How I met the spiritual bard of our times!

Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on

‘Cause it’s gonna be a brighter day

And this cloud will be driftin’ away

I know we can make it

and this time, we won’t be fakin’ it

When all this trouble is done

Maybe then we’ll know

We must care for one another

‘Cause we are one

Rita's song plays in the background as I sit to write about her in the times of the Corona scare. Her lyrics are simple but striking in their power to somehow knowingly assure everyone in these uncertain times that there is a purpose behind every dark moment that comes our way. Her song is impressively visual, the melody painting scenes of emergence from crisis to create visions of a much hoped for ideal future where we realize fully how connected we all are. 'Cause we are one' as the song goes, her voice brings back memories of last spring when around this time of the year, I was at the home of Libby and Len Traubman, sitting in their living room with none other than the spiritual bard herself, sharing about life.

I remember Rita as this beautiful woman with short reddish brown hair and the warmest smile who came by to pick us up from Libby and Len's home on her way to the Saturday Market. We had just finished with breakfast, myself and Offuh still somewhat dazed as we were fighting jet-lag. The first thing I remember about Rita was her smile as she stepped into the kitchen. It was a smile that was more than a warm greeting; it felt like a hug. At the Saturday Market as we explored all the stuff on exhibit for the eager buyers, I remember stopping at a baker's stall. I have a thing for confectionery items. Rita was quick to spot the childlike glint in my eyes and very sweetly offered to buy me something I would like from the stall. I was touched by her gesture. She barely knew me for an hour! I accepted the banana marble cake that she got me and the hug. As young and beautifully timeless as she looks, I couldn't have guessed that she is the mother of a young woman like me. Something about the way she made me feel that day, helped me feel more at home in a brand new country and culture. I guess along with Libby, who gave me the experience of a mentor and grandmother from another culture, Rita made me feel more at home as would do a mother. It gives me great pleasure to write about her, not because I have known her in person to some extent but because of the trailblazing story that she happens to embody. Her music imparts to her story that timeless dimension which is so characteristic of her. From memories to excerpts from her emails, it is time to delve straight into the life of the spiritual bard of our times.

Rita's career as an artist and a Cantor( Liturgical Singer in the Jewish Synagogue) interests me the most. Her spiritual grounding in music and her calling to heal and inspire through her voice led her to step into the role of a spiritual leader at a time when this role was not considered the domain of women. This was the 1980's. As she writes in the email, she was keenly aware of how her calling to heal was expressed through her music since her teenage days so she started composing quite early in life. In her very own voice, she says; "To make sense of life and to bring some measure of healing for myself and others, I have been writing songs since my teenage years. Although I chose to go into the profession (or calling) of Cantor (Liturgical Singer in the Jewish synagogue) in the 1980’s when women were just being admitted into Cantorial schools (this had always been a male dominated vocation)When I was in my mid thirties, after getting divorced and becoming a single mom to a four year old girl, I started recording my original music. I have completed seven cds (three in the last seven years). Interestingly perhaps, many of my songs relate to the theme of peace, keeping the faith and having hope. My newest cd is called “Begin Again-Songs of Hope and Renewal”.  So, in a nutshell—one thing that defines me is my music-sharing my voice and spirit to give hope, bring comfort, healing, and inspire people to face their pain, celebrate their joy, live conscious, meaningful lives." Rita's life seems to me to have evolved as a template where she gradually started expanding on her calling to serve beyond her religious community, at once living the truth of everything pointing to "ONE LIFE" and the service of healing through music, a service thus to all of humanity. Her music reached me in India through that chance encounter at Libby and Len's home and also reached Africa through James Offuh, the other guest at Libby and Len's home last spring.

Further into our story, Rita muses over the important transforming points of her own life. She recalls certain memorable experiences, from deriving inspiration to transform and spiritually evolve from books to the Chaplain training that she underwent, Rita shares her experiences of conscious growth with razor sharp intuitive detail. In her words, "Another part of this story is my own transformation which allowed me to see and understand the struggles of the Palestinian people. Growing up as I did (in a Jewish orthodox home)-I realize that I only had access to one narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over time and after much questioning and trying to get to the truth of the conflict, I read a book called “An Hour of Sunlight” about a Palestinian man who as a teenager found himself in an Israeli prison. It is a heart wrenching and eye opening story. At the end of it, this man becomes a peacemaker and founded the organization “Seeds of Peace”. This one book helped me overcome my somewhat narrow view of the Israeli/Palestinian story and inspired me to start listening more deeply to the stories of Palestinians and not only Palestinians but everyone else who might have seemed different from me culturally, religiously. Another thing that brought me out into the larger world and closer to those who, earlier I would have described as “other” was becoming a Chaplain in 2014-I trained for a year at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco and was one of ten Chaplain interns. I was the only Jewish Chaplain. My nine peers were of every religion under the sun and I served a very diverse population of hospital patients, suddenly having to minister to people of the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic and many other faiths. I came to see and understand that we are all the beloved children of God and when we are praying for someone from the heart, embracing all with compassion and love, there is no difference between us. We are all of the “one heart” and we can find many ways to support one another with our presence and our care."

Rita's narrative, where healing is a major element of her approach to understanding her role as a spiritual leader demands that her family's past be taken into account. A critical part of how she perceives her role as a healer probably emerged from growing up in the household of parents who were Holocaust survivors. The spine-chilling tale of fear, uncertainty and trauma that her family had seen can barely be done justice to in terms of reflection on the same. In Rita's words, her family's history takes us back to the time when the world saw the indescribable barbarity of a racist regime as they sought to wipe out the existence and legacy of the Jewish community in Europe. I am of course referring to the times of the Nazi regime in Germany and their ethnic cleansing project which is popularly referred to as the Holocaust, a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. In Rita's words, "The experiences that have most shaped my life are growing up in Brooklyn, New York, the fourth and youngest child of two holocaust survivors. My father was from a well educated, religious, affluent family (my grandmother and grandfather built a successful hardware and building supplies business in Vilnius, Lithuania-once part of Poland). It was a very good life. Antisemitism was on the rise in Eastern Europe in the 1930’s and then in 1940-41 the Nazis occupied Vilna, set up two ghettos into which thousands of Jews were herded, and then some 90,000 Jews were slaughtered in the Ponari forest outside the city or in concentration camps. My father and nine members of his family survived due in part to my father’s courageous actions and connections, and the bravery and devotion of a Christian woman who had worked for the family for six years. In the last ten months of WWII, my family went into hiding and were finally liberated in the summer of 1944. My mother was from Czechoslovakia and was 19 years old when the worst of the war was happening. She was on a train platform with her mother and younger sister being sent to Auschwitz, the concentration camp in Poland where a million and a half Jews were murdered. At the last moment before boarding the train, a Hungarian man approached my mother with a ticket and false identification papers and told her he would take her to another platform where the train would take her too Budapest. He said he couldn’t guarantee her safe arrival since the Nazis were getting on the train at different stops looking to haul Jews away, but told her it was her only chance. Her mother handed her a bag of cookies and gave her a blessing and told her to go, to save herself. That was the last time my mother saw her mother and younger sister. My mother was completely alone and on her own for the next six years until the war ended. Her story of survival could easily fill a book.

My parents met at the end of the war in a Displaced Person’s Camp in the Austrian Alps, fell in love and married soon after. They were fourteen years apart, came from very different economic backgrounds and the only language they had in common was Polish. The war threw together two very different people and it was not always a harmonious household. Still, my parents instilled in me incredible values of generosity and kindness to others in need, the values of giving and sharing with the less fortunate among us, basically being the best human being possible. I was taught that money helps but is not the most important thing in life. I was taught that words and actions matter, that we must develop and use our gifts to help and make this world better. And in my family upbringing, education and the arts were essential to our success in life. I found the most meaning, direction, comfort, support and purpose through my faith and through music."

Personally, it has always inspired me how the deepest experiences of abounding beauty that holds humanity together despite all the chaos, seems to somehow emerge out of absolute chaos and conflict. We find the most heart wrenching stories of love and compassion, generosity and lives which embody the same find power and strength to offer more beauty to the world. Rita's story is one such story which speaks of a life lived to effect the natural needs of healing after the ravages of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Through her music, Rita somehow weaves in the wisdom of the ancients with the intention of owning the present, to offer a renewal which is more ideal yet real, in the sense that it is the hope of a transformed life which is built in faith that humanity will ultimately survive!

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