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Dan Ornstein

  • One of the first things that I do when I’m in an airport is check for a prayer room or chapel in which I can worship quietly. Set apart from the coffee bars, intercoms, security guards, and noisy travelers, airport chapels are places where I, a regular worshipper, and a somewhat nervous flyer, can connect with God in privacy before continuing my travels. Judging by the numerous entries in each room’s sign-in book, I’m not alone in my appreciation for this small sacred space that helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for my flight.
  • One early evening on a recent retreat in the Colorado Rockies, as the acrid smoke of our campfire rose in our nostrils, a friend urged me to sniff the bark of the nearby Ponderosa pine tree. “It smells like butterscotch,” he informed me with quiet excitement. I walked over to one large tree, its skin a creamy yellow-brown patchwork of scaly puzzle pieces. It exuded a slight but heady aroma of butterscotch candy.
  • I finally reached adulthood this summer, as we prepared to celebrate my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. It became clear to me that, for all these years, my parents have been living a double life: their own, one that has nothing to do with me or my siblings, that preexisted us and that they have carried on shamelessly under our noses. With their anniversary approaching and my dad turning ninety, my brother, sister and I talked about making them one of those huge “This Is Your Life” parties. But my mom protested that she wanted nothing this elaborate. So, we whittled the big idea down to an intimate brunch on an early August Sunday with immediate family, followed by a Zoom celebration to which we could invite people from different parts of their life.
  • As I stood in solitude one quiet morning on Paradox Lake in the Adirondacks, wisps of mountain fog glided toward me like gentle ghosts. Each fog swirl appeared to beckon to me to join it; the mist spirits approached me from all sides as if searching for a sure footing with me in this world before disappearing into the air.
  • The geese that inhabit Buckingham Pond in Albany are, to say the least, often supremely annoying. Though we might romanticize geese as gentle occupants of parks and ponds, they are in fact wild animals operating instinctively with little consideration for our sensibilities. If you innocently come too close to a goose’s babies, it will hiss malevolently at you and peck your legs hard, the fact of your lack of malice notwithstanding. And though they demand that we keep a respectful distance from their families, they are entirely uninterested in showing us any courtesy with the practice of good bathroom etiquette. They thoughtlessly leave their calling cards on the ground, with no thought for the shoes of hapless passersby. I am not fond of geese, to say the least.
  • For a recent family trip to Chicago, I ordered tickets to see the White Sox play the Minnesota Twins in a twilight game at the storied Comiskey Park on the city’s south side. Comiskey was infelicitously renamed Guaranteed Rate Field in 2016, after a thirteen-year stint as US Cellular Field. Their dismal success rate is guaranteeing very little for the hapless White Sox this season. Their record as of this writing stood at an abysmal 13-26, placing them in the proverbial doghouse, next to last in the AL central division, though they did beat the current first place Twins that night in a ten-inning game.
  • In synagogues around the globe, an equally important part of Sabbath morning worship, besides the worship itself, is the reception that comes afterwards. In my congregation, the cookies, kugels, cakes and candies that await our hungry attendees after a long morning of prayer would be no different from similar foods eaten on a weekday, except for the special “Sabbath spice” enhancing their flavor. According to Jewish legend, this “spice,” a symbol for the peaceful and spiritual nature of the Sabbath, is miraculously added to them during that weekly day of rest. Consumed in the setting of communal religious life, Sabbath food, like Sabbath socializing, takes on an almost mystical, intangible quality that adds to the holiness and restfulness of the day. Members of our congregation sit at ease, in no rush, nursing cups of coffee and nibbling on tasty foods. We allow ourselves the soul-healing necessity of catching up on each other’s lives, telling jokes and stories, and deepening our relationships with one another as a sacred community.
  • My friend, Jacob, reaches out to me in Albany, New York, 7,677 miles and many worlds away, from his home in Mbale, Uganda. He is seeking matzah bread for Passover and prayers for his community, known as the Abayudaya, whose pregnant mothers are being devastated by a disease that is killing their babies in the womb. Our friendship has evolved for more than a year, entangled in a mind-bending paradox: in a fraction of a second, we can write or speak to each other with the miraculous technology of WhatsApp, but his isolated Jewish community can’t afford matzah for the Passover seder or access quality medical care to prevent their pregnant women from losing their children. The crystal-clear photos and videos that he sends to me reveal starkly and brightly the turbulent mix of steadfast Jewish faith and devastating poverty that are woven into the fabric of his life in Africa.
  • The remains of the civil war era Manchester Mill stand, ruined and partly incinerated, on the banks of the Sweetwater Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River outside of Atlanta, Georgia. A silent sentinel overlooking the noisy rapids of the creek, the mill is a dilapidated paean to slavery era industriousness. You can easily saunter along its mill race, the trench that diverted water from the creek to power its massive water wheel. The wheel helped produce cotton yarns and osnaburg cloth, some of which was used to make confederate army uniforms.
  • In The Lorax, Dr. Suess’s parable about ecological disaster, our hero harshly informs the narrator:"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”