpack to the Genesis workshop in Memphis. I thought I was going in order to learn how to build a wedding photography business (which was the main thrust of the workshop, both the creative and the business side). Instead I came out with 50 awesome friends, and a thoroughly confounded outlook on what and how I wanted to shoot. The instructors were very encouraging, even inspiring, but when I put forth my purported goal of becoming a hot-shot wedding photographer I received some raised eyebrows. Not because anyone thought I wouldn't be good at it, rather they saw something very unique in my family work that I didn't.

I didn't see it. Not for a while at least. But then I started

***

I was planning on finishing the thought and possibly thinking up more thoughts. But being as it is now Sunday, 11:09 PM Pacific Standard Time, there are other, more time-specific thoughts to think.

Tonight begins the tenth day of the Jewish month of Shvat. On this day 63 years ago the Previous Chabad Rebbe (leader of the Chabad sect) passed away, and exactly one year later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (known as "the Rebbe") accepted the mantle of leadership.

The Rebbe was always a large presence in our lives.

Way back when, my father grew up in Boro Park, Brooklyn (on top of Rubashkin's butcher shop). One day the Yeshiva he went to called his parents house wondering why he hasn't shown up for the past few weeks. Turns out he casually left and went to the Chabad Yeshiva in Crown Heights. (That was the good old days, nowadays we can't seem to go anywhere without the whole world knowing where we are and what we are doing.)

My mother, on the other hand, did very much of her growing up with Chabad. Her father (along with his twin, Shlomo Carlebach) was a Chossid (follower) of the Previous Rebbe, and when he passed away had a very hard time transitioning. Whereas the Previous Rebbe was very personal, the current Rebbe was more brusque (possibly due to the sheer amount of Chassidim and work that had to be done). He connected very much with the Bobov Rebbe and tried to get his family involved. Didn't happen. Being that my grandmother (whose birthday it is today) is a Schneerson and second cousins with the Rebbe, Chabad was too much of a presence to be sidetracked by any Bobovers :) (If you've got a few minutes, you could read all about my hotshot lineage.)

After my parents married the Rebbe sent them to a few places to teach and spread Judaism. After some time in Nashville (where my two oldest siblings were born), Palo Alto (where my brother was born), Long Beach (my sister and I were born there), and Westminster, we finally settled in Huntington Beach, where they established a wonderful community.

Growing up, in school, and later in Yeshiva, we had it hammered into our skulls, how very important we were. Not as Rabbi's kids, as Lubavitchers (another name for Chabad Chassidim), or even as "Orthodox" (can't stand that word), but as Jews and as people. How G-d has a mission and if we weren't an integral part of that mission then we wouldn't be here (G-d does nothing in vain).

We were taught not only not to judge others, but to respect everyone, for who they are, and who they can be. To learn from them. The Rebbe taught us to be real, and to make G-dliness a real part of our lives. Not just doing what G-d wants, but to work on ourselves until we feel it. Until the fact that G-d is everywhere and everything, is not just an intellectual concept but something we see with our own eyes.

The Rebbe taught us to be real. He showed us (along with the previous Rebbes) that G-d and his Torah don't have to be foreign concepts forced upon our consciousness. That we don't have to fight our inner nature, rather we have to reveal it.

And that is why a Rebbe is so important. We all may know, and even believe. But we don't see G-d. We see tables, clouds, beer, mountains, buildings, tar pits, and flashlights. And we may know that behind all the physicality is a G-dly animating force. But we don't see it.

The Rebbe does.

The Rebbe sees the world as G-d does. He doesn't see a hand, he sees an instrument to give charity. Not beer, but something to allow us to open up more freely and talk about things that actually matter. Not a table, rather something by which we can learn and eat. For in fact, a hand is nothing but the expression of G-ds will that charity should be given, and tables were created out of G-ds will that books be learned, and food be eaten (uplifted). And when we connect to the Rebbe, through his teachings and directives, we connect to that level. And now and then, even get a glimpse of that perspective, that truth.

Be real. Live truth. That is the goal. And that's the mission.

***

My thoughts, beer, and chia seed pudding, are all running low. The AM has laid down it's chilly fingers, and my brain is all athunked.

Below is my year. And a bit (and most of December is at the lab). Both paid and personal work (my family work I'll save for a later date). I've learned how to take pretty photos, and sometimes even good ones. I'm posting this more for myself, to see next year how much I've grown, how much I've learned. If I did at all.

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Important notes: Tonight's beer is Firestone Brewery, Union Jack, India Pale Ale. Full bodied and bitter, though slightly boring. Decent and overpriced. Chia Seed Pudding is made from Chia seeds, water, raw honey, unrefined coconut oil, walnuts and raisins.