Tikkun Olam

“Surprisingly well,” I told Lisa when she asked how my dates with each member of our old high school group had gone.

When I finally met up with each of my old buddies, it turns out they weren’t interested in dwelling on my shortcomings or the hardships they had faced since last we’d seen one another. I had been worried about re-hashing the negative, but they were eager to tell me about the good things. Nina was nearing the end of her training to be a counselor. She wanted to talk about the teenagers she works with and her animal rescue work and the dog she adopted. She mentioned her boyfriend who had died, but only to tell me that she still stayed in touch with his daughter from a previous relationship.

At the museum, I wandered over to the area where the Tzedakah pinball machine continues from the floor above. At this level, it becomes something called the “Tikkun Olam House.” From my reading, I know that Tikkun Olam means “to repair the world” and is a fundamental concept in Judaism, perhaps even the most fundamental—the reason each of us is here. Each time a person does something good or follows one of God’s directives he or she contributes to the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam. This display’s size and central location suggests that the lessons provided here could be more important than any other, the primary message kids are meant to take away from this experience.

A window at the top of the house asks, “Where is your help needed?” A series of backlit boxes reveal cartoon suggestions of beneficiaries: communities, other people, the earth, animals. At the very bottom, low enough for the tiniest tots to paw, three big slots await tokens. The first slot has a picture of a dollar so that feeding it is meant to represent giving money. Another slot is labeled with a clock, proposing a second option for what you might offer: time. But it’s the middle slot I find most interesting. It sports a big bright ball with beams radiating out. To put your tokens here is to give something akin to your energy or your light. Maybe it means giving both time and money, but it transcends these categories because what you impart is even more personal. It’s your attention, your focus. It could be listening to stories of hardship, helping a person carry the burden of heartache, but it’s just as likely to demand something that our human natures can make difficult: celebrating other people’s good fortunes. Deb’s paintings, Becky’s little boy, Nina’s accomplishments helping others—my friends had wanted nothing more from me than to share in the joy of their unique contributions. I marshaled a positive force from the depths of my heart and soul and made a curious discovery: the more light I shined on their joy, the more joy I felt.

I asked Lisa’s daughter Sydney to make one last stop with me before it was time to leave. It’s an exhibit that recreates the Western Wall, the only part of the original temple in Jerusalem that still exists. Here, it is called the Wishing Wall; blocks that look like old, weathered stones have been affixed to a regular wall. Just as I’ve seen in pictures of the real deal, small scraps of paper are stuck between the stones. A nearby table has a stack of small papers that invite us to, “Draw or write your wish for the world and place it at the Wishing Wall.” I tell Sydney to put her wish down and I’ll do the same. We’re quiet for a few minutes as we concentrate, and then Sydney shows me what she decided on. In the box provided she’s written, “More play dates with friends.” I laugh because mine’s not so different really. I want joy, for me and my friends. I don’t want to focus just on the sorrow; I want to help repair the world by shining my light on all the good too. Then Sydney and I fold our wishes into fat little squares and add them to the wall.

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Tzedekah

West L.A. is home to three Jewish-themed museums. The Museum of Tolerance is the West Coast’s answer to D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, though less epic in scale. It’s also a bit broader in content: from the Holocaust, it branches out to displays on racism and genocide around the world. The Skirball’s main galleries are dedicated to Jewish culture, displaying objects used in the homes, businesses, and worship places of Jews all over the world from the medieval era up to current day. There’s even a room with catalogued snippets of home movies and audio interviews on different aspects of the American Jewish experience. While both of these museums are kid-friendly, only the last—the Zimmer—is designed specifically for children.

On a Sunday afternoon, I meet my old high school friend Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Sydney, at the Zimmer. It’s not technically billed as a “Jewish” museum, just a regular children’s museum, but its location on the first floor and basement of a high-rise called the Jewish Federation Building is the first indication that this play space might have a special message. When I arrive, Lisa and Sydney are already deep inside and I get stopped by the security guard for being childless and then let through once Lisa comes to vouch for me. Beyond the ticket booth, a few items remain stationary in a blur of activity: a full-scale ambulance with spinning red lights, a make-believe theatre stage with an exploding trunk of costumes, a replica of a jet with the bobbing heads of tiny pilots.

One display stands out. It’s in the center of everything and the floor has been cut away so that it continues on the level below. A giant wall of levers and gears and pegs sports a sign declaring this the “World’s Largest Tzedekah Pinball.” I’ve seen “tzedekah” translated as “charity” or “justice” and my sense is that it encompasses any generous or kind act. Pucks released at the top fall through the open spaces, ricocheting off obstacles here and there. I suppose it’s meant to symbolize the complicated course of life with each collision representing an opportunity to do a good deed. The pucks rain down on the roof of a little house below.

On bottom floor, I stroll down a tiny main street complete with shingled roofs and streetlights. Each lovingly rendered storefront invites playacting: wait tables at the Blue Bagel Café, organize inventory at Bubbie’s Bookstore, wrap yourself in a prayer shawl at the mini-synagogue.

Beyond the pretend synagogue, Lisa and I take a seat as Sydney joins a group of kids on a life-size boat in a sea of soft balls.

“So, how did it go?” Lisa asks. She’s curious about my dates with the other members of my old high school gang: Nina, Deb, and Becky. I had been so anxious about the prospect, I’d considered abandoning my goal of seeing each of them, but decided I had to do what was right, not what was easy. So I arranged to meet each friend separately. I hoped to provide my undivided attention and convey my sincerest apologies for having disappeared so thoroughly from their lives.