Remembering our Scars, Finding our Strength with Cantor Emma Lutz

 

Thank you to Cantor Emma Lutz from Stephen Wise for sharing her wisdom this past week. What she wrote really spoke to me and I asked for her permission to share it here:

MONDAY

Throughout our country today we commemorate Memorial Day, a day reserved to honor and grieve those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Many of us will be gathering with friends and family, perhaps connecting with circles of loved ones from whom we have been separated for many months. Let us use this time earmarked for remembrance as an opportunity to express our gratitude and to share in our bereavement for those who perished in service to our country, to heal from the many wounds of this past year, and to look to the future of our community, our country, and our world with renewed confidence and hope.

There is a Jewish custom to light a memorial candle in honor of a loved one on their yahrzeit (the anniversary of their passing) or on special days of remembrance. For those of us thinking of a loved one on this Memorial Day, or for any of us who have the intention of honoring our fallen service members today, I encourage you to light a yahrzeit candle. May these words of blessing from Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, be a comfort for us all:
Grant us strength to endure what cannot be escaped,
And courage to continue with no bitterness or despair.
Let us find You, God,
          In the love of friends and family,
          In the deep recesses of our being,
          In the hearts that open to us, when it seems that love has vanished.
May this candle rekindle in us strength and hope,
May this light shine with the certainty of Your Presence, O God, 
          Here and now, 
          In this home at this hour
          As we remember. 
Blessed is the Eternal One, who has implanted within us eternal life.

— Cantor Emma Lutz

TUESDAY

Rabbi Sari and I both recently attended a virtual course through the Hadar Institute (a wonderful egalitarian Jewish education organization) around themes of reopening and reunion that are found in our Torah and other sacred texts. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to revisit the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—a man who spent many years in isolation—and to read it in a new light after 14+ months of pandemic seclusion and disjointed living. Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Shimon’s story, as taught to us by Rabbi Tali Adler:

Shimon bar Yochai spent 12 years in a cave dwelling in reclusion with only his son as a companion. After he re-emerged from his cave, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair heard of his return and went to greet him. He brought Rabbi Shimon to the bathhouse to tend to his skin, because it had been terribly cracked and damaged from the dark and dry environment of the cave. Rabbi Pinchas began to cry, tears falling from his eyes at the sight of Rabbi Shimon’s great physical pain. Rabbi Pinchas said to him: “Woe is me, that I have to see you like this, my friend, with such wounds from your time in isolation!” But to his surprise, Rabbi Shimon responded, “Happy you should be to see me like this, for if you had not seen me this way, you would not have found me at all.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 34a)

I love Rabbi Shimon’s response to his friend Rabbi Pinchas: better for you to see me with all of my cracks and scars than to not see me at all, and also, these scars are a part of me now and you cannot truly know me again as a whole person without acknowledging them. It is a gift to truly be able to see another person, to acknowledge what they have been through, to bear witness to their vulnerability and their pain. We are all marked with spiritual, emotional, and physical scabs after these past fourteen months—wounds of boredom, loss, and longing. May we allow ourselves to be like Rabbi Shimon, wearing our vulnerability as our strength. And may we also be like Rabbi Pinchas, acknowledging the toll this year has taken on our loved ones and ourselves. Together, may they inspire and guide us to and through our increasing opportunities for meaningful reconnection and restoration as a holy community.

— Cantor Emma Lutz

WEDNESDAY

When I was eleven months old, my parents heard me singing along in the backseat of the car to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and I was humming and singing long before I could speak in full sentences. I was just five years old when I danced and sang as a “lost boy” in a local production of Peter Pan and I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence singing from both the stage and bima. In my late teens and early adult years my calling to become a cantor became clear to me, but the anthems of musical theatre (most of which have been written by Jews) still include some of my favorite melodies from any era and can offer a different medium of connection to the Divine.  

Listening to and singing music has kept me focused and hopeful throughout my entire life, this year more than ever. Amidst the discord of life during the pandemic, harmony and rhythm, creativity and repetition have been and continue to be an incomparable source of comfort and joy. Day after day, the healing pulses of my favorite melodies—musicals, contemporary, and Jewish melodies alike—gave me the energy to persist and filled me with the hope of not only one day being inside a crowded theatre hall like the Ahmanson, but to imagine my heart’s deepest yearning: to be back in the sanctuary singing live together again. Throughout this past year, singing to my daughter Ruby at home, officiating at our beautiful outdoor b’nai mitzvah with our inspiring young members, and more recently, joining back together for services outside on our campus, the music of our Jewish heritage—traditional and liturgical as well as theatrical and contemporary—continues to be a source of deep inspiration and great tranquility for me.

What were your melodies of inspiration this year? What lyrics and music of the past shape your best and most meaningful memories? What do you hope to hear more of in the months and years to come? I hope we will have many opportunities ahead to explore these motifs together.

This song, “Answer Me,” composed by Jewish-Syrian composer David Yazbek and performed by Jewish singer Adam Kantor from the 2018 Tony Award-winning Broadway Cast Recording of the Musical The Band’s Visit (based on the fantastic 2007 Israeli movie by the same name), was an anthem of mine this past year. A song of yearning and hopefulness, it’s a moving musical theatre piece with the ring of a prayer. I hope that it will bring insight and light to your day.

— Cantor Emma Lutz

THURSDAY

In 2011-2012, I spent my first year of cantorial school living in Jerusalem, which was undoubtedly the most magical and memorable year of my life (with the exception being this past special year with my daughter, Ruby). I studied and spoke Hebrew every day, enjoyed living on the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, davened (prayed) at many different synagogues enjoying a variety of musical traditions, and absolutely fell in love with the land and the people (as well as my wonderful husband, Adam, who I met that year). It was a relatively peaceful year, Jerusalem existing in its own quiet and mystical rhythm, and I was lucky and blessed to be safe walking the streets of my favorite city for eleven sweet months. Jerusalem is my forever home and a part of my heart is, as Yehuda HaLevi so perfectly put it, always in the East. 

While we are greatly uplifted by the recently signed ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, we continue to pray for the land of our People Israel and for the preservation of peace. Every Shabbat here at Stephen Wise Temple, we include in our services a prayer for the safety of the State of Israel and those who dwell in it. Today, I am honored to share an interpretation of our Hashkiveinu prayer, written by my colleague Rabbi Sandra Stock Mayo, with the special intention that her words may be a beacon of light and hope for all of us who continue to pray for Medinat Yisrael:

Help us to lie down at night in comfort, safety, and peace
May the dreams of our children be sweet tonight and tomorrow and the day after
May the future be bright for them
and for their children
and for generations to come
 
Grant us the ability to rest after long days of work and worry
Give us the chance to let our souls be at peace
and give us the grace to know how to separate from the things 
we cannot control
Allow us to quiet our bodies and our minds 
as we drift away from the mundane and enter into a sacred dreamscape
 
Spread over us the shelter of your comforting presence
Help us to know that it is okay to let go
To breathe, to be – just to be
Journey with us into our sublime subconsciousness 
and let us live in this liminal space of neither here nor there
For when we are with you
we are never truly alone
 
Guide us, watch over us, protect us
Allow us to rise in the morning with the fragrance of a new dawn
A chance to hope, to create ourselves anew 
Again and again and again.

May this be a meaningful addition to your own prayers and intentions, and may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be heard by God and our love and support felt by our brothers and sisters in the East. 

— Cantor Emma Lutz

FRIDAY

וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם׃ בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
The People of Israel will keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It will be a sign forever between Me and the People of Israel, for in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)  
The Sabbath is our sacred “time out,” a reminder from our tradition to stop as God did from creation, distraction, and busy-ness. I love to think of Shabbat not as a time of hindrance or limitation, but rather, a time of great abundance, a space to acknowledge all that God has given us and to give ourselves more—more love, more care, more nourishment, more family time, more prayer, more reading, more connection, more long walks, and most of importantly, more rest.    
For each of us, “these twenty five hours of more” will look and feel differently. Some of us are energized by others, and some of us are revitalized by time alone. This Friday and Saturday, how might you make space for more of what you need? Perhaps you might close your eyes, meditate on the couch, join our Shabbat study or services, sip tea in bed while reading a good book, daydream or stare out a window, dance with your kids, take a long walk by yourself, listen to your favorite music…how might you imagine more time and space for your own revitalization this Shabbat?  
My prayer is that you will find great power and transformation in Shabbat’s invitation to rest as God intended for us. I hope this setting of V’shamru, the text excerpted above as imagined here by Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman, invites you to more rest and reflection this weekend. 
Shabbat Shalom! 
— Cantor Emma Lutz

Cantor Emma Lutz was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California where her family and community instilled in her a deep love of Judaism and music. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Religious Studies and Music. Cantor Lutz received her Master of Sacred Music in 2015 and was ordained in 2016 by the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, NY. She has proudly served Stephen Wise Temple since July 2016. 

Before attending HUC-JIR, Cantor Lutz worked as a soloist and teacher for synagogues throughout the Bay Area and was also a performer with numerous theatre companies, including Center REPertory Company, Diablo Theatre Company, and the Napa Valley Opera House. In addition, she spent time volunteering in Israel with the IDF through Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel.

During her first year of cantorial school at HUC-JIR, she worked as cantorial intern for Kehillat Tzur Hadassah, a vibrant Reform synagogue just outside of Jerusalem. While studying at the New York campus, Emma enjoyed internships at Congregation Oheb Sholom and Union Temple, and she also served as a chaplain for Mount Sinai-Roosevelt Hospital. Cantor Lutz is the recipient of both the Rabbi Rick Jacobs Award in Innovative Worship (2015) and the Rhonda and Jerome Malino Prize in Bible Studies (2013). She is an active member of the American Conference of Cantors and a life member of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. 

Cantor Lutz is married to Rabbi Adam Lutz, a Los Angeles native, whom she met during her Year-In-Israel studies at HUC-JIR. Together, they are the proud parents of Ruby Mira.

Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Ellen Niver, M.A. Education, is a science teacher and is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 101 countries and six continents. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she worked on cruise ships for seven years and backpacked for three years in Asia. You can find her talking travel at KTLA TV and in her We Said Go Travel videos with over 1.3 million views on her YouTube channel. As a journalist, Niver has interviewed an Olympic swimmer and numerous bestselling authors and has been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. She is the founder of We Said Go Travel which is read in 235 countries and was named #3 on Rise Global’s top 1,000 Travel Blogs. She was named both a Top 10 Travel Influencer and a Top 50 Female Influencer for 2021 by Afluencer and is the Social Media Manager for the Los Angeles Press Club. She has been nominated for the inaugural Forbes 50 over 50/Know Your Value list due out in Summer 2021. She has hosted Facebook Live for USA Today 10best and has more than 150,000 followers across social media. Niver is a judge for the Gracies Awards for the Alliance of Women in Media and has also run 15 travel competitions publishing over 2,500 writers and photographers from 75 countries on We Said Go Travel. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded two Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards. From 2017 to 2021 in the Southern California Journalism Awards and National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards, she has won four times for her broadcast television segments, print and digital articles. Niver won in 2021 as Book Critic and in 2019 for one of her KTLA TV segments NAEJ (National Arts and Entertainment Journalism) award. Niver won an award for her print magazine article for Hemispheres Magazine for United Airlines in the 2020 Southern California Journalism Awards and a 2017 Southern California Journalism Award for her print story for the Jewish Journal. Niver has written for National Geographic, USA Today 10best, TODAY, Teen Vogue, POPSUGAR, Ms. Magazine, Luxury Magazine, Smithsonian, Sierra Club, Saturday Evening Post, AARP, American Airways, Delta Sky, En Route (Air Canada), Hemispheres, Jewish Journal, Myanmar Times, Robb Report, Scuba Diver Life, Ski Utah, Trivago, Undomesticated, Wharton Magazine and Yahoo. She is writing a book, “Brave(ish): It's All About Perspective 50 Adventures Before 50,” about her most recent travels and insights. When she's not SCUBA diving or in her art studio making ceramics, she's helping people find their next dream trip.  http://lisaniver.com/one-page/

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